Thursday, October 11, 2018

Chiapas: El Calvario de Chiapa de Corzo

Chiapa de Corzo, the ancient chiapanec capital of Chiapas, is known for its varied colonial monuments, most notably the spectacular 16th century brick fountain, the old Dominican priory of Santo Domingo, and the roofless hillside church of San Sebastián, dedicated to the town's patron saint.
   Less well-known is the tiny Calvary Chapel, located at the top of a hill, next to a spreading ceiba tree in the outer barrio of San Pedro, commanding panoramic views of the city and its monuments.
courtesy of Robert Guess
The Facade
At its heart a 17th century building, the chapel front was remodeled in popular neogothic style around 1900. Despite their folk gothic arches and pinnacles, the crowded belfry arcade between the squat towers remains in the tradition of vernacular architecture in Chiapas.
Unfortunately, El Calvario was damaged in the earthquakes of September 2017, but restoration work is currently under way.
photos courtesy of Robert Guess
One unique feature of the facade is a pair of large, painted bas reliefs, depicting Our Lady of Mt Carmel (L) and St. Francis of Assisi embracing the crucified Christ (R) both set in ogee-like niches or frames.
   Such painted facade reliefs, while a rarity in Chiapas, are firmly in the tradition of popular religious art in Guatemala and Andalusia, as well as other parts of southern Mexico.
courtesy of Robert Guess
The Descent from the Cross
Another unexpected colonial treasure at El Calvario rests inside the church. This is a venerable painted wooden relief illustrating The Descent from the Cross, thought to have belonged to the now lost 16th century main altarpiece taken from the old Dominican priory of Santo Domingo (located down the hill beside the river, just off the main plaza in Chiapa de Corzo).

The Descent from the Cross (detail).  courtesy of Niccolo Brooker 
Although displayed inside a glass case on the right hand side of the narrow nave (which makes it difficult to photograph in situ) the panel is carved, painted and gilded in an unexpectedly sophisticated style, of excellent workmanship and compelling composition, probably based on a European print or painting, and possibly the work of a European artist.
St. Mary Magdalene.  courtesy of Niccolo Brooker

The figures are convincingly modeled, especially the slumping body of Christ in the foreground; the elaborate robes of the many onlookers are carved in rhythmic, flowing lines and incised with estofado patterning, especially the figure of Mary Magdalene kneeling in the foreground.
the nave with El Señor del Calvario.   photo courtesy of Robert Guess
El Señor del Calvario
El Calvario is also the focus of one of Chiapas' most interesting folk festivals, dedicated to El Señor del Calvario, a venerated crucifix that rests above the main altar, fortunately undamaged during the 'quake.
courtesy of Robert Guess

The nine day observance begins on the third Friday of October, a colorful and well attended celebration at the chapel, which has been spectacularly decorated with floral enramas, fruits and festive foods including circular rosca breads for the occasion.

courtesy of Robert Guess
text © 2005 & 2018 Richard D. Perry
color images © Niccolo Brooker and Robert Guess with appreciation. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 8, 2018

San Bartolomé Otzolotepec 1. The Altarpiece

San Bartolomé Otzolotepec (On Jaguar Hill), now also known as Villa Cuauhtémoc, is located to the northeast of the city of Toluca in western Mexico State. 
   Although there was a church here in the latter 1500s, the present parish church is of later colonial origin, being built in the early 1700s under the episcopal clergy* and with the active cooperation of the indigenous Otomí of the region.
The church is substantial but unexceptional, its gray stone facade modestly but skilfully framed in the sober baroque style of the period. A statue of St. Bartholomew, the patron saint and martyr with flaying knife in hand, looks down from its niche.

The Main Altarpiece
This gleaming masterpiece of colonial art, epitomizes the high point of the Solomonic baroque style, which flourished in the first half of the 18th century. 
   Dating from 1726, it is documented as the work of the metropolitan designer/ensamblador Francisco Xavier de Olivares, and fortunately retains most of its original statuary and paintings. 
The retablo thrusts forward like a folding screen. Gilded, double helix columns divide three tiers of alternating sculpture niches and painted panels; the intervening cornices and panels are sumptuously encrusted with scrolls, shells and swirling foliage.
The Statuary
Variously framed arches cap the niches which house a series of handsomely wrought, elongated figures of saints conservatively posed but richly costumed in the decorative estofado manner.
   St. Bartholomew graces the upper niche in the broad central calle of the retablo, while Sts Peter, Paul and eminent Franciscans occupy the angled lateral niches.
St. Bartholomew
St. Ambrose?      St. Augustine;     St. Matthew
St. John the Evangelist;      St. Mark;     St. Luke    
Miniature reliefs of the Four Evangelists and the Doctors of the Latin Church are exquisitely carved along the base, or predella, at the foot of each column, further emphasizing the superb workmanship of this retablo.
The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by José de Ibarra
The Paintings
Another notable aspect of the altarpiece is the paintings in its outer calles. These include four major panels illustrating scenes from the life of St. Bartholomew, signed by the eminent baroque artist José de Ibarra—all the more important as they may constitute his earliest known complete cycle of paintings.
* The construction of the church was speedily completed under the direction of the energetic local priest, Prebendaro Nicolás López Jardón (for whom the recently established adjacent municipal museum is named) with the sponsorship of one José Ramo de Vera, a prominent local inquisitor.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
color images by Dolores Dahlhaus, Cecilia Gutierrez Arriola, ELTB, and others

