Fred R. Kline Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Recto / Verso




La Cruz de las Cuatro Flores:
A Rare World Tree Cross from Viceregal Mexico, circa 1535

Copyright ©2005, 2006, 2007 Fred R. Kline


The Appearance of the First Christian Crosses in Mexico

“Your Majesties must know that when the Captain [Cortes] told the chiefs in his first interview with them that they must no longer live in the pagan faith which they held, they begged him to acquaint them with the law under which they were henceforth to live.  The Captain accordingly informed them to the best of his ability in the Catholic faith, leaving them a Cross.” [ Bernal Diaz writes that Cortes then had the ships’ carpenter make these first crosses of wood, and set them firm before the pagan temples.  1 ]

The Council of the Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz in a letter to the King and Queen of Spain
Vera Cruz,  Mexico, 1520


“Throughout this land the symbol of the Cross is so exalted, in all the towns and along all the roads, that they say there is no other part of Christendom which so exalts it, nor where there are so many and so fine and such lofty Crosses; and especially noble are those of the churchyards, which every Sunday and feast day they adorn with roses and flowers and bowers and garlands…” [1]

Fray Toribio de Benavente Motolinia, Mendicant Friar, Mexico, circa 1540


The First Transformation of the Christian Cross

“Perhaps the most dramatic example of this transformation [of the ancient Mesoamerican religion] is embodied in the Maya’s adaptation of the Cross of Christ, the central symbol of European domination.  The Maya promptly appropriated and reinterpreted this most Christian of all symbols by merging it with the World Tree of the Center, the yax che’ ilkab as the Conquest period Yukatek Maya called it. The Christian cross became, quite literally, the pivot and pillar of their cosmos, just as the World Tree had been before.” [12]

David Freidel/Linda Schele/Joy Parker, American Anthropologists, 1993


The syncretism of Christian and Precolumbian Maya cross imagery

“The ancient Maya ‘cross’ (world tree) and the Spanish cross were indeed startlingly similar in form but quite different in basic meaning.  The Maya ‘cross’ symbolized the world tree, the axis mundi, and was personified (which surely indicated that it had an inner soul) and clothed (in jewels and mirrors), and had a spiritual relationship to supernatural ancestors.  The Spanish cross was basically a structure on which Christ was crucified, but, at least in some Catholic thinking, was related to the tree of life in paradise (Nunez de la Vega [1988]), a concept that is similar to the Maya World Tree.  After syncretism the ancient Maya meaning continued, but some new meanings were added, or at least strongly emphasized by the Maya: the cross as a boundary (between Nature and Culture, between town and woods); the cross as a guardian; and especially the cross as a symbol of collective identity for families, lineages, hamlets, towns.  Further, I suspect that not only in Yucatan (Farriss 1984: 314), but in Chiapas and Sonora as well, the plethora of crosses are manifestations of drawing ideological support and symbols from Christianity to oppose Spanish rule and bolster Indian power.”    [9] &quoted  [12]

Evon Z. Vogt, American Anthropologist,  circa 1992


The Mestizo Nation

“From the moment the Spaniards set foot on American soil, there began a process of racial blending that created the mestizo nation we know today.  In this way, the Spanish culture that derived from Iberian, Celtic, Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Visigothic, and Arabic roots was genetically grafted onto the original American ethnic groups—Mayas, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Totonacs, Huastecs, Purepechas, and Chichimecs—themselves the product of intense mestization.” [16]

Antonio Rubial Garcia, Mexican Philosopher, 2002





This record documents the recent discovery of what can be considered a lost crown jewel of Mexican art history—a circa 1535-45 World Tree Cross of exceeding rarity—a Genesis-like object from the first transitional years of New World religious practice that followed the Conquest of Mexico; a first Indian-Christian cross of the Americas.  Called La Cruz de las Cuatro Flores (The Cross of the Four Flowers), it is attributed to an unknown Mesoamerican artist presumed active in Puebla circa 1530s-1540s who is here designated as The Indochristian Master of the Huejotzingo Monastery Motifs.  Cuatro Flores is carved in the ephemeral Indochristian-tequitqui (ta-key-key) style of the early post-Conquest period and presents a singular example of the first art genre of the New World.

