Summary

FIGURE 13. The main scene at the top of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

FIGURE 13. The main scene at the top of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

FIGURE 14. Detail of the mountain in the main scene of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

FIGURE 14. Detail of the mountain in the main scene of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

FIGURE 15. Detail of the erection of the cross in the main scene of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

FIGURE 15. Detail of the erection of the cross in the main scene of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

FIGURE 16. Detail of the coat of arms of Charles V in the main scene of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

FIGURE 16. Detail of the coat of arms of Charles V in the main scene of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

FIGURE 17. Detail of the Europeans in the center of the main scene of the 1773 copy Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

FIGURE 17. Detail of the Europeans in the center of the main scene of the 1773 copy Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

FIGURE 18. Cell 8: The conversion of the Tlaxcalans to Christianity.

FIGURE 18. Cell 8: The conversion of the Tlaxcalans to Christianity.

FIGURE 19. Cell 11: Corts and Malinche meet with Moctezuma in Tenochtitlan.

FIGURE 19. Cell 11: Cortés and Malinche meet with Moctezuma in Tenochtitlan.

FIGURE 20. Cells 17 to 19: The flight from Tenochtitlan on the Noche Triste.

FIGURE 20. Cells 17 to 19: The flight from Tenochtitlan on the Noche Triste.

FIGURE 21. Cell 48: Aztec nobles surrender before Corts and Malinche.

FIGURE 21. Cell 48: Aztec nobles surrender before Cortés and Malinche.

FIGURE 22. Cells 49 to 51: Battle scenes.

FIGURE 22. Cells 49 to 51: Battle scenes.

Visually, the Lienzo is divided into two main parts: a large scene at the top and a seven-by-thirteen grid of smaller scenes.12

The large scene depicts the political structure of the kingdom of Tlaxcala (Figure 13). At its center is a green “mountain” glyph. This may refer to a specific peak, La Malinche, which dominates the Valley of Tlaxcala.13 It may also be a reference to Tlaxcala’s status as an altepetl (literally “water-mountain” in Nahuatl), which was the basic unit of political organization in Central Mexico both before and after the Europeans arrived. “Tlaxcala” means “Place of the Tortillas” in Nahuatl, and yet the central mountain glyph is not marked with tortillas. Instead, it is decorated with signs of Tlaxcala’s conversion to Christianity and incorporation into the Hapsburg Empire. Within its bell-shaped outlines are a church, the Virgin of the Assumption (patroness of Tlaxcala) and a coat of arms granted by Charles V to Tlaxcala in 1535 (Figure 14).14

Tlaxcala’s identity as a Christian kingdom within the Hapsburg empire is underscored by the images drawn above and below the central mountain. Below, a group of seven men erects a cross: three are Tlaxcalans and four are Europeans (Figure 15). Above, at the very top of the Lienzo, is the coat of arms of the Emperor Charles V, backed by the double-headed eagle of the Hapsburgs (Figure 16). The location of the place sign of Tlaxcala (and its coat of arms) directly below the coat of arms of Charles V is significant. Because of the help the Tlaxcalans gave to the Spaniards in the conquest of the Aztec empire (and after political negotiations in Europe by Tlaxcalan ambassadors), Emperor Charles V granted the colonial capital an official title: “La Leal ciudad de Tlaxcala,” the Loyal City of Tlaxcala.15 This gave Tlaxcala a specific legal status. As a city, Tlaxcala was subject directly to the Crown, and not to any intermediate political authority (such as another community or a titled lord). This was the highest status a municipality could receive.16

Tlaxcala was what historians call a “complex altepetl,” meaning that it was a kingdom formed by the unification of several smaller altepetl.17 The majority of space around the central axis of shields and Christian symbols at the top of the Lienzo is, therefore, divided into four parts, each representing one of Tlaxcala’s component altepetl (Figure 13). Surrounding the central mountain are four indigenous buildings. Each is marked with a different battle standard to indicate which altepetl it represents. In clockwise order, these are Ocotelolco (with an eagle battle standard), Quiahuiztlan (with a quetzal feather battle standard), Tepeticpac (with a Xolotl-dog battle standard), and Tizatlán (with a heron battle standard). A procession of nobles is drawn for each altepetl, as is a grid of smaller buildings with people inside them. These buildings indicate the number of noble houses, teccalli, associated with each altepetl.18 The two most powerful altepetl, Ocotelolco and Tizatlán, are also drawn with their own church.

Moving back towards the central axis, and surrounding the mountain and cross, are sixteen Europeans seated in folding chairs. Labels on the 1773 copy identify the three men to the right as Sebastián Ramírez de Fuenleal (bishop of Mexico City), Antonio de Mendoza, and Luis de Velasco (the first two Viceroys of New Spain)(Figure 17).

Symbols attached to these three men confirm the 1773 labels. A bishop’s miter is drawn before the man on top, and the two figures below him wear red crosses on their chests. Red crosses were symbols of the Order of Santiago, and both Viceroy Mendoza and Viceroy Velasco were knights of this order.

The identity of the thirteen men in black to the left of the central axis is less clear (Figure 17). Labels on the 1773 copy identify one as Hernán Cortés, another as the Marqués (one of Cortés’ titles), and others as members of the First and Second Real Audiencia, the royal court in Mexico City. These identifications are hard to corroborate, and the fact that two labels refer to Cortés is odd. These seated men are identical, and lack the distinguishing details of the bishop and viceroys to the right. The fact that there are thirteen of them is significant. Thirteen was a talismanic Mesoamerican number (versus the European twelve).19 It may be, then, that these thirteen figures were originally meant to indicate thirteen manifestations of Spanish power in general, and not any particular set of historical persons.

