Lauren Ferguson



When an artist relays a message or theme, the medium of the idea often determines its effectiveness as a piece of art. Such is true for Cildo Meireles’ Missão/Missões [Mission/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals) (Figure 1), an installation art piece, and Bartolomé de las Casas’ published description, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Each work uses its respective genre, a cat egory of artistic composition and communication, in order to communicate similar critiques of violence. For example, Meireles’ piece rebukes 17th century Jesuit missions, while Las Casas’ writing depicts the destructive nature of the 16th century Spanish slave trade. The two works, although stemming from different periods of time, show similarity in their critical analysis of the violent relationship between the explorer and the natives. However, while their underlying messages are the same, they are communicated differently through varying methods of interaction with their viewers. For instance, Meireles utilizes the interactive medium of his piece to incite discussion, while Las Casas uses violence to excite and persuade his readers. As a result, Cildo Meireles and Bartolomé de las Casas are both able to communicate effective critiques of explorer and native relations by employing the characteristics of their own unique media.

Figure 1: Missão/Missões [Missions/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals).
Cildo Meireles, 1987. 600,000 coins, 800 communion wafers, 2,000 cattle bones, 80 paving stones, and black cloth.
The Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, Austin. Courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art.

Cildo Meireles’ (How to Build Cathedrals)  and Transmission of Meaning through Genre

Beginning the discussion with Meireles, his art installation Missão/Missões [Mission/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals) is noted for its representation of the avaricious actions performed by the Jesuits during their time in 17th century Brazil (Blanton 85). The Society of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits, are a Roman Catholic religious order founded in the 16th century for the purpose of finding salvation for the world’s souls. However, during the time of their encounters with the Brazilian natives, the Jesuits were a violent and problematic order primarily known for enslaving the people they encountered in order to construct cathedrals (Thompson 36). Ironically enough, the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, believed the Society of Jesus was “absolutely necessary for the eradication of those abuses with which the church is affiliated,” but the Jesuits perpetrated abuse to those they were trying to convert (Thompson 36).

Although the Jesuits’ preached peace and salvation, the communities of the Brazilian natives were under their strict control, and the mission villages benefited only the Papacy and the Jesuits themselves. The colonists killed over two million natives during their two hundred year history in Brazil, and it wasn’t until 1757 that a royal decree allowed the Brazilian populace to be freed (“Jesuit”). In an 1894 anti-Jesuit document written by R.W. Thompson, ex-secretary of the Navy, he notes that the slave-built cathedrals “were the product of unrewarded labor, and did not contain a stone or marble block not stained by the tears and sweat and blood of numberless humiliated victims” as the natives died in building their own ‘salvation’” (Thompson 342). Unsurprisingly, animosity was built up against the Jesuits and the religious order was expelled from the country in 1782. Thompson notes that the relationship became so strained that the natives’ simplified views of the explorers were of a people who “adored gold, had a devil in their bodies, and were the enemies of the Indians” (Thompson 186). The Jesuit’s cruel behavior in the name of salvation resulted in massive genocide of the Brazilians, epitomizing the often times problematic nature of explorer and Indian relations.

A critique of the Jesuit’s morbid behavior is found in Cildo Meireles’ How to Build Cathedrals, most notably for emphasizing the ironic nature of the cathedrals themselves. Although the Brazilian cathedrals were built for the goodwill of the natives, it was the natives themselves that were enslaved to build them. Despite this paradox, the structures remain some of the finest pieces of the Latin American baroque period (“Missão”). In the installation, Meireles creates his own cathedral, but unlike the original Brazilian structures, his work is visibly constructed with materials of deceit and manipulation. Meireles uses American pennies, cattle bones, and communion wafers to censure the Jesuit’s desire for wealth (pennies) that was played out in agricultural exploitation (dead cattle bones) under the guise of religion (communion wafers). Meireles teaches the viewer how to build the Jesuit’s type of cathedral in How to Build Cathedrals with the three materials, demonstrating how the entirety of the structure is created with greed and destruction. In Lisa Christine DeLosso’s study A Phenomenon of Thought: Liminal Theory in the Museum,  DeLosso suggests that the oppressive cathedral metaphor goes deeper, as the work demonstrates “the church has paved over [the natives] with cement blocks and money” on which the viewer stands (DeLosso 55). The piece critiques the exploitative and violent nature of the Jesuits through this creation of a new cathedral, one that is obvious about its deception.