The intricately carved wood cross has merged indigenous motifs and forms of the  Yukatec Maya, Mixtec, and Aztec traditions into the Spanish-Christian tradition of the Cross of Christ—a profound synthesis occurring in Cuatro Flores perhaps for the first time in a religious object of New World origin.  However, both in form and particularly in its floral motif, Cuatro Flores yet echoes the style of a medieval cross—possibly modeled after a small woodblock print that illustrated a friar’s Bible.  Cuatro Flores not only synthesizes the forms of the World Tree and the Christian Cross but it also carries an introduced Christian symbol in the form of the crucifixion-suggestive wrought iron nail and indigenous motifs suggesting seeds, fertility, feathers, flowers, thorns, and calendar numbers. The indigenous motifs are connected to ideas of the tree of life, agricultural and human fertility, and the cycle of seasons which are carried within the World Tree’s traditional cosmology.  Cuatro Flores, as a Christian cross, symbolically frames and incorporates the native motifs and thus outlines, with the very shape of the cross and the centrally-integrated nail of the crucifixion, the new world order of Spanish-Christian domination. 

Until the appearance of Cuatro Flores, the existence of a syncretic Post-Conquest World Tree Cross was hypothetical, a legendary object which in all likelihood had vanished into the mists of time soon after the Conquest of Mexico in 1521.  A simplified but clearly similar Christian-influenced world tree cross is used today by the Maya in Yukatan and Chiapas, and its existence has only been recently noted during the 20th century.  Evidence, however, supports the idea of the Mesoamerican evolution of an indigenous world tree cross: from the Olmec civilization circa 1000 B.C. to the Maya at Palenque and Yaxchilan ca.600 A.D. to the Mixtec-Aztec ca.1350-1521 to ca.1535-45 when it was transformed into the cross of the Christian tradition as exemplified by Cuatro Flores.  There is little doubt that Cuatro Flores is the prototype for the modern Chiapas cross found in San Juan de Chamula and elsewhere among the Maya of  today.

The Indochristian Master of Cuatro Flores may have been a sculptor-priest educated in Precolumbian religious iconography at a traditional Indian Calmecac school and trained as well as a sculptor of religious images. These schools were responsible for not only propagating Indian religious doctrines and rites but also for the artistic training of the young, since art was profoundly linked to religion and images were considered sacred.

The exquisitely carved-stone architectural ornamentation found at the Franciscan Monastery and Church of San Miguel in Huejotzingo, Puebla and the related carved-wood iconography of Cuatro Flores both suggest the Indochristian Master’s accomplished dual facility in relief carving in stone and wood, possibly with metal chisels, a newly arrived technology.  Indigenous stone tools were widely replaced with metal tools and implements by circa 1530.  The characteristic Franciscan carved rope motif found at San Miguel also frames the horizontal arms of Cuatro Flores.  The well-defined floral details of Cuatro Flores find another distinct correlation in the quincunx floral motif—suggesting magnified snowflakes to a modern eye—found in one of the stone arches at the Huejotzingo monastery.

The Franciscan Order beginning in 1523-24 had been the first entrusted to convert the Indians and they were also the first to undertake the building of rural missions and convents which in turn incorporated indigenous architectural traditions.  The circa 1540s church and monastery at Huejotzingo, characterized in the main by its Spanish-inspired Plateresque ornamentation, survives today as one of the most architecturally impressive built by the mendicant friars.  Cuatro Flores by its portable nature suggests that it may have been used at Huejotzingo, and perhaps earlier, for private worship and likely traveled with its maker or owner to other Franciscan convents in Puebla.

