Friday, July 24, 2015

Treasures of Tepeapulco: the Church

Continuing our illustrated series on early Mexican monasteries, we present the first of three posts on San Francisco Tepeapulco, an important 16th century Franciscan monastery, located in the state of Hidalgo some 100 kms northeast of Mexico City.
   We look first at the monastery site and the church with its sculpted doorway. In our next post we describe the numerous crosses, both carved and painted, throughout the monastery. Finally we look at the wealth of early murals inside the convento.
Beside the High Hill

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, the cult of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec war god, held sway in Tepeapulco, his imposing temple superimposed on an older site sacred to Tlaloc, the ancient rain god. His dominion was short-lived, for immediately after the Conquest, Hernando Cortés personally ordered the destruction of the deity's bloodstained shrine that towered above the town. 
   Franciscan missionaries arrived in Tepeapulco in 1527, led by Father Toribio Motolinia, one of the original Franciscan Twelve—a dedicated missionary and chronicler of the Spiritual Conquest. 
   The monastery was founded in the following year by the eminent preacher and scholar Fray Andrés de Olmos, also one of the Twelve. The imposing new monastery, dedicated to St Francis, was built atop the prehispanic pyramid, using the stone of the demolished temple. Construction was often interrupted by plagues among the Indians and a perennial shortage of friars. 
   However, both church and cloister were complete when Fray Bernardino de Sahagún stayed here from 1558 to 1560, working on the Primeros Memoriales, the first part of his epic account of native society and religion.
From the town plaza below, a flight of stone steps climbs steeply to the western gateway of the atrium—a huge enclosed area of shady gardens crisscrossed by stone-flagged pathways. At the far end, another broad stairway, in part of prehispanic origin, leads to the monastery itself, set high on an upper terrace. 
   Although the church was substantially rebuilt in the 18th century, its plain facade is original. The tower, dated 1530 by a plaque on its north face, is very early, possibly the first ever built in Mexico. Officially prohibited by the constitutions of the Order, towers were especially rare in Franciscan churches of this period. 
The Church Doorway
Apart from the siting, the first thing to catch the eye of the visitor is the intricately carved porch, whose simplicity of design and richness of detail established a pattern for numerous other church and chapel doorways throughout the region.
Derived from an even earlier doorway at Texcoco, it features broad jambs inset with densely carved relief foliage, a sculpted archway and a surmounting alfiz framed by the Franciscan knotted cord.

But the chief focus of interest is the fantastical archway or archivolt frieze, expertly carved in the round. The iconography of the frieze, especially its unusual bestiary, raises a number of questions as to its meaning and sources.
Putti mounted side saddle on lions and jaguars, some of which appear to be feathered, ride around the archway in a frieze with birds, crosses, acanthus leaves and codex-style speech scrolls.
   The exact significance of these felines is unclear, although big cats were associated with Tlaloc—felines also appear in the monastery friezes and the nearby Caja de Agua. 
(In prehispanic imagery there are many fabulous beasts with mixed attributes, some including feathers. The plumed serpent is the best known, considered to represent the deity/folk hero Quetzalcoatl, but there are others including dogs (el coyote emplumado) and felines—el tigre emplumado—reportedly an earth and water deity in nearby Teotihuacan.
Also it is not certain that the riders are cherubs; they may be other supernaturals. There are other items in the frieze like the owl/eagle and drum like objects. Song/speech scrolls issue from the mouths of both the human and animal figures.
In contrast to the sophisticated carving of the archway the relief of St. Francis receiving the Stigmata above the door is primitive, the rudely formed figures set in a locally inspired landscape of cone-like hills and, significantly, maguey plants. 

   Maguey sap is the source of pulque, the mildly alcoholic native beverage, for which Tepeapulco was famous in prehispanic and colonial times. Other references to pulque appear throughout the monastery.
text & black and white images ©1992 and 2015 by Richard D. Perry. 
color images by the author and Niccolò Brooker

Saturday, July 18, 2015

San José Tula: the Convento and its Murals

San José Tula, the cloister
The Convento
The convento is earlier, more modest and less refined than the later church at Tula. Although the portería has been rebuilt, the arcaded cloister is original. 
   Cut from cool gray limestone, the molded, concave arches of the lower level spring directly from plain supporting columns without benefit of any capitals. These contrast with the slab capitals of the pinkish brown arcades of the upper cloister.
fluttering angel with corn? plant
The Murals
The surviving Tula frescoes are confined to the stairway to and the walks of the upper cloister. Although in generally poor condition, they have been recently restored as far as is possible.
   Finely delineated in grisaille monochrome and based on northern European print sources, the murals were accented with reds, blues and earth colors.
Three friars mural
A pair of frescoes, in the lunettes above the entry arch and over the stairwell, depict three Franciscans—probably St Francis flanked by the kneeling Sts Anthony and Bonaventure—and an unusual, reclining St. Mary Magdalene in a cavelike landscape with a church and groups of figures.
Mary Magdalene mural
Mary Magdalene mural details   © Niccolò Brooker
The remaining murals along the walks comprise often unusual portraits of various saints, including St. Joseph, Sts. Paul and Paul, St. Isabel of Hungary, St. Peter, St. Lawrence, St. Helen and the martyr St. Sebastian.
St. Peter and his keys
St. Lawrence and his grill with local landmark Cerro Xicuco behind  © Niccolò Brooker

