Saturday, September 26, 2015

Tree murals in Mexican colonial art

Tree murals
One widespread pictorial device in colonial Mexican art, both in murals, reliefs and easel painting, is that of the tree. Although employed in several variations of complexity and scale, the fundamental theme is that of genealogy, primarily of the religious orders and their founders.
Tree of Jesse. 1498 print by engraver Philippe Pigouchet 
The origin of the motif is the Tree of Jesse, by tradition a depiction of the ancestors of Christ, shown in a tree which rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of king David. This was based on a passage from the Book of Isaiah: ” … And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots" 
   From medieval times, this genealogical device was adopted by religious and secular leaders alike to visually represent and legitimize their ancestral claims to power and authority.
Genealogy of St Dominic (relief).  Santo Domingo de Oaxaca
Mexican pictorial representations usually show a symbolic tree or vine with spreading branches rooted, often literally, in the founding figure. While some portrayals are truly treelike, like the painted relief in Santo Domingo de Oaxaca, and the murals at Copándaro and Zinacantepec, which are complete with birds, flowers, leaves and hanging fruit, others are stylized to the point of resembling a map or chart, which was often an underlying intent, as at Cuilapan or Cuernavaca. 
Spiritual Genealogy of St Francis with St Clare.  Zinacantepec, Mexico
Tree of Dominican Martyrs.  Cuilapan, Oaxaca
Genealogy of St Augustine with Crucifixion, Atlatlahucan, Morelos.  
Genealogy of St Monica, Charo, Michoacán. 
Genealogy of St Augustine.  Copándaro, Michoacán.  
Genealogy of St Francis, painting.  San Francisco de Puebla
Often even more sweeping are the giant painted panels adorning later colonial churches, vastly more complex and challenging to read or even take in: for example the Franciscan genealogies at San Francisco in Puebla and the church of San Fernando in the capital.
Genealogy of St Francis, painting.  San Fernando, Mexico City
text © 2015 Richard D. Perry

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Saint Elmo in Mexico

We present another in our occasional series on the depiction of catholic saints, both well known and obscure, in Mexican art. 
    Blessed Peter González, referred to in Spanish as Pedro González Telmo or simply San Telmo, was a Castilian Dominican friar and priest, born in 1190.  Educated by his uncle, the Bishop of Astorga, he became a celebrated preacher, accompanying King Ferdinand III of Castile and Leon (St. Ferdinand) on his expeditions against the Moors.
from a 1770 print by Manuel Rivera de Costoya
Thereafter he devoted his life to the evangelization of, among others, mariners along the coast of Spain. González died in 1246, and was beatified in 1254 by Pope Innocent IV. 
   Although never formally canonized, he is popularly called San Telmo in Spanish speaking countries. He was revered as the patron and protector of sailors, especially during the hazardous early years of exploration, and transatlantic voyages during the colonial period.
    He is best known for his association with St. Elmo's fire, a phenomenon that appears on ships at sea during thunderstorms and is regarded by sailors with awe for its glowing points of bluish light atop the masts.
   Although not portrayed as frequently as other popular saints in Mexico, he does appear in a handful of early colonial murals, invariably shown holding a ship or galleon, his principal attribute.  On occasion he also holds up a candle or flaming torch—a Dominican symbol as well as one of fire.
Here are portraits of San Telmo from three early Dominican missions in Mexico:
cloister mural detail. Tepetlaoxtoc, Valley of Mexico
partial cloister mural. Yautepec, Morelos
cloister lunette mural. San Pedro Etla, Oaxaca
text and color images © Richard D. Perry 
See our earlier posts in this series: 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Altarpieces of Yucatán: Calkini update

“Power of the Sun,” the English translation of "Calkiní,” conjures up an image of massed sun worshippers crowding into the dazzling precincts of an ancient ceremonial center. 
   Although the multitudes of pilgrims are long gone and the Maya temples here have long been razed, the grand monastery of San Luis Calkiní has inherited the spiritual mana of the site. 

