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The Casa del Deán

The Casa del Deán
New World Imagery in a Sixteenth-Century Mexican Mural Cycle

Extensively illustrated with new color photographs, this pioneering study of a masterpiece of colonial Latin American art reveals how a cathedral dean and native American painters drew on their respective visual traditions to promote Christian faith in the New World.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

December 2014
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311 pages | 8.5 x 11 |

The Casa del Deán in Puebla, Mexico, is one of few surviving sixteenth-century residences in the Americas. Built in 1580 by Tomás de la Plaza, the Dean of the Cathedral, the house was decorated with at least three magnificent murals, two of which survive. Their rediscovery in the 1950s and restoration in 2010 revealed works of art that rival European masterpieces of the early Renaissance, while incorporating indigenous elements that identify them with Amerindian visual traditions.

Extensively illustrated with new color photographs of the murals, The Casa del Deán presents a thorough iconographic analysis of the paintings and an enlightening discussion of the relationship between Tomás de la Plaza and the indigenous artists whom he commissioned. Penny Morrill skillfully traces how native painters, trained by the Franciscans, used images from Classical mythology found in Flemish and Italian prints and illustrated books from France—as well as animal images and glyphic traditions with pre-Columbian origins—to create murals that are reflective of Don Tomás’s erudition and his role in evangelizing among the Amerindians. She demonstrates how the importance given to rhetoric by both the Spaniards and the Nahuas became a bridge of communication between these two distinct and highly evolved cultures. This pioneering study of the Casa del Deán mural cycle adds an important new chapter to the study of colonial Latin American art, as it increases our understanding of the process by which imagery in the New World took on Christian meaning.

  • Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Don Tomás de la Plaza
    • Introduction
    • Parish Priest
    • Cathedral Dean
    • Don Tomás and His Family
    • Don Tomás's Library and His Collections
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 2. An Urban Palace
    • Introduction
    • Purism and the Casa del Deán
    • The Façade
    • The Residence’s Plan
    • The Designer and Builder of the Casa del Deán
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 3. The Artist as Tlapalli: Art as Rhetoric
    • Introduction
    • Tlapalli: The Deified Heart
    • Form as Metaphor in Early Colonial Painting
    • Rhetoric and Image
    • Education of the Amerindian Artists
    • A Franciscan School in the Tlaxcala-Puebla Region
    • Master of the Sibyls
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 4. Dic Tu Sibila: The Salon of the Sibyls
    • Introduction
    • The Sibyls
    • Tracing the Sibylline Oracles
    • The Sibyls in Procession: Liturgical Drama
    • The Sibyls in the Casa del Deán Murals
    • Visual Sources for the Sibyls
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 5. The Salon of the Triumphs
    • Introduction
    • Petrarch’s Triumphs and Spectacle Literacy
    • The Impact on the Arts
    • The Triumphal Scenes
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 6. The Wild Man in the Salon of the Triumphs
    • Introduction
    • Antecedents of the Satyr and Wild Man
    • The Wild Man in New Spain
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter 7. Amerindian Iconography: The Dream of a Word
    • Introduction
    • The Artist’s Antecedents
    • The Animals in the Salon of the Triumphs
    • Conclusion
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix I. Don Tomás de la Plaza’s Last Will and Testament: El Testamento de Don Tomás de la Plaza
  • Appendix II. Sibylline Oracles and Attributes
  • Appendix III. Documenting Don Tomás de la Plaza’s Capellanía
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

PENNY C. MORRILL, who holds a PhD in Mesoamerican colonial art history from the University of Maryland, teaches in the art history department at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. In addition to her work on sixteenth-century Mexican architecture and mural painting, she is an authority and has published extensively on the history of modern Mexican silver.



On the night of October 12, 1953, two university students, Efraín Castro Morales and Davíd Bravo y Cid de León, entered a condemned building where they had been told by their professors they might find a sixteenth-century mural cycle. Removing five layers of wallpaper and whitewash, the students uncovered a portion of what is now considered one of Mexico’s artistic treasures.

