American Indians’ relationship with the Bible includes an introduction to Western forms of painting, drawing, and sculpture, though the importance and significance of art may be different for native peoples than for Europeans. Europe spent hundreds of years developing fine, folk, and decorative art forms conveying both the Jewish and Christian forms of biblical art. This aided the instruction and conversion of pagans and the reinforcement of Christian philosophy and principles.

Early Images.

The earliest artistic relationship between American Indians and biblical art or themes was described in a 1494 fresco located within the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. The fresco depicts naked men with feathered headdresses who appear to be dancing and a man on horseback. The fresco is in the rooms used by Pope Alexander VI, who was in close contact with the Spanish crown when he was elected in 1492. Alexander VI, also known as Rodrigo Borgia, was in place for the Columbian contact and was deeply involved in the outcome. He issued decrees that divided the New World between Spain and Portugal.

The fresco image found in his apartments is similar to descriptions made by Columbus of his first encounters with American Indians, whom he described as painted black or red and who danced for the party of Spaniards newly arrived in the Americas. The 1494 creation for the piece is consistent with the news of the discovery of the New World and the pope’s involvement with the question arising from discovering a new race of men whose relationship with the church’s view of God was uncertain.

The fresco conveys a Resurrection scene painted by Pinturicchio, and the figures that are thought to be American Indians are a detail in the background of the composition, a part of the world redeemed by Christ.

Curiosity about the presence of a hitherto unknown race of human beings living within two newly discovered continents quickly gave rise to the problem of resolving the lack of prediction or description of these people in the accepted interpretations of the Bible. The papal bull Pontifex Romanus had earlier divided any future discoveries of lands or peoples between the competing sea powers of Portugal and Spain in 1455. Whether or not the American Indians in the New World were human or capable of being baptized or converted was left undecided in the Papal Bull known as the Inter Caetera of 1493, but the desire to see them as such is clearly shown.

Europeans speculated on the existence of “monstrous races” in mysterious lands yet to be discovered. They imagined distant populations of giants, hermaphrodites, pygmies, two-headed men, and other imagined creatures to be revealed as they explored. Where American Indians fell into these speculations required official definition.

Pope Alexander VI decreed in the Inter Caetera and the Dudum siquidem that Spain had an obligation to Christianize the natives of the Americas as a condition of the Spanish being recognized as having the franchise for these newly discovered lands, but it did not settle the question of humanity being afforded to American Indians.

Pope Paul III settled the question in 1537 with the Sublimus Deus, wherein he proclaimed, “We … consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are … capable of understanding the catholic faith.” The Bible could now be presented to American Indians and methods of conversion pursued by not only Catholic priests but by all who came afterward in the Protestant movement.

The Bible as Art.

The Bible developed in Europe from a text to an inspiration for images expressed in European art and illustrations within handcrafted editions that used art to aid in instructing the reader in themes and events described in the writings. Manuscript decoration by scribes included designing the layout and illumination. Hebrew manuscripts, partly or entirely decorated by Christians, are not uncommon in the history of the Bible. Christian folk traditions are a part of the outpouring of biblical art that reflects cultures that are reinforced by this tradition. This use of art and biblical text was effective in conversions within Europe as it relied on common cultural understandings of art.

American Indian traditions follow structures, purposes, and use that may reflect a different approach, making it necessary to be circumspect in assumptions about universal aspects of art. Formalism, often used in analyzing European art, may not be as useful when examining art produced by American Indians. This directly impacts the production or success of biblical art in the New World as compared to Europe.

American Indian Art Aesthetic.

An important aspect of the American Indian use of art is the integration of religion with myriad aspects of their production of all classes of art and cultural expression. Objects made by American Indian artists and artisans contain the aesthetic approach of their cultures in all areas so that an object may invoke associations with many aspects of experience that may include religious concepts, rituals, practices, or sensations as with smells associated with smudging used in ceremonies that incorporate artistic objects.

