Friday, April 20, 2018

Tlaxcala Part 8 of 11: The Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions

A weaver operates a 16th century-style loom at the Museo de Artes y Tradiciones Populares. In this posting, we return to Tlaxcala from our visit to the ancient ruins of Cantona. The museum contains more than 3000 pieces of popular art dating from colonial times to the modern era, as well as some reproductions of pre-hispanic craftsmanship. All this is displayed in the old Governor's Office, built in 1950 and turned into a museum in 1986. In this posting are just a few samples of the multitude of fascinating items on display. The Museo de Artes y Tradiciones Populares has become one of the biggest attractions in the city of Tlaxcala. To locate it on a Google map, click here.


Large, beautifully decorated tibors are displayed near the museum's entrance. Tibors are vases traditionally used for storage. After glazing with a white background, they are painted in the talavera style, using a variety of colors and naturalistic designs.

A couple of tibors stand next to bowls painted in a similar style. While Tlaxcala is not one of the major pottery centers in Mexico, what is produced here is of high quality. Much of comes from small, outlying towns which specialize in particular types of ceramics. In addition to talavera, which originated in the 16th century, some local potters also use pre-hispanic styles, employing ancient methods rather than potter's wheels.

A pitcher and matching wash basin hark back to an earlier age. It was not that long ago when even wealthy homes had no running water. In those days, a set like this would have stood near a dressing table in a bedroom.

Ancient and modern musical instruments

Reproduction of an Aztec-style drum called a teponaztli. The instrument is a horizontal slit-drum made from a hollow, hard-wood log. Slits are cut in the top of the log in the shape of an H. The tongues thus created are struck with rubber-headed mallets or deer antlers. Teponaztli were usually covered with relief carvings on their sides and ends. Human or animal faces were often part of the decoration. In order to increase the volume, either the bottom or one end of the log is left open. The teponazoani (drummer) played his instrument as an accompaniment for dances, poetry, and celebrations. Teponaztli were also used by military leaders as communication devices during battles. The instrument was considered so sacred that the blood of sacrifice victims was sometimes poured into it.

Reproduction of an upright skin-drum called a huehuetl. These drums, made from hollow tree trunks, are played with either mallets or using the hands directly. While the top of the huehuetl is covered with skin of an ocelot, the bottom is open and stands on three legs. The Tarascan Empire, the Aztecs' great rival, also used this kind of drum. It was especially popular for warrior gatherings. Notice the Jaguar Warrior carved and painted on the side. Teponaztli and huehuetl are often played together. The two drums were believed to embody the spirits of two different gods who had each been banished to earth

Also displayed were a variety of traditional stringed instruments. Stringed instruments did not exist in Mesoamerica until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. At the bottom are two guitars and a mandolin, with a pair of lap harps above them. All are made from cedar and come from the town of Calpulalpan on Tlaxcala's western border with the State of Mexico.

Indigenous costumes

Dance costume of an indigenous dancer featuring an elaborate, feathered headdress. The headdress, called a penacho, was made with the feathers of a variety of birds. While the headdress approximates an original, ancient penacho, the rest of the costume is clearly influenced by styles and materials introduced by the Spanish.

Costume of a Spaniard, as seen through indigenous eyes. Note the crossed ribbons on the chest, which resemble the straps associated with a military uniform of the colonial or early national period. In the mannequin's right hand is a gold-colored whip. The native craftsperson uses the outlandish hat to poke fun, but also makes a rather sinister statement about Spaniards with the rest of the costume.

Costume from the Dance of the Moors and Christians. This ancient dance celebrates the victory of the Spanish Christians over the Moors in 1492, marking the end of the 700-year-long struggle known as La Reconquista (the Reconquest). That same year, Christopher Columbus hung around the Christian army camp outside Granada, waiting for the Moors to surrender. He desperately wanted to gain an audience with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella so he could propose his Atlantic voyage. The Spanish later incorporated many of the practices and strategies developed during of La Reconquista in their conquest of the New World.

Religious statues from the 18th century

Religious statues carved in the 18th century for display in colonial churches. On the left is San Pedro Apóstol (the Apostle Peter), one of the original twelve apostles as well as the first pope. In the center is San Miguel Arcángel, el Niño (Archangel Michael as a child). San Miguel was the general of God's armies in the struggle against Satan. On the right is San Antonio de Padua (1195-1231 AD). He was a Portuguese Augustinian friar who later became a Franciscan because he was attracted to their simplicity and poverty. His great knowledge of Christian doctrine and ability as a preacher led the Church to designate him as one of a handful of Doctors of the Church.