The story of the almost complete destruction of the Casa del Deán began when the murals were first brought to light in the mid-1930s by the owner, Francisco de Pérez Salazar y Haro. He had inherited the residence in a direct line from Don Tomás de la Plaza, the dean of the cathedral, who had built the house in 1580 and at his death left it in succession to his nephews and nieces. Pérez Salazar made the murals disappear in the thirties by reapplying whitewash and giving them only a brief mention in the books that he wrote on colonial art. Architectural historian Diego Angulo Iñiguez saw the murals in 1934 and published a photograph in 1950, which led to their rediscovery by the students. In 1954 architectural historians Francisco de la Maza and Pablo C. de Gante included the murals in their publications.

Why would Pérez Salazar have chosen to cover up what he had discovered? He wanted to avoid the possible nationalization of his property if the existence of the murals became known. In 1952 his son Francisco Pérez Salazar y Solana sold the house to Gen. Abelardo Rodríguez, owner of a movie company, who planned to demolish the house and construct a theater, Cine Puebla.

One of the first persons to come to the defense of the murals was Gastón García Cantú, director of the Hemeroteca de la Universidad de Puebla. Castro Morales and Bravo y Cid de León brought news of their discovery to García Cantú. He accompanied them to the Casa del Deán and requested that the workers halt the demolition. García Cantú and Antonio Esparza contacted Manuel Toussaint, who, along with Francisco de la Maza, verified that the paintings were the only examples in Mexico of sixteenth-century murals in a residential setting. These scholars wrote articles and gave presentations in Puebla and Mexico City in order to save the paintings.

The architect Juan O’Gorman arrived in Puebla to stand with the local community in opposing the destruction of the building. A group of artists formed the Comité Defensor del Patrimonio Cultural Poblano and mounted a campaign of artistic warfare, creating posters that were nailed up on the walls of Puebla and Mexico City. They produced woodblock prints and took photographs that could be used by the press. They were only partially successful. Tragically, in a frantic effort, Castro Morales and Bravo y Cid de León threw buckets of water against the wall of the room to the west of the Salon of the Triumphs. As the whitewash melted away, more murals were revealed; but it was too late to avoid the crash of the pickax. The house was almost completely demolished, leaving only the portion of the building with the two second-floor rooms containing murals.

The paintings were restored in 1955. Because the building was privately owned, the rooms remained inaccessible, walled up as storerooms. In 1983 architectural historians at a national meeting in Puebla gathered to sign a document in the storerooms, demanding that the state restore and protect the paintings.

The company Cinemas Estrellas bought Cine Puebla for the construction of an eight-theater movie complex. The Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) was given the responsibility of restoring what was left of the historic building. Commercial establishments were allowed at street level. The museum, consisting of the two upstairs rooms, opened after structural renovation in January 2001.

The people of Puebla and all lovers of art are fortunate that this group of artists and scholars banded together to save the Casa del Deán from complete demolition and near eradication from the historical and artistic record. In 2010 the paintings were cleaned and restored by conservators from INAH. Financial support for the restoration came from a special fund created to celebrate the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence, with additional funding from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Today the murals remain a testimony to Puebla’s sixteenth-and twentieth-century artists.

Fortunately, the extensive murals in the two second-floor rooms of the Casa del Deán that have emerged from beneath the whitewash remain close to the way they appeared in 1584. They were painted a few years after 1580, the year carved in stone on the façade. The fragment of the building in which the paintings were discovered seems to cling perilously to the side of the massive rectangular theater that has replaced most of the dean’s residence. Although surviving as a portion of the original structure, the façade and the mural cycle should be considered significant works in the history of Mexican and Western European sixteenth-century art and culture. Their restoration in 2010 offers much to celebrate: several new details have emerged, and the paintings themselves have been stabilized.

Because the Casa del Deán murals were uncovered only recently, the scholarship is not extensive. Erwin Palm has written about the animals in cartouches within the rinceaux (floral motifs) in the Salon of the Triumphs, and Helga von Kügelgen has focused on the visual sources for the sibyls. Alfonso Arellano’s book provides a few new insights beyond those of the two German scholars. Serge Gruzinski, Santiago Sebastián, and José Miguel Morales Folguera have written brief analyses. A collection of essays edited by Helga von Kügelgen was published in 2013.

