Sunday, March 1, 2015

Treasures of Mexico City: San Bernardo

Before we proceed with our series of posts on Coixtlahuaca, we would like to slip in this description of San Bernardo, one of a group of distinctive colonial monuments in the Mexico City region.
Mexico City center 1737
The baroque church of San Bernardo in the historic center of Mexico City (Venustiano Carranza / Avenida 20 de Noviembre) is a colonial survivor—an unusual building with an interesting history and stylistic variety.
   Founded in the early 1600s by Franciscan Conceptionist nuns from Regina Coeli following an internal conflict, construction of this offshoot had a rocky start, but with the help of wealthy patrons was completed and dedicated to St. Bernard in 1690. 
San Bernardo before alteration, with twin lateral entries in place
Attributed to the noted Mexico City architect Juan de Zepeda, the building hewed to the classic plan for a nun’s church with two almost identical lateral entries. 
   Stylistically, while both these facades follow the sober, classical framework of the early baroque, there is a profusion of ornament—a phase dubbed "refined lavishness" by the critic Manuel Toussaint
   These elements include the ornate, almost heraldic center niches, and a variety of decorative columns: spiral, wavy, zig-zag, tritostyle, that anticipate the Neostyle church fronts of a century later.  
Another unusual aspect of the church is its use of dark red tezontle basalt and Pueblan style herringbone patterning between passages of stonework and on the intervening wall spaces—a revival of 16th century patterns of construction in the city.
San Bernardo, the present west front
However, the building we see today is not as originally constructed. In 1861, following the Reform, the adjacent nuns' convent was demolished to allow passage of a new street.
Demolition of the convent of San Bernardo. painting by José Maria Velasco
Later, in the 1930s, city planners decided to demolish the by then abandoned church to put through the new street of Avenida 20 de Noviembre. 
   After much debate* it was decided that the western section of the church be removed and the displaced western lateral entry reconstructed stone by stone to serve as a new facade for the now foreshortened church.
San Bernardo, the remaining lateral entry
Thus the new west front is identical to the remaining side entry, the only distinction being the statues of gilded alabaster—portraying the Virgin of Guadalupe on the front and that of St. Bernard on the side.
   Despite its mutilation, the church of San Bernardo remains as one of the most elegant and intriguing 17th century monuments in the city.
San Bernardo.  Guadalupe statue © Niccolò Brooker
Why such costly mitigation was even undertaken during a period of notorious disregard for colonial religious monuments is not explained. 
   One contributing factor may have been the famous Letras de San Bernardo, a poetic cycle penned by the iconic nun and poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz to inaugurate the founding of the church and convento, in which she praises its architecture and the architect:

" Den al arquitecto un vitore
pues ha vencido habile
la pirámide de Memphise
y las columnas de Cádice.."

Give the architect a triumph
for he has cleverly surpassed
the pyramid of Memphis
and the columns of Cadiz

text © 2015 Richard D. Perry.    
Sources:  illustrations © José Ignacio Lanzagorta except where noted
Paseos Coloniales by Manuel Toussaint

Monday, February 23, 2015

Yecapixtla: The Convento and its Murals

For our final post on Yecapixtla we consider the extensive convento or friars' quarters of the priory.
The Convento 
As with many Mexican monasteries, the convento is located on the sunnier south side of the church.
   In contrast to the opulent sculptural detail of the church, the architecture of the convento is plain. Above the austere arcade of the monastery entrance, or portería, the outline of a bricked-up archway overhead may indicate the location of a former open chapel.    
Although the arched convento entry inside the porteria is also sober, some refinement is reflected in the framing colonettes and surmounting Gothic finials. 
A less subtle touch is evinced by the Calvary cross or tree cross relief above the doorway. “Pruned" stubs project along its arms and shaft and a startlingly realistic skull grins from the base.
The Murals 
One of the glories of Yecapixtla is its extensive gallery of 16th century murals inside the convento which ameliorate the severity of the architecture. 
   The sala de profundis * just inside the entrance is the jewel in the crown. Recently restored painted arcades along the side walls frame portraits of Augustinian martyrs, outlined in black and highlighted with earthy reds and ochers. 
The piece de resistance is the spectacular Resurrection scene on the end wall. Based on a medieval print or wood-cut, the risen Christ raises the cross in triumph above the overlapping haloes of a throng of saints, apostles and other notables. 