Monday, October 1, 2018

Hidden Gems: The Pazulco Altarpiece

From time to time we take a look at modest rural Mexican churches with colonial antecedents that are overlooked by most students of viceregal art and architecture, but that often possess features of special artistic interest.  
Asunción Pazulco
At last report still in a dire condition of neglect, the exceptional 17th century altarpiece in the church of Asunción Pazulco*—a former visita of nearby Yecapixtla—retains most of its original fabric, above all, its wooden statues which, despite their urgent need of conservation, are among the highest quality colonial sculptural works in the state of Morelos.
The altarpiece is framed in classic “solomonic” style with gilded spiral columns, chains of relief rosettes, and hanging spindles in the Oaxacan baroque style. 
   Ornate sculpture niches encased in filigree relief hold the original statues which are of surpassing quality.

Flanking the image of the Virgin of the Assumption on the lower level, the figures of St. Augustine and St. Francis still glow in their faded but still sumptuous estofado robes.


St. Joseph bearing the Christ Child occupies the center niche on the upper level, accompanied by St. Andrew and the near naked figure of the martyr St. Sebastian.
St. Joseph
St Andrew;                                                 St Sebastian
The Crucifixion tableau in the gable includes reliefs of Mary and St. John the Divine. Naked cherubs dance atop the flanking columns. 
To either side, remnant painted reliefs depict Faith and Hope, while a bearded God the Father looks down from the apex.
It is much to be hoped that the long delayed restoration of this valuable altarpiece will be undertaken before its further, perhaps irreversible deterioration.
Facade earthquake damage 2017
*After the 9/19 earthquake of 2017, some structural damage to the church was sustained, notably the loss of a belfry, and interior problems including pieces fallen from the altar reported. Updates to follow.

Check out our other Hidden Gems: Xichu de IndiosSan Felipe Sultepec; San Pablo Malacatepec;  OcoxochitepecMixquiahualaCherán;
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry.  
color images by Niccolò Brooker and Irving Valerio

Friday, September 28, 2018

Ucareo: the atrium cross

We continue our series on Mexican crosses of note with a description of the atrium cross at Ucareo.
   The rugged region east of Lake Cuitzeo in Michoacán is home to an extraordinary variety of elaborately carved atrium crosses. In addition to that of Ucareo, they include those at San Matías El Grande, Jácuaro and Ciudad Hidalgo.
   Founded in 1555, the hilltop priory of San Agustín Ucareo was one of earliest Augustinian houses to be established in eastern Michoacán. Although the church was later remodeled with an austere classical front, the magnificent 16th century atrium cross still stands before the church door.
Ucareo, atrium cross: front 
Brilliantly sculpted on all sides, the Ucareo cross is, in our view, one of the finest in Michoacán. Enclosed by a projecting border, the extraordinary variety of reliefs that distinguish the cross are picked out with clarity in an especially harmonious composition.

On the front, the haloed Face of Christ at the crossing inclines with anguish, apparently gushing blood. Christ is flanked by a turbaned head, probably representing Caifas, and another onlooker spitting an epithet. Disembodied nailed hands point outwards from the arms.
   The Instruments of the Crucifixion are arranged in a column along the shaft. Half way down, blood streams from a Wound, apparently held by two hands, into the Chalice. A Jug and Ewer appear at the foot.  A simian-like skull projects from the cubed pedestal supporting the cross with the crossbones of Calvary carved below.
Ucareo, atrium cross: reverse

The Reverse Side 
The back side of the cross is more densely, if less conventionally, carved than the front. One unusual element is the triangular sunburst at the crossing. Radiating enormous rays, it features a large eye at its center, a motif that may symbolize the Trinity or more likely, the Eye of God, who watches over all things—a unique representation on an atrium cross to our knowledge.
   A writing Hand on the left and a solitary Malchus’ Ear on the right are the only reliefs on the arms, while the Augustinian emblem of the pierced heart is carved above the eye. 

