Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Oaxaca. San Agustín: the church

We now return to Oaxaca to look in more detail at some of the colonial missions we visited on our February historic organ tour.  
   First, we had the opportunity to spend time in the newly restored city church of San Agustín which, in addition to its handsome sculpted facade, houses the finest assemblage of Oaxacan baroque altarpieces in the city. (more details on the history of the church and the recent restorations)

San Agustín de Oaxaca

As the last of the three religious orders commissioned by the Spanish Crown to evangelize the New World, the Augustinians were latecomers to Oaxaca, arriving in 1580. However they soon got to work building their first church, which was consecrated in 1589.

The present church and attached convento, however, are of later construction, completed over 100 years later. As throughout the city, earthquakes took their toll, and the church was reconsecrated in 1732—a date that appears on the facade. Along with many other city churches, it deteriorated again following closure in the mid-1800s, but at the end of the century it became another beneficiary of Archbishop Gillow’s restorations.
©Felipe Falcón
The Facade
This seminal Oaxacan church front is an early work—dating from 1696—by the architect and designer Tomás de Sigüenza, who also worked at the Cathedral and La Soledad, and was commissioned by Don Manuel Fiallo, the pre-eminent 18th century patron of religious buildings in the city, for whom a street is named.

Facing a spacious forecourt, the ornate retablo facade rises in three broad tiers. These are framed by classical orders of fluted Ionic, Corinthian and Doric columns, whose lower sections are richly decorated with interwoven, foliar relief—ornament that spreads along the friezes and into the spandrels around the doorway and sculpture niches.
©Felipe Falcón
The magnificent central relief—also the work of Sigüenza—is displayed in an ornamental eared frame, marking the first appearance of this motif on a Oaxacan facade. Based on a widely known engraving, the sculpture portrays the bearded St. Augustine as Protector of his Order, sheltering Augustinian friars beneath his spreading cape and trampling heretics beneath his feet. 
The facade: San Nicolás de Tolentino

The lateral niches are especially ornate, housing statues of Augustinian saints famous and obscure, each with an identifying inscription.  John of Sahagún and Nicholas of Tolentino occupy the lower tier; bishops Thomas of Valencia and St. Elipius are in the middle, and the female saints Clare of Montefalco and Rita of Cassia stand on either side of the octagonal choir window.
In our next post we look at the church interior.

text © 2007/2014 Richard D. Perry
photography by the author and courtesy of Felipe Falcón, whose color photographs feature in our guide book:

Friday, April 11, 2014

More Hidalgo Missions: Tlahuelilpa, the Cross

In our earlier posts on the chapels of Metztitlan, we featured several stone crosses.  The state of Hidalgo is especially rich in these sculpted monuments, many of which are richly and inventively carved in great detail. 
For our final post on Tlahuelilpa we look at its carved cross, a prime example of the genre.

 The Atrium Cross
Now mounted atop the church facade and not easy to examine, this former atrium cross is yet another example of the fine stone carving to be found at this exquisite little Franciscan mission. 
Surprisingly little eroded, the cross is tightly composed and confidently carved in the style of the cross at nearby Huichapan (see below) although on a much smaller scale.

  • The cross is covered with numerous Passion symbols, sculpted in bold relief. At center, the mask like visage of Christ is ringed by a twisted Crown of Thorns above the brow. A second, larger, softer Crown below the Face is draped necklace style around the neck of the cross. 
  •      Slender bands, perhaps representing a liturgical Stole, emerge from beneath the spines and wind around either arm, next to narrow, stylized Wounds with angled nails and rivulets of blood.
  •      Other Passion reliefs encircle the bulbous lower shaft, notably an eroded Rooster and floral spray atop a festooned Column, which is flanked by a Ladder and a Sun face on the left. A splashy third Wound spreads out below. 
  •      At the foot of the cross, a multilobed floral Host with a pierced center emerges from a decorative Chalice.
  • Ring moldings and petalled finials cap the short arms and the head of the cross, the latter surmounted by an complex INRI plaque bearing an angel’s head with spread wings —possibly a later addition, as at nearby Huichapan.

Huichapan: the atrium cross
text © 2014 Richard D. Perry. 
photography by the author, Niccolò Brooker and Patrice Schmitz

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

More Hidalgo Missions: Tlahuelilpa, the Cloister

The Cloister

Now confined to a single story, the little rectangular cloister at Tlahuelilpa is a garden of sculptural delights.
Arcades of columns and arches, some with slanted fluting like the half columns of the open chapel, are further ornamented with floral bands and feature folk Ionic capitals that combine cherubs' heads and slotted "song" scrolls.