Created during the first decade of the The Viceroyalty of New Spain (from 1535), in an unusually pure transitional tequitqui style, Cuatro Flores connected the ancient religious traditions of Mesoamerica to that of the Spanish/European Christian tradition and today can still offer insight into the complex religious faith of Mexico. 





Indochristian Master of the Huejotzingo Monastery Motifs, Puebla, Mexico, The Viceroyalty of New Spain (presumed active circa 1530s-1540s)

World Tree Cross, called La Cruz de las Cuatro Flores  
Indochristian-Tequitqui style, circa 1535-45


A Carved Wood Cross on a Carved Wood Base:
Comprised of three carved sabino-pine sections (two sections of the cross and one section of the base); one wrought-iron nail (holding the two sections of the cross together); a tiny remnant of green paint on one flower.  


Dimensions (in inches):

Cross and the base (two separate but integrated pieces): 13 ¼ high x 7 ¾ wide x 3 ½ deep

Cross (only): 10 ¾ high x 7 ¾ wide x ½ deep

Base(only): 2 ½ high x 4 diameter (both top and bottom diameters)


Condition note

There is a small missing wedge of carved wood at the rear top-and-bottom of the base within an apparently continuous motif; probably an early loss. Notable fly-specking on front and back of cross.  The wood has no added finish and no restoration. 



Private Collection (not attributed)

Art Market (misattributed as Mexico ca. 1700)

Fred and Jann Kline Collection, Santa Fe, NM ( Here first attributed in 1999 by Fred R. Kline as “Indochristian tequitqui World Tree Cross ca. 1521-1550”).

Private Collection


Consulting Scholars

Dr. Manuel Aguilar

Leading U.S. scholar in Indochristian-Tequitqui art and architecture of 16th c. Mexico.  Assistant Professor, Art History (Mesoamerica), California State University, Los Angeles; author of Tequitqui Art of the Sixteenth Century: An Expression of Transculturation (Ph.D dissertation, 1998; publication pending). 

Examination & Authentication with written expertise: December 8, 2005. 

Agreement with Kline Indochristian Tequitqui hypothesis of Cuatro Flores and research assistance 2003; suggested pre-1550 comparative iconography found in the Franciscan Monastery of Huejotzingo, Puebla .

Dr. Louis Scuderi

Associate Professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of New Mexico.  Noted dendrochronologist.  Confirmed Kline circa 1521-1550 date hypothesis; dating & location of the cross dendrochronologically (tree-ring analysis) to circa 1535, Puebla region of Mexico, in  report “Dendrochronologic Dating of The Cross of the Four Flowers (La Cruz de las Cuatro Flores) ”, January 22, 2004.


Dr. Khristaan Villela

Thaw Professor & Chairman, Art History & Director, Thaw Art History Center, College of Santa Fe.  Noted scholar in Mesoamerican studies.  Agreement with Kline’s Indochristian-Tequitqui attribution of Cuatro Flores in 2000 public lecture; initial research assistance 1999.



Public slide-lecture by Dr. Khristaan Villela : “Mexican Art and Architecture in the Sixteenth Century: European Mannerism and Indochristian Tequitqui” [ examples featured from Kline Collection:  La Cruz de las Cuatro Flores &  *La Virgencita del Nuevo Mundo *see Burkhart, illus.]; July 29, 2000, Fred R. Kline Gallery, Santa Fe, NM. 

Public slide-lecture by Dr. Manuel Aguilar: “Tequitqui Art of 16th Century Mexico” [La Cruz de las Cuatro Flores featured example]. December 8, 2005, College of Santa Fe, Santa Fe, NM.


First Exhibition  

La Cruz de las Cuatro Flores: An Indochristian World Tree Cross”, Fred R. Kline Gallery, Santa Fe,  July 29-August 30, 2000; periodic exhibition thereafter to 2006. ( Exhibition only and not for sale.)



