The Colonization of Spatial Interpretation and Map-Making
August 15th, 2022
By Maya Heins
Photograph by Olivier Fernandez
When you look at a map- it’s likely that you recognize it immediately. The various lines on the page represent the planet in a way which has become internationally understood: continents, counties and oceans are represented on maps equivalently all over the world. As a global society, we’ve been educated to understand an interpretation of 2- and 3-D space similarly- we’ve all been exposed to the same images since a young age. This, however, was not always the case. With globalization taking center stage in today’s world, we sometimes forget that in the recent past, different cultures had quite distinct ways of examining and understanding the surrounding planet. One of the starkest examples of this is the difference in worldviews between the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Europeans before they first came into contact in the late 15th century. Prior to the invasion of the Spanish in Mesoamerica, the indigenous peoples of what is now called North and South America, had established complex and extensive ways of understanding the world around them; including an intricate map-making system and various massive architectural structures that were based on a different interpretation of spatial understanding and representation. When the Spaniards invaded however, they found a culture very different from their own, and ultimately completely disregarded all indigenous ways of thinking as inferior (1), instead make it their mission to suppress and eradicate any modes of thinking that were not in line with their values, effectively colonizing space, religion, language, and tradition.
In this essay, I hope to examine and evaluate the colonization of space by the Spanish through the lens of maps and architecture by way of the catalyzer of religion. Although it may be difficult to pinpoint exactly where the change in understanding of two and three-dimensional space by indigenous peoples may have taken place, by examining maps made prior to the invasion and ones made in the indigenous tradition even after the conquest, and comparing it to the maps made after the occupation, I hope to explore how indigenous people adapted their understandings of two-dimensional space to conform to the newly imposed colonial system. I also hope to understand how, through the imposition of Christianity and western architecture on the ‘New World’, the use and understanding of physical or three-dimensional space (such as churches) changed.
To begin the examination of the shift in spatial understanding, it is important to start by looking at how the two different cultures understood two and three-dimensional space before coming into contact with each other. The Spanish have a history of technical perspective representation in map-making, while the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica have more of a history in abstract and iconographic depiction of space in their maps (2). What this means is that the Spanish were more interested in maps that explained the world as it really was physically, very similar to our maps today, as this was the tradition that ultimately predominated throughout time as a consequence of colonization. The Aztecs, or Mexicas as they called themselves, had a vastly different way of understanding space, one where the physical world was melded together with time and represented by icons (3, 4). An excellent representation of this concept comes from the two different representations of the city of Tenochtitlan, one from the perspective of Cortes and the Spanish, and one from an indigenous artist in the Mendoza Codex.
Unknown, Praeclara Ferdinandi de Nova Maris Oceani Hispania Narratio, woodcut, 1524, New York Library.
As we can see in Figure 1, the map, made by Cortez and his men when they entered the city in 1519, is a woodcut print done in traditional European cartographic style, following the conventions of a coeval European city plan (5).
Unknown, The Codex Mendoza map of Tenochtitlan, painting, 1542, Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Compare this to Figure 2; The Mendoza Codex is a hand-painted map showing the same city, in traditional indigenous iconographic schematic design. In this painting, the X represents the city’s canals at their crossing, the interior rectangular box is the lake surrounding the city, the ten people seated on the island are the ten founding fathers of the city, and on the bottom of the image the conquests of the Aztec empire are represented (6). The Mendoza Codex is a painting made in 1542, approximately 20 years after the Cortez Map and is meant to represent the city at its founding in 1325 A.D (7). The two maps hardly seem to represent the same city, but it gives us a very clear way to distinguish between two different ways of thinking. It was when these two cultures clashed and the Spaniards overpowered the Aztecs that led to the demise of the spatial and abstract way of documenting time and space that the Aztecs lived by that, we see a conflict of power relations that lead to a drastic change and gradual demise of one traditional way of thinking.
This transformation in spatial thinking was not a process that occurred overnight; the attempted suppression of indigenous ideas by the Spanish rather turned into a redistribution of power relationships that resulted in coexistence of two ways of thinking (8). When the Spanish living in Mesoamerica were asked to make maps of ‘their’ new lands for King Philip II (9), many turned to the elite natives who knew the land to make the maps required by the Relaciónes Geográficas. This in turn allowed indigenous artists to add elements of their own culture to the maps (10). In order to further explain this phenomenon, let us examine Figure 3, the Relación Geográfica Map of Ixtapalapa by Martín Cano.
Martín Cano, The Relaciónes Geográficas map of Ixtapalapa, painting, 1580, Benson Latin American Collection, The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.