In sum, the large scene at the top of the Lienzo can be divided into five parts: the symbols of the four main altepetl surround a central axis that merges European and Tlaxcalan symbols of authority: folding chairs, shields, crosses, a mountain. Many prehispanic peoples in Mesoamerica thought of the universe as organized into five directions (North, South, East, West, and Center). The organization of the scene at the top of the Lienzo may be intended to indicate the “exemplary” structure of the colonial Tlaxcalan polity.20

If the Lienzo’s main scene presents an idealized map of the kingdom of Tlaxcala as it existed around 1552, the seven-by-thirteen grid of cells below travels back in time to 1519, in order to tell the story of the Tlaxcalans’ alliance with the Spaniards and their joint conquest of the Aztec empire. The Aztecs were traditional enemies of the Tlaxcalans, who had managed to resist incorporation into the Aztec empire right up to the arrival of the Spaniards.

The cell-by-cell narrative begins in the upper left-hand corner. The very first cell—labeled Tlaxcalla[n] in alphabetic script—shows the rulers of Tlaxcala’s four main altepetl receiving a letter sent by Hernán Cortés (Figures 7 and 12). The letter is brought by a messenger who stands in the middle of the seated Tlaxcalan lords. He is dressed only in a loincloth, his face is tattooed or scarified, and his long hair Is unbound. In other words, he is drawn as a social subordinate: a slave or barbarian. The following six scenes depict the arrival of the Cortés’ army in Tlaxcala. In all of these initial scenes, interactions between Hernán Cortés and the Tlaxcalans are mediated by an indigenous woman (Figure 8). This is Doña Marina or Malinche, who served as Cortés’ translator, speaking Maya, Nahuatl and, eventually, Spanish. Her linguistic and diplomatic skills made European-indigenous alliances possible.

The second row of cells begins by showing conversion of the Tlaxcalans to Christianity (cell 8). Visually, the scene shows the new converts receiving communion, while kneeling before the consecrated Host. The long alphabetic gloss in Nahuatl, however, speaks of baptism (Figure 18). With the Tlaxcalan nobles Christianized, the joint Tlaxcalan-European army sets out for Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. The next two cells, 9 and 10, record events that took place en route in Cholula and Chalco (Figure 2). Cell 11 takes place in the Aztec capital itself (Figure 19). Labeled “Tenochtitlan,” it shows the meeting of Cortés and Malinche with the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. Moctezuma is then taken hostage, and the scenes that follow cell 11 show the escalating tensions between the invaders and the Aztecs. Cells 14, 15, and 16 show skirmishes within Tenochtitlan. Outnumbered and surrounded, the Spaniards and their indigenous allies finally flee Tenochtitlan at night, crossing one of the causeways that stretched across Lake Texcoco to link the island to the mainland. The events of this Noche Triste (Sad Night, as the Spaniards called it) are shown in an enormous scene spanning four cells, strikingly framed in swirling blue water (Figure 20). The invaders then fight their way back to Tlaxcala across a number of scenes.

Once safely in Tlaxcala, the Europeans (and their horses) rest and receive gifts of food. Then the invaders set off for Tenochtitlan a second time, fighting their way back to the shores of Lake Texcoco (cell 42). Cells 43 to 47 show the battles for Tenochtitlan. This time, the campaign ends in victory for the invaders. Cell 48 shows Cortés enthroned. A panache of quetzal plumes ornaments his felt hat, and Aztec nobles surrender before him (Figure 21). The Nahuatl gloss at the top of this cell reads “Yc poliuhque mexica” (Thus the Mexica [Aztecs] were vanquished).

The thirty-nine cells which follow the fall of Tenochtitlan (almost half of the Lienzo) are devoted exclusively (and repetitively) to scenes of battle, following different campaigns as the Europeans and their Tlaxcalan allies set out to conquer the rest of the Aztec empire: traveling north to Michoacan, south to Guatemala. Over and over, the same basic template is repeated (Figure 22). To the left is the army of the invaders, mostly indigenous but led by a Spaniard mounted on a horse. He brandishes a spear, and his steed tramples bodies underfoot. To the right, enemy indigenous warriors battle to protect their lands from conquest. Significantly, many of these indigenous enemies are dressed only in loincloths and lack the splendid battle standards of the Tlaxcalan warriors. As we saw in the first cell of the Lienzo’s grid, their undress visually relegates the non-Tlaxcalans to a subordinate status.23 At the right-most edge of each of these cells is an ornamented mountain. Like the green mountain glyph in the Lienzo’s main scene, these place signs indicate where each battle is being fought. In addition to this pictorial place sign, all of these cells are alphabetically labeled with a place name, as well.

Before the Emperor: Mirrors and Shields >
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12 The basic commentary on the images of the Lienzo remains that published by Alfredo Chavero in1892; the following paragraphs draw extensively on his commentaries.

13 Navarrete 2007.

14 Kranz 2001, 142.

15 Gibson 1952, 165.

16 Nader 1990, Baber 2005, 107-110.

17 Gibson 1952, 3-14; Lockhart 1992, 20-28; Baber 2005, 28-31.

18 Angiano and Chapa 1976; Reyes García 1993; Cosentino 2002, 174-185.

19 Tedlock 2003, 187-206.

20 See also Kranz 2001, 141; Navarrete 2008, 67.

21 On undress and social inferiority, see Houston, Stuart, and Taube 2006, 202-207.

22 Peterson 1994, Karttunen 1997.

23 See also Asselbergs 2008, 73.