American Indian art may convey dreaming and visionary experiences as a part of the integration of religion, folk life, ritual, and ceremony into a comprehensive aesthetic. This can include the artist as an element of the aesthetic whole. An obvious aspect of this can be seen in body decoration and tattooing, a common practice among American Indians, strictly prohibited by the Bible.

European traditional concepts of aesthetics, distinctions of form and function, decoration, representation, symbolic content, and expression may not correspond to American Indian production of indigenous art. These factors may cause European biblical art to not be effective for use in conversion of American Indians, particularly those native groups who remained outside of European social and cultural systems.

The introduction of the Bible with its universal approach, as promoted by evangelizing priests and ministers, to American Indians stands in contrast to the multiple forms of religious culture found throughout the New World. This can make American Indian art aesthetic a local situation reflecting the geography, culture, and history of a particular culture group. Each cultural aesthetic operating by its own principles makes the message of universalism confusing.

American Indians, Africans, and the Bible.

The use of biblical art to evangelize or impress American Indians is therefore uneven in its effect and often confined to particular regions, historical periods, and forms of Christianity being promoted. Christianity was not one religion introduced to American Indians by either artistic or textual means but many religions, with the multiple forms of Protestantism and Catholicism migrating to the New World. Commonality among those forms of religion and the art used within their cultures relies on commonalities not necessarily present within local indigenous populations.

Africans brought to the New World were forced into a structure that often limited them to the use of biblical art and concepts in a manner shared with Europeans. The separation from their homelands, languages, religions, rituals, and ceremonies isolated them within a Christianized world. This encouraged them to use biblical concepts, but it also often provided them the means to further their own views as to their social condition, to criticize slavery and the moral contradictions it raised.

The forced embedding of Africans in Christian societies gave them Christian culture and its art as tools to form and maintain an identity. Syncretic forms of biblical art developed among African American populations resulting in the development of local folklore and folk religion as seen with Vodun or Vodou.

American Indians and Conversion.

Christian evangelists in the American Northeast, eastern woodlands, Canada, and the Arctic sought to eliminate native concepts, to replace them and destroy the indigenous culture as a form of civilizing, while leaving the native populations within their own landscape practicing their languages and associations with their inclusive cultural aesthetic.

The success of conversion demanded the failure of the continuance of native beliefs, but these efforts did not have an isolated people and left them with the option to reject or simply accommodate European philosophy and art. The adoption of biblical art by native people would not only stand to challenge their indigenous religious belief systems but also would stand in contrast to their integrated use of art and religion in all aspects of their cultures. The principle of conversion with the need to replace previously held religious concepts coupled with a native people free in their own land isolated the European Christian more than it produced a society of Christianized Indians.

Cultural Borders.

Biblical art and the spread of Christian philosophy was meant to establish and maintain borders of culture that left the American Indian outside of the systems of art and culture relocated into the New World from Europe. The borders were clearly drawn, and native people were not invited to blend their artistic ideas with Christian practice. Early Palatine churches in New England exhibit no discernible presence of American Indian art but stand as transplanted European culture centers, as do most churches of various Christian faiths in the Northeast, Canada, and the Arctic that date from the early contact period.

The practical aspect of early French Catholic missionaries and Protestant ministers and what they could carry or use in their efforts to Christianize American Indians did not allow for the easy transportation, protection, or use of European forms of painting, statuary, and other fine art forms as developed within Western biblical art history. American Indian art in the eastern Woodlands associated with churches consists largely of decorative examples of floral motifs used in their beadwork found in decoration of church pews or weavings. Much of this design work may have come from early exposure to French folk art and was found to be pleasing to natives who had no deeper meaning associated with it.

The Bible as object.

The Bible was the major Christian object carried by French Jesuit priests or English, Dutch, and German Protestants as they established camps, trade routes, and settlements. An emphasis on the authority of the text promoted the instruction of American Indians in European forms of literacy. The expense of illuminated Bibles was prohibitive. The Protestant movements in the New World did not use the elaborate artwork of the Catholic traditions as a matter of philosophical principle and promoted a sparse environment centered on texts.

