Malinche and Cort\'es, 1519--1521: An iconographic study

Date of Completion

January 1994


History, European|History, Latin American|Art History




In 1519, Hernan Cortes sailed to Mexico from Cuba with a band of Spaniards and conquered the country, which was then under Aztec rule. Cortes wrote a chronicle of his conquest experiences, as did several of the Spanish conquerors and a number of Indian groups living in Mexico during the first generation under Spanish rule. One group of Indians in Mexico City, formerly the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, worked with the Dominican friar Bernardino de Sahagun to record their version of the conquest in Book XII of the Florentine Codex. They reported the tales of those who survived the war in numerous paintings, for which a text was eventually written.^ The Tlaxcalans, another group of Indians living in the highlands outside of Tenochtitlan, also made numerous paintings of their participation in the conquest war. These paintings, which survive in huge linen wall hangings, are known as El Lienzo de Tlaxcala. Since the Tlaxcalans assisted Cortes and the Spaniards in achieving victory, their view differs dramatically from those in the Aztec capital who suffered defeat.^ The paintings of these different vantage points of the conquest provide a rich source of historical information, largely untapped until now. Illustrations enhance the biography of Cortes, revealing his military genius in psychological warfare against the Aztecs and in creating a brigantine navy to fight on the lake surrounding Tenochtitlan, an island city. Paintings comprise the bulk of information known about Malinche, an Indian woman who was the translator and the mistress of Cortes. Although she is barely mentioned in narrative sources, she appears frequently in the pictorial record.^ The pictures establish Malinche's leadership in Cortes's expedition. She informed Cortes about the fissures in Aztec imperialism and perpetrated terror in the psychological warfare he waged against the empire. Malinche assisted Cortes in the imprisonment of the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma. During the Aztec uprising in Tenochtitlan and, later, when Cortes's army retreated to Tlaxcala, Malinche procured food and supplies for the expedition. During battle, she translated commands between the Spanish and Indian divisions of Cortes's army fighting on land and on the water. ^