Art as a Memory of a Society

The Spanish conquest of common day Mexico altered the lives of the indigenous people immensely. Not only was the land changed, their social and political systems tested and altered, their way of live and religion were violently altered. Italian anthropologist’s, Carol Severi, study of this revealed the new religion that emerged from the situation the indigenous were thrust into. Christianity was delivered to the natives and their old religion was thrown out; but when the priests who taught Christianity left generations later, the natives had to adapt to a religion that used to be taught to them, and they created a blended religion, a mix of the new and old. Interesting enough, this was expressed through their art.  Dona Sebastiana was adapted, a version close enough to Saint Sebastian, but with enough differences to show the blend of old and new and creation of a new symbol. This art tells a great deal about the society.

Image of Dona Sebastiana

Image of Dona Sebastiana

As Severi brushed on in lecture, this relates to Aby Warburg and his study of art, mainly, his assertion that art serves more than visual pleasure. Warburg believes that art constructs the memory of a society, that art serves as a social memory as a society can choose what it what to presents to the rest of the world. This is a completely different spin on the view of art then I have ever heard of, but it is simply logical.  Art is a type of expression. People want to express parts of their lives that mean a lot to them, why else would one spend hours and a countless amount of effort constructing it if it wasn’t important.

Struggles, triumphs, changes, traditions, leaders, commoners, monuments, terror, love and so many more parts of a society are expressed through art as these are the important parts of this society, the parts they want the rest of the world to know.  Take Paris, a majority of the art associated with it is the Eiffel Tower. Because it represents the city and thats what its known for. Art from many societies express their leaders, as they hold much importance and influence the society greatly.

Photo of Paris, with Eiffel Tower front and center

Photo of Paris, with Eiffel Tower front and center

Art is a form of expression that others can’t change. Sure, there will be art where its non monumental to a society. However, much art holds that emphasis over a society. More than that, images are necessary to exercise a certain kind of thought, thoughts that the societies hold and express and share with the world through art.


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Anthropology, Images, and Social Memory

Carlo Severi, an Italian anthropologist, has studied the connection between images and social memory. By asking questions such as, how images contribute to a society’s understanding of itself, and where history and tradition intersect, Severi has uncovered incredible findings about the aesthetic world. Perhaps the most important discovery of Severi’s is the necessity of images and how they allow cultures to interpret thoughts and build a common memory. He explains the value of seeing images as more than aesthetic materials; instead they have both historical and theoretical value that connects a society together.

Severi’s study of Mesoamerican and Catholic culture represents the importance of images and social identity. The Spanish conquest of Mexico not only took away political power and basic agency from Native societies; it also replaced their culture with European principles and values. Indigenous religions were systematically destroyed as people were forced to adapt to a foreign culture. Since worldview is fundamental to societies, this destruction of culture caused incredible strife for Native people. As one can imagine, affected societies struggled to hold on to previous traditions in the face of major social change. The common memory of historical Mesoamerican societies used images to hold onto their religion as the Spanish converted the area.

A major theme in indigenous Mesoamerican religion is respect towards death and the dead. However, death is seen as dark and evil in many Anglo-Saxon cultures and adaptations of Christianity. Upon the Spanish attempts to convert societies to Catholicism, a sect of people retained culture via the incorporation of Dona Sebastiana, or the Saint of Death. Paintings, sculptures, and other religious materials were created to depict Dona Sebastiana and death’s triumph over Jesus. Catholics from Europe obviously do not condone such iconography.

By retaining an important figure as they were being converted to a new religion, native Mesoamericans were able to hold on to a piece of their culture. Images created in honor of Dona Sebastiana allowed communities to build a image and interpretation of the Saint of Death and ultimately allowed a common memory and tradition to be created. Besides the significance of Dona Sebastiana in historical religious terms, the icon also represents the inversion of the death of Christ, revealing the triumph of death rather than the opposite, which is traditionally celebrated in Catholicism. Moreover, in social terms, there image of Dona Sebastiana’s arrow piercing Jesus shows the conflict of enemy cultures. All in all, Severi’s presentation illuminated the connection between social changes, images, and common memory.

by Kathryn Marshall