Thursday, June 23, 2016

Mexican Murals: Metztitlan, the Tecpan eagle

 The Tecpan
This 16th century structure, also known as La Tercena or Cabildo de Indios, is located down the hill from the grand priory of Santos Reyes in Metztitlan (Hidalgo). 
   Although in colonial times this structure served several purposes, it was primarily the tecpan, a civic building that was the focus of indigenous activity and native leadership in the colonial community.    
   A modest building, it consisting of an open arcaded front and an earlier inner room — probably the oldest such tecpan to survive from colonial times in Mexico. Recently restored, it retains several architectural features of note, not the least being the carved spiral columns that form the entry arcade—features that signaled its importance. 
At one time covered with murals, now largely effaced, the walls of the inner chamber still retain a few distinguishable traces. 
   On the east wall, between a foliated upper frieze with shore birds and a running dado of painted, ornamental shell niches below, appears the unusual image of a large, turquoise hued eagle holding a scorpion in its beak; this is accompanied by an abbreviated Latin inscription: Iusta Ultio, or Final Justicean image taken from the illustrated Emblemata of Andrea Alciato. 
This unique mural fragment and its accompanying inscription raises issues of interpretation.
   As a prominent symbol of patriotic pride and military valor in both Spanish and Aztec cultures, the eagle here may represent a power for good devouring the scorpion, often seen as a symbol of evil and diabolical intent (although the original text implied the opposite sentiment)
   Since the mural appears in a secular building and a center of native power, another reading may be the native Aztec eagle triumphing over the poisonous interloper, i.e: the Spanish colonists—a subversive indigenous twist!
The resemblance of the image to the mythic emblem of the Aztecs, later adopted for the Mexican flag, may thus be intentional.
text © 2016 Richard D. Perry.  mural images by Robert Jackson
see our other posts on Mexican Murals:  CuautinchánXometlaCulhuacánZacualpan
OzumbaTlalmanalcoIxmilquilpanMama;  IzucarTree muralsTepeapulcoTulaEpazoyucanZempoalaYecapixtla;

Friday, June 17, 2016

Mexican Murals: St. Helen at Tula and Tepeji

St. Helen, the mother of Constantine the Great, is remembered, according to tradition, as the discoverer of the true cross, unearthed near Jerusalem following a dream. Together with her son, she was instrumental in the spread of Christianity during the late Roman empire.
   Although a notable historical and religious figure, she is infrequently shown in early Mexican murals. However two unusual portraits are found in the neighboring Franciscan monasteries of San José Tula and San Francisco Tepeji in the state of Hidalgo. 
First, at Tula, in a cloister fresco, Helen is portrayed as an empress, richly robed and wearing a crown. She holds up the rough hewn cross. Behind her to the left is a ziggurat style structure, probably representing the pagan temple erected by the Romans over the Holy Sepulcher, which she demolished to build a Christian church. Below the ziggurat, men labor to unearth the true cross buried there, according to legend.
In the large cloister mural at Tepeji, St. Helen appears again, still sumptuously robed although with no crown to indicate her royal status.  Here she holds a very large cross, tinted in a reddish brown hue. A palatial structure is shown behind her, although the poor condition of the fresco makes an identification problematic.  
   The Emperor Constantine is outlined in the adjacent panel, crowned and holding an ornate cross and the imperial scepter, while workers excavate the cross below. 
To our knowledge this paired portrayal of Helen and Constantine is unique among Mexican conventual murals.

text ©2016 Richard D. Perry. color images courtesy of Diana Roberts & Robert Jackson

see our other posts on Mexican Murals:  CuautinchánXometlaCulhuacánZacualpan
OzumbaTlalmanalcoIxmilquilpanMama;  IzucarTree muralsTepeapulcoTulaEpazoyucanZempoalaYecapixtla;

