Guest Essay: Santiago Matamoros in the Americas by Alfred J. Andrea

Main Image: Santiago Mataespañois, (Santiago, Killer of Spaniards) Museo das Peregrinacións e de Santiago. Photo by A. J. Andrea.

See also: Guest Essay: Santiago Matamoros by Alfred J. Andrea


Santiago Matamoros was every bit as much the patron of the Spaniards’ conquests in the Americas as he had been during the preceding four and a half centuries of Iberian Reconquista.  The fact that numerous cities and towns throughout Latin America were blessed with the names “Santiago,” and “Matamoros,” including 27 Santiagos and 16 Matamoroses in Mexico alone, indicates the warrior saint’s importance to the conquistadors and the colonists who followed them. And those numbers do not include the many locales to which the saint’s name was added as an honorific, such as Mexico City’s Santiago de Tlateloco, which appears below.

The Conquistadors as Santiago’s Crusaders

Yes, most of the conquistadors undoubtedly lusted more for gold and glory than hungered and thirsted for righteousness. But such secular concerns did not preclude their thinking of themselves as crusaders and acting accordingly. As crusaders who saw themselves as establishing the City of God on the ruins of heathen cities that had been bathed in the blood of devilish human sacrifices, they invoked the name of Santiago and expected his aid.   

The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, writing about thirty years after the event, informs us that in July 1520 a vastly outnumbered army of Spaniards and their Native allies, who had suffered through a disastrous retreat from Tenochtitlan, faced an ambushing force at Otumba (Otompan in Nahuatl, “place of the Otomis“).  Commending themselves to God and Saint Mary and shouting out the name of señor Santiago, the few remaining Spanish horsemen charged, inaugurating a counterattack that transformed looming defeat into victory. The victorious turn of events might have been extraordinary, but there was nothing unusual about their calling upon Santiago. As already noted, “¡“Santiago y a ellos!” (Santiago, and at them!) had been a standard battle cry of Spanish Christian soldiery at least three centuries and probably more. There was also nothing particularly unusual in the way in which some people remembered or recast that victory.

The Battle of Clavijo Reprised  

José María Casado del Alisal, The Battle of Clavijo (1885), Chapel of the Military Orders, Real Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, Madrid. The five crosses emblazoned on the altar frontal are, from left to right, the emblems of the military orders of Alcántara, Montesa, the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, Santiago, and Calatrava. All but the Order of Saint John (the Hospitalers) were native Iberian orders. All five, as well as the Templars, played significant roles in the Reconquista. Photo by A. J. Andrea

The legendary (and never fought) Battle of Clavijo, which the previous essay briefly described,  became a template in the memories of Christian Spaniards, and in the aftermath of several actual battlefield victories over Moorish opponents, rumors circulated that Santiago had miraculously appeared to rally the Lord’s troops. The tradition continued into the New World.

Sometime in the period 1581-84, Diego Muñoz Camargo, the scholarly mestizo (mixed-blood) son of a conquistador and a Native woman, created or supervised the putting together of a graphic narrative consisting of 157 images that told the story of the conquest of the Aztec Empire. Known as the Tlaxcala Codex, it largely presents the events from the perspective of the Tlaxcalans, Cortés’s major Native ally. The image depicting the victory at Otumba shows a rider on a white horse attacking the Aztec battleline.  Cortés and Cortés’s interpreter, lover, and absolutely vital lieutenant La Malinche (originally named  Malintzin and, after her baptism, known to the Spaniards as doña Marina) proceed on foot behind the rider. Beneath the drawing, a scribe has written in Spanish, “The natives affirm that, here in this place, it was ‘el señor Santiago’ who appeared in the battle on a white horse because there was no one [else like him] in the company. And today there is a lovely hermitage of Santiago [there].”

“Santiago at Otumba,” Tlaxcala Codex

No known remnants of a hermitage at Otumba remain, but that is the nature of hermitages. It is possible that this note refers to the hermitage at Tepetlaoxtoc, some 16 miles away, that Friar Domingo Betanzos established in a limestone cave in 1527/28.