However, understanding Meireles’ criticism begins with comprehending the work itself. Missão/Missões [Mission/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals) was created in 1987 and obtained by its permanent home, the Blanton Museum of Art, in 1998 (Scarborough 57). The installation itself is an interactive piece constructed of 600,000 coins, 800 communion wafers, 2,000 cattle bones, 80 paving stones surrounding the pool of the coins, and a black netting that frames the entire work. Unlike a typical untouchable piece of art, How to Build Cathedrals is unique in that the viewer is allowed to enter the work by walking along the stepping-stones and physically handling the coins. Because of its uncommon nature, the installation functions in ways different from a standard piece of art. The medium is unorthodox and breaks down the usual barrier between art and observer. Additionally, the color of the work is a particularly salient aspect. The only light shining in the room in which the work is housed comes from diffused light through the cattle bones, which reflects off of the pennies, creating a warm glowing atmosphere. There are no other lights near the piece, and the only window in the room is permanently covered so as to disallow any spillage of outside light. The effect results in the alluring radiance of the pennies. Color and light work together to create a piece that hypnotically draws in the viewer, inviting them to explore the space.

Furthermore, Meireles instructs that, depending on where the work is, the coins of the installation must match whatever the lowest denomination of money is for that country. Thus, the work can also radiate colors of silver or gold depending on its location, but the effect of the work entrancing the viewer remains the same. Additionally, the space of the work is conducive to a physical exploration of the piece. Unlike art works limited to a visual plane, the space can literally be inhabited by its viewer, which allows varying visual perspectives of How to Build Cathedrals. The space’s enormity further supplements this effect. Viewers may walk full circle around the piece, enter through the curtains, or crouch low in order to handle the pennies. All the elements interact together in order to form a work that is easily appealing to its audience.

The piece’s significant attractiveness is fortunate because it lacks a straightforward image to convey its purpose. Meireles’ goal in having such an indirect theme is to encourage viewers to discuss its potential message. The piece does not feature direct representations of violence, thus making its possible meaning ambiguous. Furthermore, in a case study entitled How Family Groups Experience the Blanton Museum of Art researched by Jessica Piepgrass, it seems that not only did many families consider this piece their favorite in the Blanton, but also it was the one that they spent the most time viewing. Two families spent “approximately 15 minutes together sitting and playing with the artwork”, a large amount of time compared to the glances other works in the museum receive (Piepgrass 61). In fact, the study found that “all the families observed at How to Build Cathedrals stayed for a significant period of time, when compared with other works they viewed” (Piepgrass 93). Furthermore, Piepgrass noted that “the children enjoyed handling the pennies and the mothers discussed the artwork with each other,” demonstrating the effectiveness of the work’s inviting essence (Piepgrass 61). The study argues that the work was effective because it could be interacted with regardless of education, as “parents did not need any background knowledge regarding the artist or the intended meaning of the piece in order to discuss how it looks, what it is made of, what you can do with the pennies” (Piepgrass 61). Therefore, in creating an uncomplicated piece, Meireles made it readily accessible to any viewer.

Moreover, when interacting with How to Build Cathedrals, Piepgrass noted that viewers began to discuss the meaning of the work, which could possibly lead to them learning of, and ultimately critiquing, the Jesuit missions as Meireles does. The work is effective in drawing viewers in, which in turn allows them to interact with and potentially discuss the meaning of the work. Thus, How to Build Cathedrals is effective in engaging viewers, for interaction with the piece may lead to discuss of its purpose. In fact, the efficiency and discussion of the piece stem directly from its interactive nature.

The Success and Effectiveness of Bartolomé de las Casas’ Short Account

A similarly captivating piece of critique against the connection of explorer-missionary relations is Bartolomé de las Casas’ description, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Las Casas, a 16th century Dominican priest, is notable for being one of the first to call for the abolition of slavery in the New World, primarily through A Short Account. He was originally a willing participant in the takeover of the New World, leaving for Granada as a soldier in 1497, but after viewing the atrocities in the Spanish conquest of Cuba, Las Casas became one of the most significant activists for the native populace. He announced in a 1514 sermon that he was returning his Indian serfs to the governor, and shortly thereafter returned to Spain in order to negotiate the treatment of the natives (Dussel). Then, in 1542, he wrote A Short Account, which advocated for the fair treatment of the natives and led to the New Laws of 1542 that outlawed slavery in the colonies . The account, intended for King Charles I of Spain, was one of the first to demand better treatment for the natives and reprimand the Spanish for their violent and selfish actions in the New World.