Like the portería, the single-story cloister is surprisingly plain for an Augustinian house, its stark, whitewashed arcades free of architectural ornament. 
By contrast, the cloister walks are ablaze with color. Although often fragmentary, heavily restored portraits of saints, martyrs and founders of the early church look out from the arcade piers, many with scrolled name plaques. 
© Ramón Moreno Rodríguez
We can pick out the youthful St. Francis, St Peter of Verona and the magisterial figure of Pope Gregory in his papal finery and triple tiara. 
Red, blue and beige coffered artesonado patterns cover the barrel vaults, and lively grotesque friezes studded with medallions line the corridors. 
Traces of a mural cycle depicting Christ's Passion cling to the corner bays. Ongoing restoration of the murals are leading to new discoveries.
   Beyond the cloister, Isabelline portals lead to other rooms, including the sacristy, the Sagrario Chapel and the colonial monastery school. 
* Traditionally a funerary chapel memorializing deceased members of the Order, so named from the opening words of the penitential Psalm 130, "de profundis clamavi ad te, Domine", in New World monasteries it also served as a chapter room and ante refectory.
The Resurrection mural before restoration (1990)

text © 2015 Richard D. Perry.  color images by Niccolò Brooker except where noted.
for details on other 16th century Mexican monasteries, consult our classic guide book

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Yecapixtla: Inside the Church

" One of the most beautiful temples of this realm. Fashioned with such rare skill that the windows, the ribs of the vault, the pulpit and even the choir rail are all finely chiseled in stone in the same manner"
anonymous 18th century chronicler

Inside the Church
Despite a facelift in the last century, when its gilded Baroque retablos were consigned to the flames and replaced by neoclassical altars, the interior retains much of its colonial grandeur. 
Rib vault above the crossing
The refined skills of the stone carvers displayed on the church exterior continue inside the church. Much of the original stonework is still intact—the flowing tracery of the painted vaults, and the sturdy ribs and bosses of the wheel vault under the choir. A rare pierced stone parapet atop the choir is also unique, surmounted by spiky fleurs-de-lis and candelabra pinnacles. 
under choir wheel vault (Wikimedia-Ivan)
Among the most accomplished works of sculpture in the church is the sumptuous Isabelline pulpit, delicately carved with Augustinian insignia like the facade—in our view the finest sculpted stone pulpit in Mexico. 
Its ogee arches and Gothic finials suggest the hand of a Spanish craftsman, as does the handsome processional doorway into the cloister—one of several similar portals in the church. * 
By contrast, the primitive font is fringed by eroded lions and angels. Originally an outdoor fountain, it was pressed into service during the mass baptisms of the Spiritual Conquest and continues to fulfill the same role more than 450 years later. 
Carved doorway to bell tower with grotesque frieze
Traces of monochrome figures and friezes emerging from behind the 19th century overpainting along the nave hint at 16th century murals still awaiting recovery. 

Four doorways on the south side of the nave open to the Sacristy, the Sagrario chapel, the Baptistry and the Convento.
text © 2015 Richard D. Perry.
color pictures by the author and courtesy of Niccolo Brooker, Felipe Falcón and others.
for details on other 16th century Mexican monasteries, consult our classic guide book

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Yecapixtla. The Church exterior