The style and iconography of the Casa del Deán murals are a synthesis of two distinct and highly evolved cultures, each with lengthy histories. The investigation therefore has required a more complex and multidisciplinary approach than has been applied in the past. The wealth of archival documents for this period is extensive, for the Spaniards and the indigenous people of New Spain were remarkable record keepers in their efforts to establish land ownership, religious ritual, and communal history. Additionally, the murals have provided an opportunity to extend the study into areas only briefly mentioned in the historical record and to rectify oft-repeated mistaken notions concerning the Casa del Deán and Tomás de la Plaza.

The central theme of this book is the relationship that evolved between patron and artist based on a shared appreciation for the power of rhetoric. The images in the mural cycle, whether emerging from the Amerindian or European past, served as a rhetorical mnemonic and emblematic device. The visual metaphorical language allowed the artist and those who viewed the paintings to conceive a larger cosmic vision and to reflect upon that mystery. While Don Tomás and the Master of the Sibyls with his assistants drew from a unique visual and cultural memory, they were moving toward a pictorial vocabulary that was expressive of the New World they all inhabited.

Tomás de la Plaza

The first chapter of this monographic study of the Casa del Deán deals with Tomás de la Plaza, who built and embellished this urban residence. Don Tomás came to New Spain from Alburquerque in Extremadura, Spain. Like many of the emigrants from this area, his modest background made the promise of adventure and opportunity all the more alluring. At nineteen, he left the university in Salamanca to join the Hernando De Soto expedition to Florida, a disastrous venture from which he was fortunate to have escaped with his life.

The story of Tomás de la Plaza is an important one to tell because very little has been written about the lives of secular priests. Shortly after the conquest, he became a priest and served for twenty years in remote parishes in Oaxaca. He encountered communities that had refused to surrender their carved and painted images of gods and were hostile to Christianity. Don Tomás learned to speak Nahuatl and Mixtec in order to preach to his congregations in their native languages. He directed the move of the population at Nochistlán from a preconquest center to a new site, where he may also have overseen the construction of a modest church building.

It will become apparent that Tomás de la Plaza’s experience in Oaxaca was a formative one. His point of view was no longer predominantly European. Transformed by twenty years of ministering to numerous and disparate Amerindian groups, he had become a citizen of New Spain. For the rest of his life, his closest associates were the priests with whom he had shared his experiences in Oaxaca.

Don Tomás’s arrival in 1564 as the new cathedral dean in Puebla occurred at a time of great transition. In the period following the Council of Trent, Don Tomás witnessed the establishment of the Inquisition in New Spain, the change to the Roman rite, the development of a more powerful church hierarchy, and the resultant increase in the number of secular priests with benefices. In his various roles as dean, Don Tomás can be considered a unique eyewitness, expanding greatly our sense of life in sixteenth-century New Spain.

The primary sources for Don Tomás’s biography are sixteenth-century documents from archival collections in Spain, Mexico, and the United States. The most significant of these records are Don Tomás’s last will and testament and the Patronato files in the Archivo de Indias in Seville. Sixteenth-century archival material and secondary sources provide a history of the church in Mexico and the important changes that took place during Don Tomás’s lifetime. Records of early colonial libraries in Mexico and lists of sixteenth-century published books were compared to the inventory in the dean’s will in order to identify the books that he possessed. The importance that Don Tomás placed on his library cannot be underestimated: he prized the books he had collected, as did his contemporaries. It now seems possible that one of these volumes, with notes inscribed by his hand in the margins, resides today in the Palafox Library in Puebla.

At the age of twenty-four, Don Tomás arrived on the shore of New Spain with little more than the tattered clothing he was wearing. The process of evangelizing among the indigenous population had begun a mere twenty years before he became a priest. The congregations to whom he ministered did not speak Spanish; nor, for that matter, were they necessarily fluent in Nahuatl. Tomás de la Plaza’s life story, as it is revealed in the mural cycle he commissioned and in surviving documents, is that of a cleric who came to know the land and the people of Oaxaca and Puebla intimately. He learned their languages and found inspiration in the art that they produced. There is little question that he was transformed by his experiences in the New World.