The work itself is a piece fraught with gore and greed, aided by Las Casas’ commentary on the Spaniards’ actions as they destroyed the Indies in search for gold. Las Casas engages the reader by describing in detail the horrific behavior of the explorers. A Short Account describes the “ultimate end and scope” of the explorers was “gold only; that thereby growing opulent in a short time, they might arrive at once at such Degrees and Dignities” (Casas 4). Las Casas’ depiction casts the explorers as covetous and cruel, establishing the men as somewhat barbaric. The Spanish, whom Las Casas snidely notes, “style themselves as Christians,” came to the new land to “rob, kill, and slay,” and as he further suggests, “pretend they undertook this voyage for the people of the country” (Casas 14). Las Casas proposes that not only do the explorers destroy the New World, but they do so by deceiving the people of Spain by lying about their motives. While the explorers claimed they came to the New World to bring glory to Spain, they actually pillaged the land viciously in search of gold. Las Casas suggests that the explorers do not serve the people of Spain, but rather serve only their own selfish desire for wealth.

From Las Casas description of the horrors the Spanish committed, it is clear that the explorers had little compassion for the native people. If the natives escaped the Spaniard’s first attempt of murder, the explorers “immediately cut off [their] legs,” crippling or murdering the inhabitants (Casas 7). Las Casas implies the Spanish are not only interested in obtaining gold but also vengefully destroying any opponents. In fact, the natives who escape their “butcheries” are “committed to servitude during life,” demonstrating an extensive need to demean their enemy in order to feel successful (Casas 7). The conquistadors’ characterization as barbarians, as well as the description of their horrific actions, serves to make A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies an influential and effective piece of literature in establishing native’s rights.

The prosperity of Las Casas’ work was seen almost immediately in Spain, particularly in the New Laws of 1542, which eradicated slavery in the colonies. The laws were directly inspired by Las Casas’ writings on the violence in the New World, which were published in 1552, shortly before the creation of the New Laws (Castro 144). However, unlike the Meireles piece, the book does not force interaction, and because it was written specifically to persuade Charles I, the work is not necessarily as accessible to mass readers. This raises some questions as to how the work was able to gain such popularity and success.

It can be argued that the narrative’s significant depiction of injustice is entertaining because of its ruthless portrayal of such atrocities. For example, in a consultation on whether to burn a Peruvian Indian alive or not, the native asks the Spaniard “why do you burn me? Did you not promise to set me free for a Sum of Gold? And did I not give you a far larger quantity than I promised?” signifying that the Spanish were not killing only for wealth, but for their own pleasure as well (Casas 32). This notion is inhumane and horrifying, but also entertaining. Human nature is inclined to enjoy the fanciful and violent, and Las Casas utilizes this fact, as violence makes A Short Account persuasive, particularly to its intended audience of Charles I.

A possible explanation as to what makes the gore and violence of A Short Account so entertaining can be found in the 2014 study entitled Making Sense of Violence: Perceived Meaningfulness as a Predictor of Audience Interest in Violent Media Content, performed by Anne Bartsch at the University of Augsburg in Germany and Louise Mares of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The study suggests “depictions of violence...can foster empathy with victims, admiration for acts of courage and moral beauty in the face of violence” (Bartsch). Thus, human nature may not intrinsically enjoy the violence, but rather it is engaging because it fosters empathy for the victims. This particular interpretation of violence is pertinent to the discussion of Las Casas because it validates the author’s goal of cultivating compassion for the natives, signifying that the portrayal of violence is necessary to liberate an oppressed group.

While the possibility of justice may be the cause of its enjoyment, another perspective that clarifies Las Casas’ success comes from Neil L. Whitehead’s essay, “On the Poetics of Violence.” Whitehead argues that art and literature regarding war and violence is consumed because of its ritualistic nature, and it is a pattern that humans intrinsically believe they must follow. Whitehead defines war as “a ritual performance as much as it is an artifact of social structures and their symbolization,” meaning that war gives society context in understanding their identity (Whitehead 71). Whitehead’s interpretation is relevant because the need for identity in a changing world was present in the 16th century, thus explaining a need for social structure. The violence in A Short Account may have become exceptionally successful because it solidifies European dominance by establishing the Spanish as the stronger race, especially through the genocide of the native population. A Short Account may have been popularly consumed because the violence allowed readers a way to negotiate the new relationship between themselves and the natives without fear of debasement.