San Sebastián Mártir and helmeted archer  © Niccolò Brooker

St. Helen and the Tower of Babel  © Niccolò Brooker

text © 2015 Richard D. Perry. images by the author and courtesy of Niccolò Brooker 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

San José Tula: the Monastery

We continue with our series on the early monasteries of Hidalgo with a look at one of the largest, San José Tula, located near the site of the ancient imperial Toltec capital of Tollan, home of the prehispanic cult of Quetzalcoatl.
© Niccolò Brooker
The grand fortress monastery of San José Tula was once the focus of the entire Franciscan missionary enterprise in this area of Hidalgo. 
Although some of its 16th century character has been compromised by later accretions, neglect and even ill considered renovation, its majestic scale and noble architecture still impress.
   The raised, battlemented atrium extends over 200 feet in front of the monastery, accessed by moorish style gateways.
The exceptionally high walls of the church are veneered with ashlar stonework and braced by cyclopean prow buttresses topped with turreted garitas, or sentry boxes. A crenelated parapet encircles the church at the roofline.
© Niccolò Brooker
© Niccolò Brooker
We can admire the elegant but somewhat severe Renaissance lines of the west door, its coffered archway flanked by Corinthian columns and echoed in the surmounting rounded pediment.
   The original porciúncula, or north doorway of the church, similar in style to the west porch, has been preserved inside the entry to the Trinity chapel.
The narrow but lofty nave impresses, roofed by a series of Gothic rib vaults. The superior quality of the stone work stands out in the the fluted pilasters dividing the bays, the molded windows and the sober baroque entry to the side chapel of the Sagrario.
Sagrario chapel doorway   © ELTB
Although the church interior is fairly sparse, with few altars or images, two items stand out. First the tormented, bloody figure of the Man of Sorrows, an earthy folk image that contrasts with the sober classical surroundings.
Almuerzo mural  © ELTB
And in the lunette above the altar in the Sagrario Chapel, a large, rare and complex painting of the youthful Christ taking breakfast with his family, by the noted poblano artist Luis Berrueco.
   Other paintings in the church include a series of canvases on themes related to the life of St. Francis by the 18th century artist Cristóbal de La Torre—the largest selection of his known works, currently scheduled for restoration.
text & graphic © 2015 Richard D. Perry
images by Niccolò Brooker and Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Treasures of Mexico City: Tepepan

On a trip to document the carved stone crosses of the Mexico City area, we visited the singular church of Santa María Tepepan, near Xochimilco in the southern part of the city—another in our occasional series on distinctive and historic Mexico City colonial monuments.
©Felipe Falcón
Santa Maria de la Visitación Tepepan
The unusual placement of this church on an elevated site is in part due to the fact that the hill upon which it rests was formerly a popular shrine to the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin.
   Under the impetus of Fray Pedro de Gante, the pioneering Franciscan educator, this site, sacred to a female deity, was appropriated for a 16th century shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary, for whose construction the traditional stone working skills of the local native artisans were redirected.
   Several colonial art works of interest are found in the church and its precincts:

First, the former stone atrium cross is now raised above the entry gateway. Similar in style to the early Franciscan cross at San Juan Coyoacán, it features an eroded, stylized crown of thorns at the axis. The bulbous head and arms of the cross terminate in flared, forked finials with protruding buds, and feathery reliefs anchor the foot of the cross.

The imposing but generally undistinguished church front is dominated by its sober tezontle doorway, and the twin, moorish style windows to either side—part of a later remodel. 
   However, the principal item of interest in the facade is the finely detailed, early stone statue of the richly robed Virgin in the center niche, standing on a globe supported by St Francis—another testament to local artistry.
©Felipe Falcón
Inside the church an unusual, screen like, gilded retablo in intricate late baroque style showcases an exquisite painted statue of the Virgin Mary with Child, likely dating from the 16th century and possibly of Spanish origin.  
   Housed in a center niche elaborately framed by pilasters with atlantean figures, the Virgin is again shown upheld by a kneeling St Francis—an image of later origin.
©Felipe Falcón

Polychrome busts occupy the surrounding niches, and overhead, a large panel of the Trinity with a crown underscores the theme of the Coronation. The outer wings of the altarpiece house large, ornately framed, late colonial paintings portraying the early life of Christ and the Virgin.
©Felipe Falcón

Frescoes along the nave, both colonial and post colonial, include a folkloric painted wall retablo with archangels displaying the Instruments of Christ’s Passion.