Virgen de Guadalupe, guarded by angels on either side.  The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron of Mexico, and particularly of the poor and indigenous people. She was the first apparition of the Virgin Mary to be encountered in the New World. However, she was not widely accepted as a legitimate figure of veneration for nearly a century. She first appeared to an indigenous man named Juan Diego in the ruins of a temple to Tonantzin, the Aztec Earth Mother. Juan Diego reported to Catholic authorities that she was dark-skinned, and she spoke Nahuatl, the language of the recently conquered Aztecs. All this led to an intense dispute between the Franciscans on one side and the Dominicans and Augustinians on the other. The Franciscans thought it was all a scam to allow the natives to continue "devil worship". The other Orders adopted a more practical stance, noting that hordes of new converts appeared wherever she was venerated. In the end, practicality won.


The museum doesn't just display finished works of popular art. This foot-pedal loom, built in the fashion of those brought over by the Spanish after the Conquest, is fully functional and capable of producing beautiful textile designs. Tlaxcala has a long history of textile production, dating far back into pre-hispanic times. Before Spanish looms, the indigenous people used simple, but effective back-strap looms. Devices were held in place by a strap around the back of the weaver, with the other end of the loom attached to a stationary vertical object like a tree. Such looms are still used in Mexico.

Finished product of a foot-pedal loom. I was impressed by the close weave of this lovely piece of textile art. Pre-hispanic Tlaxcalan weavers favored cotton, but it had to be imported from the coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico and thus was expensive. So, fibers from other plants such as maguey, yucca, and sisal were also employed. However, these fibers are much rougher than cotton and therefore less comfortable in the tilmas (cloaks) used by pre-hispanic people. When the Spanish arrived, they introduced wool and silk, to which native weavers readily adapted. 

Textile piece showing birds and other animals, produced by an Otomi weaver. The Otomis are an indigenous group who have maintained much of their pre-hispanic culture. Their homeland is in the states of Hidalgo and Querétaro, north of Mexico City. Indigenous weavers often use scenes from the natural world, as well as abstract designs such as the diamond and zig zag patterns seen previously. 

Another textile using indigenous themes. This long, narrow piece of Otomi textile contains a deer, a bird, and what may be a coyote, as well as stars and plants. 

Indigenous Masks

Mask-making is another craft with deep pre-hispanic roots. In the photo above you can see the different stages of mask production, as well as some of the tools used in the process. Such masks are used in the innumerable indigenous dances still held all over Mexico. The ones above are of pink-skinned and bearded Spaniards. Such masks were often used in dances during which native people subtly mocked their unsuspecting overlords. 

The gold tooth on this mask is meant to portray a person of wealth. Notice the eyeholes in the eyebrows, which allow the dancer to see while wearing the mask. 

Miscellaneous craftsmanship

Necklace of red beads and Mexican coins. The coins were minted before the currency was changed in appearance and valuation in the 1994. While they are no longer in circulation, some of the old coins are beautifully designed and make striking jewelry.

Items made from twigs, straw, and natural fiber. Two of the pieces above are made in the form of chapels, while others are formed into whisk brooms and a sash.

These canes were made by two artisans from the town of San Estaban Tizatlán Jamie García Padilla and Raymundo Paredes Sánchez carved and painted a variety of designs on the canes. Three of the handles end in snake heads.

Stone mortars and pestles carved in the shapes of burros and a bird. Devices like this have a long history, going back as far as 35,000 years in some parts of the world. In Mexico, they are called molcajetes. Similar food grinding devices have been found in Mesoamerican sites many thousands of years old. They were used for grinding ingredients such as seeds and other plant material for food and medicinal purposes. Despite their antiquity, the mortar and pestle are still basic tools found in many modern kitchens. 

This beautiful leather saddle highlights Tlaxcala's ranch culture. Ranching came early in Mexico, starting in the 16th century when the Spanish imported cattle into colonial New Spain. Vast herds were driven hundreds of miles to provide meat and leather for the silver mines and the burgeoning cities that serviced them. All of the basic tools and practices of the cowboy culture had been perfected by Mexican vaqueros at least 200 years before the first American cowboy pulled on his spurs. 

This completes Part 8 of my Tlaxcala series. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts and questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

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