A second image also merits notice: an anonymous painting dating to 1722, which is housed in Santiago de Querétaro, a city founded in 1531 following a notable Christian victory there. The man dominating the scene is Nicolás de San Luis Montañez, a Native chieftain and the descendent of kings. By royal commission, he served as lord of the ancient Toltec capital of Tula and held the rank of captain-general, with a mandate to pacify and convert to Catholic Christianity the Chichimecas and Otomíes of central Mexico. In addition to his attire and baton, which signify his high military rank, and skin coloring, which indicates his ethnicity, four items in this painting demand attention: the shield on which there is writing, the cross within a cloud, the horseman in the background, and the emblem on Don Nicolás’s left shoulder.

Actually, the shield tells it all. It reads in part: “EL General Don Nicolás de San Luis Montañez Yndio… Caballero del orden de Santiago…with the aid of 33 chiefs of Tula and Xlotepec and 25,000 Indians, [and] 300 horses, on 25 June 1531, defeated a numerically superior army of the heathen Chichimeca….In the end, victory was claimed by the Christian army with the aid of the patron of Spain and the Apostle Santiago and a Holy Cross that appeared in the heavens.”

Nicolás de San Luis Montañez, Museo Regional de Querétara, Mexico. (accessed December 29, 2020).

Clearly the horseman beneath the celestial cross is Santiago. Likewise, the emblem on the white cape of Don Nicolás, caballero (knight) of the Order of Santiago, is the sword-cross of Santiago, which we saw in the previous essay. But by what right had a Native American been inducted as a knight into this Iberian military order?  

Santiago Mataindios

Before we address that question, let us consider for a moment Santiago’s continuing involvement in Christians’ battles against “heathen” Indians. Simply put, between 1530 and 1542, there were at least four recorded apparitions of Santiago’s intervening on behalf of Christian forces in desperate but ultimately victorious battles in Mexico. Santiago Matamoros had now become Santiago Mataindios (slayer of Indians), although no one apparently used that appellation for Saint James until the twentieth-century art historian Francisco de la Maza coined it.

Regardless, images of Santiago leading the charge against Native Americans abounded throughout the colonial viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru. One of the most famous is a wooden relief that once was part of the great altarpiece (a decorative work of art above and behind a Christian altar) of the Templo (Church) de Santiago in the area of Mexico City known as Tlateloco. In the early sixteenth century, Tlateloco was a former town that had been forcibly incorporated as a suburb into the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. It was there that the Aztecs made their last bloody stand and surrendered to the Spaniards and their Native allies on August 13, 1521. To celebrate the triumph of Christianity over heathenish idolatry, Cortés ordered the area’s temples razed and a church dedicated to Santiago raised on the site. When the church was rebuilt in the first decade of the seventeenth century, Native carvers fashioned its central altarpiece. Nineteenth-century neglect of the church led to the loss of most of the altarpiece except for the small retablo (devotional sculpture) shown here.

Note that the “Indians” beneath the horse’s hooves are naked—bringing to mind the naked souls of the damned that were portrayed in so many Last Judgment sculptures that graced churches across Western Europe. Four Spanish soldiers are on our left, beneath and behind the saint’s white horse, and near the horse’s mouth is what appears to be a Native ally wearing a warrior’s headdress. The curlicues at the top represent the heavenly clouds from which Santiago descended.

One characteristic of Santiago that might strike the modern person as strange is that he wears a pilgrim’s hat in addition to a warrior’s breastplate. Saint James was simultaneously a killer and a pilgrim. In the latter capacity, he presided over the pilgrimage to his resting place at Compostela, the most popular pilgrimage site in the West after Rome. Once again, violence was married to piety.

In 1540, Pedro de Valdivia, who served as second-in-command in Francisco Pizzaro’s conquest of the Inca Empire, led an invasion into what is today Chile, and in 1541 founded its capital city, Santiago de Chile. As we might expect, the warrior-pilgrim saint was as significant to the conquistadors of South America as he was to those who fought in Meso- and Central America. One example must suffice.