This map is an excellent example of how indigenous artists were able to incorporate two ways of thinking into one map. In Nahuatl (the indigenous language of the Mexicas) Ixtapalapa means ‘water near the flagstones’, which is pictographically represented in the map by the hexagonal flagstone surrounded by a ribbon of water located below the church. This part of the map was done in native tradition, while the rest of the map is something the Europeans would recognize as a map, with the church dominating the center axis and the community centers on the left (11). We can interpret the meaning behind making the maps in this fashion according to the double-consciousness of the indigenous artists: they both wanted to represent their communities in a good light to the Spanish king and the rest of Europe, but they also wanted to make the maps for the local community (12). This double-consciousness, as Mundy has termed it, can also be translated in the Mignolo’s term coexistence, meaning the cohabitation of two different territorial descriptions on the same graphic space (13). What both of these authors are talking about is the shift that occurred in the indigenous mind frame about how space is conceptualized on a two-dimensional level. Instead of giving up all the beliefs that they had in a system that marginalized everyone who clung to traditional ways of thinking about the world, the indigenous peoples found a way to negotiate their conceptions of the world with the new ones imposed on them by the Spanish. They found a balance between pleasing the Spanish and while still maintaining some of their traditions through passive protest in a violent environment that was trying to eradicate all previous beliefs that they held.
This balance in world understandings can also be translated beyond the evidence found in maps. Through the examination of architecture and the impact of the Catholic Church on indigenous populations, much can be seen regarding the shift in world perceptions beyond just the conceptualization of space. The conquistadors and Catholic Church missionaries used architecture as a tool for religious conversion, as a symbol of political and social authority, and as a way to embody communal cultural identities (14). The Spanish rulers strove for total dominance over a group of people they saw as inferior, while the Catholic Church sought to rid the indigenous peoples of their paganistic religion and convert them to Christianity, the one ‘true’ faith. Because monuments, like buildings and statues, stand in public spaces, they personify the ideas associated with the state and faith of a territory. For this reason, when the Spanish began their conquest, one of their first courses of action was to destroy all aspects of art and architecture that the indigenous peoples had: missionaries tore down temples to erect churches, and Aztec art was destroyed to be replaced with Spanish art. These acts of artistic imposition sent a powerful message of domination to the Aztecs (15). However, on a deeper level people resisted the imposition in any way they could, mainly by fusing elements of Christianity to their own religions without undertaking any meaningful conversion, hiding works of art (like the Mendoza Codex), and keeping alive traditions (16). For the purposes of this essay, the focus will be on the surface level cultural, not religious, impacts that the Catholic Church had on indigenous communities and their deeper impacts on conceptualization of space.
Focusing first on maps, the Catholic Church had a vital role in indigenous map-making post-conquest. As discussed earlier in the essay, the Mexicas made maps in a double-consciousness to both appeal to the members of their communities and their Spanish overlords. A very clever tactic they used in order to achieve this was the use of the Catholic Church as the key representative icon in maps. Take for example Figure 4: the map is arranged around a central religion; whereby the main town is symbolized by a huge monastery and villages around the main community are symbolized by churches.
Unknown, The Relaciónes Geográficas map of Guaxtepec, painting, 1580, Benson Latin American Collection, The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.
The monastery is at the center and much larger than any other buildings, and all the smaller churches are done in the same fashion as the main monastery; with a pointed roof, large archway, and cross at the top. What these maps seem to represent is the central role the Catholic Church played in native communities. Of course, this is a contested assumption to make, since the intended audience for these maps were the Spanish, and the central role of the Catholic Church in the maps could have just been a projection of what the artist thought the Spanish wanted to see. Again, we see the effect of the double-consciousness happening: the maps become in part how the native communities see themselves, but also what the native elites thought the Spanish wanted to see (17).
Moving more from the two-dimensional realm to the three-dimensional one, the impact the Catholic Church and the Spanish imposition had on architecture and the conceptualization of space on a physical level is entirely different from the shift represented by maps and art. For many natives, their first contact with the conquest came not through the big battles history embellishes, but rather through their contact with missionaries and the Catholic Church. When the Spanish came in, one of the first things they did to show their total dominance over the population was to destroy the temples, replace them with churches, and force natives to convert to Christianity (18). This was an incredibly effective way of imposing supremacy because religion is such an intricate part of everyday life for most human beings, particularly at this time in history. Thus, in general natives had much more contact with Spanish architecture, as opposed to art, which led to some interesting changes in the understanding of physical space for the natives.
Figure 5 is a representation of what the Sun Temple in Tenochtitlan is supposed to have looked like before the Spanish tore it down. The building is enormous, pointing towards the heavens and very geometrically square in its shape. For the natives like the Spanish, the gods resided in the heavens (19)- however, unlike the Spanish, the gods of the natives sometimes demanded sacrifices (20). In Figure 5, we see blood running down the steps of the temple, a representation of what terrified the Spanish but what was a holy ritual to the Aztecs.
