Today it is commonplace to criticise imperialism and to defend native peoples from the barbarisms inflicted on them by their European invaders and conquerors. There is much truth in this, but it is not the whole story. I say this having just read the chapter on the Aztecs in the lavishly illustrated collection of art reviews, Exhibitionist, by Richard Dorment, former art critic of the Daily Telegraph for 30 years.
Dorment visited the Royal Academy exhibition on the Aztecs in November 2002, the same month as I did; thus I was interested to read his response. I concur completely with his comment, “If in the Aztec mentality there was any concept of love, tenderness, mercy or pity, it is not reflected in their art. Alone among the world cultures, Aztec art contains no representation of a mother with her child…”
Dorment describes the Aztec culture accurately as “an elaborate cult of death.” He reminds us that the “Aztec religion involved human sacrifice on an unimaginable scale. Their priests ritually offered to the gods the blood and hearts not only of the warriors captured in battle, but of their own people.” In practice, this meant ripping out the beating hearts of thousands of captives on bloodstained altars by fearsome witch-doctors, in regular horrible ceremonies.
However, I take issue with one comment Dorment makes, that “the religion brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquerors…was in its effects even crueller than that practised by the Aztecs”. “The religion” was Christianity. He does not elaborate but I assume he is referring to the violent treatment meted out by the conquistadores towards the native population. Brutal and exploitative it may often have been, but the Christian faith which these invaders brought with them is not remotely comparable to the diabolical death cult of the Aztec religion.
For a start, Franciscan missionaries accompanied the conquistadors. They worked tirelessly and selflessly to evangelise the indigenous peoples and to bring them those very concepts of “love, tenderness, mercy [and] pity” which Dorment noted was so conspicuously lacking in their own terrifying pagan and polytheistic world.
Cortes and his men arrived in the Aztec empire in November 1519. A mere 12 years later, in December 1531, Our Lady appeared in a vision to an Indian peasant, a baptised Christian by the name of Juan Diego on a hill named Tepeyac outside the city. At a stroke this apparition of the Mother of God, telling Juan Diego that she was his loving mother, brought a new dignity and status to the Aztec people.
Now known as Our Lady of Guadalupe, she has subsequently brought solace and hope to millions of Mexicans across the centuries. Doubtless the conquistadores fell far short of the Christian precept to love their (Indian) neighbours as themselves, but these Aztecs’ newfound faith, which released them from enslavement by their demonic gods, and which gave them a heavenly Mother of tenderness and compassion, brought true transformation to their lives.