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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Oaxaca. San Pablo Huitzo (update)

We follow up our posts on Achiutla with a second look at San Pablo Huitzo, an historic mission in the Etla Valley, just north west of the city of Oaxaca not far from Zautla.

San Pablo Huitzo
Huitzo was the first Dominican mission to be established in this rich, densely populated agricultural region. Founded in 1554, like neighboring Etla it was dedicated to the apostle Paul.
Viewed from across its large, newly repaved atrium complete with rebuilt corner chapels, the west facing mission retains a sturdy Dominican simplicity. 
The Huitzo doorway before restoration
Squat twin towers in the Oaxacan fashion anchor the facade of the church. The flared, paneled doorway, cut from soft, off-white limestone, is flanked by half columns with outsize drum capitals. These extend into the cornice above, which is carved with a frieze of rosettes and angels.
The choir window is treated like the doorway with fluting and a flattened arch like the portería (below). A drum corbel at the apex supports a stone statue of the patron saint, St. Paul, in the little niche above.
image © Robert Jackson
Powerful interior buttresses brace the long nave, creating a series of arched niches with side altars. Barrel vaults cover the nave and the narrow apse—the earliest part of the church.
image © Robert Jackson
Several colonial paintings of interest reside in the church. In the upper part of the neoclassical main altarpiece is an unrestored painting of The Conversion of St Paul,  an early colonial masterpiece attributed to the noted Mexican artist Juan de Arrué, who worked in the Oaxaca region under his mentor Andrés de Concha, whose work we saw at Yanhuitlan.
Virgin Mary with a portrait of St. Dominic  ©Enrique Mendez Martinez
There is a Crucifixion scene with a penitent St. Dominic and, as we saw at Tlalixtac and Tejupan, a fine painting of the crowned Virgin with a portrait of St. Dominic—a frequent theme in Oaxacan churches.


The former convento is attached to the church on the south side. A broad "basket handle" arch frames the portería entry and a similar archway caps the convento doorway beyond.  A simple bas relief of St. Dominic accompanied by his dog and miter is carved into the foliated niche above it. 
graphic © Richard D. Perry.  all rights reserved

Arcades of ribbed arches set on sturdy pillars and drum corbels enclose the now single tier cloister, which also acts as a virtual museum of unusual stonework. 
Gothic style ogee arches frame the corner niches and openings along the walks.

One of the niches contains the remains of a unique 16th century atrium cross.  Unfortunately missing the cross piece, the surviving shaft is carved with the figure of Christ on one side and a relief of the Virgin Mary on the other (an approximate modern copy now stands in the atrium)
ancient Zapotec carving;                     The Hapsburg double headed eagle
Other sculpted items here include an ancient Zapotec relief embedded in the fountain, and a detailed heraldic escutcheon of the imperial Spanish arms
A carved water basin portraying fish swimming through stylized waves is placed beside the stairway. 
And an old baptismal font with a braided rim, carved with the Five Wounds and the keys of St. Peter, stands inside the church door.
text © 2007 & 2014 Richard D. Perry. images by the author except where noted.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

San Miguel Achiutla: Inside the Church

Achiutla: the nave, facing east
Inside the Church
The tunnel like impression of the extraordinarily long nave at Achiutla is accentuated by its uninterrupted walls, high barrel vaults and few small windows—a feeling made more somber by the ubiquitous peeling surfaces, painted dark blue.
   Although plans are afoot to refurbish the church and restore the ruined convento as a regional museum, little has yet been accomplished.     
   Access to the monastery and its precincts is often restricted and the church is only open for special feast days, primarily that of St. Michael in late September.  For this reason I have not seen the interior personally, and so the largely internet sourced images of the nave and its altarpieces vary in quality.  I hope to have higher quality images soon.
The Altarpieces
In 1587 Andrés de Concha, the artist responsible for the spectacular altarpieces at Yanhuitlan, Coixtlahuaca and Tamazulapan, also signed a contract to create retablos for Achiutla. Whether it was ever fulfilled we do not know, since today none in his style are in evidence.
   However, several retablos, some fragmentary and all of later colonial origin, still line the nave. These display a variety of styles from different time periods:
Achiutla, the apse
The showy 19th century retablo mayor of the Archangels is designed in a provincial late baroque style. Painted blue and gold, it    is framed with slender estípite pilasters, with elaborate rococo niches and much undulating scrollwork. A modern statue of St. Michael occupies the center niche. 

The adjacent red and gold barrococo retablo of Dolores is probably from the same era.
The Virgin of the Rosary
The splendid 18th century retablo of El Rosario, one of a gilded pair facing each other across the nave, is also in the estípite style although earlier and more restrained than the main altarpiece.
Other gilded side altarpieces are framed in traditional Oaxacan baroque style, with gilded spiral columns swathed in arabesque scrolls, vines and foliage, jutting cornices with pendant spindles and even caryatid figures.


Even the neoclassical retablo of St. Peter Martyr is coated with gilded filigree decoration. 
There are also surviving examples of colonial statuary: apart from the beautifully detailed Virgin of the Rosary above, we see a processional statue of St. Sebastian in a gold loincloth, and some older carved and painted figures of the patron saint St. Michael and other archangels—possibly from an earlier De Concha altarpiece.

text and graphics © 2015 Richard D. Perry

Sunday, August 16, 2015

San Miguel Achiutla

In previous posts we looked at the great Dominican priories of Yanhuitlan and Coixtlahuaca in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca.
   Here we consider the smaller, more modest and remote but equally historic hillside monastery of San Miguel Achiutla.
   In our first post we look at the monastery buildings and their spectacular siting.