Laden with grapes and inhabited by small birds, a sinuous and skilfully carved Eucharistic vine snakes up the shaft. At the foot, incongruously, is a beautifully realized relief head of Christ; sculpted in a more refined, detailed manner than the boldly outlined Instruments above, it suggests a different hand and possibly a later date. 
Even more Passion symbols line the two remaining sides of the cross: on one side a Corn plant winds between a Lance and a Ladder, atop the woven monogram of Christ on the pedestal below. 
   A column of Dice cascades down the other side flanked by a Spear and a Reed with an odd looking Sponge. A Hand holding a tress of hair and a Sword and another Ear are squeezed in at the top, while a Lantern is outlined at the foot.
In our view one of the most intriguing and beautifully sculpted crosses in Mexico.

text and graphics © 2018 by Richard D. Perry
color images courtesy of Niccolò Brooker
Check out our earlier posts on exceptional Michoacán crosses: Uruapan; San Felipe; HuaniqueoAngahuan; Zacán; Tarecuato; Tlacolula;  Santiago Charapan;

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Panotla: the lost cross of San Nicolás

San Nicolas Panotla, facade © Felipe Falcón
The sumptuous baroque temple at Panotla, dedicated to St. Nicholas of Bari, is located a few kilometers west of the city of Tlaxcala. It displays an opulent stone and stucco facade reminiscent of the nearby shrine to the Virgin of Ocotlán. 
The Panotla cross, author's reconstruction

The Atrium Cross 
In 1908, the American antiquarian Frederick Starr visited Panotla, noting in his book, In Indian Mexico, “Before the churchyard stands a quaint old cross of stone, dated 1728, upon which are represented all the symbols of Christ’s passion; a long inscription in Aztec is cut into the base.”
   Today this handsome colonial cross is missing. Only the inscribed base is still in place. Based on early photographs, this archaic stone cross, with its stubby arms and neck, was quite unlike others in the Tlaxcala region.
   The primitive Face of Christ at the crossing resembled that of a Pharoah, with spreading locks and a zigzag Crown. In part because of their odd shape and position as well as their eroded state, several of the numerous Passion reliefs on the arms and long shaft were ambiguous. Two relief Nails with four pierced rosettes flanked the Face. Above Christ’s head, a band of wavy lines, possibly indicating Coins, crosses the neck below a more complex, sunburst style rosette set with outlying buds or points—perhaps also intended as a Crown. However, another stylized, wreathlike Crown was juxtaposed beside a Chalice atop the shaft, below which an enigmatic figure appeared apparently bearing a cross—a unique in- stance of this motif, if our interpretion is correct.
   Further down, a fan of three Nails, a Hammer, a Scourge and diminutive crossed Spear and Reed led to an open Hand beside a Column and Rooster, ending with a Ewer at the foot.
Alhough the whereabouts of the missing cross is unknown, the pedestal upon which it stood still remains, 
inscribed with the date of 1728, as noted by Starr.
text and graphic © 2018 Richard D. Perry

Friday, September 14, 2018

Cuernavaca.Tetela del Monte

In previous posts, we looked at early stone crosses in the Cuernavaca area: in the precincts of Cuernavaca cathedral, a former Franciscan monastery, and in the suburb of San Jerónimo Tlaltenango.
Chapel of Los Reyes Magos in Tetela del Monte
Today we visit the 16th century Franciscan chapel of Los Reyes Magos (Three Kings)in the northerly suburb of Tetela del Monte, to describe its early carvings and atrium cross.
Founded perhaps as a retreat, this gem of a hillside chapel may also occupy the site of a prehispanic shrine.  Like many other early mission buildings, its founding is attributed to the pioneering missionary Fray Toribio de Benavente (Motolinia).
The square chapel front is notable for its plain doorway whose jambs are headed by large, frontally posed, tequitqui style reliefs of angels, inscribed with the date 1551? 
front                                                                 reverse
The Atrium Cross
Located by the gateway in the spacious, leafy atrium, the cross is set high atop a multilevel base and pedestal. Like many early stone crosses, the Tetela cross is carved with now worn Passion related symbols on the front.
   Identifiable reliefs include an earless head, a ladder, a lance with a sponge a corn plant and a grape vine. A skull and crossed bones appear on the pedestal below.
The reverse side is plain, although the Christic monogram (IHS) is carved on this side of the pedestal.  The head of the cross, with its smaller crosspiece, may be a later addition. ?
Tetela is also noted for its looping atrium wall, created by the 20th century English artist John Spencer.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
images courtesy of Niccolo Brooker and ELTB