Finally, the baptismal font at Tepepan is a rare, possibly unique example of an early glazed ceramic font. It is dated 1599 by an inscription at the base—a time when ceramic work on this scale was uncommon in Mexico (it was formerly thought to be a Spanish import). 
   Prominent Franciscan knotted cords encircle the bowl which is inset with winged cherubs and an attached oval cameo of Christ. The separate supporting column is also adorned with angels and festoons.
text © 2015 Richard D. Perry. images by the author and courtesy of Felipe Falcón

Please visit our other pages in this series: San BernardoSan Pablo El Viejo;

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Treasures of Mexico City: San Felipe Néri - El Nuevo.

San Felipe Néri - El Nuevo

In its early years the Oratorian order of San Felipe Néri moved from place to place in Mexico City. This peripatetic history led to the name of the Order being attached, confusingly, to several churches in the city center, among them the iconic former Jesuit church of La Profesa.
   First a church was built in the 1660s on the now Calle República de El Salvador, with an adjacent hospice, later enlarged to include the present cloister. This church, known as San Felipe Néri El Viejo, collapsed in an earthquake.
   Construction of a new temple began in 1751—dubbed San Felipe Néri El Nuevo—on the adjacent site, to a design by the eminent Mexican architect Ildefonso de Iniesta Bejarano y Durán
   This church too succumbed to another temblor in 1768, when the roof fell in, with its facade still unfinished. The intended statue of the founder in the grand upper niche, remains a block of stone.
   The Oratorians then abandoned the building, moving to the recently completed church of La Profesa, just evacuated by the Jesuits who had been recently expelled from Mexico.   
   However, most of the unfinished facade of San Felipe Néri El Viejo survived, which, with the exception of the gable added in modern times, is the one we see today.

This imposing front is unusual in that its sophisticated Churrigueresque facade and lateral doorways are set against a background of dark red volcanic tezontle—a technique and style generally associated with buildings of the previous century.
   An exceptionally tall, simple arched entry defines the elegant facade, rising via a mixtilinear Moorish frame to the spectacular oval relief of the Baptism of Christ above. This relief is accompanied by life-size statues of two archangels—the only remaining sculptures in the facade.  
   The entry is flanked on either side by pairs of highly ornate estípite columns, which in turn enclose even more complex niche-pilasters (interestípitesnow void of statuary but replete with layered, broken cornices, multiple scrolls and dripping with lambrequins. The broken lines and the rich layering of architectural elements throughout the facade adds to the depth and nervous complexity of the composition. 
image by Ismael Rangel Gómez
complex lambrequin 
facade: lateral entry
Scrolls, ovals and layered pediments also bedeck the lateral doorways, whose coffered pilasters lend a more classical look.

The interior currently houses the Biblioteca Lerdo de Tejada, its former nave walls covered with lurid, pseudo revolutionary murals by Vlady.  However, the current physical deterioration of the building threatens this use and even its structural integrity unless restoration measures are urgently taken.

Please check out our other posts in this series: San Bernardo; San Pablo El Viejo;

text and images © 2015 by Richard D. Perry except where noted

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Missions of Michoacán: Santiago Angahuan

The Paricutín volcano erupting, as seen from Angahuan (photo by Juan Rulfo) 
In  our previous post we explored the abandoned colonial church of Parangaricutiro. Here we look at its neighbor, the 16th century mudéjar mission of Santiago Angahuan, situated within sight of Parangaricutiro. 