From the atrium we now approach the priory church. During the late 1530s, this great structure rose rapidly under the supervision of the prior Fray Jorge de Avila. Construction continued through the 1540s and 1550s and by 1580 the priory was finished. 
   Yecapixtla was a famous landmark even in colonial times. Tall flared buttresses, capped with castellated garitas (sentry boxes), anchor the gigantic west front of the church. 
the battlemented garita atop the facade
Martial merlons march across the crowning gable and parapets of the church, along the monastery front and atrium walls and, as noted, mark the corners of the posa chapels. 
posa chapel (N. Brooker)
Despite its massive scale and rugged profile, Yecapixtla boasts outstanding and refined stone working throughout.
The West Front
The facade features one of the most refined Plateresque style porches in Mexico. Its pure Renaissance outline is spiced with Gothic elements; narrow paired colonettes frame the grand arched doorway enclosing slender niches, now empty, supported on grutesco style floral reliefs.  
"grotesque" relief
Medallions of cherubs' heads entwine with rosettes, lilies and acanthus leaves on the door jambs and around the archway. Winged angels pose in the spandrels and high-spirited putti ride on fantastical dragons along the frieze. 
cherub riding a triton
Cameos of a friar and a bewigged Spanish hidalgo are embossed on the column pedestals and alternate with rosettes on the door jambs. 
Another empty niche in the attic above is flanked by the Augustinian insignia of the pierced heart with a tasseled galero hat on one side, and the bleeding Five Wounds of the Franciscan Order on the other. 
(N. Brooker)
Above the doorway an expressive stone crucifix is inset at the apex of the crowning pediment. The body of Christ with its foreshortened figure, enlarged extremities and stylized ribs is a 16th century sculpture no doubt carved by an indigenous mason rather than a Spanish craftsman. 
© Felipe Falcón
Above the porch, the rose window is among the most spectacular examples of its kind in Mexico. It seems almost to float above the porch, its sinuous flamboyant tracery rivaled in richness by the complex scrolls and ribbons of its layered, circular frame.
On the north side of the church, the cliff like, battlemented nave wall is pierced by Gothic style windows and another elegant entry.   
Like the west entry, this finely crafted Plateresque doorway is flanked by slender "cushioned" colonettes. Carved relief panels like those of the west porch adorn the jambs, while floral medallions alternate with Augustinian hearts around the archway.
   Medallions with portrait busts of a man and a woman occupy the spandrels—possibly Cortés and his wife? 
text © 2015 Richard D. Perry.  
color images by the author and courtesy of Niccolo Brooker and Felipe Falcón.
for details on other 16th century Mexican monasteries, consult our classic guide book

Friday, February 6, 2015

Yecapixtla. The Priory of San Juan Bautista

For our first post on Yecapixtla, its arts and architecture, we take an overall view of the priory, its history and environs.

Shining Nose 
Strategically placed on a fortified bluff between two deep gorges, this proud city doggedly resisted assimilation by the powerful Aztec empire. The aristocratic lords of Yecapixtla wore the jade noseplugs traditionally reserved for kings—a privilege proudly commemorated in the town's place name.
   So when the Spaniards arrived in the spring of 1521, the independent townspeople put up a fierce struggle before finally succumbing to the superior numbers and weaponry of the invaders and their Tlaxcalan allies. The river reportedly ran red with blood.
   Despite this fearful encounter, Yecapixtla retained its preeminence into colonial times and was chosen by the conquistador Cortés as one of the four regional villas of the Marquesado, his far flung estates. 
   Although Franciscans from Cuernavaca first evangelized Yecapixtla and erected a primitive adobe-and-thatch mission here, it was the Augustinians who took over and built the magnificent stone fortress priory of San Juan Bautista that stands here today—the flagship of their chain of monasteries in the region.
   From the church roof, ringed by battlements, a vast golden plain patched with green stretches away to the southwest, fading into an ash blue haze of smoking corn and sugar-cane fields. The purple wall of the Tepozteco range rises to the north, and to the east looms the snow-capped cone of the volcano Popocatépetl. 
The Atrium
The priory is fronted by a large, L-shaped atrium enclosed by formidable stone walls bristling with spiky merlons. Battlemented posa chapels anchor each corner.
© Ismael Rangel Gomez
The atrium cross - reverse side
The Atrium Cross
Yecapixtla also boasts a conspicuous carved stone cross. Like those at nearby Cuernavaca and Temimilcingo, it stands conspicuously atop a high stone base with corner merlons, set directly in the path to the church door. 
   Although considerably eroded, the front of the cross is delicately carved with Passion symbols, notably angled spikes on the arms and shaft—a regional pattern. 
   A Chalice appears at the top of the shaft from where an emerging Host occupies the axis of the cross, in the form of a flower or sunburst. A thin band extends up from the chalice through the center of the Host, terminating in a tiny cross, above which floats an oval, cordlike Crown of Thorns motif.
   Another Chalice and Host appear on the base of the cross.
The atrium cross - front (detail) 
The back of cross is plain, although there is an unusually realistic Augustinian heart with a protruding aorta carved on the pedestal (see reverse image above). 
text and graphics © Richard D. Perry  
color images courtesy of Niccolò Brooker except where noted.

