Prent uit ‘Imago primi saeculi Societatis Iesu a Prouincia Flandro-Belgica euisdem Societatis repreasentata.’ (Antwerp: Ex officina Plantiniana Balthasaris Moreti, 1640) © Pius XII Memorial Library, Saint Louis University

Missions, Maps and Mediators

Influential Encounters Between Jesuits and Native Americans

Lecture by Mirela Altic and Francismar Alex Lopes de Carvalho on 7 November 2023

The Society of Jesus was not the first nor the only Catholic order to deploy fervent missionary zeal in the 17th century European colonial endeavour in the Americas, but their network was exceptionally broad and well-organized and their experience extraordinarily well documented through their cartography and diplomatic correspondence.

Evidently these letters and maps were tools of colonial expansion, but the incorporation of native knowledge make them also an expression of cross-cultural communication. As such, Jesuit mapping of the Americas enabled an exchange of ideas and cultural concepts between the Old and The New World.

Their scientific and humanistic education not only enabled the Jesuit missionaries to transfer geographical reality, but also to establish contact with local populations and exchange knowledge about culture and ways of understanding man and the world. Their dependence on the collaboration of indigenous intermediaries shaped a new local power system in which concepts and ideas were exchanged and negotiated, translated and imposed, to form a new mental geography.

Renowned experts professor Mirela Altic (University of Zagreb) and professor Francismar Alex Lopes de Carvalho (University of Bonn) will lecture on and discuss these topics. Professor Altic is the author of ‘Encounters in the New World. Jesuit Carthography of the Americas’ (University of Chicago Press, 2022) in which she shows the incorporation of indigenous knowledge into the Jesuit maps, effectively making them an expression of cross-cultural communication. Professor Lopes de Carvalho recently published ‘Missionizing on the Edge. Religion and Power in the Jesuit Missions of Spanish Amazonia’ (Brill, 2023), a study of how natives actively engaged with the practices and ideas of settlement and religiosity that the Jesuits transmitted.

These talks is part of our lecture series on the big questions in society that UCSIA is organizing in the framework of the Baroque Influencers city festival.

Encounters in the New World: Jesuit Cartography of Americas

Mirela Altic

In this lecture Mirela Altic analyses maps produced by the Jesuits during their missionary work in the possessions of the Spanish, Portuguese, and French Crowns in both North and South Americas. She traces the Jesuit contribution to mapping and mapmaking from their arrival in the New World into the post-suppression period, placing it in the context of their worldwide undertakings in the fields of science and art. Altic’s analysis shows the incorporation of indigenous knowledge into the Jesuit maps, effectively making them an expression of cross-cultural communication—even as they were tools of colonial expansion. Far more than just a physical survey of unknown space, Jesuit mapping was in fact the most important link to enable exchange of ideas and cultural concepts between Old World and the New.

For this lecture Mirela Altic draws on insights from her beautifully illustrated book which was published under the same title with the University of Chicago Press in 2022.

Dr. Mirela Altic is a Chief Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences and Full Professor in the Department of History, University of Zagreb where she has been teaching history students how to use maps as a historical resource for over twenty years. She specializes in social history of maps, cross-cultural knowledge exchange and early modern encounters. She is the author of twenty-two books and numerous scholarly papers and is a contributor to The History of Cartography Project (University of Wisconsin Madison/ University of Chicago Press). Over the last decade she has published extensively on the on Jesuit cartography and their contribution to the history of mapmaking and exploration in general. 

Missionizing on the Edge:
Religion and Power in the Jesuit Missions of Spanish Amazonia

Mirela Altic
This lecture focuses on the endurance and subtle transformations of indigenous customs and beliefs as they intermingle and intertwine in the dynamic intercultural and interreligious dialogue forged between Jesuit missionaries and Amazonian natives. Nestled within the eastern fringes of the Audiencia of Quito since 1638, the Maynas missions emerged as a prominent Jesuit endeavor in the vast realm of Spanish America. The Jesuits’ efforts focused on differentiating native customs from rituals and, above all, propagating the sacraments of baptism, confession, and matrimony. In light of the difficult conditions for evangelization in the Amazonian lowlands, conflicts and doubts arose regarding the “sincerity” of the hybrid solutions adopted by the natives. To a large extent, the presence of native elements integrated into Christianity in the missions was a result of the difficulties and adaptations imposed by the work of evangelization in Amazonia. However, as this study shows, the exigencies of translating Christianity through elements of native worldviews were pivotal to the emergence of a hybrid, negotiated Christianity. In Amazonia, indigenous peoples accepted only certain elements of urban life and Christianity under the condition that missionaries did not stray from practical and symbolic continuities between tradition and new forms and conventions. Natives could incorporate novelties into their own cultural schemes, and clergy were ill-positioned to oppose practices and representations that ensured both their acceptance within native communities and the intelligibility of their message.

Dr. Francismar Alex Lopes de Carvalho is an Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung Research Fellow at the University of Bonn in Germany. He is also a Professor of History at Rio de Janeiro State University in Brazil. His research is centered on the Jesuit missions in South America and the interactions between Iberians and autonomous indigenous groups. Dr. Carvalho has made significant contributions to his field, notably through the publication of two books: ‘Missionizing on the Edge’ (BRILL, 2023), which delves into the urban and religious experiences of Amazonian Natives within the Jesuit missions, and ‘Natives, Iberians, and Imperial Loyalties in the South American Borderlands’ (Palgrave, 2022), which explores the intricate interactions between Natives, Portuguese, and Spanish in the central regions of South America during the eighteenth century.

More ‘Big Questions’ at the ‘Baroque Influencers’ city festival:

Kerk in Tabora, Tanzania (c) Rohan Reddy via Unsplash

The Future of the Mission,
the Mission of the Future

debate (in Dutch)
Big Questions of Baroque Influencers
27 November 2023

Jesuit astronomers with Kangxi Emperor 1690-1705 Beauvais (c) Philippe Behagle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Discovery of China

book launch (in Dutch)
Big Questions of Baroque Influencers
20 November 2023

Wiskunde en wetenschappen als kunst voor morgen

Mathematics and Sciences as Art for Tomorrow

lecture (in Dutch)
Big Questions of Baroque Influencers
25 October 2023


Koningstraat 2
B-2000 Antwerpen
Tel. +32 (0)3 265 49 60

Voorlopige locatie tijdens de renovatiewerken:
Blindestraat 14, 2000 Antwerpen