E.L. Brito, Symbolism and Use of Maize in Pre-Hispanic and Colonial Religious Imagery in Mexico, e-conservation Journal 2, 2014, pp. 116-127
Available online 11 September 2014

Symbolism and Use of Maize in Pre-Hispanic and
Colonial Religious Imagery in Mexico

Eva Leticia Brito Benítez

Maize was a sacred element and the central point of the religiosity for pre-Columbian civilizations in Mexico. The Tarascos, an ancient culture that settled in the western region of Michoacán, manufactured images using parts of the maize plant to represent their gods. After the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century and the beginning of the evangelization of native people, the first bishop of Michoacán Vasco de Quiroga, promoted the birth of an inedited art creating Christian sculptures with the ancient manufacturing technique. This article presents an historical review of symbolism and use of maize in religious imagery in Mexico, during pre-Hispanic era and Colonial period. It emphasizes on the Mesoamerican cultural signification of the plant and on the meaning of syncretism, understood it as the amalgamation of the native religion and Catholic beliefs. It is important that the world is aware of the existence of a Mexican inedited art that represents a tangible example of the fusion between two distant cultures.

1. Introduction

Maize is a plant originally from America that belongs to the Phocaea family and the Zea genus which includes five species from Mexico and Central America. The Zea Mays species corresponds to the cultivated form, which is distributed nowadays on almost the entire Mexican soil. They are perennial, herbaceous, and robust plants that measure between one and four metres high, presenting a root from which a stalk springs in a cylindrical form and upright position, where long leaves are born. The fruits are edible, known as corn cobs or elotes, and consist of a core covered with rows of grains that can be yellow, purple, blue or white [1] (Figure 1).

The earliest evidence for domesticated maize was recovered from Guilá Naquitz Cave, in the southern Mexican State of Oaxaca, date to 4280 BC [2]. In Tehuacán, State of Puebla, remains of the cultivated plant dating from 3000 BC were also found [3]. These discoveries were made in the area known as Mesoamerica (Figure 2), which covers part of the actual Mexican and Central American territories (from Guatemala to Nicaragua), where groups with similar cultural characteristics inhabited before the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century. Maize was the basic product of the Mesoamerican food, together with squash, bean and chili [4]. Until today, it is still the central product of the diet of the majority of Mexican people.

Figure 1. Corn cobs or elotes. Photo by Eva Chaire.
Figure 2. Mesoamerica region.

Maize was not only the economic base of Mesoamerica but it also represented a fundamental point in its religiosity. It was treated with respect and humbleness because it was the sacred element with which the gods had created the “real man” after various failed attempts with other materials. The Earth was seen as a plain object with four corners oriented to the cardinal directions in a similar way to a corn field or milpa. Each of the agricultural calendar cycles implied a religious celebration related with fertility rituals. The gods of maize were represented in codex, mural paintings, ceramic vessels, stelas, and sculptures of different materials [5].

The pre-Hispanic Tarascan culture settled in Michoacán (AD 1200-1521), western region of Mexico, used parts of the maize plant to manufacture lightweight sculptures representing their deities, which could easily be transported by their priests to the battle fields [6]. It was the Mesoamerican symbolism of the plant and the technique invented by the Tarascan, the two factors that permitted the tangible production of gods with maize sacred essence.

After the discovery of America and the arrival of the Spaniards at the beginning of the 16th century, a new religion was imposed to the Mesoamerican cultures, although it did not have any significance to them. The missioners looked for symbolic elements in the pre-Hispanic iconography that could converge with the Catholic faith, so that the Indians could identify themselves with it. It was the first bishop of Michoacán, Don Vasco de Quiroga, who promoted the birth of an inedited art of Christian religious imagery applying the Tarascan manufacturing technique [7]. In a similar form as the ancient effigies were carried by the priests during wars, their lightness resulted ideal to load the new sculptures during the processions of the Holy Week and other festivities of the liturgical calendar. Although pre-Columbian images of this kind did not survive, Christian sculptures from the 16th to the 18th centuries still exist in Mexico.