The 1787 Book of Common Prayer promoted by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts was translated into the Mohawk language and featured the Gospel of St. Mark with no illustrations or illuminations. This book, published in London, was advertised as being translated by the famed Mohawk leader Joseph Brandt. The authority of the Indian convert was more important in the promotion of the Mohawk Bible than impressive or instructive artwork.

Bibles without illustration or illumination were translated into a number of American Indian languages including the Micmac, Cherokee, Winnebago, Chippewa, Choctaw, Saulteaux, Tenni or Slave, Chinook, Cree, Ojibwe, Algonquian, Inuktitut, Inuit, Nez Perce, Navajo, Dakota, Kutchin, Blackfoot, Seneca, and Yahgan languages.


Performance studies can provide insight into American Indian art adaptation to this textual approach. Oral performance of biblical passages as hymns became a form of biblical musical art that accompanied the learning of European reading and writing promoted in New England and Canada and more easily aligned with indigenous oral performance. Biblical musical art was more effective than oration and was promoted among American Indians with hymnbooks in local languages. The 1839 publication of A Collection of Psalms and Hymns in the Mohawk Language, for the Use of The Six Nation Indians by The New-England Corporation is but one example of this use of oral performance rather than visual art to reach native converts. The aesthetic of song and spoken word performance allowed for transculturation more easily than did visual art.

Christian magic.

Examples of indigenous art forms that may reflect biblical references within the Northeast and eastern Woodlands are scarce. Among them may be stemware made by Iroquoian artisans, the Six Nations of the Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, and Tuscarora. Goblets or stemmed glasses are surmised to be imitations of the chalice of Christ, but the natives valued them because they believed goblets had magical powers, which is an interpretation they took from the tales of the Bible. This same interpretation caused natives to associate the plagues of smallpox and other disease as negative Christian magic and to blame the missionary for bringing death along with the new faith. Algonquian peoples shared the Iroquoian view that the presence of new disease in their lands was the product of supernatural intervention, with even those who had Christianized blaming it on the Devil and his witches.

The quality of conversion as a pure transmission and complete change may not be possible, and the most prolific outward forms of Christian behavior among American Indians in New England from 1640 to 1730 was the adoption of the sabbath, prayer, and the performance of hymns. Christianity had a powerful effect on American natives, but the transmission of the tenets and philosophy were largely the product of the Bible and oral performance, not biblical art. The structure used by Christian evangelists, largely Protestant, that insisted on total conversion and abandonment of native ways did not allow for a mutual blending of culture and art traditions.

The consequence of cultural borders.

The same strictures that created and maintained these religious and cultural borders may have triggered reactionary movements that sought to compete with Christian culture rather than convert. Indigenous prophetic movements sprang up in the eastern Woodlands from the seventeenth century onward that include the famed revitalization of Handsome Lake, Tenskwatawa, and his brother Tecumseh and culminated in the West with Wovoka in the nineteenth century and his Ghost Dance. These revitalization movements may be considered to have had a lack of shared art forms with Europeans, and the presence of competitive philosophies as an important aspect of their structures.

The Huron incorporated the concept of the messianic figure into their mythology in a movement in 1641 with the claimed visitation from a tall handsome man who claimed to be Iouskeha, the son of Aataentsic, the mother of mankind. Iouskeha blamed the Jesuits for bringing death and illness to their country. His cure was a potion of pure water. The biblical imagery of baptismal water coupled with this figure of a man claiming to be descended from the divine is made clear with Iouskeha’s explanation that Christians incorrectly worshipped him under the name of “Jesus.”

A missionary to the Ojibwas in 1834 complains in his letters that conversion is not sincere among the native people he serves. He complains that the native people are curious about the new Christian philosophy and are anxious for the attention and trade goods that come from contact with missionaries and will profess to want to learn the new faith on one day and engage in heathen dancing the next.

Nationalism and Biblical Art.