Monday, June 13, 2016

Mexican Murals. Cuautinchán: three friezes

The hillside Franciscan monastery of San Juan Bautista Cuautinchán, south of the city of Puebla, is among the most impressive early colonial monuments in  Mexico.
   Erected in the 1570s to a design of Francisco Becerra, the Spanish architect who designed Puebla Cathedral, the rugged, twin-towered church was built to last. Despite several earthquakes, the powerful stone buttresses and the massive, rounded apse have sustained the structure through more than 400 years.
The Convento Murals
Unfortunately, despite its importance, no major mural programs have survived at Cuauhtinchán. However, a few fragments of distinctive frescoes do survive in the convento precincts. 
   We focus on three of these, each of which takes the form of a pictorial frieze above a cloister doorway:
The Annunciation
The most celebrated mural at Cuautinchán presents a unique combination of Christian and pre Hispanic imagery, believed to date from the later 1500s. 
A small, largely monochrome portrayal of the Annunciation at the center, adapted from a late medieval print or engraving, is flanked by finely detailed and colored eagle and jaguar figures rendered in pre- hispanic "codex" style.
   Both were important symbolic creatures in Aztec life and cosmology, representing the opposing forces of light and darkness. The portrayal of an eagle may also relate to the ancient place name of Cuautinchan, signifying House of the Eagles
The second frieze shows a pair of angels with medieval style fluttering robes holding up a medallion that encloses a scrolled, floral motif painted turquoise with red blossoms. 
An inscription around the medallion quotes Ecclesiasticus Ch 6: “you may be in peace with many, nevertheless have but one counselor among a thousand.
The angels are flanked in turn by expressive but awkwardly drawn roaring or speaking lions with thick curling manes. Unlike the eagle and jaguar portrayals, the indigenous artist clearly had never seen a lion!
The third above doorway mural shows three Calvary crosses, the center one mounted above a skull and bones and adorned with the Arma Cristi—nails, a crown of thorns, a lance and hyssop/sponge. 

text © 2016 Richard D. Perry. 
images by the author, Robert Jackson and Niccolo Brooker

see our other posts on Mexican Murals:  CuautinchánXometlaCulhuacánZacualpan

OzumbaTlalmanalcoIxmilquilpanMama;  IzucarTree muralsTepeapulcoTulaEpazoyucanZempoalaYecapixtla;

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Mexican Murals. Tzintzuntzan: two portraits (update)

San Francisco Tzintzuntzan 
Portraits of saints, martyrs and other notables, both biblical and connected to the religious orders, abound in early murals adorning the missions and conventos of Mexico. However it is rare to find portraits of specific persons in the places to which they are historically connected. 
   The grand monastery of Tzintzuntzan, beside Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacán, is even more unusual in that it contains mural portraits of two eminent Franciscans who worked and held important positions there and in the immediate area in early colonial times.
The first portrait is located in the arcaded porteria in front of the convento.  A black robed figure is identified in a ribbon style Spanish inscription as Fray Pedro de Pila, the builder of Tzintzuntzan and other area Franciscan missions.
   He is flanked by diminutive native and Spanish dignitaries rendered in a range of red, blue, green and earth and flesh tones that suggest a date in the early 1600s.  A second inscription, with a bishop's crozier and miter, quotes St Paul, “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth good works.”
The second mural, also in color and located on the main stairway to the upper cloister, portrays Fray Jácobo Daciano, a pioneering Franciscan and aristocratic founder of many missions in Michoacán, including nearby Tarecuato* where he is buried. 
   An associate and reputed mentor of Fray Pedro de Pila, Fray Jácobo is shown in his traditional apostolic guise as a pilgrim with cloak, staff and broad hat.
text, graphic and color images © 2016 Richard D. Perry
see our other posts on Mexican Murals:  CuautinchánXometla; Culhuacán; Zacualpan
Ozumba; Tlalmanalco; Ixmilquilpan; Mama;  Izucar; Tree murals; Tepeapulco; Tula; Epazoyucan; Zempoala; Yecapixtla;
*for more on Tarecuato and Fray Jacobo Daciano see our guidebook Blue Lakes & Silver Cities

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Yucatan, then and now: Santa Isabel Ticuch

We close our current series on Yucatán, Then and Now, with a look at the recently restored village church of Ticuch in eastern Yucatán.

Santa Isabel Ticuch: facade in 1984;  espadaña detail 2007
Located just east of Valladolid, Yucatan's second city, Santa Isabel Ticuch is the only regional church dedicated to this royal French saint, better known as Elizabeth of Portugal, a Franciscan tertiary.  
   Ticuch is noted for its elegant espadaña towering above the west front, fancifully detailed with ogival bell openings, unusual "slotted" scrolls, heart shaped pierced openings and topped with diminutive "mushroom" finials.
Ticuch: the nave exterior and abandoned camarín in 1984
The substantial church has recently undergone complete conservation and repainting, including restoration of the abandoned camarín of theVirgin at the rear.
The renovated church and camarín 2013
The conservation work at Ticuch, as with so many other restoration projects in Yucatan, was undertaken and completed with the dedicated professionalism of INAH restorer Cuauhtemoc Fernando Garcés Fierros with the usual support and dedication of the local chapter of Adopte una Obra de Arte, headed by the redoubtable Elva Villarreal de Garcia Ponce.
Elva Villarreal de Garcia Ponce with restored painting of Our Lady of the Rosary at Ticuch
text ©2016 Richard D. Perry. 1984 & 2007 color images of Ticuch by the author
for more on colonial Yucatán see our guidebook:

Friday, May 27, 2016

Yucatán then and now: Yaxcabá

Some time ago we looked at images of the restored altarpieces at Yaxcabá.  Recently we reviewed some of our much earlier pictures, taken in the 1980s before conservation work started, and show here some of our favorite shots from that time and place:
Cemetery gateway, dated 1789, and roofless chapel

thatched village well house, or noria
old side altar with hats (before restoration)
wooden relief of St Francis receiving the Stigmata  (from main altarpiece before restoration)
after restoration
draped cross Yucatan style with carved head
Black Christ with worshippers
16th century baptismal font with carved knotted cord and statue of John the Baptist

Maya altar boys
text © 2016 Richard D. Perry.  images by the author and Rosalind Perry
for more on colonial Yucatán see our guidebook:

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Yucatan, then and now: Santa Elena Nohcacab

One of more distinctive colonial churches in Yucatan is the fortress church of Santa Elena Nohcacab, an imposing regional landmark located in the Puuc hills between Uxmal and the bustling city of Ticul.
Santa Elena in 1984 (l)  and in 2008 (r)
Once dubbed the "Montecassino of Yucatan", the church and its precincts occupy a commanding site atop an imposing outcropping in the center of the village. To approach the church one must climb a long flight of steps—a pathway used since ancient times for religious processions ­as witnessed by John Lloyd Stephens during his famous visit in 1843, and still followed today.
   Although the sanctuary, with its high stone archway, formerly served as the primitive Indian chapel erected here in the 16th century as a visita of Ticul, the rest of the church dates from the 1700s.
The massive nave walls accomodate several deep niches and enclose a narrow passageway, or camino de rondo, that runs  inside the upper walls on both sides.
After long years of neglect, the church has undergone much needed conservation: the roof repaired, the walls stabilized and selectively strengthened, and the retablos cleaned and restored. The mummified remains of several children found beneath the nave floor during the repairs are now on display inside the church, a morbid tourist attraction.

The Altarpieces 
Santa Elena is a gallery of late colonial Yucatecan altarpieces, most of which have been restored in recent years. 
The main altarpiece is in provincial late baroque style, painted bright red with its narrow estípite pilasters edged in gold. 
A painted, folkloric Calvary cross with the Instruments of Christ’s Passion occupies the center niche, above a scarred crucifix.
Several smaller side retablos also painted red and gold with spiral columns and estípite pilasters, occupy the lateral niches along the nave. 

Another curiosity is the arcaded stucco wall retablo of the Five Wounds, framed by undulating relief vines.

The Box Retablos
Santa Elena is also home to an unusual collection of wooden diptychs or processional "box" retablos. These cupboard-like portable altars, some with doors, housing crucifixes and local santos, are decorated in colorful folkloric style and most likely fabricated in the late colonial times.
This vibrant box retablo, the most elaborate of the group, retains both its doors and is surmounted by a curving pediment. The rather squat statue of Christ inside is realistically carved with bloody wounds and scarred legs, and wears an embroidered skirt in rustic Yucatecan style. 
   The retablo is vividly painted in a simple palette of blue, green and earth colors, applied in broad strokes. Angels with feathered head dresses appear sentinel-like on the doors, holding candles, while Instruments of the Passion adorn the interior.
A depiction of Souls in Purgatory (Las Animas) on the lower part of the back panel is clearly painted by a skilled hand, with finely drawn figures of The Virgin and a Franciscan friar reaching out to those in torment below.
This charming box retablo, now missing its doors, also housing a primitive, scarred cristo, has a fresher, lighter touch, distinguished by its swirling red and green floral background. The sun, moon and stars add a folkloric accent.
A third box retablo, containing a plain green wooden cross, also displays vivid red and green foliage against a yellow background.
The tiny processional retablo of San Pascualito—the only one dated (1772)—is the smallest of the group, barely containing the figure of the saint, a local favorite who is dressed in Yucatecan "campesino" style.
 text © 2016 Richard D. Perry.  color images by the author
see our other recent Yucatan pages: Akil; Chemax;Oxkutzcab;
for more on colonial Yucatán see our guidebook: