The San Nicolás Tolentino temple of Actopan is one of the oldest churches on the American continent, constructed in 1548 in the decades that followed the Spanish conquest of Mexico. One of the highlights of visiting this timeworn former monastery is to see the extraordinary murals painted on its open chapel.
Across all European colonies, white settlers forbade Indigenous people from practicing their own spiritual practices and forced them to convert to Christianity. The open chapel was built to “serve” the local Indigenous communities, who would be crowded into the courtyard to listen to sermons. It was hoped they would be indoctrinated into the Christian worldview and become submissive colonial subjects.
At that time, the region was rife with rebellions and guerilla raids by Chichimeca tribes who resisted religious conversion and often targeted the monasteries, burning them down and killing the missionary priests. The Augustinian order in the early years of the colony of New Spain therefore had reasons to expect a similar uprising among the local Otomi tribes. In the hopes of staving off such a response, they set about their missionary work with a particular fanaticism.
Because the Indigenous peoples could not read and either spoke Spanish as a second language or, frequently, not at all, the murals were thought to be a particularly effective visual complement to the sermons. Various biblical scenes are depicted on the walls of the open chapel, including Adam and Eve being deceived by the serpent; Noah’s flood; the peace and tranquility of Heaven; the fires of Purgatory; and the brutal torments of Hell.
Certain details painted in the scenes of Hell make a direct reference to aspects of the pre-Christian Indigenous worldview. They include depictions of a pre-Colombian pyramid and figures clearly meant to portray Aztecs about to fall into the fires of Hell. Another curious detail is the jaws of a monster painted near a door leading to the interior of the cathedral. This image was presumably intended to make the attendees form a psychological association between the church and a safe haven from damnation.
Know Before You Go
To get to Actopan you can take a direct ovnibus from Mexico City (the Central del Norte terminal), which will take approximately an hour and a half to reach the town. The cathedral is located in the center of the town and is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.