This article presents an historical review of symbolism and use of maize in religious imagery in Mexico, during pre-Hispanic era and Colonial period. It begins with the topic of sculptural and pictorial representations of maize deities of some Mesoamerican cultural groups; the second point discusses the creation of Catholic effigies employing parts of the maize plant; later, the iconography of Christian images is treated; and finally the manufacturing techniques are briefly explained, since they have already been studied in depth. This works emphasizes the Mesoamerican cultural signification of the plant and on the meaning of syncretism, understood it as the amalgamation of the native religion and Catholic beliefs, and not only as the application of Indian procedures to create Christian images.

2. Pre-Hispanic Deities of Maize

The Mexicas or Aztecs, settled in the Central Altiplane of Mexican territory (AD 1325–1521), had a conjunction of feminine and masculine deities associated to maize (Figure 3). Coatlicue (coatl: serpent; cue: skirt) was the Náhuatl1 name of the goddess of the sustainment in general (of all that was eaten and drunk), and of maize in particular (Figure 4). Furthermore, there were specific manifestations for each one of the ages of the plant: Xilonen was “the one who lives like a tender corn cob”; Centeotl represented the deity of the ripe corn cobs; and Ilamatecihuatl was “the lady with the old skirt, old dry corn cob covered by yellow and wrinkled leaves” [8].

Figure 3 (left). Mexican masculine god of maize. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico. Photo by Eva Chaire.
Figure 4 (right). Coatlicue. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico. Photo by Eva Chaire.

The ancient Mayas of the peninsula of Yucatán, settled in southern region of Mexico (2000 BC – AD 1521), represented the deity of maize as an individual with human traits, masculine, young, and with an accentuated cranial deformation2. In some cases, leaves and grains of maize with the figure of the affix bil (growth), emanated from his head. In codex, the hieroglyphic that accompanies him is nal (maize) [5]. A polychrome ceramic plate found in the archeological zone of Calakmul, State of Campeche, from the Early Classic period (AD 250-600), shows the god with winged arms and dressed in underwear of jaguar skin (Figure 5). Although archaeological objects with representations of the god have been preserved, he is often identified by specialists as “God E” since it is  unknown with precision his Mayan name.

Tarascan culture (AD 1200-1521) worshiped a goddess named Xaratanga, lunar deity with feminine attributes tied to the agriculture fertility. Her name means “the one that shows something” or “the one that bears plants” which has been interpreted as “the supreme mother of nature”. She is identified as the wife of the god of the underworld, which demonstrates her relation with the subterranean world, a place where the seed germinates and life emanates from [9].

Besides the representations of the divinities  related with maize, the Tarascan also recreated those using constitutive materials of the same plant. The chronicle of the Franciscan friar Alonso de la Rea (1639), narrates that “[...] they are the inventors. Because they take the corn stalk and they take out the heart [...] and grinding it, a paste is made with a genus of glue that they call tatzingueni” [10]. They named tatzingueni to the mixture of orchid bulbs with a paste that was elaborated using the medulla of the corn stalk, to form a spongy mass with which they molded the body of the effigies.

The Relación de las Ceremonias y Ritos y Población y Gobierno de los Indios de la Provincia de Michoacán [6], a book written in 1541, shows that the Tarascan had lightweight sculptures elaborated with corn stalk that represented their gods and were taken to battles by priests called Tiuimencha (Figure 6). This way, the warriors would receive protection and motivation to triumph and, in case of defeated, they could flee carrying on their backs their deities so that they would not fall into enemy hands.

Figure 5 (left). Mayan plate with the god of maize. Exposition “Faces of the Divinity”, Fort of San Jose el Alto Museum, San Francisco de Campeche, State of Campeche. Photo by Eva Chaire.
Figure 6 (right). Tiuimencha loading on his back a sculpture of maize stack (originally published by M. Toussaint, La Relación de Michoacán, su importancia artística, Imprenta Universitaria, 1937, p. 9).