The top and horizontal extremities of the cross are circular with large complex floral designs within the circles. The wood cross carries an intricately carved variety of motifs on the entire front and along all its sides. The circular base of the cross is one piece of carved wood and it is a separate and detachable section into which the cross is inserted.  The carved wood of the cross and the base have altogether identical characteristics of patina, age, wood type, and carved motifs.

The horizontal section of the cross is affixed to the vertical by notching and additionally by a single wrought iron nail in the center of the horizontal section which penetrates both sections going in at the exact center of a small carved flower and emerging on the back of the vertical section where the spike has been carefully laid flat against the wood. 

The base is carved as a two-tiered spatially separated circular platform with carved motifs only around the diameter edges and not on the surface.  In the space between the platforms are four decorative supports that suggest curled cacao seedpods.  

A tiny trace of grass-green pigment remains on one flower, at horizontal-left, at the top heart-shaped petal, suggesting that the flower and perhaps the cross may have been painted green at one time. 

The cross is not carved on the back. 



Notes & Opinion


Aguilar in a note regarding Cuatro Flores calls it  “magnificent” and suggests that it derives from the Puebla area pre-1550, with comparative iconography found in the monastery of Huejotzingo.  Scuderi, in his tree-ring analysis, confidently dates and places it to circa 1535, within the Puebla region in Mexico. Villela has publicly supported its authenticity.

The style of Cuatro Flores is Indochristian-Tequitqui;one of the purest examples known.   Tequitqui: teh-key-key/ coined in 1942 from a Nahuatl word meaning a vassal-laborer or tributary by Jose Moreno Villa, a Spanish art historian, to distinguish vestiges of preconquest style in colonial art.  Within Mexican art history, the term tequitqui describes a syncretic, eclectic, and transitional decorative style, provoked by the 1521 Conquest of Mexico, which merged a variety of Precolumbian motifs and folk styles into the European models of New Spain.  This new mixed style was practiced for a short period by a small segment of newly converted Indian artists who immediately worked under Spanish-Christian domination during the first half of the 16th century.  Examples of tequitqui style are found mainly among figurative and ornamental details in church and secular architecture, and rarely in related free-standing sculpture and rarely in painting.  Indochristian-tequitqui is arguably the first original art genre of the New World.

The Conquest of Mexico became a catalyst for the transformation and re-creation of the ancient Mesoamerican religion, not its destruction.  As Maya archaeologists David Freidel and the late Linda Schele have noted in Maya Cosmos, Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path
   “Perhaps the most dramatic example of this transformation [of the ancient Mesoamerican religion] is embodied in the Maya’s adaptation of the Cross of Christ, the central symbol of European domination.  The Maya promptly appropriated and reinterpreted this most Christian of all symbols by merging it with the World Tree of the Center, the yax che’il kab as the Conquest period Yukatek Maya called it. The Christian cross became, quite literally, the pivot and pillar of their cosmos, just as the World Tree had been before.”

Schele’s and Freidel’s hypothesis of  the “dramatic transformation” of the World Tree lacked the very tequitqui object that marked that legendary moment of transformation.  Cuatro Flores is that early post-Conquest missing link from the world tree continuum; the first adapted cross; the first World Tree-Christian Cross; and it proves their hypothesis.  None other is known to exist.  The stone atrial crosses do not suggest a world tree, only an expressive crucifix.  Cuatro Flores presents an object as sacred to the Maya/Mesoamerican tradition as it might be to the Christians; here the Maya First Father and Jesus rule together. 

