Anthony Meyer

The Givers of Things: Tlamacazqueh and the Art of Religious Making in the Mexica and Early Transatlantic Worlds

Adviser: Stella Nair

  • 2023
  • UCLA

When Iberians invaded the American mainland in 1519, they encountered an empire that rivaled their own. This empire—led by the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica—covered an impressive and diverse landscape across the Valley of Mexico, from the Pacific to the Atlantic Coast. The well-spun thread that kept these communities together was a state religion, developed and maintained by the Mexica, and at the loom of this imperial tapestry were religious leaders known as tlamacazqueh, or “the givers of things.” Sixteenth-century Iberian authors obscured these figures and their artistic practices, while scholarship has dismissed them in favor of better-known state artisans outside the religious sphere. Through an analysis of Mexica art, archaeological sites, and early colonial Nahuatl texts, this dissertation reclaims the role of making in Nahua religion and situates the tlamacazqueh as skilled makers with artistic knowledge.

The tlamacazqueh mastered techniques that helped them to create sacred artworks that drew on the bodily senses and thus animated Nahua religion. As I argue in this dissertation, these skills were part of a Nahua concept of artistry called tōltēcayōtl. In individual chapters, I explore the spaces where these religious leaders learned (īxtlamachtiā) their skills; the ways in which they cut (tequi) materials and created new forms with flint knives; how they molded doughs and folded fig bark to place (tlāliā) and present sacred energies; and how they wrapped (quimiloā, ilpiā) sacred art with smoke and woven fibers to create surfaces that could perceive. Therein, I explore the relationships between these Nahua makers and their made things to complicate Euro-American frameworks of animacy and personhood, while also centering the networks and knowledge that constellated around these individuals.

Since religious leaders and their practices did not suddenly vanish once the Mexica Empire had fallen to Iberian invaders in 1521, this dissertation also charts the tlamacazqueh and their artistic skills as they transformed alongside Europeans, Africans, and other Indigenous groups in the transatlantic world of sixteenth-century New Spain. In fact, religious leaders took drastic measures to protect sacred artworks in the fallout of war, and in the early years of Iberian occupation, they took on new roles as community mediators and practitioners who maintained their sacred and artistic knowledge. By straddling these pre- and post-Invasion worlds, I shed light on how religious leaders disseminated, presented, performed, and essentially made two imperial religions: one Mexica and the other Ibero-Christian.