During the military formation at the battle, the priests responsible for the gods Caricaueri and Xaratanga were placed in front of a squadron of 400 men [11]. Caricaueri was the lord of the war who identified the enemy, and benefited his people with material bonanza and a place for women and their children. The material reward was related to food and this, at the same time, with Xaratanga, the goddess of vegetation and maize. The name Caricaueri can also be translated as “the one who comes out making fire” or “the fire that comes out burning”, alluding to the sun and giver of energy [9].

This couple, formed by a solar god from heaven and a lunar divinity that represented the underworld, symbolized the indispensable duality to guarantee the Cosmos dynamics: life and death, in order to achieve rebirth. It can be inferred that, even in defeat, the gods with maize heart guaranteed the rebirth of the warriors in a new life.

The images of Tarascan deities of maize stalk later disappeared. This was principally due to the fact that Spanish missioners destroyed and replaced them with new Christian figures. Another cause could be attributed to the biodegradation of its plant materials.

3. The Birth of an Inedited Art

In 1523, the friars of the Order of Saint Francis of Assisi arrived; in 1565 they organized the territories under their jurisdiction and Michoacán passed to form part of the Providence of the Apostles of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. In 1538, Vasco de Quiroga was named the first bishop of Michoacán and became the principal promoter of the creation of Christian imagery applying the Tarascan technique.

It is believed that the first work of this kind is a Marian figure created around 1540, representing the Immaculate Conception of Holy Virgin Mary, and whose author is considered to be an Indian named John, helped by a friar known as “the Italian”. The image was baptized as Health of the Sick and located in the Hospital of Saint Mary in the town of Pátzcuaro, the capital of the ancient Bishopric of Michoacán [12]. Great devotion surged among the natives for her, whom they related to Xaratanga, in accordance with an ancient legend that narrates the Virgin converted herself into a mermaid who lived at the bottom of the lakes as the pre-Hispanic goddess did. In 1750, the sculpture was mutilated for dressing, and it is still kept in the Basilica of Pátzcuaro and known as the Virgin of the Health [13] (Figure 7).

According to friar Alonso de la Rea [10], the bishop Vasco de Quiroga brought from Spain the artist Matias de la Cerda especially to manufacture Christian images according to the Tarascan procedure. It is believed that he installed his workshop at Pátzcuaro, that he married a native woman and gave birth to a son named Luis de la Cerda, who later took on his father craft.

Some authors, such as Xavier Moyssén [14],  sustain that there were other regions such as Querétaro and the Valley of Mexico where this type of effigies were produced. An example is the sculpture titled Virgin of the Pueblito (small town), dated 1632 and located in the convent of Querétaro, attributed to the Franciscan friar Sebastian Gallegos, who proceeded from the Province of the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul of Michoacán.

The Catholic sculptures of maize stalk principally incarnated Jesus, central figure of the Christian doctrine that confirms to the believers the existence of a supreme being, and serves as the intermediary between his father and men. Other personalities were also represented, such as the Virgin Mary and the Wise Men, although in less proportion [15].

4. Iconography of Christian Sculptures

The Renaissance predominant features of the images of Jesus Christ on the 16th century, such as the expressions of serenity, calm and nobility, dignified the pain that is manifested as a simple insinuation of their wounds. The bodies are known as “clean” since they lack blood because the evangelizers could not show a god crucified by men while they demanded the natives to abandon their human sacrifice practices. They commonly have eyes closed, for which they are also known as “sleeping Christs” [16]. An anonymous image of Jesus Christ with these characteristics is located in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico (Figure 8).

Figure 7 (left). Virgin of the Health, Basilica of Pátzcuaro, State of Michoacán. Photo used with permission.
Figure 8 (right). “Sleeping Christ” with “clean” body (16th century), Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico. Photo by Eva Chaire.