for details on other 16th century Mexican monasteries, consult our classic guide book

Monday, February 2, 2015

Yecapixtla: Introduction

In our 1992 guidebook, Mexico's Fortress Monasteries, we described a group of major 16th century monasteries in central Mexico and Oaxaca.  Our entries were illustrated with line drawings which could not do full justice to the variety of architectural, artistic and especially the colorful aspects of these monuments.
   In our new series we revisit many of these early colonial  complexes, updating the information and adding color images, some recently taken and others chosen from our newly scanned slide archive.

Many years ago, back in the 1960s, we stopped by the imposing Augustinian priory of Yecapixtla to take some exterior pictures, one of which I used as a basis for a rather impressionistic painting and collage.  
   Later, in the mid 1980s, we paid a longer visit and had the privilege of meeting Santiago Aguilar, the 82 year-old sacristan of the church and a veteran of the Mexican Revolution.  As we recounted in our guidebook Mexico’s Fortress Monasteries:

After ascending the 94 narrow stone steps of the dark spiral stairway, we emerged giddy and breathless into the midday glare atop the church roof. Santiago,showing no ill effects from the climb, stepped into the garita perched precipitously at the apex of the facade and gestured towards the sweep-ing panorama. 
“When the Federales came in 1914," Santiago reminisced as he gazed into the distance, "I was only nine. Most of the villagers left during the Revolution, but I stayed and hid. I saw it all." 
He turned and pointed to the battlemented walkways beside the roof parapets. "Cannon and machine guns were hauled up here to defend the town.  Ah, the noise, the bloodshed, the destruction. How we all suffered!..."
Santiago beckoned us to the rear of the roof, pointing to an ancient timepiece hung in a small belfry, " This is the only thing that escaped damage in the Revolution. A wonderful old clock. German. Installed in the time of Don Porfirio and still keeping good time today." 
Santiago Aguilar in 1985
In the next several posts we hope to relive as well as add to our impressions of this magnificent 16th century Augustinian priory, starting with the exterior.
text and images © 2015 Richard D. Perry

for details on other 16th century Mexican monasteries, consult our classic guide book

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Stone Retablos: La Castrense, New Mexico