The Limitations of Genre in Discussing Genocide

Due to the complex nature of humanity, it is difficult to describe exactly why the violence of the work can be interpreted as enjoyable, but, through its popularity, it is clear that the violence was certainly satisfying as it allowed the 16th century readers a way of negotiating their place in society and make meaning for themselves. Thus, the work proves to be successful in engaging an audience. In fact, Michael Zoebelein’s Bartolomé De Las Casas: Liberation for the Oppressed cited the account as “one of the most widely circulated documents of its time” as it was translated into a dozen languages shortly after its initial publication, allowing all of Europe to read the narrative (Zoebelein 3). Unfortunately for the author, and perhaps proving the idea of the ruthlessness of the invaders, Las Casas was brought to court by his fellow explorers for possibly hyperbolizing the accounts. The point was valid, for as noted by Liberation for the Oppressed, “Las Casas never ceased in his efforts to impress… the profound disregard for the lives and wellbeing on the Indians,” potentially causing Las Casas to embellish his work in order to persuade Charles I (Zoebelein 15). The thought of Las Casas’ exaggerated accounts is not out of question due to his passion to validate the Indians, and as Henry Wagner and Helen Parish state in The Life and Writings of Bartolome De Las Casas, “the multiplicity of objectives and the need for a response helps us understand the nature of A Short Account,” meaning the potentially biased features of the work is comprehensible when its goals to persuade are realized (Wagner, Parish 108). 

While Las Casas’ desire to liberate the natives possibly influenced the biased writing in A Short Account, it should be noted that the claim was never proven. For example, an early twentieth-century Argentine historian, Romulo D. Carbia, spent his time until his death denouncing Las Casas by claiming that he forged documents and lied to promote his agenda (Hanke 148). However, Cabria never offered any proof for his claim, dying without presenting any information. There is no concrete evidence confirming his deceit or lack thereof, and due to the hundreds of years between his work and the present, it is almost impossible to discern his writing’s truthfulness. Ultimately, the work fails the reader because due to its genre of a persuasive document, it does not present a completely accurate rendering of genocide.

Similarly to Las Casas, Meireles’ work is also unsuccessful in telling a historically accurate story. Although it is effective in engaging viewers, it does not portray a complete account. Unlike Las Casas, the piece does not allow for a possibly untrue account due to its symbolic rather than literal representation. However, its simplified medium of art functions only as a visual piece and not as a directly historical one. Although the piece invites discussion and exploration, it does not directly depict the horrors of the natives as Las Casas’ piece does. Perhaps a viewer, after being stimulated by the piece, will research the Jesuits, but perhaps not. How to Build Cathedrals is beautiful and inviting, but it is not a fair way to demonstrate the plight of the natives because it doesn’t tell the entire story, but rather provides a symbolic representation of history. Additionally, the enchanting nature of the work seems morbid at times. The image of children in the museum playing with the coins, a representation of blood money earned from murder and destruction, is a saturnine idea, but also demonstrates how the work may be viewed more as a toy rather than a place of scholarly discussion and learning.


How to Build Cathedrals and A Short Account are proven to be effective in engaging readers, but not for presenting a complete and accurate story of genocide. They are successful in that Miereles’ medium allows for accessibility and discussion and Las Casas’ writings utilized violence to create a sympathetic piece of writing. However, while the work’s medium does allow the works a unique way to tell the story of the explorer and native relations, they ultimately fail as pieces of historical documentation because their story isn’t accurately told. Las Casas’ account, written biasedly to persuade Charles I, is possibly romanticized and altered. The account caters to the rights of the natives, but the work cannot be justified if it is possibly fraught with error and manipulation. Similarly, Meireles’ piece fails to tell the story of the natives because it is only a visual symbolic representation. The message of the work is easy to interact with, but also easy to ignore. And, because the installation only represents one aspect of the Jesuit missions, the rest of the story of the natives is left for the viewer to find out on their own.

Moreover, while the genre may offer differing aspects of or perhaps a new vision of an event, it cannot tell the whole story due to the physical limitations of its nature. For example, Las Casas’ A Short Account, a piece written to persuade, is inherently biased and hyperbolized, while Meireles’ installation is bound to a visual medium due to the nature of art itself, limiting the information it can present. In order to properly obtain a fair view of a mass murder the audience must look beyond one specific work to others pieces where the issue is represented in different ways. Only once many genres are combined, such as comparing A Short Account and How to Build Cathedrals, can a fuller message be realized, thus creating a fair and complete representation. A viewer cannot understand the story of genocide through How to Build Cathedrals alone; they need A Short Account, as well as other historical documents, writing and art pieces in order to gain a complete and unbiased image of genocide. Thus, the story of massacre cannot be told by an installation or a historical account alone; they must work together to create a complete and fair image to begin to reattribute the victims that history has thus far failed.


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