Founded in 1549 by the Franciscan pioneer, Fray Luis de Villalpando, the centerpiece of the original mission was its simple but stunning open-air chapel, erected in the 1560s. 
   Placed squarely atop the main Maya temple platform, with an attached pole and thatch ramada, it dominated the vast plaza and was clearly intended by the friars to dramatize the Catholic ceremonial for the assembled native converts, just as the ancient shrine had served the Maya gods before. 
In the 1600s the friars built a substantial stone church with a polygonal apse extending west from the open chapel (see plan), and in the early 18th century, a second, longer church was erected on the site of the original ramada and the open chapel converted into the sanctuary we see today. 
   Even though this new, south facing parish church was also built on a grand scale, its new nave failed to reach the height of the old open chapel, whose original arch can still be traced in the exterior wall of the fortress-like sanctuary block above the roofline. 
The broad church front is anchored by plain tower bases, although only a single south tower was added. Fluted Doric pilasters and quarter columns frame the projecting center pavilion of the facade, which culminates in a striking shell canopy over the choir window and a decorative balustrade above.  
   Although the configuration of the Calkini facade is unique in Yucatán, it bears a resemblance to the church of San Cristóbal in Mérida, with which it is broadly contemporary.  And traces of red and blue paint indicate that at one time it was brilliantly colored like the ancient Mayan temples that preceded it.
The Main Altarpiece 
This splendid retablo mayor is the outstanding interior feature at Calkiní. Created in the late 1700s it is of exceptional size—rising some thirty-five feet above the main altar—a masterful assemblage of sculpture and colorful ornament. The altarpiece, together with its reliefs and statuary was recently cleaned and restored under the direction of INAH Campeche.
   Framed in an intermediate style that combines classical, Corinthian inspired columns with late Baroque elements like broken pediments and spiral colonnettes, the altarpiece is bordered by a wavy outline with floral ornament that strike an almost Asian note especially in the upper tiers.
© Charlotte Eckland
Blue-green sculpture niches are set between columns, with gold accents glowing against the warm cream background. Floral motifs fill every space: garlands adorn the side niches and even the sober crucifix at the apex is surrounded with flowers.   
   The figure of San Luis Obispo (St. Louis of Toulouse), the patron  saint, occupies the center niche, with St. Francis to his right and the Virgin in the niche above. 
Although damaged, the reliefs of the Four Evangelists on the base panels (predella) are especially appealing; each saint holds his gospel and is accompanied by his traditional symbol—St. John to an eagle, St. Matthew to an angel, St. Mark to a lion and St. Luke to a bull. 
   Following its restoration the freshness and charm of this fine regional retablo are once again evident, further augmenting the high reputation and unique regional quality of the Yucatán altarpieces.
Elsewhere in the church the symbols of the Evangelists reappear on the base of the decorative sculpted pulpit.

El Señor de La Misericordia
Finally we should mention the famous Cristo de La Misericordia of Calkini, usually placed high above the main altar. This exquisite crucifix is one of the most beautifully realized and detailed of its kind anywhere in Mexico.
   Although some authorities have dated it in the 1560s, more or less contemporary with the Cristo de Las Ampollas in Merida cathedral which it superficially resembles, it looks a little later, maybe 17th century and possibly even a Spanish import. 
text and images © Richard D. Perry, except where noted.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Oaxaca. San Pablo Huitzo: survival of the "grotesque"

In our last post on the Dominican mission of San Pablo Huitzo we included an image of a frescoed Gothic niche in the convento.
© Richard D. Perry.   click to enlarge
Here we take a closer look at the details, especially the broad, painted, monochrome frame around the now partly effaced centerpiece (originally the backdrop to a piece of statuary).
   This is a classic example of how a traditional "grotesque" foliated border, taken from an Italian or Flemish book illustration of the period, has been enlarged and "Mexicanized" by 16th century indigenous artists, to include native birds, fruits, flowers and foliage in a dramatic, more stylized composition.
remnant frieze in Huitzo refectory
Traces of other painted grotesque friezes and ornament are found elsewhere in the Huitzo convento and in early churches and convents throughout Mexico.*
grotesque jamb relief (Atotonilco de Tula)
Similar, often even more fantastic and imaginative designs survive in painted as well as sculpted frames and friezes throughout the missions of 16th century Mexico, monuments to native ingenuity in the adaptation of European pictorial motifs.

text & images © 1992 & 2014 Richard D. Perry

*For more on the grotesque pictorial tradition in Mexico see Estrada de Gerlero, Elena Isabel: Apuntes sobre el orígen y la fortuna del grutesco en el arte novohispano de evangelización.   in: Muros, Sargas y Papeles...  UNAM 2011 

*Look for our forthcoming guide to Mexico's early colonial murals.

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