John Gadsby Chapman’s 1840 mural of The Baptism of Pocahontas within the Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States reflects a nationalistic perspective for the concept of conversion. It presents the transition from Indian sensibilities and religion to European Christianity as an elevating and civilizing act. It is a national definition of biblical art and the American Indian as a record of the destruction of the native and salvation of the dormant Christian within.

While the image of Pocahontas also graced the relief sculpture of Antonio Capellano’s Preservation of Captain Smith by Pocahontas (1825) within the same Rotunda, the inclusion of the baptismal scene makes a significant statement about the danger of eliminating idolatry and the use of Christianity as a symbol of American culture. There is little information about the baptism, yet the mural is presented in the most nationalistic setting possible. The history is less important than the message conveyed about the role of biblical art and American Indians as one of documenting and promoting conversion and not blending. Both American Indians and Euro-Americans maintained the borders of their cultures with their arts.

Influence of Biblical Art.

The native people of the Northern Plains similarly held to their own indigenous art forms such as quillwork and tepee decoration and illustration through the nineteenth century. As new religious ideas were presented to them, their art forms remained consistent except for the materials, as European glass beads quickly replaced porcupine quills in what became beadwork.

New religious ideas, new materials, and even new patterns taken from rugs and other Old World objects circulated among Plains Indian artists. Crossed lines that resemble the Christian cross appear in Plains beadwork but are often explained as representing stars. It is doubtful there was any special or esoteric meaning associated with the materials or design elements incorporated into Plains beadwork from these new sources or religious traditions. The desire to expand their options for design motifs may be the only reason for the incorporation of Old World or possible Christian elements into their art forms. The first recorded baptism of a Kiowa culture member did not take place until 1892.

Hymns also became popular in the Plains communities of converts, or those who now practiced both native and nonnative religions, as they had in the Northeast and eastern Woodlands. The first Kiowa hymn was composed in 1893 by Gotebo, a Kiowa convert. Gotebo was an important member of his culture who depicted his life in a series of drawings using the ledger art style associated with the Kiowa, which originated as tepee illustrations. Gotebo’s drawings include one that depicts his life after being converted to Christianity and Western dress. He draws himself, in his Drawing 9, wearing a suit and shoes and on his knees looking up at a cross, possibly in contemplation.

Scroll devices used by missionaries in the American Plateau region depicted a path of good and one of evil using biblical images or references. American Indian participants in esoteric knowledge societies may have imitated this scroll motif in their initiation rites. The scroll motif continues as an allegory in academic description of cultural changes forced upon American Indians by encroaching American society, the good path representing cooperation with American culture and the bad path as holding out for indigenous ways.

Individual American Indians who have Christianized and produced biblical art in folk art and fine art are sporadic and do not describe a genre. The Navajo have not been noted for being involved in biblical art, and their major religious art form remains the ephemeral sand painting. Northwest Coast totem poles continue the American Indian aesthetic approach of art conveying multiple associations not seen in European formalism, as the quality of time is an important aspect of the ephemeral nature of wooden poles disintegrating in a manner similar to sand paintings eventually being scattered.

Elmer Yazzie is a Navajo artist who has converted and produced notable mural art at the Red Mesa Navajo Christian Church in Arizona. His murals include The Creation, Moses Receiving the Ten Commandments, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and other similar staples of biblical art. These are rendered in non-Navajo art form, though they conform to styles developed by the Navajo who enrolled in art schools and found within pictorial rugs made for the tourist trade.

Spanish America.

Dramatic aspects of American Indian art and biblical art creating union and genre are to be found within the Spanish Catholic spheres of influence in the New World. The Spanish system sought to create colonies of Christianized American Indians working within a system of encomiendas, ranchos, and missions.

The American Indian as laborer within a community that incorporates both Old and New World resources and cultures evolved in the Spanish colonial systems of Latin America that included California and the Southwest. Missions were often populated with as few as two priests and less than a dozen soldiers within countrysides of thousands of American Indians spread through hundreds of villages. Local adaptation of management and directions for the instruction and inclusion of native people was key to the success of these systems. The Spanish had to adapt to the native majority within their homelands rather than insist upon total conversion or exclusion.

