In the sixteenth century a friar named Diego de Landa came to the Americas to convert the heathen to the Catholic faith. A man of culture and zeal, he entered the realm of the cinquecento Yucatan Maya and completed the first phase of his mission by laying waste to their art and books in a holocaust that was as profound as Caesar’s burning of the great library of Alexandria. Nude sculptures in basalt stone, temple frescoes of jaguars and dragons, sacred jade carvings, books filled with native hieroglyphics—all of these precious artifacts excited the interest of Fray de Landa, who offered them passionately to a giant fire built by his slaves. But the priest was a complex connoisseur, and watched the jade icons shatter, the codices curl and blacken, the frescoes fox and scorch with mixed pleasure. In some small holy region that remained in his heart, de Landa regretted the desolation of so much treasure. And this is why, while he annihilated the legacy of the Americas’ ancestors, he simultaneously recorded the Mayan language and described the vanquished Yucatan empire in his 1566 study, Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan (“The World of the Yucatan”). In that work de Landa writes almost lovingly about the gorgeous native churches, altars, archives, reliefs, and friezes that he burned to the ground. Even while he destroyed the architecture of that society he knew it was sublime.
Downtown Los Angeles, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, 2002.
When he saw the modest silver cross shining above the city, he thought he had found his way back home. He had traveled far, and now moving through the tangled, bright, antic machine of the metropolis, he pushed on, exhausted, toward that symbol of Christ until he reached the threshold of the cathedral. But as he descended onto the stone steps and gazed, weeping, up at the strange and wondrous palace of the Lord, he knew that this was no church—or at least that it was not like any church he had ever known.
He was—he had been—a man who strengthened his spirit with memories of the Vatican’s pure, white, gilded visage. The See’s glowing marble steps, Italian frescoes, shining colonnades, the gold-and-silver altar where Urban VII and Clement VII had dipped their hands into argent bowls of holy water and blessed oils—these reverent specters had kept his soul strong when he had found himself a sole believer in the dark bush of America, where no penitent kneeled before a Mary dressed in cloth of gold, where no votary of rank might pray inside a chapel royal made lavish with painted cloths, Flemish tapestries, crystal chalices.
Gliding up the steps, he passed into the plaza fronting the alien church, then moved to the center of a vast buff-color square, built entirely of humble stone and bordered by a garden composed of the palmy and tangled trees that were indigenous to this primitive place. Enclosing the plaza also were a series of glass windows etched with white winged angels, who flew in the air with their lustrous robes flowing and their outstretched arms reaching toward the heavens. Floating in this sand-tone space and greeted by these fabulous heavenly creatures, he felt like one of the Lord’s prophets in the desert, a St. Jerome made holy and half-mad by the purity of the Syrian dunes. He had always sought the comforts of rich and sumptuous chapels for his worships; he had never found God’s natural home in such foreign atmospheres as a barbarian desert or jungle.
A long time ago he had been vested with the duty of introducing Christ into that ragged realm, but discovered that its inhabitants were too distracted by their own vivid idols and temples to see His face in the labyrinth of vine-choked trees and prowling beasts. And so he had purged the jungle of all these bad arts. He bade his men to destroy the jade icons of the were-jaguar, the celestial dragon, and the various gods of indeterminate sex who ruled the stars and the oceans and the rain and the sun. He had torn the brilliant murals of Quetzalcoatl and Xochiteztal down from the savage chapels with his own hands and consigned them to the flames. He had burned hundreds of books. He had ripped the pagan poetry from their libraries and taught his flock how to say God’s name.
And what if these crafts had been lovely? What if they were made by artists of invention and genius? For he could admit that they were. The idols had been carved with the most delicate touch, the frescoes had been painted in dazzling colors, and the books were fllled with wondrous ciphers. But those luminous figures were dangerous to the pious eye. The jaguars with their gleaming fangs and the flower goddesses with their dusky miens tempted the dark regions of the soul. And the misshapen basalt-stone sculptures of deities seemed like terrifying revenants from a fiery and voluptuous hell. Only while praying inside the sublime churches of Madrid and before the marble effigies of Jacopo della Quercia at San Petronio could a penitent find holy inspiration.
So he fled the queer plaza and flew toward the cathedral to look for God. He entered the doorways of the church, where he was greeted overhead by a frieze dominated by a giant bronze effigy, a girl with closed eyes and outstretched hands. She was surrounded in gold, and was so large and beautiful she almost diverted him from his prayers. Yet hers was not the smooth beauty of the Mary whom he knew—or even the Magdalene—for there was a cast to her slanted features that resembled too much the faces he had seen in the bush; she was Christ’s mother, perhaps, or Dante’s Beatrice, but her high cheeks and tilted eyes revealed a taint in the blood he had never seen in Michelangelo’s or Titian’s sacred paintings.
He moved through the doors—these too were bronze, impressed with rugged if exquisite images of Mary in the attitude of prayer, and carved all about with words and runes he could not discern. He drifted through a second set of glass doors and into the great hallway, and again he was disturbed, for this was a long spare corridor made of the same sand rock. The polished floor gleamed in this cool and echoing passageway, which was nearly empty of all design, all ornaments, all gilded motifs. The low music of an unseen organ floated through the air; he heard whispers, children crying; people passed by and brushed his robes, but they did not notice him as he slipped noiselessly from the hall.
He entered into the great chapel and for the first time understood that he would never find here the God’s house that he had sought. Though it was magnificent. This giant bright cave, this tall luminous cavern, was hewn from that subtle rock and adorned here and there by arts that resembled those he had once both burned and mourned. A lush, pale light streamed into the room through windows built of opalescent stone; the pews were carved from the most modest of woods. Brass trumpets and round lamps dangled from the slatted ceiling. There were richly embroidered tapestries hung from the stone walls; they showed saints and savages praying together. Bronze cherubim also embellished the walls, and these had bizarre, cragged, magnificent gold wings.
The ghost moved past these visions, through a pool of light, until he finally saw the giant crucifix at the head of the church.
He drifted toward the deity.
This Christ, forged all of bronze and pierced to a plain white wood cross, was a rough and wild martyr. His body was bent and raw and red-brown, like the resplendent bodies of the idols sculpted by the Aztecs out of basalt and obsidian. The face of Jesus betrayed an indeterminate blood and had nearly a woman’s fairness. The crown of thorns circled the elegant, coarse head.
He could not help but be bewitched by so much beauty, even if it made him worry about who had won the holy war he had waged in the wilderness. Echoes of the divine and the pagan could be felt here, but the sun sifted down from the quartz windows like a blessing, and the outlandish images had been formed with such gentle skill. Now lonely, now dazzled, he bowed before God with a stormy heart and tried to touch the holy feet with his shaking hands.
He barely recognized Him.