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The Battle Friezes 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 in the 16th century murals at the Augustinian monastery of Ixmiquilpan, a sequence of polychrome frescoes unique in Mexican mural art.

Just inside the west door of the church, beneath the vaulted choir, fragmentary murals show Eagle and Jaguar warriors engaged in dialogue with Aztec speech scrolls.

An astonishing sequence of battle murals then unfolds in enormous friezes that stretch from the underchoir along both sides of the nave. Eagle, jaguar and coyote warriors dressed in pelts, foliated robes and plumed helmets engage in a series of violent confrontations, 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 centaurs and 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 overt example of pre-hispanic pictorial 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.

To give some idea of the range of subjects and their treatment, shown below are small scale pictures of several of the surviving battle frescoes, formerly whitewashed over and only uncovered in the mid-1900s:

 

1. Underchoir & battle frieze

 

2. Battle frieze 2

   

3. Battle frieze 3

 

4. Battle frieze detail

 

5. Centaur warrior

 

6. Coyote warrior

 

7. Warrior with shield and macana

 

8. Jaguar warrior

 

9. Warrior with flag & bow


* References:

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