Could there have been a cult of the world tree among the Late Postclassic Aztec?  A ritual borrowed from the Maya?   According to Kubler: “The truth is that we are ignorant of all but the main outlines of Aztec religion (the central rite of Aztec life being human sacrifice).  Popular worship and priestly lore were different.”. [2]

Freidel and Schele continue in Maya Cosmos:
   “The pathways connecting ancient worlds, concepts, images, historical analogs, and their modern counterparts are particularly evident in the striking resemblance between the World Tree and the modern Christian-Maya cross…The first Europeans who saw the images of the World Tree at Palenque called the buildings housing them the Temple of the Cross and the Temple of the Foliated Cross with good reason.  These Maya “crosses” had the same basic shape, and were as elaborately decorated, as those gracing the altars of large European churches.  The carvings of these ancient trees are outlined with reflective mirrors and they wear jade necklaces and loincloths as if they were living beings.  Modern Christian-Maya crosses both in Yukatan and Chiapas are decorated with mirrors and dressed in clothing, or flowers and pine boughs.  They too are considered to be living beings….The name of the tree [at Palenque] literally meant ‘raised-up sky’.  The Classic texts at Palenque tell us that the central axis of the cosmos was called the ‘raised-up sky’ because First Father had raised it at the beginning of creation in order to separate the sky from the earth.  Each world tree was, therefore, a representation of the axis of creation.” 

Cuatro Flores is a living being, now some 500 years old, a portable axis of creation, a reincarnated tree of life continuing from the 16th to the 21st centuries.  The world tree, the tree of life, holds the secret of the religious continuum in Mexico.

A newly converted Indian-Christian artisan has in Cuatro Flores absorbed, synthesized, and reinterpreted his newly embraced Cross of Christ and merged that cross with his traditional and hereditary World Tree of the Center, his tree of life: the tequitqui style is born and it is forever hidden in everything Mexican.   For the converso artist an evolved way of the world had come to pass. 

No example of an Indochristian tequitqui world tree cross from this early post-Conquest period is known in public collections in the Americas or Europe.  It can be assumed, therefore, that Cuatro Flores is quite possibly a unique extant example, a miraculous survival. 

Christian-Maya crosses are still used today in Yukatan and Chiapas.  Freidel continues in Maya Cosmos: “Anthropologist Evon Vogt often recalls with irony and amusement his discovery that the ostensible Chrisitian piety that the present-day Zinacanteco Maya of Chiapas display toward their wooden crosses is, in fact, a declaration of cultural autonomy from their oppressors.  This, we believe, is how the Maya vision of the cosmos works.  It is a dynamic model combining historical knowledge, myth, and the practical experience that is perpetually being re-created through ritual performance….A significant number of Precolumbian Maya ideas from the deep past have survived up into the present time.  Maya cultures evince continuity particularly in their core ideas about the essential order of the cosmos, its patterns and purposes, and the place of human beings in it.”

The archaic world tree would likely have had a bird at the apex (see illustration of Yaxchilan Lintel 2 and Fejervary-Mayer Codex) and flowers at the horizontal ends.  Here in Cuatro Flores the bird is replaced by a floral segment at the apex; however, a feather motif is suggested among the designs on the shaft of the cross.  “Flowers held rich metaphorical meaning in ancient Mesoamerica, especially during the Aztec period 1350-1521.  Three Aztec deities…(all of whom serve as patrons of beauty, pleasure, and the arts) have particular connections with flowers.  Flowers were also viewed as sacrificial offerings, and according to some Aztec stories, Quetzalcoatl led his people to offer flowers and butterflies in lieu of human flesh.” [11]

The wrought iron nail used in Cuatro Flores may be original to the cross, or  possibly a later utilitarian replacement of a wood peg, but its presence is unavoidably fraught with ambiguity.  Several ideas must be given serious consideration:  (1) The iron nail—an exotic introduced material from the Spanish conquerors—may have been a substitute for (or possibly replaced) a small inset disk of obsidian or jadite, seen in Aztec idols as representing the living soul of the object.  If it is a substitute, the nail suggests at the back of the cross quite dramatically and surprisingly an emerging root-like spike, a generally unseen Aztec-like detail.  As cited by Weismann [1], two of three stone 16th century churchyard crosses in Michoacan (Parish Church, San Felipe de los Alzates and Church of San Jose, Ciudad Hidalgo and a nearby cross at Ataracuaro missing its inset) still retain obsidian disks in a concavity at the center of the crossing—a rare occurrence of “pagan symbolism” being tolerated or most likely just missed.  (2) The iron nail also unavoidably suggests the incorporation of a symbol of the crucifixion.  The penetration of this iron nail into the small center flower—considered in the World Tree context as “First Father’s” heart—is certainly a coincidence worth considering.  Does the nail go through the heart of Jesus or the heart of First Father?   However, living trees are known to grow around nails that have been hammered into them, integrating the nail into its being; perhaps it is so with a symbolic nail of the Crucifixion that has pierced the World Tree.

