FIGURE 1. The Lienzo de Tlaxcala, overall view.
FIGURE 2. Cell 9: Malinche, standing to the right and wearing red shoes, directs the European-Tlaxcalan attack against the Temple of Quetzalcoatl in Cholula.
“Lienzo” means “canvas” or “piece of cloth” in Spanish. The original Lienzo de Tlaxcala was a painted cotton sheet around 2 meters wide and 5 meters long.1 (Figure 1) A large scene at the top depicted the political structure of the Central Mexican kingdom of Tlaxcala. Below, a seven-by-thirteen grid of cells contained dozens of small scenes that showed how the Tlaxcalans and their Spanish allies defeated the Aztec empire. In other words, the lower portion of the Lienzo told the story of the “Conquest of Mexico” from a Native American point of view.2 The small scenes which told this story read from left to right, top to bottom, one row at a time.
Most of the Lienzo’s narrative was told through pictures. Its artists mixed Mesoamerican and European styles in complex ways. For example, Tlaxcalan warriors were always drawn with their faces in profile, following prehispanic traditions. Malinche, the indigenous translator of Hernán Cortés, was always drawn with her face in a 3/4 view imported from Europe. The objects depicted in the Lienzo’s scenes also mixed Mesoamerican with European. Malinche was never depicted wearing New World sandals; she was always drawn wearing closed European shoes3 (Figure 2).
Indigenous warriors were dressed in feathered body suits, wore battle standards on their backs, and held circular shields. European warriors were dressed in armor or doublets and held oval shields. Old World horses were drawn next to New World turkeys. Most of the cells were also labeled at the top in alphabetic script. These labels were written in Nahuatl, the dominant language spoken in Central Mexico in the sixteenth century (Figure 2). Usually these labels were geographic names, indicating where each scene was taking place. Occasionally short Nahuatl phrases were written instead, describing the scene in more detail. The original Lienzo de Tlaxcala is lost. The version you see in Mesolore has been recreated. Above all, our recreation uses images from a lithograph facsimile printed in 1892. In addition (as discussed below), the recreation is also influenced by other visual documents from the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.
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1 Chavero 1892, iii. This is roughly 21 feet by 7 feet; the measurements given in 1779 were 5 varas 5 sesmas by 2.5 varas in size. A vara equals 83.59 cm or 32.90945 inches; a sesma (one-sixth of a vara) equals 13.93 cm or 5.49 inches.
2 Other indigenous accounts of the conquest have been recently discussed in Restall 2003, 44-63, 100-130; Navarrete 2008; Matthew and Michel 2008.
3 Chavero 1892, 15.