Staging Conversion in the New World

The conquering of the Mexican mainland by Hernán Cortés was accompanied by a systematic programme of conversion of the native peoples undertaken by the Catholic Church. This began in 1524 with the arrival of 12 Franciscan friars who self-concsciously styled themselves as the descendants of Christ’s 12 apostles. The theatrical nature of their efforts to convert the Aztecs began with Cortés’ initial greeting upon their arrival in Tenochtitlán (Mexico City). He kneeled to kiss their hands and garments, immediately signalling his subservience to the friars, a powerful image for the native peoples who had ascribed to Cortés the role of Quetzalcoátl, the feathered serpent god who had a close association with the Aztec priesthood. 

The Aztec religion placed great importance upon ritualised display and pageantry. Human sacrifices were often dressed up as gods and venerated prior to their execution and stories about the gods were reenacted at religious festivals. War itself was highly theatrical; there was a long exchange of verbal threats prior to the battle, soldiers wore elaborate costumes and fought with obsidian blades. The aim was not to vanquish enemies but to gain more human sacrifices which meant that very few people died on the field. During times of peace the need for sacrifices was so great that the Aztecs would engage in ‘flower wars’ with their enemies, where at an agreed time and place they would embark on war games with the sole intention of capturing more slaves to sacrifice.

The early missionaries exploited the Aztec association of belief with display and pageant in order to convert the indigenous population. As Adam Versényi notes ‘They [the friars] communicated in order to convert, and the method of communication was the theatre’. In 1558 Father Pedro de Gante employed native dancers and musicians in order to put on a festival of the birth of Christ, explaining:

‘…by the grace of God I began to get to know them and to understand their conditions and values. I saw that they showed their adoration for their gods by singing and dancing before them…Seeing this, knowing that I had to work among them, and realizing that all their songs were dedicated to their gods, I composed very solemn songs about God’s law…I also gave them marks of livery to paint on their mantas [painted shields used as tributes] so that they could dance with them…’

This process of cultural assimilation reached its apogee with the production of theatrical displays which incorporated baptism. As Aztec belief left open the possibility of actors taking on the attributes of the characters they represented (for instance in the case of the sacrificial victim venerated as a god), there was the potential for theatre to actualise conversion. John Gage an English priest who later converted to Protestantism, described in 1655 how native people who played parts in Franciscan dance-plays often thought they had taken on the characteristics of the figures they represented:

‘…he that acted Herod or Herodias….would afterwards come to confesse of that sin, and desire absolution from bloodguiltinesse.’

There are several examples of this theatrical liminality being used by the Franciscans to enact real conversions. Performances of the nativity of St. John the Baptist would begin with a mass and end with the baptism of an eight-day-old child named John. On a larger scale a performance of the Conquest of Jerusalem in Tlaxcala in 1543 resulted in the Indians playing the Turkish troops actually being baptised on stage: a fascinating incidence of Old and New World conversions being theatrically combined.

The staging of conversion/baptism in this manner has parallels to the public baptisms of Muslims in England and the public recantations of Christians who had turned Turk – both of which seem to have involved a kind of costume change and reminds us of the inherent theatricality of much religious display. Why is it though that conversion in particular seems to necessitate some form of public display, whether it be the publishing of a conversion narrative, or a recantation performed at Paul’s Cross? Is it because conversion carries with it no physical marks or tokens by which people may identify the convert? Does conversion have to be demonstrated to a community rather than held as an interior or private process?

The bulk of the material for this post, including the quotes from Gage and  Pedro de Gante was taken from Adam Versényi, Theatre in Latin America: Religion, Politics, and Culture from Cortés to the 1980s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 1-35

Meredith Hanmer, The baptizing of a Turke, A sermon preached at the Hospitall of Saint Katherin… (1586)

Edward Kellet, Retvrne from Argier. A Sermon Preached at Minhead in the County of Somerset the 16 March, 1627. at the admission of a relapsed Christian into our Chvrch (1628)

Many thanks to Rob Carson and Ingrid Keenan for drawing my attention to this material.


One thought on “Staging Conversion in the New World

  1. Those interested in the ways in which indigenous peoples of Central America dramatised the Christian story should have a look at two beautifully illustrated books by Jaime Lara, “City, Temple Stage” and “Christian Texts for Aztecs”

We are keen to hear your views on what we post here. Questions and comments are very welcome. And if there's something you think we should write about, leave a comment or send us an email (

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s