Around 1615, Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, who traced his lineage back to the highest echelons of Incan nobility, dispatched to King Philip III of Spain an illustrated manuscript titled El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (The First New Chronicle and Good Government), in which he lambasted the injustices of Spanish rule and argued for the establishment of good colonial government based on the highest traditions of the Quechua people and the principles of Catholic theology. Although he severely criticized Spanish abuses and defended the right of his people to govern themselves, as a devout Catholic, he never questioned the king’s ultimate authority under God or the “blessing” of his people’s conversion to Christianity.

Within this lengthy manuscript, which apparently never reached the eyes of King Philip, there are 398 pages of line drawings by the talented author. One of the more famous shows Santiago riding over a prostrate Native. The fallen foe is Mancu Inca Yupanqui, who unsuccessfully attempted to reestablish the Inca Empire. In May 1536, he initiated a ten-month-long siege of Cuzco with a force that outnumbered the besieged Spaniards many times over. Regardless of the size of Mancu Inca’s army, following bitter fighting, he was forced to retire from the field. As Guamán Poma tells the story, in the midst of the conflict and in answer to the Spaniards’ prayers, Santiago appeared on his white horse from the heavens. Wearing a red cape and carrying a shield, a white flag, and a sword, he ran roughshod over the enemy, who thought he must be the god Viracocha. Such was his speed and ferocity, he seemed to be like lightning, and thereafter, whenever the Natives heard thunder, they said he was riding through the sky.

“Conquista, Milagro del señor Santiago Mayor, Apóstol de Jesucristo en el Cuzco”  (Conquest, [the] Miracle of señor Santiago, the Greater, Apostle of Jesus Christ, in Cuzco). From the illustrated chronicle, El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (The First New Chronicle and Good Government) by Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala (ca. 1615). (accessed December 29, 2020)

The Order of Santiago in the New World

If we look carefully at these Mexican and Peruvian images of Santiago, we see that he bears the sword-cross of his military order on his breastplate, and as noted above, El General don Nicolás de San Luis Montañez Yndio likewise wears the order’s emblem on his left shoulder. What makes the captain-general’s sporting of the sword-cross noteworthy is that since its inception in the late twelfth century, the Order of Santiago had reserved knighthood exclusively for adult Spanish hidalgos (nobles) with limpeza de sangue (purity of blood), namely men who had no known Moorish or Jewish ancestry. Moreover, each had to be the son from a legitimate Catholic marriage. And yet, we have here a Native American knight of Santiago who was born out of a marriage between two pagans, his Toltec parents. And even more unusual, Martín, the son from the momentary union between La Malinche and Hernán Cortés, was knighted into the order in 1529, at the age of 6 or 7! What had happened?

The short answer is that colonists, especially those on far-away frontiers, tend to alter conventions or create their own standards and rules to meet the circumstances of a different, often quite alien, environment. And colonists in the so-called New World were no exception in that regard. Yet relaxation of a mother country’s norms and deviation from its guidance could only go so far.

The sixteenth-century monarchs of Spain were careful to limit within their now-unified kingdom the power and independence of the once-powerful and formerly independent military orders, especially the four major home-grown orders, Calatrava, Alcantara, Montesa, and Santiago. If this was true for Spain, it was doubly true for their overseas empire. There was no way they would allow any military order to become a state with the state of the “Indies.” For this reason, no military order was given land or any other sources of income in the American colonies or allowed to establish anywhere within the Indies a commandery, or landed residence. Knighthood in a military order for any resident of the Indies was purely and simply an honor given to a favored few.

We know of only 148 members of Iberia’s four major military orders residing in the viceroyalty of New Spain throughout the entire colonial period, namely 1521-1821–three centuries! And the territory included Mexico, much of the southern and western regions of the present-day United States, Central America, and Cuba and the other Caribbean islands. Significantly, of those 148, 105 belonged to Santiago, making it the most widely represented military order in the viceroyalty. By contrast, Calatrava, the next largest, had 23 wearing its habit.

