Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Lost Retablo of Saltillo Cathedral

The first of our posts highlighting outstanding colonial altarpieces in northern Mexico focuses on the grand retablo of Saltillo/Monclova.
   In previous posts we have traced and highlighted altarpieces* by the prominent and innovative Ureña family* of 18th century Mexican designers and retablistas, several of which have survived in places apart from their original or intended locations.
   The retablo of Saltillo/Monclova is a case in point—the only surviving documented Ureña work in northern Mexico and, in our view, the finest baroque altarpiece in the state of Nuevo León.

The cathedral of Saltillo;                          The Santo Cristo chapel today
In 1760, Juan García de Castañeda, Felipe de Ureña's son in law and ensamblador, contracted with the wealthy merchant Pedro de Nain, on behalf of the confraternity of The Santo Cristo of Saltillo, for a sumptuous retablo to display the venerated eponymous crucifix in the newly built and dedicated Capilla de Santo Cristo in Saltillo cathedral.
   This retablo was duly executed by 
Castañeda  in the family workshop with the assistance of Felipe himself, who undertook to finish several Castañeda projects after his death in 1763. It was installed and fronted by a beautiful, chased silver altar commissioned in the same period, which remains in Saltillo cathedral.
   The altarpiece stood in the chapel until the 1890s when, due to remodeling of the interior, it was placed in the nearby Santuario de Guadalupe where it remained until the 1920s, after which the retablo was dissassembled and placed in storage.
San Francisco de Monclova
In the 1950s, the venerable but modest barrio chapel of San Francisco in the nearby city of Monclova (Nuevo León) was renovated and reopened. The bishop of Monclova then undertook negotiations for transfer of the Ureña retablo to the new chapel, as sanctioned in the will of the late bishop Echeverria of Saltillo.
The retablo under restoration 2012
Finally reassembled and installed in 1967 and then partially restored in the 1980s, in 2012 the retablo underwent further restoration by the local chapter of Adopte Una Obra de Arte.
Glowing beneath the renovated beamed ceiling, the gilded retablo is now the centerpiece of the chapel. The bold Ureña design was intended to more effectively display the miraculous crucifix and place it in the biblical context of a Calvary scene—originally flanked by the Virgin of Sorrows and St John the Evangelist.     
   Although another crucifix and new figures of the Virgin, St. Joseph and St Francis have replaced the original statuary in its present location, the bold, polychrome reliefs of various saints and apostles in the oval medallions of the estípites and niche-pilasters remain.
Richly ornamented and imaginatively detailed, the altarpiece is a classic Ureña/Castañeda work that draws on many influences—Plateresque, Mannerist, even Gothic—all integrated within a harmonious and coherent whole. 
    The Ureña hallmark of a relatively open, unstructured center effectively displays the crucifix, here flanked by broad, extravagantly scrolled niche-pilasters reminiscent of his grand earlier retablos of Belén and Regina Coeli in Mexico City.
These are bordered in turn by slender but decorative estípites at the edges of the retablo that extend from the predella to the high, rounded gable, visually heightening the altarpiece. 
Both estípites and niche-pilasters are prominently inset with relief medallions, some with portrait busts of apostles, nuns and figures associated with the Crucifixion.
Recent restorations have focused on the numerous heads of cherubs and angels throughout the retablo.

Thankfully, this superb altarpiece has not been lost or destroyed like too many other similar works of colonial art, a historic masterpiece of late baroque art that has survived for our delight and instruction.
*Known as El maestro transhumante, the "peripatetic master", Felipe de Ureña was the most influential of the Mexican born architect /designers to introduce and expand the Churrigueresque or barroco estípite style into New Spain. During the second half of the 18th century, together with family members, he was primarily responsible for the spread and subsequent evolution of this ornate late baroque style into cities across Mexico, especially along the silver routes north of Mexico City. Primarily an innovative designer and fabricator of altarpieces, he later adapted the barroco estípite style as it was called, for church facades. His elegant and distinctive designs are recognized as the  "felipense" style. 
text ©2018 Richard D. Perry
color images by Niccolo Brooker and internet sources

