A tableau made of feathers in 1539 by the Aztecs for the Franciscan monks in Mexico City, the most important work of the Musée des Jacobins in Auch, France, has been lent to the United States for one year.
It will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York beginning February 26, 2018.
This work, America’s oldest work of Christian art yet known, represents the miracle of the Mass of St. Gregory the Great (540-604). The story is told by the historian Paul Diacre, a Benedictine monk of Monte Cassino, in his Life of Blessed Pope Gregory written around the year 775. While the sovereign pontiff was celebrating Mass in the basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem in Rome, Christ appeared above the altar as the Man of Sorrows, surrounded by the instruments of the Passion, with blood streaming from his open side, before the eyes of the assembly, in which some doubted the Real Presence.
This combination of Aztec iconography and the techniques of Indian feather art representing a Catholic subject is a witness to the early days of the evangelization of Mexico by the Franciscans.
Cortès – far from the bloodthirsty conquistador many imagine – was very close to the Franciscans. He asked Charles V very early on to send Friars Minor to evangelize the populations and protect the Indians from slavery.
Pope Paul III (1534-1549) supported them, publishing in 1537 the Bull Sublimis Deus which forbade enslaving the natives. In a few short lines, the sovereign pontiff recalled the mission entrusted to the preachers of the Faith: that of teaching all nations (see Mt. 28:19). He denounced the agents of Satan seeking to hinder the preaching of the Word of God for the salvation of these peoples, who claimed
the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith.
On the contrary, declared the Farnèse Pope:
the Indians are truly men and they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it.
The head of the Catholic Church therefore declared and defined:
the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.
Indeed, like all other peoples, the Indians can only be “converted to the faith of Jesus Christ by preaching the word of God and by the example of good and holy living”, not by force or enslavement.
“Realized just two years after this Bull, the Mass of St. Gregory was probably meant to be sent to Rome in thanksgiving,” explained Fabien Ferrer-Joly, curator of the Musée des Jacobins in the city of Auch, which owns the work.