Indian labor was indispensable for the success of the Spanish system, which was not designed to eliminate Indians but to incorporate them and transform them into gente de razon, or reasoning people. The Southern California Mission system is a part of the implementation of this strategy employed by Spain that reached from San Francisco to Chile.

Indian Labor.

A key element in the Spanish system was the instruction for specialized work and division of labor. An examination of this system through the model of the Mission of San Gabriel Archangel reveals common elements that have produced dramatic biblical art produced by neophytes.

The San Gabriel mission encompassed the entire Los Angeles Basin with the administrative church buildings located in the present-day city of San Gabriel, California. The cattle ranch, or rancho, occupied most of the basin, while the farm, or assistencia, was located where the city of Redlands now sits.

Native people were regarded as gentiles or pagans. Laborers for the assistencias needed little training, nor was their religious conversion necessary. They were not contracted or bound to the mission but participated largely from curiosity and from the enticement of abundant food produced through agriculture. To a people who hunted and gathered their food, the presence of hundreds of pounds of new foodstuffs like wheat, corn, beans, and melons, fruit trees and vineyards, as well as domesticated chickens, pigs, goats, and cows was enticing. Many of these laborers came to the mission fields for periods and then returned to their native villages. Mission records in California show populations varying year by year.

The vaquero was a new profession that came with new animals and new folk art forms, many of which incorporated religious symbolism. The horse was valuable to all American Indian groups. Status and prestige accompanied the horse, as well as wealth with the buying and selling of individual animals and herds. The horse also inspired new technology involved with the making and decorating of tack, ropes, blankets, metals, and the clothing needed for the work. Western decorative arts that used techniques of metal stamping, leather carving, rope braiding, and other forms were expanded upon by Indian vaqueros into distinctive forms.

The Neophytes.

Those who moved into the mission system and learned the artisanal skills needed to build and maintain the infrastructure and organizational and managerial methods for operating the large mission were called neophytes. It is this group of Indians who were required to sign contracts requiring them to remain as a part of the mission and forbidding them from leaving. The few soldiers assigned to each mission would pursue neophytes who left, and when caught they were punished with whippings and worse. The female neophytes were less the victims of rape and harm than the nonneophytes who lived in their own villages and could be abused outside of the view of the priests.

The neophytes were given educations in Spanish, Latin, English, and other European languages and were educated in mathematics, engineering, architecture, hydrology, surveying, weaving, and art. Many were famous and were requested by missions, rancheros, and townsmen, who were expanding the infrastructure and needed new roads, water systems, buildings, and decorative and fine art training. It was the neophytes who were to build the churches and create the biblical art found within them. The Mission San Gabriel ordered a book titled Painting without a Master in 1771.

The neophytes often became alcaldes or mayors of the communities surrounding the church buildings and were the visible linkage between the native and Spanish worlds. They survived the secularization of the missions after the Mexican Revolution and remained an important specialized workforce through the Mexican period and into the American.

Neophyte artists.

The Spanish systems incorporated the native and did not destroy the population with either warfare or cultural obliteration. There was inconsistency in the application of rules in the Spanish system, but it was consistent with adaptation to the location and cultures of Indians within and surrounding the system. Indians were forbidden from decorating the interior of churches in Mexico immediately after the conquest, while native neophytes were relied upon to do that same work in California and other parts of Spanish America.

Paintings were largely executed on wood or plaster, while statuary used stone and wood. Most art objects within the churches of the missions were imported from Mexico where Indian neophytes fashioned them, but the buildings were constructed and decorated by the local American Indians.

Neophyte artists were still within their homelands and in contact with their native religions and communities, and they also had training in European art forms and the instruction of Christian philosophy. Native artists in this system resemble the Africans encased in the Christianity of the American South who learned to use the system to express their own concerns. Both found the use of syncretism to their advantage.