In earlier posts in this series we featured the stone altarpieces at San José Chiapa, Puebla Cathedral, Guadalupe in Aguascalientes, Chihuahua cathedral and San Pablo El Viejo in Mexico City.  
   Although it is beyond our usual purview, we now look at another exceptional stone altarpiece, this time across the border in New Mexico.
© Niccolò Brooker
La Castrense Altarpiece
In 1756, the Spanish military engineer and cartographer Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco was brought to Santa Fé by Governor Francisco Antonio Marín del Valle, to create a detailed map* of the province.  This was duly published two years later—a brilliant achievement.
   In addition to his other skills, Miera y Pacheco was also a sculptor and designer with knowledge of contemporary artistic currents in Mexico, and soon after his map making project, he started work on this remarkable altarpiece—a monumental work unique in the religious art of New Mexico.  
  Carved entirely from three enormous slabs of locally quarried limestone, it was completed in 1761 for the military chapel of La Castrense, in downtown Santa Fé—another pet project of the governor.  
   This chapel was later demolished and the great retablo moved to the cathedral, only to be later dismantled. Rescued from storage and reassembled in the 1930s, it now resides in the nearby church of El Cristo Rey, where it is dramatically lit by the afternoon sun through transverse clerestory windows above the sanctuary—a distinctive New Mexico architectural feature.
Still in a good state of preservation, the altarpiece follows the orderly pattern of  Mexican baroque retablo design in the late colonial period, in which images of saints—often paintings but in this case carved, painted reliefs—are displayed in tiers and framed by decorative columns or supports. 
   Here the supports take the form of bulbous estípite pilasters, a signature feature of many mid 18th century Mexican altarpieces, some incorporating busts and caryatids with native features.
Angels with cornucopia occupy the gable ends while bands of foliated ornament adorn the cornices and intervening spaces throughout. Numerous traces of pigment, especially in the reliefs, indicate that the altarpiece was once brilliantly colored.
Our Lady of Light relief (N. S. de La Luz)  © Niccolò Brooker
The Imagery
Iconographically the altarpiece also holds much of interest. Today the retablo is still officially dedicated to Our Lady of Light, whose somewhat washed out relief image appears in an octagonal frame in the lower center niche. 
   She is portrayed in her classic pose: accompanied on one side by an angel holding up a basket of flaming hearts to the infant Jesus and on the other rescuing a youth from the jaws of hell.
   Associated with and promoted by the Jesuits, the cult of Our Lady of Light enjoyed a great vogue in Mexico and the borderlands after the mid-1700s.
Note: this relief is often covered by an image of Cristo Rey the patron of the church (see above).  
Santiago Matamoros
Above her in the center is another large relief, similarly framed, depicting Santiago Matamoros, the militant patron of Reconquest Spai—an appropriate figure to appear in a military chapel
   Mounted, with sword and banner, the saint smites turbanned Moors beneath his horse's hooves.  Note the shell on his saddle blanket, the traditional symbol of his peaceable alter ego Santiago Peregrino. 
Our Lady of Valvanera
Perhaps the most interesting image in the retablo is a relief in the middle of the top tier depicting Our Lady of Valvanera—a rarely shown advocation of the Virgin Mary, especially in New Mexico, and possibly a patron of the governor's wife, María Ygnacia Martínez de Ugarte.
   Although her customary visual attributes are complex and variable, here she is shown sheltering in an oak tree seated on an eagle throne. The Virgin is crowned, along with the young Christ who holds an open book.  In her other hand she holds a flowering heart.  
   Other details include a beehive on the top right and below it the figures of an angel appearing to a hermit—the repentant thief who, according to legend, encountered the miraculous image and left an offering of his ill gotten gains, an open coffer of jewelry, at her feet. 
   In the crowning pediment, God the Father, complete with triple tiara and orb, gestures in benediction.  
                                  St. Joseph;                    St. Francis Solano baptizing natives

St. Ignatius Loyola                                 St. John Nepomuk
The remaining figures include Franciscan favorites St. Joseph and St. Francis Solano, together with saints Ignatius Loyola and John Nepomuk reinforcing the Jesuit connection. 
   The altarpiece bears the following inscription:
“A devoción de Señor Don Francisco Antonio Marín del Valle, Gobernador y Capitán General de este Reino ... Y de su esposa María Ygnacia Martínez de Ugarte, 1761.” 
Aside from its intrinsic historical and artistic interest, this spectacular altarpiece and its imagery are believed to have inspired many later santeros in New Mexico.
1758 map of New Mexico by Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco
text © 2015 by Richard D. Perry.  color images © Robert Guess except where noted.

Thanks to our friend Ginny Guess for bringing this retablo to our attention 
and Mike Lord of Voces de Santa Fe for his helpful assistance.