La Casa del Deán

The attempted reconstruction of the Casa del Deán in the second chapter has been made quite challenging by the building’s almost complete destruction. Don Tomás fashioned his residence after the urban palaces in Seville, Salamanca, and Extremadura that were built during the first half of the sixteenth century. The façade of the Casa del Deán has been celebrated as a fine example of the Purist style; while this remains true, it has been significantly modified. The discussion of these changes will be guided by a comparison to contemporary portals and façades in Spain and Mexico in an effort to re-create the Casa del Deán’s façade.

Evidence from sixteenth-century descriptions of residential architecture in Mexico and Spain, modern photographs, and early twentieth century architectural plans of the Casa del Deán provide an idea of the residence’s original appearance. It will be emphasized that the part Don Tomás played in the initial planning and construction of the new cathedral in Puebla relates closely to the design and construction of his own urban palace.

The Spanish architect Francisco Becerra’s resumé (informe de méritos y servicios) presented to the Audiencia in Peru in 1580 and the records of Puebla’s metropolitan and ecclesiastical Cabildos and those of the town of Cuauhtinchán were helpful in establishing Becerra’s oeuvre. Becerra was clearly the designer of the façade and plan for the Casa del Deán. Don Tomás was the leading cleric when Becerra presented his architectural drawings and model for the cathedral in Puebla. The ecclesiastical and metropolitan Cabildo records have also led to the discovery of a maestro who could have been responsible for the construction of the residence. Francisco Gutiérrez worked with Becerra on the new cathedral and, after Becerra’s departure, was the cathedral’s architect.

The construction of the residence could have taken place in the late 1570s and then been completed in 1580, the date carved on the façade. This was the period during which Becerra was working in Puebla on the cathedral design and early construction. The murals in the Casa del Deán were most likely painted somewhat later, in 1584. In that year Don Tomás de la Plaza and Don Juan López Mellado, husband of Don Tomás’s niece Doña María Izguerra, borrowed 2,300 pesos de oro, using the residence and Don López Mellado’s land holdings in the San Pablo Valley and near Nopaluca as collateral. The implication is that the dean’s house had already been constructed in 1584 and the loan was for its decoration.

The discovery of the tower in the center of the southern façade of the Casa del Deán ties the residence to urban palaces built contemporaneously in Mexico City. The discovery that the façade of the residence built by Juan López Mellado was a replication of the portal and pediment on the Casa del Deán’s façade provided the opportunity to reevaluate the current state of the pediment and of Don Tomás’s coat of arms. As a result of this study, the newly devised reconstruction drawing of the façade is an important first step toward a more realistic interpretation of Becerra’s Purist design for the Casa del Deán

The Artist of the Murals

The identity of the tlacuilos (artists) who produced these remarkable mural paintings remains unknown. At approximately the time when the murals were painted, several European artists were active in the Puebla area.11 However, I make the case in chapter 3 that the murals in the Casa del Deán were not painted by a European but by an indigenous artist whom I call the Master of the Sibyls, with one or more assistants.

The term “indigenous artist” does not imply pure Amerindian blood. In the 1570s the painter and his assistants could have been mestizos. Because of the stylistic and iconographic approach, however, I argue that the artist and his team were more likely principales, members of the indigenous privileged class, who received their training in a Franciscan monastery. These students were set apart from the macehuales (members of the lower classes), who were taught basic doctrine. In the Tlaxcala-Puebla region, the Tlaxcalan principales successfully maintained their status and traditional social hierarchy for most of the sixteenth century: “The characteristic member of this class was a literate man; he had been taught by the friars to read and write and to take a leading part in community life. He was baptized, wed, and buried according to the sacraments of the Christian religion. He was well informed in the economic, legal, and political techniques of colonial society.”12 The artists of the Casa del Deán murals were tlacuilos and principales, for they retained the preconquest style of the Tlaxcala-Puebla region within the context of a newly adopted religion.