“In Mesoamerican thought, the cardinal directions were associated with a broad spectrum of things from the natural and cultural worlds.  One of the most important and pervasive of these embodiments of the directions were world trees, each oriented to a specific direction.  These trees seem to express the four-fold nature of a single great tree, or axis mundi, located at the center of the world.  Among the Yucatec Maya, this central tree was a yaxche (Ceiba spp.), the national tree of modern Guatemala….In Yucatec, the term yaxche signifies first or green tree.  Although the concept of first tree is entirely apt for the cosmic tree at the center of the world, the reference to green is also appropriate; in ancient Maya religion, green is the color associated with the central place….In Central Mexican iconography the four directional trees are distinguished by species and by a particular animal, usually a bird, appearing at the top of the tree.  On page 1 of the Codex Fejervary-Mayer, the four directional trees appear with their accompanying birds, gods, days, and Yearbearers.  The placing of birds in world trees is of considerable antiquity in the Maya region…” [Miller & Taube, 11]


Further Notes and Opinion


The Evolution of World Tree Crosses,

from the Olmec to the present day Maya,

suggesting a linked stylistic and symbolic relationship

to "Cuatro Flores"


1. Circa 500-1000 BC/Olmec /Arroyo Pesquero, Olmec Heartland
“World Tree and Sprouts of the Four Corners”.

Two small stone celts from Arroyo Pesquero depict God (the Olmec king) of the Center with a tree in his crown, a scepter in his hands, and the sprouts of the four corners around him [12; illus. p. 136], strongly suggesting a related design and symbolic relationship to Cuatro Flores and could suggest the derivation of and explanation for the four curled (sprouting cacao?) seedpods holding up the base of the world tree cross. 

In Maya Cosmos, Olmec scholar Kent Reilly notes: “The Olmec artists surrounded their king with sprouting seeds at the four corners, defining the periphery of the human world and containing the sacred space of  the Center.  The Olmec king was the embodiment of the World Tree of the Center.  The Maya after them inherited this concept of kingship and placed it at the heart of their worldview.  Just as our culture sees the Greeks as the source of much of our fundamental culture and philosophy, so the Classic Maya saw their source as the Olmec.”


2. Circa 600 AD/  Yucatec Maya
Palenque and Yaxchilan. 
At Palenque, The World Tree (Wakah-Chan) and The Foliated Cross (Na-Te-K’an); at Yaxchilan, cross-like dance scepters suggestive of a world tree.

The sacred World Tree and Foliated Cross sculptures at Palenque [12; illus. p.54] bear a variety of details that reappear within Cuatro Flores somewhat evolved and reinterpreted, among which are: the curled seed pods at their bases; the cross forms; various symbolic manifestations of quetzal feathers, seeds and seed pods, flowers or the sun, and plants.

Ritual dance scepters suggestive of a world tree variation and a cross form—also called a Bird-Tree scepter—depicted in a stone relief at Lintel 2 and 5 in the ruins at Yaxchilan, are decorated with a quetzal bird at the apex and two round floral designs at both horizontal ends almost identical to Cuatro Flores (see attached illustration of Lintel 2). 