Miguel Covarrubias, Painting of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, Painting, 1958, The Aztecs - People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso, University of Oklahoma Press. http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/ask-us/aztec-pyramids.
When the Spanish tore down the temples of Tenochtitlan, they were trying to make a point. Cortez wrote to King Philip II saying “it pained him to destroy the magnificent city, but he did so to humiliate his enemies.” (21) The fact that Cortez built the new Spanish city on top of the ruins of Tenochtitlan was a symbolic gesture not lost on New Spain’s native population, but one that also permitted them to retain some of the sacred associations they had with their old ways (22). Moving past the fact that both cultures associated the divine with the heavens, we can also see how the top of the temple could also be associated with the top of a church, like in Figure 6.
The differences between the two religious buildings, however, are very stark. For the Spanish, religious ritual occurred inside a building on the ground looking up towards the heavens, while for the Aztecs, it was important to be as close to the heavens as possible. The most obvious shifts in spatial understandings for the indigenous peoples are simply the fact that religion moved to the ground and religious ritual occurred inside a building.
The concept of a double-consciousness applies to architecture as well as art. Figure 7, the Atrial Cross from the Church of San Agustín de Acolman in Mexico, best represents this idea.
The cross comes from the Christian tradition, but upon closer examination, we can see how indigenous peoples were able to take the cross and mold it to their own beliefs while simultaneously pleasing the Spanish friars. The cross is traditional in the sense that it is made up of two intersecting poles, but from there the imagery splits from traditional Christian art significantly. There are abstract native pictographs carved into the trunk and arms of the cross, there is no crucified Christ (the clergies were afraid that the Christ’s dead body might remind indigenous peoples of ritualistic sacrifice)(23), there is a box on the top of the cross and a carved woman sitting at the base. The indigenous viewers might have looked at the cross as a representation of their quincunx, or five sacred directions (north, south, west, up and down)(24), only conceptualized in a cross format. It may also have brought back memories of the Tree of Paradise that the Aztecs planted in front of their temples (25). The missionaries who were in charge of the Church of San Agustín were apparently not troubled by the iconography that appeared on the cross, most likely because they operated in a way that facilitated conversion to Christianity in a way familiar to the natives (26).
Thus, as this essay has demonstrated, spatial thinking and the interpretation of 2 and 3-D space around us, although currently rather universal around the globe has not always been so. It has taken a long and someitmes violent historical process to create the maps that we recognize today. Understanding that this tradition is only one among many possibilities, offers us the room to rethink some of the concepts that we take for granted in our world today and opens up room to creatively problem solve and reinterpret the world that surrounds us.
(1) It took a papal edict for the Europeans to accept that Amerindians were even fully human (Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America 1521-1821 (The University of New Mexico Press: 2008), xx).
(2) Barbara E. Mundy, The Mapping on New Spain (University of Chicago Press Chicago and London: 1996), 1-11.
(3) Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality & Colonization (The University of Michigan Press: 1995), 248.
(4) For an example of a map that does this very explicitly, see Figure 6.21 in Mignolo’s book The Darker Side of the Renaissance.
(5) Barbara E. Mundy, The Mapping on New Spain (University of Chicago Press Chicago and London: 1996), xii.
(6) Ibid, xiv.
(7) Ibid, xiv.
(8) Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality & Colonization (The University of Michigan Press: 1995), 260, 246.
(9) his is the only map in this paper that was made specifically for King Charles I, all others were made for King Philip II, his successor.
(10) Barbara E. Mundy, The Mapping on New Spain (University of Chicago Press Chicago and London: 1996), 61.
(11) Ibid, 63.
(12) Barbara E. Mundy, The Mapping on New Spain (University of Chicago Press Chicago and London: 1996), 72.
(13) Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality & Colonization (The University of Michigan Press: 1995), 246.
Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America 1521-1821 (The University if New Mexico Press: 2008), xxi.
(15) Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America 1521-1821 (The University if New Mexico Press: 2008), xix-1.
(16) J. Jorge Klor de Alva, The Inca and Aztec States, 1400-1800 (Academic Press: 1982), 345.
(17) Barbara E. Mundy, The Mapping on New Spain (University of Chicago Press Chicago and London: 1996), 68-72.
(18) Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America 1521-1821 (The University of New Mexico Press: 2008), 1.
(19) Florentine Codex 5
(20) Florentine Codex 3
(21) Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America 1521-1821 (The University if New Mexico Press: 2008), 78.
(22) Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America 1521-1821 (The University if New Mexico Press: 2008), 79.
(23) Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America 1521-1821 (The University of New Mexico Press: 2008), 13.
(24) Ibid, 13.
(25) Ibid, 13.
(26) Ibid, 13.