Zelia Nuttall and a Sixteenth-Century Mexican Painting by Jessica Stair, Ph.D. Candidate, History of Art Department UC Berkeley

The Hearst Museum recently came across a 1902 copy of a sixteenth-century lienzo painted by Genaro Blacio and commissioned by Zelia Nuttall in Mexico. The term lienzo refers to a genre of paintings on cloth produced during the colonial period in Mexico that were commonly used for recording history and boundaries. This large-scale painting on cloth, measuring 2.35 x 3.1 meters, was accessioned by the Hearst Museum in 1905 with three separate catalog numbers, implying that the painting had been cut into three pieces soon after its creation. The painting was later mounted on Masonite boards and remains in this condition today. The original lienzo after which the copy is made is known as the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan. It was painted in the 1530s and resides in the Museo Casa de Alfeñique in Puebla. 

The narrative depicted in the painting conveys the conquest of the K’iche and Kaqchikel Maya by a group of Nahua warriors and Spaniards in the 1520s. When Cortés defeated Tenochtitlan in 1521, he was aided by indigenous allies who were entitled to certain privileges for this aid after the conquest. This idea existed more in theory than in practice, as many legal documents created during the colonial period demanding those privileges attest. The people of prehispanic Mesoamerica operated in a city-state culture in which alliances and power relations were constantly shifting. Victors absorbed conquered communities into their existing power structures. These types of alliances were appealing to subjugated communities because they usually led to protection and advancement. During the first Spanish campaign into what is now Guatemala in 1524, the Spaniards enlisted the aid of Central Mexican indigenous allies, as well as African slaves.  The Lienzo de Quauhquechollan focuses on the period of 1527–1529 when Jorge de Alvarado launched massive campaigns into the region. 

The lienzo presents the alliance between the community of Quauhquechollan, which is located near present-day San Martín Huaquechula, Puebla and the Spanish conquistadors. The depictions follow central Mexican pictorial conventions, which use images to designate names of places, as well as interpersonal relationships and actions. After the alliance, the narrative shows the Quauhquecholteca and Spaniards passing through Central Mexico, conquering communities and gathering allies along the way. They pass into Maya territory, gather information from spies, witness a possible internal rebellion and later perform a ritual war dance. They establish an important settlement called Olintepeque and set up the military base of Chimaltenango from which they carry out several bloody campaigns into K’iche and Kaqchikel territories. 

The original lienzo is constructed from sixteen rectangular pieces of cotton cloth that are sewn together manually. The right portion of the painting was cut off prior to 1893, and we estimate that it was one-third larger than it is now. The Hearst copy is missing even more of the right portion of the painting than the original. Two other known copies are held at the Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico City.

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