Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Diego Rivera and Hernan Cortes

Nicolas Robles
Badajoz, Spain

The author in Guadalupe, Mexico, with two local guides (on the left) and a Texan friend (on the right). Photo courtesy of the author.

Diego Rivera was one of Mexico’s most famous artists. Nowadays he is also known for his marriage to Frida Kahlo, another great Mexican artist. Born in Guanajuato, Mexico, Rivera was an atheist and a Communist radical who criticized the Mexican government and foreign domination. He created the History of Mexico mural in the stairwell of the National Palace in Mexico City between 1929 and 1935, after the Mexican Revolution. The mural depicts Mexico’s history, especially the struggle of its people against the Spanish, the French, and the dictators that controlled the country at different points in history.

At the bottom of the west wall of the mural, the Spanish conqueror Cortes is shown defeating the Aztecs. The last panel, painted in 1951, depicts the arrival of the Spaniards in Veracruz, their military conquest destroying the indigenous paradise. Hernán Cortés is portrayed with a body and face deformed as a result of congenital syphilis. His ugliness invites condemnatory judgment. For Diego Rivera, a descendant of Jewish converts who came from Spain, the monster-conqueror symbolized Spanish corruption, an insatiable thirst for riches, and a total lack of understanding of the indigenous world.

Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, first Marquess of the Valley of Oaxaca, was a Spanish conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire. This brought large parts of what is now mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile in the early sixteenth century. Cortés was born in 1485 in the town of Medellín, then a village in the Kingdom of Castile, now a municipality in the modern-day province of Badajoz in Extremadura, Spain. His father was an infantry captain of distinguished ancestry but slender means. The conquest of Mexico ended in 1521 after the capture of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City).

Mexico City – Palacio Nacional. Mural by Diego Rivera: Exploitation of Mexico by Spanish Conquistadors. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber. Via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Beginning in 1536, Cortés explored the northwestern part of Mexico, discovering the Baja California Peninsula and exploring the Pacific coast of Mexico. He joined the emperor Charles the Fifth and his fleet commanded by Andrea Doria at the great expedition against Algiers in the Barbary Coast in 1541. During this campaign, Cortés almost drowned in a storm that hit his fleet while he was pursuing the corsair Barbarossa. Having spent a great deal of his own money to finance expeditions, he was now heavily in debt. In February 1544 he made a claim on the royal treasury but was ignored. Disgusted, he decided in 1547 to return to Spain. When he reached Seville, he was stricken with dysentery. On December 2, 1547, he died in Castilleja de la Cuesta, near Seville at the age of sixty-two.

After his death, his body was repeatedly moved. On December 4, 1547, he was buried in the church of San Isidoro del Campo, Sevilla. Three years later, his body was moved to the altar of Santa Catarina in the same church. In his testament, Cortés asked for his body to be buried in the monastery he had ordered to be built in Coyoacan, México, but the monastery was never built. So, in 1566, his body was sent to New Spain and buried in the church of San Francisco of Texcoco. In 1629 Don Pedro Cortés, fourth Marquess del Valle de Oaxaca and his last male descendant, died; so the viceroy decided to move the bones of Cortés along with those of his descendant to the Franciscan church in México. As this was delayed for nine years, his body remained in the main room of the palace of the viceroy. Eventually it was moved to the Sagrario Franciscan church, where it remained for eighty-seven years. In 1716, it was moved to another place in the same church. In 1794 his bones were transferred to the “Hospital de Jesus” (founded by Cortés), where a statue and a mausoleum were erected. In 1823, after the independence of México, it seemed likely that his tomb would be desecrated, so the mausoleum was removed and the bones were hidden. In 1836 his bones were moved to another place in the same building. It was not until 1946 that they were rediscovered and put in the charge of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) of Mexico. They were then restored to the same place, this time with a bronze inscription and his coat of arms.

Portrait of conquistador Hernan Cortes, copy of original by an unknown artist in the Cabildos room of the city hall of Mexico city. José Salomé Pina. Real Academia de la Historia. Madrid. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Study of the bones was turned over to the most renowned specialists of the INAH, headed by Eusebio Dávalos, who issued a report: an individual of 1.58 meters in height, dwarfed by age, with serious affections (osteitis and osteosis) of non-infectious origin, and afflicted with old-age rickets at the time of death. Dr. Alfonso Quiroz Cuarón later proposed another interpretation of Cortés’ skeleton, concluding that “evident degenerative stigmata are observed, which correspond to a disease: dwarfism due to congenital syphilis of the bone system.” Rivera used this interpretation to reproduce the body and face of the conquistador in his mural.

The opinion of Quiroz Cuarón is, at best, controversial. A man 1.60 meters tall is not a dwarf. In fact, López de Gómara, who lived with Cortes, described him as follows: “He was Fernando Cortés of good stature, well-built and large-breasted, with an ashen color, a light beard and long hair beard.” As an example, the Conde-Duque de Olivares was considered a tall man in those times, and his height was calculated at about 1.75 meters. Emperor Charles the Fifth was 1.65 meters in height. The Venetian ambassador Gaspar Contarini made a very detailed description of Cortes when he was twenty-five years old: “He is of medium height, but not very big, nor small . . .” Human height has changed throughout history and people are generally taller now because of improved nutrition in most countries. Hernan Cortes was not a big man, particularly when compared with the current population, but cannot be called a dwarf.

It is hard to diagnose, without other evidence, congenital syphilis in a warrior like Hernan Cortes, who had no malformations described. The image invented by Alfonso Quiroz Cuarón was taken up by Diego Rivera and transferred, with his own style, to the murals of the Palacio Nacional and the Teatro de los Insurgentes, painted between 1949 and 1951. Rivera and Quiroz Cuarón took the liberty, in their reconstruction of the myth of the patriotic history, to punish the dead. The conquistador was reduced to a pathological and repugnant being. This leaves out the opinion of the physical anthropologists who believed that Cortés’ deformities were the product of old age, but the image of Cortes that endures in Mexico is that rendered by Rivera: anachronistic, senile, syphilitic, and monstrous.

NICOLAS ROBERTO ROBLES is Professor of Nephrology at the University of Extremadura and a Member of the Academy of Medicine.

Spring 2021



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