3. Circa 1350-1521 / Mixtec /Aztec 
World tree in the ritual book Codex Fejervary-Mayer
(Liverpool, Free Public Museum, Mayer Collection)

Within the famous and important drawing “Five World Regions” on Page –1 of the pre-Conquest Codex Fejervary-Mayer [2; illus. title page & p.182 & here attached], the world tree designated “North Tree”, to the left of the also north-facing central deity, exhibits remarkably comparative features to Cuatro Flores. 

Specifically, both the “North Tree” drawing and the Cuatro Flores sculpture share the following attributes, all of which are symbolic of a World Tree of the North direction: flowers in bloom on a cross-like world tree; a mysterious vulva-like opening within the world tree; a variety of similar world tree-related decorative motifs; and unusual altar-like bases with seed-pod supports of close to identical shape. 

As Kubler explains: “The content of the ritual books is double: as cosmogonic illustrations, and as augural schemes.  The powers of the gods and the rhythm of their influences upon human affairs are illustrated by images using a few fundamental motifs in many combinations.”. 

Aguilar notes that the Franciscans at the Monastery of San Miguel at Huejotzingo, and elsewhere, gave special significance to the north porches of their churches—commemorating the rebuilding of a chapel at Assisi by St. Francis—and at Huejotzingo, this tradition was directed to the North Doorway of the monastery, the most complex of the church entries.  Known as the Door of Jubilee, it signified for the friars the entrance to the New Jerusalem, the celestial City of God that the Franciscans hoped to establish in the New World.  This fact suggests a relationship to Cuatro Flores’ suggested “North Tree” quality and its Franciscan and Huejotzingo Monastery origins.


4. Circa 1535-45/ Indochristian/ Puebla
World Tree Cross called La Cruz de las Cuatro Flores
attributed toThe Indochristian Master of the Huejotzingo Monastery Motifs.

The varied carved motifs of the Cuatro Flores World Tree Cross suggest to Aguilar a sculptural style closely related to the decorative motifs found in the porterias, arches, baluster columns, and other areas of the Franciscan Monastery of San Miguel at Huejotzingo, Puebla. 

The characteristic Franciscan rope motif found at Huejotzingo clearly frames the horizontal crossbar of Cuatro Flores. The well-defined floral details in Cuatro Flores, suggesting flowers of the sacred Maya ceiba tree, also find a distinct correlation in the quincunx floral motif (suggesting to a modern eye magnified snowflakes) found in one of the best known carved arches at the monastery [10-p.236].  However, both in form and particularly in its floral motif Cuatro Flores also echoes the varied styles of a European medieval cross—in all likelihood  modeled after a small woodblock print that illustrated a friar’s Bible.  It is plausible that Cuatro Flores may have been used for private devotion at the Huejotzingo monastery, around the time of its construction circa 1540-45.  It is tempting to speculate that it may have been used by its Indian maker; or a Friar who commissioned it; or, judging by its extraordinary quality and its amazing preservation, a Spanish official of importance, who may have received it as a gift. 

Cuatro Flores carries multiple symbolic motifs and symbols (noted in conversation and lecture by Villela) representing not only the forms of the World Tree and the Christian Cross, but also motifs suggesting seeds, feathers, flowers, thorns, and calendar numbers.  Other symbols and details raise interesting questions—among which should be included:  the wrought iron nail (see further discussion p.8-9 ); and to the left and right of it, a doubled motif suggesting perhaps seedpods or even the Christian-fish symbol; and the diamond-shaped opening above the nail perhaps suggesting a vulva from which a “tree birth” could take place, as in Mixtec creation accounts illustrated in Codex Vindobonensis [11-p.71]

Cuatro Flores, in all its complexity, plausibly represents, within the religious history of the Americas, a first Mesoamerican adaptation of the Cross of Christ and the symbolic birth of Mexico’s post-Conquest religion; within art history, the first art genre of the New World and a first sculpture of colonial Mexico.


5. Present day, 2005/Contemporary Maya (Tzotzil Indians),
Green World Tree Crosses
San Juan de Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico.