Santiago Angahuan
Angahuan lies at the heart of the Tarascan hill country and, like the surrounding lava fields, is predominantly charcoal-colored, looking more like a Welsh mining town than a village in Mexico. 
The streets are cobbled with basalt blocks and the distinctive local houses, known as trojes, are built of stout pine logs with steeply-pitched shingle roofs and covered verandas. 
Angahuan, the church doorway (image © Felipe Falcón)
In contrast to these gray surroundings, the women of the village wear brightly colored satins, usually with woollen rebozos or shawls to keep out the highland chill.
   The mission town was founded in the 1540s by the aristocratic Dane Fray Jácobo Daciano, who is buried in nearby Tarecuato. Construction of the mission, with its adjacent hospital and chapel, followed soon afterwards. 
The church faces a large atrium in which stands an old stone cross, and the 16th century guatápera hospital and chapel still stand near the church, across a street that now bisects the atrium.
The Atrium Cross
Probably dating from the 16th century, this unique, battered cross, elevated on a high masonry base in front of the church, features a unique combination of not fully decipherable reliefs, strikingly reminiscent of ancient Tarascan glyphs and undoubtedly carved by a native artisan.
   Rectangular in section, the cross has a broken off head and lacks finials. However, what remains features an unusual, projecting “cross within a cross” design, whose notched outer borders may represent corn plants.
   From the four-petaled cross motif at the axis, stylized, almost geometrical reliefs of grape vines extend propeller like in all four directions. Curious checkerboard panels at the ends of the arms and in mid-shaft may signify highly abstracted Christ's wounds.
The simplified skull and bones on the lower shaft are arranged in a tic-tac-toe pattern between circles.
(photo by Juan Rulfo) 
The Church of Santiago
Flanked by an open chapel and convento, the church of Santiago is distinguished by its extraordinary mudéjar facade—one of the most archaic in Mexico. 
   Hewn from reddish black basalt and dramatically set against the whitewashed west front, the geometrical facade rises in three stages, each framed by a projecting alfiz. It is densely sculpted with reliefs similar to those of the Guatapera chapel doorway in Uruapan, and although it may lack the sculptural finesse of Uruapan, the Angahuan facade is vigorously detailed in sharply undercut tequitqui relief. 
   Foliated grotesques, gripped by several angels, swirl about the tasseled Franciscan cord carved on the doorjambs. The medallions on the bases and capitals are also framed by twisted cords with penitential knouts, while others with cherubs and floral motifs fill the beaded alfiz overhead. 
image by Niccolò Brooker
An archaic Latin inscription above the densely carved archway proclaims St. James the Apostle (Santiago Apostol) as the patron of the church, probably in honor of his namesake, Fray Jácobo (James) Daciano. *
  Perhaps because of this connection, the primitive attic relief depicts the saint as a humble, barefoot pilgrim instead of the sword-wielding horseman of his more common alter ego, Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor-slayer). 
   Paradoxically, especially for a church dedicated to St. James the Apostle, whose principal attribute was the pilgrim's scallop or cockleshell, the Angahuan facade displays none of the scallop shell reliefs so common among other 16th century churches in Michoacán. The triangular crowning pediment is a later addition.
image by Niccolò Brooker
The Interior
The interior of the church looks as archaic as the exterior. Although a modern, wooden barrel vault has replaced the old hipped roof, most of the 16th century wooden frieze is still in place along the roofline. 
A long, partially deciphered inscription, in a condensed style like that of the facade and marked with the date 1557, runs along the entire roofline, again invoking St. James as protector of the village.*
image by Niccolò Brooker
Although it features no narrative images like other Michoacán ceilings, the artesonado ceiling above the main altar is another intriguing mudéjar survival. 
   Shaped like a truncated pyramid, its four sloping sides (faldones) are divided by carved ribbon cornices, cords and ornamental scrolled beam ends. Each panel contains Franciscan insignia or religious monograms composed of intricate strapwork painted red, brown and gold. 
   Framed by winged cherubs in each corner, the complex center panel, or almizate, features the papal tiara linked by banderoles 
to four spiky crowns of thorns—evoking the theme of Christ's Passion as well as the Franciscan emblem of the Stigmata.
Santiago Matamoros
A baroque retablo in provincial style stands in the apse, framed by estípite columns and a scrolled pediment, upon which rest several modern santos, notably an equestrian figure of the more militant Santiago Matamoros.
A striking group of wooden cristos de caña in the naturalistic Patzcuaro style creates a powerful impression on the visitor. 
   The most expressive of these scarred figures hangs above a great carved stone font in the baptistry, which may have functioned as the open chapel in former times.
The Open Chapel
An integral part of the original mission, the raised open chapel was attached to the north side of the church. The ornamental upper colonnade, originally used as a preaching gallery, is divided by a bulbous column, and the similarly divided lower opening is now spanned by stone corbels.  The squat bell tower is a later addition. 
   The two story convento on the south side of the church features an exterior balcony with Tarascan style wooden balustrades and 
overhanging eaves. Similar rustic galleries face three sides of the interior patio.
The Guatapera compound
The former mission hospital complex, across the road on the north side of the atrium, is now, appropriately, a vocational school for young Tarascan women.
   Anchoring the southwest corner of the gated courtyard is the restored chapel, an austere rubblestone building with a gabled roof and a cylindrical stone cross in front. The alfiz above the doorway frames a relief inscription, which dates its construction to the year 1570 and names as its benefactor Juan de Velasco, at that time the prior of nearby Zirosto.
  A new wooden door was carved by the late Simon Lázaro Jiménez, a local Tarascan carpenter, storyteller and village elder who also sculpted an intriguing house doorway across the plaza graphically illustrating the eruption of Paricutín. He has also written an anecdotal account of that momentous event.

For a recent compilation of images of the people and churches of the region, including several mentioned in our posts, check out the video by Quin Matthews, who accompanied the author on one of his journeys through Michoacán.

text © 2015 Richard D. Perry.  images by the author except where noted