Pious Imperialism

Spanish Rule and the Cult of Saints in Mexico City

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Cornelius Conover
  • Albuquerque, NM: 
    University of New Mexico Press
    , May
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The relationship between the Spanish empire-building enterprise of the 16th to 17th centuries and the Catholic Church during the conquest of the continent we now describe as the Americas, is a well-established and traditional field of enquiry; this is especially so for Latin Americanist historians. The multitude of ways in which the Catholic Church, its missionaries, and its diocesan clergy took an active role in bringing into being the sociocultural and religious infrastructure that would mark the imperial years of Spanish rule was such that the two entities—the Spanish monarchy and the Catholic Church—are so intertwined so as to appear at times indistinguishable. Indeed, Catholicism itself would seem to be marked in this period by a distinctively Spanish influence.

Cornelius Conover’s book, Pious Imperialism: Spanish Rule and the Cult of the Saints in Mexico City, fits squarely within this tradition. His focus, however, moves beyond an interest in the implications and histories of the real patronato and centers on the Catholic Cult of the Saints as the cornerstone from which this relationship was built, fostered, and maintained. To be more precise, Conover argues that it was precisely in and through the various rituals and practices that accompanied the Catholic veneration of those figures deemed to have been sufficiently holy in life or death to warrant universal religious devotion. People within the limits of the empire, argues Conover, were concerned with the choice of which saint to sponsor and venerate and which figure of the faith to dedicate themselves to.

This is what is most innovative in Conover’s work: to argue that the Cult of the Saints is the nodal point of the dissemination of the specific and intimate relationship between Spanish imperial rule, religious devotion, and social and political life itself in the colonies is to place Catholic liturgical practice at the very heart of the empire as a political and colonial structure. The term “liturgy” encompasses the broad spectrum of practices (ritual actions and words), that populate the life of faith, whether this be the life of the faithful or the clergy, as an expression of being in and towards the ecclesiastical manifestation of specific religious sacraments and rites of passage, such as baptism, marriage, and mass. It is to Conover’s credit that his work is able to demonstrate how this liturgical framework can give us insights into the imperial life of piety in this place and time; hence, his coining of the term “pious imperialism.”

Conover’s innovative analysis draws on archival and primary sources that range from archival material documenting the Franciscan relationship to the empire and the Catholic Church, cabildo or city council historical records chronicling the life and history of this city, and diocesan archival material. Given this wealth of material his analysis is able to trace the ways in which the liturgical history of Mexico City demonstrates both the importance of the influence of the king within Catholic ritual and social life and the complicated relationships between the various elements of this society that required political loyalty to the king and empire, and political allegiance to municipal or local leaders and councils, diocesan clergy, and Catholic institutional frameworks. This means, of course, that Spanish imperial devotion also bled into Catholic liturgical devotion: the relationship was symbiotic.

The multitude of saints that formed part of devotional practices in this period can be hard for a reader to keep straight; however, Conover helps the reader navigate this complicated historical narrative in two exemplary ways: First, he deploys the story of San Felipe de Jesus (a not-so-pious resident of Mexico City who was executed as a spy by the emperor of Japan) as a guiding framework that accompanies the analysis of the ways in which the lives of the saints, their promotion, and the devotional practices involved impacted the various political and economic histories of the city and even the fortunes of individuals. Second, and perhaps more important, Conover is an excellent storyteller: his prose is clean, clear, and imaginative enough to draw all readers into this history.

Pious Imperialism is an innovative analysis that exposes and analyzes the vicissitudes of life in the Spanish and Catholic empire. With this text Conover introduces an important element, the analysis of liturgical practice and history, into the conversations that continually interpret and reevaluate the relationship between church and empire and the ways in which this relationship could be mobilized or invoked to the benefit or detriment of the prevailing sociopolitical contexts. The book opens new ground for those interested in further exploring this complicated historical relationship that is so crucial to the history and present of the American continent and its peoples.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel E. Nourry Burgos is a doctoral student in Iberian Literature/Culture at the University of Texas, Austin.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cornelius Conover is Associate Professor of History at Augustana University.


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