The crafting of a theoretical and analytical approach in evaluating the contributions of indigenous artists can change the way in which we view the art of sixteenth-century New Spain. While the subject matter, iconography, and, for the most part, the style of the Casa del Deán murals were based on Renaissance European models, the paintings can only be characterized as the work of Amerindians. A careful study has brought to light the artists’ contributions beyond the few indigenous elements that can be easily identified. The greatest emphasis in this study is on the interplay of language and image. The art of rhetoric seems to have been the cultural meeting place for the Spaniard and Native American. The metaphorical language of the Amerindians, spoken and visual, remained alive in the new Christian context.

The sources for the theories and conclusions in this study were drawn from the wealth of surviving sixteenth-century ethnographic, historical, and descriptive writings and personal correspondence. These important firsthand descriptions illuminate and define the New World perspective. They include the works of Jorge de Acosta, Fray Gerónimo de Mendieta, Fray Toribio de Benavente (known as Motolinía), Francisco Cervantes Salazar, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Fray Andrés de Olmos, Juan Bautista Pomar, Antonio de Ciudad Real, Diego Muñoz Camargo, and Fray Diego de Valadés. Also consulted were indigenous murals, painted ceramics, calendars, codices, and text documents, with a primary focus on those that originated in the Tlaxcala-Puebla region before and after the conquest.

The making of an artist in New Spain was dependent upon the methods of teaching in the preconquest school (calmecac), combined with the European approach formulated and described by Leon Battista Alberti. Diego de Valadés provides the most complete description of the Franciscans’ pedagogical theories in the New World, with additional information from Motolinía, Mendieta, and others. To understand the European emphasis on rhetoric in higher education and its role in the Franciscans’ teaching practices, as well as how it influenced the friars’ response to rhetorical practices among the Nahuas, we must turn to sixteenth-century interpretations of classical writers, especially Cicero and Aristotle. Because it is fairly certain that the Master of the Sibyls and his team of artists were trained in the Tlaxcala-Puebla area, sixteenth-century sources have led to the identification of Franciscan convent schools where this training could have taken place.

The Mural Cycle

The focus of the book is on the mural cycle in the Casa del Deán and the indigenous artists who painted it. The paintings incorporate themes that are reflective of contemporary Christian humanist theology. The tlacuilo and patron most likely found their stylistic and iconographic models in mid-sixteenth.century books and prints published in Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands or in Paris or Lyon, France. A 1572 inventory for a shipment of books from Spain to the port at San Juan de Ulúa included 210 prints (dibujos), large and small.

Twelve women, elaborately costumed and each carrying her own standard, ride in procession on horseback in the foreground of the mural in the Salon of the Sibyls. The first is Synagoga, the personification of the Old Testament, blindfolded and riding on a mule. Following her are sibyls, whose prophetic gifts led to their association with Old Testament prophecies and with specific events in the life of Christ.

The transformation of the sibyls over the centuries from Greek oracles to heralds of Christ’s divinity in New Spain is described in chapter 4. Traditionally in the lead, Synagoga carries a broken standard with an image of the tablets of the law and, in her left hand, “Le Table Mose.” Following the Old Testament, each sibyl carries a unique standard, emblazoned with a motif that symbolically refers to an event in the life of Christ. These events from the Nativity and Passion cycles also appear in roundels that float above the sibyls.

The artist wrote directly onto the wall near each sibyl, announcing her name and age as well as the name of the book and chapter number of related biblical passages. The floating roundels and the printed biblical references from the Old Testament prophets, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the Revelation to St. John contribute to a rendering of space that reiterates the two-dimensional wall surface. This patterned effect is reminiscent of prints from Antwerp based on the Speculum humanae salvationis,, with its multiple correspondences, and of indigenous paintings on walls, ceramics, and codex pages.

The sibyls ride in procession before a landscape in which walled villages, forests, and small-scale human figures and animals appear at water’s edge. Two rivers flow throughout the background, at times joining together, possibly resembling the Atoyac and San Francisco Rivers in Puebla. In the corner of the room nearest the Tiburtine Sibyl, the river splits, only to converge again as it passes through a canyon and beneath a bridge in the landscape behind the European and Persian sibyls. Animals drink from the river, as water birds quietly maintain vigilance in their hunt for prey. As will be emphasized in this chapter, the marked difference in scale between the sibyls and the creatures that inhabit the European-inspired background seems to reflect an effort on the part of the artist to modify the scenery that he had copied from European prints so that it more closely resembled his own landscape.

rinceaux occupy the friezes that frame the landscapes of the sibyls. Among the leaves and large blossoms are entwined putti and several rather unique versions of female childlike centaurs. The indigenous artist has depicted monkeys wearing jade bracelets and earspools. The most telling feature of these anthropomorphic figures is the pre-Columbian sound scroll that issues from their mouths.

