The lost sculptures of the temple of Huitzilopochtli

How Mateos, an indigenous painter, for fear of inquisitorial punishment denounced the disappearance of some bundles with remains of sculptures of various gods.

The lost sculptures of the temple of Huitzilopochtli
Missing sculptures from the Temple of Huitzilopochtli. Image and text: AGN

Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the first bishop of Mexico and apostolic inquisitor, carried out several trials in New Spain against recently converted indigenous people. One of them occurred in 1539, in which Mateos, an indigenous painter, for fear of inquisitorial punishment denounced the disappearance of some bundles with remains of sculptures of various gods.

The taking of the mythical city of Tenochtitlán by the conquering troops of Hernán Cortés brought with it the rejection of everything related to the traditions and beliefs of the Aztec culture, especially the form of worship of their deities, which were demonized by the Catholic Church.

The natives were forced to renounce their beliefs to be evangelized and baptized by the Spanish friars, but there were those who, faithful to their roots, continued to worship their gods in secret, a situation that brought the presence of the Holy Office of the Inquisition to the recently called New Spain.

One of the main figures of the Inquisition was Fray Juan de Zumárraga, bishop and apostolic inquisitor, who was in charge of carrying out several trials against those who did not want to abide by the new rules imposed by the Church. One of his many trials took place in 1539, when a young indigenous tlacuilo (painter) baptized as Mateos, submerged in the fear of inquisitorial persecution, denounced the existence of some lost bundles with the remains of the sculptures of several gods that had been rescued after the destruction of the temple of Huitzilopochtli.

The young Mateos testified that his father had been a person very close to the emperor Moctezuma and in the years of the conquest had hidden and guarded the bundles in the lands of two caciques named Oquitzin and Tlilatzin, in the territory of Azcapotzalco. Sometime later, the caciques and their father were taken along with Cuauhtémoc on an expedition to what is now the territory of Honduras, where they were executed by the conquistador Hernán Cortés.

Before this event, Mateos and his brother Pedro were informed by an old man named Nahueca about the location of the wrappings and immediately moved them in a canoe to Tenochtitlán to shelter them in the house of a man named Puxtecatl Tlaylotla, who had already been baptized by the Catholics as Miguel Tlaylotla, where they performed a ritual of adoration, but after ten days the packages disappeared.

During the statement, Mateos was asked to elaborate a drawing with annotations in Nahuatl and Spanish in which he would capture the relationship between those involved, as well as the representation of the sculptures. Zumárraga, upon hearing the whole story, determined that the existence of those lumps was a great danger to the Catholic faith since the indigenous people would continue worshipping their gods and ordered Miguel Tlaylotla to be brought in immediately.

The inquisitors found an old man of squalid condition that immediately rejected the accusation, but the secretary of the Inquisition showed him the drawing made by Mateos, and before this Miguel declared to remember that the messengers had left him in their lands some lumps and that days later they had taken them.

Seven witnesses appeared and not a single proof of his guilt was found; however, Zumárraga ordered him to be accused of idolatry and to be punished by the torments of the Holy Office until he revealed the whereabouts of the bundles. Despite the tortures, Miguel always responded that he did not know where they were, but even so, the order was given to confine him in the convent of San Francisco. He was never heard from again.