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The Jaguar Warriors of Ixmiquilpan

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they faced armies of elite Aztec warriors, primarily the fierce rival castes of Eagle and Jaguar warriors resplendant in their warlike apparel. While Spanish military methods and tactics prevailed, the memories ­ and myths ­ of the ancient warrior castes remained in the folk imagination.

Although few explicit pictorial references to the Eagle and Jaguar castes were permitted in post conquest art and discourse, there are some exceptions: notably the sculptures and especially the murals of the 16th century Augustinian monastery of Ixmiquilpan.

A pair of carved stone escutcheons on the church facade prepare the visitor for the dramatic painted walls of the nave. Surprisingly, both escudos feature pre-hispanic imagery without reference to Christian symbols.

Eagles and jaguars with plumed headresses and bearing war shields, or chimalli, flank Aztec symbols, and appear to be engaging in a dialogue with speech scrolls issuing from their mouths.

Left facade escutcheon with Aztec eagle and flankingwarriors

 

Behind the sculpted limestone facade lies a treasury of 16th century frescoes (fresco secco) unique in Mexican mural art. Beneath the choir, fragmentary murals show facing Eagle and Jaguar warriors engaged in dialogue, probably prior to combat, reiterating the images of the facade.

An astonishing sequence of battle murals unfold in enormous friezes that stretch along both sides of the nave. Eagle, jaguar and coyote warriors dressed in pelts, foliated robes and plumed helmets engage in a bloody confrontation, decapitating each other with their obsidian edged swords against a backdrop of giant foliage. Along the north wall, warriors do battle with bizarre supernaturals, including figures of pregnant women emerging from huge acanthus buds.

Although the significance of these dynamic and colorful murals has been much debated, their theme may reflect the turbulent 1570s, when Ixmiquilpan was under constant attack from nomadic Chichimec tribesmen. The Chichimecs were finally repelled by the settled Otomí Indians of the area in a decisive battle, viewed at the time as the triumph of Christianity over paganism.

These frescoes may commemorate this victory, and explain why such an unorthodox, pre-hispanic style would have been permitted by the friars in a Christian church, although it is possible that they also represent a more ancient Otomi ritual - a remarkable survival almost 50 years after the Spanish conquest. The scenes stand in stark contrast to traditional monastic murals of the time - usually monochromatic and devoted to biblical subjects - some of which, illustrating Christ's Passion, can be seen in the sacristy at Ixmiquilpan.

Text and illustrations ©1992,1999 by Richard D. Perry

More information on the monasteries of Hidalgo...

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Jaguar warrior in color (© 1999 by Jorge Pérez de Lara. courtesy of Sam Edgerton )

More on the murals - another view, in Spanish. - (large file)