Beneath the monkeys, the lowest register raises questions concerning its original appearance and its meaning. Seraphim wearing jade pendants occupy the spandrels, and, in the arched openings, knights in armor (shown only as heads in profile) alternate with large bunches of flowers that may have once been depicted in vases or in a miniature landscape.

The depiction of the sibyls by Amerindian artists in an urban palace in New Spain was the culmination of a variety of influences. The following areas of research have provided a sense of the remarkable achievement on the part of both the artists and their patron: European contemporary literature and Counter-Reformation theology, classical and early Christian writings as interpreted by sixteenth-century scholars, ritual drama, religious and political processions and festivals, folk Catholicism, and the visual traditions of Italy, France, the Spanish Netherlands, Germany, and Spain. Lists and descriptions of books, prints, paintings, and tapestries shipped to New Spain from Seville were consulted to discover possible sources for the iconography of the murals. To appreciate the paintings fully, they must be considered in this broader context, not simply in comparison with a single inspiration, such as the Sibylline oracle read in Spanish churches on Christmas Eve.

Chapter 5 is an analysis of the paintings based on Petrarch’s Triumphs in the second salon of the Casa del Deán, now known as the Salon of the Triumphs. Taken from Petrarch's poem to Laura, the personifications of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Divinity (Eternity) are usually shown riding triumphantly in noble chariots, with Eternity as the victor over the human condition that demands death. Petrarch’s poetic expression of earthly love converges with the ultimate realization of Christian redemption: the gift of eternal life.

In the Salon of the Triumphs, Don Tomás and the team of artists he commissioned broke with tradition and depicted only five out of the six Triumphs and in a different order than is found in Petrarch’s original poem. The artists also strayed from the original text in not having the Triumphs conquer one another consecutively. The allegorical figures in their chariots and those whom they have conquered occupy a rocky foreground, except for the figure of Eternity, whose chariot floats above the clouds and among the stars. As a setting for the Triumphs, the landscape is not continuous, suggesting that the scenes that unfold behind each of the triumphal figures were meant to contribute meaning to the specific allegory.

Petrarchism was a vital force in Spain during the Renaissance.15 Documenting the extensive influence of Petrarch in Mexico required the study of book lists indicating the copies of his works imported from Spain. Petrarch’s Triumphs does not appear in Don Tomás’s inventory. The discovery that the funerary scene behind the personification of Death was taken from Antonio de Obregón’s 1541 edition indicates that Don Tomás very probably did own a banned copy of the Triumphs.

A survey of contemporary mural paintings in monasteries near Puebla revealed examples of the triumphal motif. The study of drama and procession in Europe and New Spain yielded an important discovery: the analogies between the Triumphs in the Casa del Deán and the contemporary religious plays performed in Nahuatl. As noted, the similarities indicate the pervasiveness of humanist Christian themes, especially as they were transmitted by public display. The Triumphs were not restricted to the walls of an urban palace, to be viewed and discussed by a small elite circle. They were also dramatized by and for the newly converted Christians in Mexico.

Evidence indicates that this mural cycle in a place quite remote from the art centers of Europe includes images that are missing from the European canon. I argue that the representation of the Triumph of Eternity could be a visual bridge between early renditions of the Triumph of Divinity and Peter Paul Rubens’s Triumph of the Eucharist. It is also possible to identify several prints used as sources for mural paintings as the work of Francesco Rosselli and to reveal the significant influence that his late fifteenth century prints had on the art of the Renaissance.

Interspersed among the Triumphs are other narratives. In one series of images, a castle or walled town appears as the central feature, with groups of men and women involved in various activities. Between the Triumphs of Time and Death in the northeast corner is a wilderness scene inhabited by a Wild Man (salvaje). Nearby a monkey satyr sits atop a knoll, strumming a vihuela or guitar (fig. I.9). In chapter 6 these two mythic creatures are compared to depictions of salvajes in other sixteenth-century contexts in order to illuminate their meaning, especially as it might touch upon the relationship between the conquerors and the people they encountered in the New World.