Neophyte art and syncretism.

True Indian themes or motifs are rare in the art of the California missions but not absent. A doorway painting of a deer on one side and a native hunter in deer disguise on the other is to be found at the Mission San Fernando Rey de España near Los Angeles, California. Decorative triangles in an undulating line underneath the deer and hunter are not unlike elements used in basketry by the native peoples of this area. The artist in question is thought to be Juan Pacifico, a famous neophyte artist from the Chumash tribe to the north of the Los Angeles Basin.

The Chumash people are well known for their maritime culture that connected shoreline villages with those on nearby coastal islands and depended on the ocean for food that was abundant. Chumash territory is home to the Missions Santa Barbara, La Concepcion, and Santa Ines. A portrait of St. Rafael painted by a neophyte American Indian artist at Santa Ines is a remarkable piece of native biblical art.

It is noteworthy that portraits of San Rafael are not common in neophyte paintings in California; St. Michael is the most copied image. The presence of syncretism in this example of neophyte biblical art may be seen in two major elements. The facial features and hair of the saint have the qualities of an American Indian face—dark skin and black hair parted down the middle.

San Rafael is commonly depicted holding a line or string with a small fish attached. The remarkable portrait at Santa Ines shows the Indian-featured saint holding a large fish between his body and his arm. Rather than a symbolic fish of faith with allusion to Jesus and his parables, the portrait conveys the look of a Chumash fisherman.

The use of syncretism in this portrait conveys a moral value linking the saint to the figure of an American Indian. Neophyte paintings decorating the church at Mission San Buenaventura were noted as the best in California but were destroyed in the 1890s. The slight altering of conventional images of saints as well as darkened skin coloration, hairstyles, and other details suggest an active use of the syncretic method in neophyte biblical art.

Mission San Antonio de Padua near Monterey, California, holds neophyte art whose similar style and technique suggest that the same artist is responsible for at least three paintings. A portrait of San Miguel features the saint standing on a cloud holding a dagger in his right hand and the scales of judgment in his left. One of the possible syncretic elements is found as the left hand holding the scales is lowered while the common form is for the scales to be held aloft. The Mission Carmel has a small relief woodcarving that shows a soul in purgatory emerging from a sea of flames that look more like plants found in the New World.

The syncretic technique appears to be repeated in a series of neophyte paintings of the Stations of the Cross genre that are well documented and often praised as examples of this approach. The 14-panel set, also referred to as Via Crucis, was produced at the Mission San Fernando Rey and referenced in an 1849 inventory by Father Blas Ordaz.

The neophyte artist Juan Antonio from the Rancheria de Topanga has been the attributed artist, but research indicates that several American Indian artists worked in concert in the execution of the final set. Juan Antonio is thought to have initiated the panels and subsequently was known within the community of San Fernando as “El Indio de la Via Crucis.” The paintings were poorly stored after Secularization in the old belfry of the Plaza Church in Los Angeles and retrieved in 1887.

The panels were exhibited at the 1892 State Fair in Sacramento and the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. They appear to show a figure of Christ and his supporters whose coloration and other features indicate American Indians. Christ is being whipped and tortured by Romans who appear to be Spaniards. The men lifting Christ from his cross appear as California Indians, as does Veronica, whose darker appearance sets her apart from the other women in the portrait. The resulting speculation is that this is a blend of Spanish realist work with the imagination of the neophyte and the tradition of symbolic art found in native genre.

Spanish American missions in the American Southwest include churches built in a number of pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona. The churches have been incorporated into the histories of the indigenous cultures and are important aspects of their identities. A tradition of mural painting within ceremonial kiva structures within the pueblo continues as church murals.

The pueblo of Zuni is home to the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Church, where contemporary syncretism is found in a series of wall murals within the church that depict indigenous kachina spirit figures and elements from oral history. These murals overlay lost decorations and lay atop new plaster. Alex Seotewa and his sons have pursued the study of this mural art since the 1970s.