Although the Order of Santiago played no role, per se, in the conquest or governance of New Spain (or the viceroyalty of Peru for that matter), membership within its ranks was a much-sought-after, albeit rarely bestowed privilege. Cortés, for example, was knighted in 1525 as a partial reward for his conquests in central Mexico, and his brutal second-in-command, Pedro de Alvarado, who participated in the conquests of Cuba and Mexico and led the conquest of most of Central America, especially Guatemala, received the same honor in 1527. We know of several other officers of Cortés who received the order’s habit, including Diego de Ordás, who later died searching for El Dorado in Venezuela.

In Peru, Francisco Pizarro actually was made a knight of Santiago in 1529, in anticipation of his conquest of the Inca Empire (a conquest for which he received a royal mandate), and later, after his seemingly miraculous success, he was promoted to the rank of knight-commander.  

But as noted above, it was not just Spaniards who received this coveted knighthood. By becoming totally honorific, the order’s membership requirements were relaxed for its New World members. As exemplified by the case of Don Nicolás de San Luis Montañez, the Order of Santiago, alone among all of Iberia’s military orders, admitted a few pure-blood Native Americans of Mesoamerica into its ranks, but they had to be of noble lineage and plausibly claim the royal blood of Moctezuma II. As for Martín Cortés, whom contemporaries knew as “El Mestizo,” well, he was the son of the conqueror of Mexico.

Two More Images of Santiago?

Consonant with the twin dicta “anything worth doing is worth over-doing” and “too much is never enough,” I would like to discuss briefly (or not) two images, only one of which is a 100- percent-certain Santiago.

Cortés as Santiago

The first, from Camargo’s Tlaxcala Codex, portrays a victorious Hernán Cortés, which I maintain is Cortés in the guise of Santiago. See if you agree.

Cortés (his name appears above him as “Don Her’do Cortes”) dominates the scene. Attired in full battle armor with shield and lance and seated on a white horse, he holds aloft a crucifix into which he gazes with devotion. To his rear is La Malinche, who prayerfully venerates the crucifix. As the gloss at the bottom of her huipil (gown) informs us, she allegorically represents “Nueva España” (New Spain), and in the crook of her right arm she supports the standard of New Spain. A fettered Moctezuma (his name appears below his right hand) appears in the foreground. His standard lies on the ground next to a broken macuahutil (obsidian-bladed war club), a ruined crown, and an Aztec ceremonial mask. Combined they represent past military power, governmental authority, and “idolatry,” In his left hand, Moctezuma holds a uictli, the wooden digging stick that was the Natives’ primary agricultural tool.

Arguably, only the white horse connects Cortés in any way with Santiago, but in light of the “miraculous” conquest (thanks to tens of thousands Native allies and a smallpox epidemic) and the centrality of Santiago in Spanish culture, I think it is reasonable to infer that Camargo (or an unknown artist) had the sainted Moor-killer in mind when he drew this picture. But you might reasonably disagree.

A Nineteenth-Century Peruvian Santiago

One needs a well-honed sense of irony to appreciate the twists and turns of history.

In August 1998, my son and I completed an eleven-day, 152-mile trek from León to Compostela, and upon arriving in the city proceeded to visit all the sites and do all the traditional things that pilgrims and others (we were “others”) have been doing there for centuries (including eating pieces of tarta de Santiago, the region’s rich almond cake). One of the places we visited was the Museo das Peregrinacións e de Santiago (Museum of Pilgrimage and Santiago), where, much to my delighted surprise, we saw this silver sculpture.

Santiago Mataespañois, Museo das Peregrinacións e de Santiago. Photo by A. J. Andrea.

Native Indians who were rebelling against Spanish colonial oppression in nineteenth-century Peru adopted Santiago as their patron, transforming him into Santiago Mataespañois (Santiago Killer of Spaniards). Ironically (that word again) this masterpiece, which was crafted from local silver—the metal whose mining and smelting probably cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Amerindians over the course of three centuries—is a way of saying to Spaniards and the rest of the world, “See, he served as the patron of our Reconquista as well.” Quod severis, metes (As you sow, so shall you reap).  

A. J. Andrea