Cuatro Flores clearly suggests that it is the 16th century prototype of the contemporary Maya world tree cross, an example of which is in current use among the Tzotzil Maya Catholic sect in San Juan de Chamula, Chiapas. 

The Tzotzil/Maya today embrace a mixture of Catholicism and their ancient religion. The ancient religion carries forward the belief that First Father propped up the sky with huge ceiba trees at the four corners (north, south, east, west) and in the center of the world (the Mayan directions). 

Their ubiquitous green crosses in Chiapas are symbols of these ceiba trees and they are to be found in the corners and center of almost every Tzotzil/Maya churchyard in Chiapas.  The green world tree crosses are decorated with carvings of  flowers and pine boughs—found also in the related iconography of Cuatro Flores—and these crosses are often “dressed” in real flowers and real pine boughs.  The carved four petaled flowers are similar to real ceiba flowers and are placed at the ends of the cross and at the center (explained in Chamula as His [the First Father’s] head, His hands, His heart—see also Linda Schele’s “Afterword” in Maya Cosmos, pp.393-403, in which she explains the same cross’s flowers as “the head’s flower, the hand’s flower, the heart’s flower, the foot’s flower”—all, presumably, still belonging to First Father.) 

To the Tzotzil/Maya, their cross is the center of the world and it is a living thing.  It still remains a world tree representative of the ancient Mesoamerican religion, but it is also a ritualistic Christian cross in the so-called Chamulan Catholicism practiced today. 




Selected Bibliography (arranged chronologically)

[1] Elizabeth Wilder Weismann. Mexico in Sculpture, 1521-1821. Cambridge(Harvard). 1950.

[2] George Kubler. The Art and Architecture of Ancient Mexico. New Haven, 1962 (Third Edition, 1990)

[3] Constantino Reyes-Valerio.  Arte Indocristiano; Escultura del Siglo XVI en Mexico.
Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, 1978

[4] Esther Pasztory.  Aztec Art.  New York, 1983

[5] Nancy M. Farriss. Maya Society Under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival. Princeton, 1984

[6] Elizabeth Wilder Weismann. Art and Time in Mexico, Architecture and Sculpture
 in Colonial Mexico. New York, 1985

[7] Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Kimbell Art Museum and George Braziller. New York, 1986

[8] Fray Francisco Nunez de la Vega. Constituciones diocesanas de obispado de Chiapa.
Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. 1988

[9] Evon Vogt. “Indian Crosses and Scepters: The Results of Circumscribed Spanish-Indian Interactions in Mesoamerica”. Dec.1988 Paper, Symposium “In Word and Deed…” Trujillo, Spain & In Interethnic Encounters: Discourse and Practice in the New World, SUNY Press , 1989

[10] Metropolitan Museum of Art (introduction by Octavio Paz and essays by numerous contributors). Mexico, Splendors of Thirty Centuries. New York, 1990.

[11] Mary Ellen Miller & Karl Taube. Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. New York, 1993

[12] David Freidel, Linda Schele, Joy Parker. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years On The Shaman’s Path.  New York, 1993.

[13] Manuel Aguilar. Tequitqui Art of  Sixteenth-Century Mexico: An Expression of Transculturation. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Texas, Austin, 1998.

[14] Louise Burkhart. Before Guadalupe: The Virgin Mary in Early Colonial Nahuatl Literature.  SUNY Albany, 2001.

[15] Timothy Reddish. “Chamulan Catholicism: A Study in Cultural Survival” (Senior Project paper submitted to Department of Religious Studies/Adviser Dr. Philip Lucas, Stetson University). 2002. Published at associated link .

[16] The Museum of Fine Arts Houston. The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico: Treasures from the Museo Franz Mayer. (Exhibition catalogue with essays by Antonio Rubial Garcia & others: see Garcia, “The Kingdom of New Spain at a Crossroads”). 2002

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Private Collection

By Appointment




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