Architecture •  Art and Latin America

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Theaters of Conversion: Religious Architecture and Indian Artisans in Colonial Mexico

Samuel Edgerton
Photographs by Jorge Pérez de Lara

Mexico's churches and conventos display a unique blend of European and native styles. Missionary Mendicant friars arrived in New Spain shortly after Cortes's conquest of the Aztec empire in 1521 and immediately related their own European architectural and visual arts styles to the tastes and expectations of native Indians. Right from the beginning the friars conceived of conventos as a special architectural theater in which to carry out their proselytizing. Over four hundred conventos were established in Mexico between 1526 and 1600, and more still in New Mexico in the century following, all built and decorated by native Indian artisans who became masters of European techniques and styles even as they added their own influence. The author argues that these magnificent sixteenth and seventeenth-century structures are as much part of the artistic patrimony of American Indians as their pre-Conquest temples, pyramids, and kivas. Mexican Indians, in fact, adapted European motifs to their own pictorial traditions and thus made a unique contribution to the worldwide spread of the Italian Renaissance.

The author brings a wealth of knowledge of medieval and Renaissance European history, philosophy, theology, art, and architecture to bear on colonial Mexico at the same time as he focuses on indigenous contributions to the colonial enterprise. This ground-breaking study enriches our understanding of the colonial process and the reciprocal relationship between European friars and native artisans.


Samuel Y. Edgerton is the Amos Lawrence Professor of Art History at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and the author of numerous books and articles.


". . . a truly outstanding work. This book is recommended for art historians, students, and others interested in art and architecture of Mexico."


Colonial Latin American Historical Review

"This is a well-researched and fascinating book . . . In an increasingly sensitized multicultural world, there is a need for more books like this that challenge us with images as well as text, and which offer an unexpected and significant view of the comparatively recent past that we thought we knew."


The Times Higher

"Edgerton's text is enthusiastic in tone and always intelligent, lucid, and well supported with primary sources."


Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians

"This study successfully foregrounds the influence, skill, and presence of indigenous craftsmen and women in the construction of religious architecture and somehow makes them less anonymous."


The Americas

"Bringing his extensive knowledge of medieval and Renaissance European history, philosophy, theology, art, and architecture to bear on this topic, Edgerton offers a provocative approach to colonial Mexican art and architecture in a field that is entering a period of substantive growth."


College Art Association Reviews

"Theaters of Conversion is a rich source for historians. Edgerton presents useful biographical discussions; he provides fascinating glimpses of topics beyond the book's stated scope, such as the relationship between medieval street theater and frescos; he keeps technical details to a minimum and clearly explains the terms he employs. In short, this volume is accessible, inviting, and instructive."


The Historian

"This book should be acquired by libraries and could be of great use not only in art history classes but also in general history and humanities courses."


Hispanic Outlook

"(Edgerton's) analyses are bold and imaginative; they bring revealing textual and visual material into play, even as they provoke controversy on many points. Stimulating reading for all students of Spanish colonial art, this book should be in every library collecting the culture and history of Mexico."



"Samuel Y. Edgerton's gorgeously illustrated book on Indian artistic contributions to religious achitecture could easily be classified as a coffee table book. But is not simply artistically appealing; it is also intriguing reading and a critical text that was more than a decade in the making. . . Edgerton's text breaks new ground in art history research and should be of interest to the lay reader as well as academics."


Southwestern American Literature

8 x 10 in. 368 pages 76 color plates., 112 halftones, 5 maps