Saturday, January 13, 2018

San Martin Huaquechula. earthquake update

As readers may have seen in our earlier posts, damage from the 2017 earthquake was extensive in the Puebla/Tlaxcala region. Repair and mitigation efforts are still in the early stages.
   In a post late last year we noted the severe damage suffered by the early Franciscan church and monastery of San Martín Huaquechula:
2017 picture of church front showing the fallen belfry immediately following the 'quake 
detail of collapsed vault above the church choir
Today we publish some more recent pictures of the extensive structural damage in the church at Huaquechula, courtesy of Robert Jackson.
San Martín Huaquechula, the church front 2018
the nave facing east
the cracked vaulting above the nave
the crushed choir beneath the fallen vault
color photography © 2017 & 2018 by Robert Jackson.  all rights reserved

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Tlaxcala altarpieces: the Dancing Kings of San José

We start our new series on the colonial altarpieces of Tlaxcala with a look at an historic retablo in the principal parish church of San José * in the city of Tlaxcala:
Hernán Cortés with the Lords of Tlaxcala 
Before the Spanish conquest and throughout the colonial period, the native lords of Tlaxcala enjoyed considerable power and prestige in the region. As indispensable allies of the Spanish during the defeat of the Aztecs they continued to enjoy special privileges above the indigenous nobility elsewhere in New Spain.
The original Capilla de Los Indios beside the monastery of San Francisco (Lienzo de Tlaxcala)
When the Franciscans founded their first monastery in Tlaxcala, the four principal native lords built their own substantial chapel, La Capilla Real de Los Indios, since removed, adjacent to the church.
In the 1700s, with the secularization of the monastery, the Lords established a new, imposing baroque Capilla de Los Indios (now the Palace of Justice) in the main plaza across from the tiled parish church of San José.
In the nave of San José stands an impressive 18th century altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, framed with giant estípite pilasters like those of the Capilla de Los Indios. In fact it is probable that this altarpiece was commissioned by the Tlaxcalan nobles themselves, like other art works in the region, and formerly rested in the Capilla. 
The altarpiece retains most of its original paintings and statuary, but of special interest are the four polychrome reliefs of "dancing kings" framed in ornate cartouches along the predella or base level of the retablo. These represent four royal saints, from left to right, St. Hermenegild; St. Ferdinand of Castile; St. Louis of France, and probably Edward the Confessor of England.
Since this altarpiece is not dedicated or related to the Franciscan royal Tertiaries, as for example the retablo in the Third Order church of Atlixco, the presence of these "Reyes" is puzzling. 
   However, they may stand for, by analogy, the indigenous lords of the four ancient regions of Tlaxcala themselves, emphasizing their continued importance in the region during the colonial era, and their support of the native Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe.  
   By further extension, their choreographic poses may covertly refer to the stylized sacred dances, known as netotiliztli, performed by the native lords in prehispanic ceremonial.  
* Note: Because of recent earthquake damage, San José is currently closed to visitors. 
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
color images courtesy of Jim Cook
based in part on the monograph, The Glories of the Republic of Tlaxcala by Jaime Cuadriello.

See our posts on other Tlaxcalan retablos: Tepeyanco; Zacatelco; Santa Cruz de Tlaxcala; Apetatitlan;