The subject of chapter 7 is the analysis of the anthropomorphic animals displayed in cartouches in the rinceaux above and below the Triumphs (fig. I.10). Pre-Columbian imagery is especially evident in this portion of the mural cycle. The animals are emblematic references from the distant past, depicted in a form of writing and manner of expression that the artists learned in the calmecac. The representation of the animals reveals the impact that interaction among trade partners along alliance corridors had on indigenous art in the Tlaxcala-Puebla region before the conquest. In this context it seems probable that the influence from the Maya region on the depiction of the animals could have resulted from centuries of commercial and cultural exchange between southern and central Mesoamerica. The artists retained their cultural and artistic traditions so deeply rooted that even the years spent learning to paint in the European manner could not eradicate them. Both the Franciscans who taught them and the cathedral dean who was their patron seem to have appreciated their artistic response to Christianization.

The book ends with a discussion of the now-destroyed third mural. Photographed under duress at the very moment of their destruction, these paintings have been tentatively identified by Castro Morales as representations of the zodiac and the personifications of the planets. The depiction of the cosmos as it was known during Don Tomás’s lifetime provides an opportunity for a review of the overarching theme and of the intellectual vision of the patron.

Technique and Condition of the Murals

According to Fernando Ramírez Osorio, one of the restorers in 1955, the mural technique was not fresco but al temple (tempera painting). The wall was coated with a whitewash made with marble dust and a small amount of fine sand. The wash was very transparent so that the white of the base gave light and brightened the colors.

The pigments were metal oxides and organic compounds, the latter more likely to fade over time in the light. The agglutinate added to the pigments could have been cola de conejo, a resin-like substance extracted from a rabbit’s coat that acts as an adhesive. This gel also provided tension to the surface, creating a tight bond that produced the appearance of true fresco. The paintings done in this manner before and after the conquest were often burnished with a stone to create a high gloss.

Ramírez Osorio believes that the paintings were covered over with layers of whitewash when a simpler style came in vogue. In 1954, when the whitewash was removed, it was discovered that the colors had lost some transparency but the paint remained. At this time, several artists produced tracings of the paintings, including Desiderio Xochitiotzin, Elias Juárez, and Fernando Ramírez Osorio. The cleaning was done with much care to remove the whitewash from the pores in the wall without damaging the mural painting itself. Ramírez Osorio was emphatic that no changes were made during the restoration and that the artists attempted to maintain the integrity of the murals’ style and general appearance. For example, portions of the landscape in the northeast corner of the salon appear to have been painted in the twentieth century. Fragments of the sixteenth-century mural are still visible and contrast with the balloon-shaped trees.

In 2010 specialists from the Programa Nacional de Conservación de Pintura Mural, a division of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), restored and stabilized the Casa del Deán murals. The funding for the restoration was provided by INAH and augmented with a donation from UNESCO. The coordinator of the work was Agustín Espinosa Chávez, along with twelve technicians. Using ultraviolet photographs, Espinosa Chávez and his team were able to discern the over-painting that was part of the 1955 restoration. They took note of the sections of the murals that had been demolished over the years and portions that were repaired and repainted in 1955. Espinosa Chávez estimates that about 40 percent of the original mural cycle is no longer extant. The restorers also discovered that the murals were not completely painted al temple, although differences in technique may simply result from the 1955 restoration. The decision was made to clean the murals and, where necessary, retain the 1955 intervention. When the technicians reconstructed details in the mural paintings, they used pointillism (dots of color) to distinguish the work of 2010 from the original.


The formal rooms in the Casa del Deán, decorated with an elaborately conceived mural cycle, served several functions, including their use as a gentleman’s collector’s cabinet, where Don Tomás would have entertained friends, members of the Cabildo, and visiting dignitaries. The mural paintings, discovered beneath wallpaper and whitewash after more than four hundred years, are dominated by themes reflective of Don Tomás’s life in Oaxaca and as dean in Puebla.