Portraits of Christian saints on tin sheets, often referred to as “Santos” continue the tradition of American Indian artists producing biblical art within the Spanish and Mexican periods. It is noted that when Mexican Indians made carvings or pictures of saints or of Christ, the insignia of a chief or a noble Indian is often present.

The Church of the Nativity in Parinacota, Chile, contains eighteenth-century murals that continue the theme of syncretism. A depiction of the final judgment features an Indian figure with two masks flanked by a Spaniard and a mestizo. The masks allude to the rituals of the Curaca Indians of the area.

The Virgin of Guadalupe.

The single most powerful example of neophyte art and the syncretic tradition of biblical art among the Indians of the Americas is the portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. The tradition of the Guadalupe image begins in the Guadalupe (river of the wolves) area of Extremadura in Spain with the Black Virgin, a cedar statue within the Church of Santa Maria de Guadalupe and one of the three Black Madonnas in Spain. Other Marian visages were transplanted to the New World, including Our Lady of Remedios.

Spaniards born in Iberia, referenced as peninsulars, honored Our Lady of Remedios, while the criollos or creoles sought the blessing of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The emergence of the Dark Virgin of Mexico follows a disrupted history with the famed appearance of the Virgin reported as taking place in 1531, though the first written account appears in 1649 written in the indigenous Mexican language of Nahuatl by Fr. Luis Laso de la Vega. This account begins with the Nahuatl phrase Nican mopohua (Here is recounted), and the document is referred to by that name.

The American Guadalupe image appears on a tilma or cloth cape made of indigenous maguey fibers. The neophyte painter Marcos Cipac (de Aquino) is speculated to be the Indian artist responsible for the painted tilma if a supernatural origin is set aside. A number of images of Mary existed in Mexican churches, and the shrine at Tepeyac became associated with the image now seen by millions of Indian and non-Indian Catholics in the New World as the premier portrait corresponding to the tale found in the Nican mopohua. This image continues to be associated with miracles and is arguably the most influential biblical art image produced in either the Old or New Worlds.

A microscopic examination of the tilma image was conducted in November 1982. The director of the Centro Nacional de Registro y Conservacion in Mexico City, José Sol Rosales, concluded that human construction was present. Patching was noted in the cloth as well as evidence of more than one effort, and infrared and other photography revealed the initials MA in an underpainting section.

Marcos, the neophyte painter, was trained in biblical art and was familiar with the use of didactic symbolism and other elements found in the painting. The speculation is that this is an example of neophyte art that syncretized the beliefs and needs of the Indians of Mexico with the image of the Spanish Guadalupe of Extremadura. It uses a number of elements seen in other aspects of neophyte art. The darkened skin of the Mexican Guadalupe can hark back to the Extremaduran Black Virgin, but it also is seen as a reference to the Indians of Mexico. The lack of an image of the infant Jesus or other insignia leaves the message of the portrait uncertain other than as showing compassion and love through the outstretched hands and peaceful facial expression.

The use of the image supported the Mexican Revolution for independence, the only revolution in the New World that displaced European authority for a government made of indigenous and mestizo members. It has syncretized the Old and New Worlds, Indians and Europeans, into a common Mexican and Latin American reality that embraces the native and iconizes that relationship as one that shows compassion for indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere.

The image of the Mexican Virgen de Guadalupe is the source for countless folk art items in every medium. While biblical themes in art abound around the world with iconic elements such as the cross, the chalice, the flame of faith, the dove of the Holy Spirit, etc., there is no other painting or statue in the Christian world that is as immediately recognizable or attributed as creating more miracles than the image of the Mexican Guadalupe.

The triumph of the Indian artist, or of the compassion of Mary for the Indian, is as important an aspect of that image as is the veneration of the Mother of God. Both messages are immediately conveyed as the true purpose and outcome of the fusing of American Indian and biblical art, whether man-made or divine.

Native American Art

Our Lady of Guadalupe, 1746. The original tilma painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe is housed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City.

Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, N.Y.

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Paul Apodaca