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.
The open chapel was built to “serve” the local indigenous communities. They would be crowded into the courtyard to listen to the sermons of the friars and, it was hoped, be indoctrinated into the Christian worldview and become submissive colonial subjects.
At that time, the region was rife with indigenous rebellions and guerilla raids by Chichimeca tribes who resisted religious conversion and often targeted the monasteries with tremendous ferocity, burning them to the ground and murdering the priests. The Augustinian order in the early years of the colony of New Spain therefore had good reasons to be terrified by the prospect of a similar uprising occurring among the local Otomi tribes and set about indoctrinating the native communities with a particular fanaticism.
Because the indigenous peoples were illiterate 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.
Curiously, 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.