The metaphorical images, which are interpreted in the chapters of this book, represent Don Tomás’s intense faith, his commitment to obedience and to family, and his ministry to the European and Amerindian members of his flock. The sibyls prophesy the virgin birth and events in the life of Christ on earth, most importantly, the conquest of death through his Resurrection. I argue that the central theme of the Salon of the Sibyls is the metaphorical light of divine presence. Light signifies the power of faith and the promise of salvation, which illumines the darkness that represents sin and death.

The prophecies of the sibyls and the words of the Old Testament prophets imply a divine scheme revealed not only to the Jews but to the worshippers of the pagan gods as well. Like the pagan believers, the indigenous people of New Spain accepted the Messiah and the promise of redemption. And it is this promise that is fulfilled in the Triumph of the Church. In the Salon of the Triumphs, the unity of Christ and the Mater Ecclesia is built upon the central sacramental responsibilities of the church: the administering of Holy Baptism and the ongoing celebration of Christ’s sacrifice in the Holy Eucharist. As the only true agent of redemptive grace, the Church Triumphant appears in the Casa del Deán mural as the Queen of Heaven in the synthetic image of the Triumph of Eternity.

Among the unique aspects of the mural cycle is the group of miniature human figures bathing in the river in the Salon of the Sibyls, a contemporary depiction of Amerindian everyday life. The appearance of the Franciscan rope motif in the Casa del Deán and the similarity in style to the murals at San Martín in Huaquechula indicate that the Amerindian artists were trained in a Franciscan monastery near Puebla, possibly with Fray Juan de Alameda. The discovery of documents placing Alameda and Fray Diego de Valadés in Huejotzingo is significant, because their presence at that time in the Tlaxcala-Puebla region had been a matter of conjecture. It seems likely that Alameda, perhaps influenced by Valadés, could have trained a group of elite students in the art of mural painting in Huejotzingo and then supervised their work on the murals at Huaquechula. It will also be hypothesized that the indigenous imagery in the mural paintings emerged from the artists’ cultural heritage in the Tlaxcala-Puebla region and had already taken on Christian meanings. The artists were previously trained as tlacuilos and continued to maintain aspects of their cultural and artistic past. The census of Huejotzingo includes tlacuilos who were specifically named as active in the second half of the sixteenth century.

The technical and aesthetic qualities of the frescoes, the successful representation of perspective and foreshortening, and the coexistence of indigenous and European iconographic elements indicate a mutual respect in the collaboration between Don Tomás and the Master of the Sibyls with his team. Don Tomás’s interaction with the indigenous artists is all the more noteworthy in that the personification of Eternity/Ecclesia was given the face of an Amerindian (fig. I.11). In a complex dialogue that resulted in the works of art in the Casa del Deán, the indigenous painters retained aspects of their past, and their contributions remain tangible. Don Tomás de la Plaza, a priest fluent in Nahuatl and Mixtec, a cathedral dean, and gentleman scholar, visualized the meaning of his vocation in the murals he commissioned: the sibyls prophesied Christ's coming to pagan nonbelievers, just as Spanish clerics were introducing Christ the Savior to the people of the New World.



“Penny Morrill’s wonderful book The Casa del De an is a clearly written, well-researched, and beautifully illustrated monograph that studies one of the few remaining private mural cycles of sixteenth-century Mexico. It is at once a depressing tale of the murals’ partial destruction in the twentieth century due to local disregard for Mexico’s patrimony as well as a gripping and surprising account of the history of their creation and significance.”
Renaissance Quarterly

“These images are striking, and collecting them together within the covers of a book is a contribution to colonial visual culture. Penny Morrill has done an exemplary job of tracking down primary materials that contextualize the murals and filling out our understanding of the patron, Don Tomás de la Plaza, the artist(s), and the sources and meanings of the murals’ iconography. . . . She has done a laudable job of examining the programmatic whole: that is, the way in which the murals complement one another to communicate a Christian message with humanist (neo-Platonic) imagery.”
Jeanette Favrot Peterson, Professor of Art and Architectural History at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and author of Visualizing Guadalupe: From Black Madonna to Queen of the Americas