Achiutla
Place of Tumbling Earth
Precariously perched on a terraced hilltop, the former Dominican monastery of San Miguel Achiutla surveys a panorama of majestic mountain scenery. 
   Long before the Spaniards arrived, this imposing site enjoyed an ancient sanctity, for here once stood an important temple dedicated to the Mixtec oracular deity Tizono, known locally as El Corazón del Pueblo. 

Dating from the 1550s, the monastery is partly built atop the foundations of ancient structures. The church and convento are set atop a leveled knoll, buttressed on the south and especially the east by imposing retaining walls.
   The massive but regular stonework of the monastery matches its exposed setting.  Rugged buttresses and a monumental apse bond the church and convento to the hillside. 
Achiutla, north side
Because of this orientation, the church and convento face the atrium, located on the gentler slope of the north side of the monastery. It retains vestiges of three of its corner posas and a three sided flight of stone steps climb to recessed north porch which was used as the main entry. 
The arched convento entry projects beyond the church doorway.
Achiutla, north doorway

In the same way, steps rise to the west doorway, recessed like the north porch by broad buttresses. 
   Both facades are simply framed.  A single tier of half columns frames the north entry while two tiers of plain, paired pilasters enclosing narrow, empty niches flank the arched west doorway and choir window on the west.
Achiutla, west facade
text and graphics © 2015 Richard D. Perry. Images courtesy of Niccolo Brooker

Monday, August 10, 2015

Treasures of Tepeapulco: the Murals



The Convento and its Murals 
Simplicity is the keynote in the long portería arcade that extends to the south of the church. Six bays of arches with exaggerated concave moldings rest on folk Doric columns with plain slab capitals. 
   This generous portería doubled as an open chapel in the early years of the monastery—the niche in the rear wall with the sculpted cross probably marks the location of the original altar.  Behind the first, broader arch beside the church, a carved doorway gives access to the convento.

The Cloister
The simple forms of the portería arcade are repeated in the small tree-shaded cloister, whose surrounding corridors and conventual rooms were once lined with 16th century murals.  Although all of the narrative murals formerly adorning the lower cloister have been effaced, the striking upper frieze is still there—a complex arabesque border of fruit and foliage, replete with demonic heads and trumpet-blowing angels.
The strange device of a heron pursuing a fish against a watery blue backdrop appears at intervals along the frieze. Immediately below the frieze, a superimposed looped and knotted Franciscan cord runs around the cloister.

The Sala de Profundis
The murals in the former Sala de Profundis, adjacent to the cloister, are the most complete in the convento.  At the far end of the room, now used as a sacristy and parochial office, the entire wall is covered by a handsome narrative triptych framed by a painted arcade with delicate arabesque friezes. 
   Draftsmanship is self-assured throughout, with bold lines shaded in a blue-black grisaille and selectively accented with red ocher washes. The elongated figures are based on Northern European Mannerist engravings with elegant folding draperies, expressive hands and somber faces, and are superimposed on stylized landscapes with trees, churches and turreted medieval castles, each including varying views of the jagged sacred mountain of Cerro Xihuingo, a prominent local landmark. Native flora and fauna also appear, including agave and rabbits—more subtle references to the pulque cult of ancient Tepeapulco.
The tender Nativity of Jesus occupies the center panel. Note the Star of Bethlehem in the sky in the Aztec style of a comet. 
The Nativity is flanked on the left by a fine Adoration of the Magi, in which the robust Three Kings overshadow a meek Virgin and Child.
On the right, a touchingly domestic Holy Family is shown against a background of rocky crags and draped crosses that prefigure the Crucifixion. Note too the eagle talon base of the fruit bowl on the table.
The Upper Cloister
This area contains the largest and most diverse group of murals.
The Crucifixion, with its red painted cross stands at the top of the stairs. Although the face of Christ has been effaced the figures of Mary and St John stand solemnly on either side. Again the tumbled crags of the Cerro Xihuingo rise in the background along with trees and steeples. A rabbit nibbles on a cactus at the foot of the cross.
The partially damaged seated Virgin and Child with two friars follows the same format, the figures set against a wooded landscape.


Three other panels depict well known saints and martyrs—tall, elegantly clad figures again set in backgrounds filled with anecdotal detail: a magisterial St Paul; St Lawrence accompanied by his grill in a vivid landscape of birds, trees, churches and mountain; and finally St. Sebastian, in his usual pose tied to a tree, suffers stoicly, pierced by the arrows of a muscular duo of helmeted Spanish archers.
But perhaps the most interesting mural of this group is a well-preserved Mass of St. Gregory in the northeast corner. This little illustrated mural subject concerns an apocryphal story in which the saint, while celebrating mass, experienced a vision of the Risen Christ, surrounded with the Instruments of the Passion. 
Accompanied by two deacons, St. Gregory is seen elevating the host before a panoply of the Arms of Christ. Unfortunately, Christ's face has been obliterated by the overpainted looped cord. 
Here, as elsewhere in the monastery, the painted friezes are always imaginative. The upper border, like that above the sacristy frescoes, artfully weaves cartouches of the Five Wounds and the young Christ into an lively arabesque of cherubs, birds, fish, leaves and fruits. Rattlesnakes entwine with doves in a frieze decorating one of the friars' cells.
text and images © 2015  Richard D. Perry