The 17th century had as their maximum exponent Luis de la Cerda who, unlike his father, lived in a society in which cross-breeding proliferated and the Baroque style was in heyday, giving birth to the “mexicanization” of the Christian figures. Their primordial objective was to show the torment of the crucified with an exaggerated realism that reached the point of cruelty; they were characterized by a corporal disproportion that exalted his suffering. The facial features lose the expression of calm and serenity to give way to a torturous agony. The skin is overwhelmed with scars and bruises from which gush forth abundant blood, reason of why they are usually named “bloody Christs” [17]. An example of this is the Holy Christ of the Conquerors, an anonymous piece from early 17th century, elaborated with maize stalk paste, polychrome and with shell incrustations (Figure 9), located at the Chapel of the Holy Christ and the Relics of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico.

In the 18th century, the elaboration of Christian figures decreased but examples from this period have been preserved, such as the Lord of Cocoa, anonymous image realized with maize stalk paste, polychrome (now repainted), with natural hair and eyebrows. It is possible to appreciate it as an exempt sculpture (Figure 10), located at the Chapel of Saint Joseph of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico. Since the last century, the technique was retaken to elaborate small pieces with tourist sale goals.

Figure 9 (left). Holy Christ of the Conquerors (17th century), Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico. Photo by Eva Chaire.
Figure 10 (right). The Lord of Cocoa (18th century), Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico. Photo by Eva Chaire.

5. Manufacturing Techniques

None of the Colonial chronicles that mentioned the existence of Christian sculptures of maize stalk described with precision its making procedure. The images analysis were initiated by the Mexican specialists Julian Bonavit (1947) [17] and Abelardo Carrillo y Gariel (1949) [18], and followed by Salvador Cruz (1967) [19], Luis E. Orozco (1970) [20] and Enrique Luft (1972) [21]. Their results showed that there were different manufacturing techniques and a variety of materials employed besides parts of the maize plant. In 1975 also Andrés Estrada made an important contribution with the first national inventory of this kind of images [16]. Research in historical topics, manufacturing techniques, degradation processes and restoration treatments have been developed by several specialists [22-30].

The results allow us to classify and understand the characteristics of the principal making procedures which are briefly explained as follows.

5.1. Sculptures with Core

From the waist up the skeleton was made with long fibers of maize stalk with a genus of glue that Tarascan called tatzingue. The bottom part was elaborated with a fragment of floral stems of pita3, to which other portions of the same material destined to form the core of the base were added. Over the frame, a coat of medulla of the same stalk was extended that served to give the complete body of the figure. The finishing consisted of a coat of chalk colored on the surface. It is believed that the image named Lord of Collateral (Figure 12) of Acaxochitlán, State of Hidalgo, was made with this technique. The sculpture is located at the collateral altar of the Parish of Assumption of Virgin Mary of the town; its exact date is unknown but it is considered to belong to the 16th century [31].

Figure 11 (left). Jesus Christ (17th century), Museum of Ex-Convent of Acolman, State of Mexico. Photo by Eva Chaire.
Figure 12 (right). Lord of Collateral (probably 16th century), Parish of Assumption of Virgin Mary, Acaxochitlán, State of Hidalgo. Photo by L.F. López Monroy.

5.2. Images without Core

These are images constructed with stalks that are accommodated vertically, forming a great analogous bunch, glued together to a piece of wood without gaps. The cutting and the final molding were done coating and pressing the stalks until the desired form was attained, and finally the embodiment and the pictorial coat were applied.

5.3. Effigies with Core of Maize Leaves

Firstly a core of dry leaves of the plant was formed, and then they were tied together by means of a string of pita, giving the approximated form of a human skeleton. For the extremities, the feathers of guajolotes4 were used, which were twisted to mold the palms of the hands; the articulations were reinforced using thin strips of cotton cloth or pita. Over this skeleton, a coat of maize stalk paste was applied and with which the human body was sculptured, and on top, as a sort of stucco layer, a rough coat of chalk known as ticatlali was applied. The skin color was achieved with a tint and a final shine was given with some drying vegetable oil. To simulate blood, retouchings were given with cochineal and carbon black pigments, as for the hair and beard, although in occasions natural hair was also applied.