Doorways along the cloister walks are variously framed in Isabelline style and carved with winged angels and foliated grutesco motifs like the baptistry jambs.  Fragments of early polychrome murals still cling to the corridor walls.

text © 2014 Richard D. Perry. photography by Patrice Schmitz

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Friday, April 4, 2014

More Hidalgo Missions: Tlahuelilpa, the Church

In our second post on Tlahuelilpa, we take a closer look at the church interior:

The narrow, single nave is covered by a fine beamed ceiling, supported by elaborate wooden brackets carved with reliefs of foliage and mythical birds—part eagle and part pelican.

The archway dividing the nave from the sanctuary displays the figures of Saints Peter and Paul, one on either side, carved in low relief.
St Peter
A painted frieze, predominantly red and blue and restored to excellent condition, runs around the church at the roofline, inset with medallions illustrating the Stations of the Cross.

Winged angels' heads entwined in foliage enliven the jambs, alfiz and low arch of the baptistry, located  beside the entry and beneath the raised open chapel. 
Lions' heads adorn the capitals and an old stone baptismal font stands inside, where fragmentary murals decorate the walls.

text © 2014 Richard D. Perry. photography by Patrice Schmitz

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

More Hidalgo Missions: Tlahuelilpa

We continue our current series on the Hidalgo missions with the first of several posts on the diminutive mission of San Francisco Tlahuelilpa, in Hidalgo, a treasure house of extraordinary early colonial stone carving—an exuberant fusion of Gothic, Renaissance and mudéjar ornament—and one of our favorite Mexican churches.

Originally a visita of the great Franciscan monastery at Tula, the mission is built on a former pre-hispanic temple site.

The elevated open chapel is the earliest part of the mission. Its most striking feature is its broad, scalloped arch formed by nine stone medallions, each carved with decorative foliage and framed by vine leaves.
A relief of the Franciscan emblem of the Five Wounds is emblazoned on the center medallion, encircled by a Crown of Thorns and flanked by two hovering angels.The arch is raised on pillars faced with caryatid motifs and half columns with angled fluting.

The alfiz above the arch encloses several eroded reliefs that include St Francis receiving the Stigmata and his companion, brother Leon, as well as enigmatic figures that may represent the Holy Trinity.
The church is narrow but tall. Its plain, rectangular facade is distinguished by the sturdy west doorway, its archway, jambs and rectangular alfiz sparsely decorated with rosette reliefs, the latter framed by a twisted Franciscan cord molding.

 text © 2014 Richard D. Perry. photography by Patrice Schmitz

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

More Hidalgo Missions: Singuilucan

In a group of posts last November we surveyed the visita churches and chapels of Santos Reyes Metztitlan in the state of Hidalgo, north of Mexico City.  
Before we continue with our series on Oaxaca, we return to look at selected missions of interest in the Hidalgo region.

Place of the Mud People
Founded by the Franciscans in the early 1500s as a visita of Zempoala, this mission in southeastern Hidalgo was adopted by the Augustinians after 1540.
Although the church was rebuilt much later under the secular, episcopal clergy, the 16th century cloister remains, its simple arcades of finely cut stone divided by prominent prow buttresses.  A reflecting pool in the center serves to emphasize their clean, classical lines. 
The arcaded porteria that fronts the convento is also from the 1570s and in the same style as the cloister, its plain, broad arches set on massive pillars.
The 18th century church is a shrine to El Señor de Singuilucan, an early crucifix credited with many miracles in colonial times. This prodigious, agonized cristo de caña is now housed in the gilded Churrigueresque retablo that fills the apse.

Besides the ornate main altarpiece, there are several gilded side retablos in similar late 18th century style and in mostly excellent condition.
The centerpiece of the church front is a splendid stone crucifix, modeled on the wooden crucifix in the church.
While skilfully carved and quite realistically portrayed, the proportions of the figure are neither exaggerated nor unduly stylized. The tension of the sinewy body, especially along the arms and neck, is palpable, and individual details, such as the hair, hands and feet, are masterfully rendered.
Other notable pieces of stonework include the unusual rectangular baptismal font, carved with reliefs of angels standing on pedestals, and the stone cross outside the church—a modern version of the earlier atrium cross now disassembled and stored in the sacristy.
text © 2014 Richard D. Perry
images courtesy of Niccolò Brooker, Beverley Spears and Diana Roberts
with acknowledgment to Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca

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by acquiring our guidebooks on colonial Mexico