Monday, January 1, 2018

Santos Reyes Metztitlan, the main altarpiece

To inaugurate our 2018 series on notable colonial altarpieces in Mexico on a seasonal note, we consider the newly restored retablo mayor of Santos Reyes Metztitlan.
   In other posts on this majestic Augustinian priory we have looked at the carved crosses there as well as its extraordinary muralsBy good fortune, or perhaps because of its provincial conservatism, Metztitlan, alone among the monasteries of Hidalgo, retains six of its colonial retablos. Their intricate gilded frames and painted saints create a thousand glinting lights in the darkened nave.
In this post we take a closer look at what is arguably its finest treasure, the main altarpiece or retablo mayor, dedicated to Los Santos Reyes or Three Kings.
Perfectly framed by the flared walls and the coffered vault of the sanctuary, the main altarpiece is the sole major colonial retablo to survive in the region. 
   It is a masterwork of the Solomonic style, completed in the year 1700 by the celebrated Mexican sculptor Salvador de Ocampo, for the staggering sum of 6800 gold pesos. 
The Metztitlan main altarpiece under restoration 1990
Close to disintegration by the 1980s, the altarpiece was rescued by SEDUE, the Mexican agency for urban and ecological development, and has now been recently fully restored. 
   Because of its long isolated geographical situation and condition, virtually all the statuary and paintings are authentic and mostly in their original placement in the retablo—a rarity in altarpieces of this date, grand scale and artistic importance. *
The retablo is over fifty feet high with lateral sections sweeping forward like wings. The five tiers—a predella or base, three main stages, and a gabled top tier—are divided into five vertical sections, or calles. The wide center calle features large wooden reliefs, and is flanked by narrow sections containing figure sculptures. The wings frame a sequence of large paintings.
   Spiral columns define the ornamental framework. Encrusted with twisting red and green vines and headed by ornate Corinthian capitals, they sound the dominant note in a voluptuous symphony of shells, scrolls, swags, dripping pendants and winged cherubs, against a rich counterpoint of strapwork and gilded foliage. 
The central relief of the Three Kings is believed to be from the accomplished hand of Ocampo himself, who is best known for the sumptuous choir stalls that he carved for the church of St. Augustine in Mexico City in the same period.
   The luxuriantly bearded kings in their opulent estofado robes gather around the infant Jesus and his mother. Considering its late date, the panel has an anachronistic Renaissance harmony, the idealized poses and serene expressions of the figures giving no sign of baroque drama. 
Crucifixion with saints Monica and Clare
Also attributed to Ocampo are the Crucifixion tableau with the sorrowing Virgin and St John, flanked by St. Clare and Augustine's mother, St. Monica in the flared niches, as well as the relief of a bearded Padre Eterno above accompanied by the reclining figures of Faith and Hope.
   Elaborately framed niches on each side of the center section house elongated statues of revered Augustinian saints. These include Nicholas of Tolentino and William of Aquitaine, on either side of the Three Kings, and Thomas of Villanova and John of Sahagun below. 
William of Aquitaine and Nicholas of Tolentino
Painted reliefs of the rarely portrayed monastic founders, St. Bernard and St. Benedict, appear on the predella at the base, together with the Four Evangelists, all flanked by sensuous cherubs. 
The Four Evangelists
The Paintings
Six lateral paintings illustrate scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin. They are attributed to the painter Nicolás Rodríguez Juárez, a member of an illustrious family of Mexican artists. One of the leading painters of the Mexican Baroque, he was noted for his luminous but muted colors and the elegant Mannerist dignity of his figures. 
   Now restored, we can again experience the full impact of this superb altarpiece—undoubtedly Salvador Ocampo's masterpiece—as well as appreciate anew its religious message: the exaltation of Christ and his Mother and the glorification of the Augustinian Order, and better comprehend its undoubtedly mesmerizing effect upon the congregations of three centuries ago. 
The central panel on the first tier is thought to have been originally occupied by a painting of the Nativity, also by Rodríguez Juárez, stored until recently in the sacristy.
text and graphics © 1992 & 2018 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author, Niccolo Brooker and David Maawad
José Guadalupe Victoria,  Forma y expresión en un retablo novohispano del siglo XVI.  en ... Homenaje a Elisa Vargas Lugo.  UNAM 1983
Heinrich Berlin, Salvador de Ocampo, a Mexican Sculptor.  The Americas.  Vol. 4, No. 4 (Apr., 1948), pp. 415-428

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Bagpiper at the Nativity

In an earlier post on the main altarpiece at Cuauhtinchan, we mentioned an 18th century painted panel by Cristóbal de Villalpando illustrating the Adoration of the Shepherds. 
   This scene featured a bagpiper, a rare portrayal in Mexican colonial art, the only other example being a 16th century mural at Ixmiquilpan.
The Cuautinchan Nativity scene with bagpiper
This depiction, with no biblical reference, appears to have sprung from folk traditions in southern Italy—traditions still observed in the region, where piping shepherds (Zampognari) perform in Christmas festivities and displays.
Robert Campin, The Nativity, detail (1420)
This tradition first made its appearance in late medieval and Renaissance Italian and Flemish art, in paintings and prints by such eminent artists as Hieronymous Bosch, Jacobo Bassano, Domenichino, Simon de Chalons, and Albrecht Dürer.

Hieronymous Bosch, The Nativity (c.1495)  with piping shepherdess on the roof
Simon de Chalons,  Adoration of the Shepherds (1548)
Jacobo Bassano, Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1545)
Domenichino, The Adoration of the Shepherds (c 1610)
Albrecht Durer,  The Nativity (1511)  The Small Passion series

text © 2017 Richard D. Perry