As an example of the use of maize leaves, there is an anonymous Christian image of the early 17th century (Figure 11) kept in one of the museum cellars of the Ex-Convent of Acolman, State of Mexico. It was restored in 1990 by Calderón and Monteforte [24] who detected maize leaves in one broken arm.

5.4. Sculptures Exempted

These correspond to the “hallow Christs”. The frames are made with one or several glued sheets of paper, which can be of European (cotton or linen) or Mexican (amate5) origin. The sheets were manipulated fresh in order to form the thoracic cavity, legs, arms and head. Over the skeleton, a paste of maize stalk was applied to model the figure and over it the final polychrome was applied.

Independently of the applied technique there can be variations: the internal gaps increase or decrease in the images, the extremities and head can be made of stalk or wood, and the gauze of the same paste or textile superimposed, and it can be presence or absence of paper. Some images were also complemented with crystal eyes and tears, porcelain or ebony teeth, human nails, lashes and hair, and metallic ornaments.

6. Conclusions

Maize had a very important cultural significance in Mesoamerica: it was the central point of religiosity and a sacred plant used to create sculptural representations of the gods. The Catholic religion was imposed by the Spanish conquerors and the ancient deities of maize stalk were replaced with unknown images. However, the essence of the heathen divinities did not disappear, it survived through the maize employed to sculpt the heart and corps of Jesus, the son of a new god, who was made as a human being the same way the Mesoamerican man was modeled by his creators with the sacred plant.

The devotional images of maize stalk that have been preserved in Mexico are a clear expression of religious syncretism, something that should not be simply interpreted as the result of the union of a pre-Hispanic manufacturing technique with Christian symbols. Beyond that, it must be understood as the amalgamation of different religious beliefs as a consequence of a particular historical process and the cultural dynamics.

It is important that the world is aware of the existence of a Mexican inedited art that represents a tangible example of the fusion between two distant cultures, art that have survived for almost 500 years and continue to do so until today.

1 Náhuatl is the native tongue that was spoken by the Mexicas or Aztecs and it still continues to be spoken in several regions of Mexico.
2 Cultural practice of intentional skull deformation performed by the Mayan and other Mesoamerican groups such as the Mexicas.
3 Pita is a perennial plant with a light green colour that belongs to the Amaryllidaceae family, and it is native from Mexico. It has radical leaves, fleshy stalks and spines on the edge and tip; 15 to 20 centimetres wide at the base and up to 3 metres in length.

4 Word of Indian descent assigned to a specific category of turkey belonging to the Phasianidae family.
5 Amate is a tree of the Moraceae family, abundant in warm regions of Mexico. It was used to make a kind of paper commonly employed in pre-Hispanic codices.

7. Acknowledgements

Thanks to Eva Chaire and Luis Felipe López Monroy, for the usage and publishing permission of the images of their authorship; and to Mónica Garduño for image editing.

8. References

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[2] D. R. Piperno, K. V. Flannery, The earliest archaeological maize (Zea mays L.) from highland Mexico: New accelerator mass spectometry dates and the implications, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 98(4), 2001, pp. 2101-2103, doi: 10.1073/pnas.98.4.2101

[3] E. Vela, Breve historia, Arqueología Mexicana, Edición Especial 38, 2011, pp. 10-27
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[18] A. Carrillo y Gariel, El Cristo de Mexilcatzingo. Técnicas de las esculturas de caña, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México, 1949

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[31] R. F. Ponce, Estructuras sociales, religión y poder. Estudio comparativo entre México y España, Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 2012

Eva Leticia Brito Benítez
Cultural Heritage Researcher
National Institute of Antropology and History (Mexico)
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Eva received degrees in Restoration of Movable Cultural Heritage from Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museografía "Manuel del Castillo Negrete" and from Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), Mexico. She also holds a doctorate in Mesoamerican Studies from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), Mexico. She has been a teacher at INAH, Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museografía, and Diocesan Seminary of Campeche, in Mexico, as well as at the Universidad de la Laguna, Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain.