Monday, July 16, 2018

Churches of the Yucatan Frontier: Sabán

San Pedro Sabán today

The next stop in our series on the frontier churches of Yucatán is at San Pedro Sabán. Until recently Sabán was one of the many "lost towns" of Quintana Róo, a monument to the shifting history* of the colonial frontier.
    In the early days of the Caste War, Sabean was overrun and sacked by Maya rebels, then left to molder in the bush. The 18th century church of San Pedro and the many fine colonial houses around the plaza fell into ruins, soon overgrown by the advancing monte. Although still a ghost town as late as the 1960s, Sabán has now been resettled.
San Pedro Saban in 1984 before restoration work
The Church
During its brief flowering in late colonial times, the grand church—a former visita of Ichmul—was the pride of the community. 

   Founded under the ambitious expansion of the church into the frontier under Bishop Luis de Piña y Mazo in the 1780s, the new parish church at Sabán was built by the Jesuit priest Juan Manuel Rosado—who also had a hand in the church buildings at nearby Chikindzonot and Ichmul.
   These new churches shared a distinctive architectural style. Inspired in part by Mérida Cathedral, they were built on a grand scale in an ostentatious manner quite alien to the plain Franciscan missions of old. 

   Soaring facades were crowned with multi-tiered bell towers. Ornate baroque entries, balustraded balconies, and pierced parapets blossomed, their surfaces animated by abundant stone sculpture and decorative carved stucco.
Pascual Estrella
In our previous post on Chikindzonot, we drew attention to the exceptional quality of its stone carving, executed by the indigenous Mayan Pascual Estrella—one of the few artisans whose names have come down to us. 
   Estrella also worked on other area churches, notably at Ichmul and here at Sabán, where the imaginative variety and skill of the stone carving, and especially the reliefs, adds to the extraordinary legacy of this native sculptor.
Although simple in plan and form, the church at Sabán is noted for its imposing scale and ornamented facade—a classic example of Yucatecan frontier architecture. The entry door is framed by a pair of complex estípite columns, lavishly carved with scrolls and foliated motifs.
Above the portal, a curving, corbeled balcony beneath the choir window rests on a stone angel with outstretched arms, who in turn stands upon a demon's head—possibly inspired by the Casa de Montejo in Mérida.
A large, square relief of St. Peter, the patron of the church, occupies the upper facade. Seated with knees splayed, the saint gazes up quizzically at a cockerel strutting along the balustrade, his crossed keys on the floor below.
Overhead, slender, elongated towers sit atop the main facade on either side, pierced by ogival openings and crowned by high cupolas fringed with tiaras. 
   Like El Santuario in Ichmul, the raised parapet atop the facade is liberally spangled with star-shaped openings and terminates in a bow-shaped crest—a reference together with the tower tiaras to the Virgin Mary. 
Virgin of La Candelaria relief (restored)
As at Ichmul, and Chikindzonot too, the apex of the parapet houses a densely sculpted relief depicting a stylized Virgin of La Candelaria with candelabra, here carved in the form of a medallion in a foliated, circular frame.
   Today, although some parts of the sanctuary and former choir area are covered with metal roofing, much of the nave stands open to the sky, a reminder of Sabán's violent past.
*After the final defeat of the Maya in 1547, Spanish settlers spread virtually un opposed across the Yucatan peninsula. Close behind them, Franciscan friars fanned out across the countryside, and in their zeal to evangelize the vast native population, they founded missions in every corner of the colony. 
   But the devastating diseases and profound dislocation that followed the conquest caused rapid depopulation along its southern and eastern fringes. With the flight of the Maya from the harsh Spanish rule, the effective limits of the colony shrank to the northwest corner of the peninsula, between Campeche and Valladolid.  And in the 17th century, frequent incursions of British, French, and Dutch pirates from the Caribbean into the hinterland posed a constant threat to the already precarious Spanish hold on the fringes of the colony, and many outlying settlements withered. 
   The borderlands slumbered in neglect until the mid 18th century, when a period of prosperity stimulated a feverish search for more land in the southern and eastern parts of the peninsula. Whites and ladinos poured into the mushrooming towns of the frontier region, seizing Indian communal lands and forcing the Maya into peonage on the new sugar plantations. During the 18th-century boom, the few Franciscan frontier missions in the area were revived and enlarged by the episcopal clergy. Most of their effort went into the building of elaborate new parish churches in border towns like Peto, Ichmul, Chikindzonot, Tihosuco, Chemax and Saban. 
   However, these changes fanned Maya resentment of the intruders into a smoldering hatred that eventually exploded into the Caste War of 1847, when most frontier settlements were laid waste, the churches burned out and abandoned to the bush.  
   Although the region has been resettled, many of the church buildings remain battered and roofless to this day, stern reminders of the devastation that attended the clash of cultures, and melancholy monuments to the brief flowering of 18th century elegance along this remote colonial frontier.
Text © 2018 Richard D. Perry. 
Photography by the author and courtesy of Jürgen Putz.

Please visit our other pages on the frontier churches of Yucatán: Chemax; Chikindzonot; Ichmul; Sacalaca; Saban;

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Churches of the Yucatan frontier: Ichmul. Part Two

For our second post on Ichmul, we consider the unfinished parish church.
Just before the turn of the 19th century, the foundations were laid for a grand new church next to the Santuario, completed less than twenty years before. 
The priest in charge, Jose M. Olivera, again engaged sculptor Maestro Pascual Estrella in the ornamentation and possibly even the design of the new building—his name appears inscribed on a plaque above the west doorway with the date 1802, and we know that he continued to work there in 1804 and 1805.
However, this imposing cruciform church was never completed. Despite the fine carving of its shell doorway and choir window, the vast nave remains open to the sky, its expansive stone vault never built.
The sober Roman porch, framed by double columns and a simple pediment, is much enhanced by panels of delicate, foliated relief and the sculpted, octagonal choir balcony above it—a signature architectural device of this period in Yucatán.
carved ornamental details

Estrella's hand is evident in the carved sacristy doorway as well as the beautifully worked baptismal font that stands inside.

So, why were two huge churches built at Ichmul, one beside the other, only a few years apart? and why was the latter unfinished?. 
   It may be that the Santuario was too successful; that it could not accommodate the numbers of the faithful who streamed in from across the region, and that larger church was deemed necessary, perhaps to be funded by the pilgrims’ donations.
   In any event, the expense and logistics of building another great pile in this still distant part of the Yucatán peninsula proved over ambitious or invited criticism of extravagance. The death of Father Olivera in 1809, the prime mover in the project, may also have been a factor.

text © 2018 Richard D. Perry, with acknowledgments to Miguel Bretos.
color images by the author and courtesy of Miguel Bretos and Júrgen Putz

Please visit our other pages on the frontier churches of Yucatán: ChemaxChikindzonot; Ichmul; Sacalaca; Saban;

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Churches of the Yucatan frontier: Ichmul. Part One

We continue our series on the frontier churches and missions of Yucatán with visits to a group of churches associated with the colonial Maya sculptor Pascual Estrella.
Forty kilometers east of Peto in south central Yucatán lies the ancient city of Ichmul, “Place of the Pyramids” —a powerful Maya religious center since prehispanic times.    
   After the conquest, Ichmul became an important mission town. Initially a shrine to Christ of the Blisters, it later became a cult center of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. However, the whole town was laid waste during the Caste War and abandoned on Christmas Day in 1847—a catastrophe from which it has never fully recovered.
   Although the Franciscans founded a modest friary here in the 16th century, a simple convento and an open chapel with a thatched ramada,the present enigmatic complex of buildings dates from the late 1700s and early 1800s—one of several ambitious building projects launched in the region by the diocesan clergy under Bishop Luis de Piña y Mazo.

Ichmul, the mission complex
Grouped around a grassy plaza with its well and cenote, the structures include the ambitious but unfinished parish church, the extraordinary Santuario beside it, and across the plaza, an L-shaped cemetery complex. We begin our description with the Santuario of the Virgin.
El Santuario
One of the most singular religious structures in Yucatan, this grand chapel preceded the adjacent main church. Built by the prominent Jesuit priest Juan Manuel Rosado, it was complete by 1784—contemporary with his churches at Sabán and Chikindzonot.
Santuario plan
Possibly occupying the site of the original Franciscan open chapel and even harking back to its original form, the square Santuario with its triple doorways and enclosed atrium was intended as a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary and a possible regional pilgrimage chapel. 
   Triple doorways in the soaring, rectangular chapel front give entry to the broad but narrow transverse sanctuary. The facade is surmounted by the twin towers characteristic of Rosado's churches,  pierced with ogival openings and crowned by coronet shaped cupolas.

The striking, scalloped gable between the towers, another signature feature of Rosado’s churches, takes the form of a crescent moon pierced with star openings—together with the crowning cupolas clear references to the Virgin Mary.
A spectacular canopied image of the Virgin of La Candelaria, appears in a medallion at the center of the pediment. Virtually identical to the facade medallion at Sabán, it is believed to have been carved by the preeminent sculptor of the day, the Mayan Pascual Estrella.
Virgin of La Candelaria relief—detail

The Mural
A huge red, blue and ocher mural on the rear wall, representing a retablo in neo-classical style, dominates the spacious but otherwise colorless interior.  A
 replica of the miraculous black Christ of the Blisters stands in front of the fresco.
The “Cemetery”
The L-shaped complex on the north side of the plaza is the former cemetery, with its 
abandoned chapel and gateway. Like the Santuario, with which it is contemporary, the chapel front is topped by an undulating parapet pierced with stars, again suggesting a dedication to the Virgin Mary.

text © 2018 Richard D. Perry, with acknowledgments to Miguel Bretos
color images by the author and courtesy of Miguel Bretos and Júrgen Putz

Please visit our other pages on the frontier churches of Yucatán: Chemax; Chikindzonot; Ichmul; Sacalaca; Saban;

Friday, June 29, 2018

Huejotzingo: the Pereyns Altarpiece

In previous posts on the seminal Franciscan monastery of San Miguel Huejotzingo we looked at the north doorway, the posa chapels, the church murals, the convento murals and an intriguing painting in the nave.  
   Here we describe the recently restored, historic main altarpiece in the apse of the church—one of the great treasures of Mexican colonial art. Nine altarpieces, in styles from every colonial period, line the nave at Huejotzingo. But the masterwork of this collection is the retablo mayor, one of two superlative 16th century altarpieces to survive in Mexico—the other being the main retablo at Xochimilco.
   Like the Xochimilco altarpiece, the Huejotzingo retablo reflects the religious concerns and evolving artistic tastes of the period. For unlike the architecture of the church, which draws on a medieval past, the Pereyns altarpiece looks to the future. It is considered a pivotal work in the stylistic transition from the Plateresque to the Renaissance in Mexican religious art.
   Simon Pereyns was a Flemish court painter who came to Mexico in the 1560s. He established a workshop in the capital that attracted some of the best European artists and craftsmen of the time who, drawn by new opportunities in the Americas introduced the innovations of the Renaissance.
   Completed in 1586 and signed by Pereyns, the Huejotzingo altarpiece was a collaborative effort. Pereyns himself supervised the overall design and executed most of the paintings. While the statuary is largely attributed to the Andalusian sculptor Pedro de Requena, Pereyns, also a skilled sculptor, may have executed some of them. Members of Pereyns' workshop, including native artisans, were responsible for the architectural carving, painting and gilding.

Four tiers high and divided into seven vertical calles, the altarpiece soars to fill the polygonal apse. The sides flare forward like a folding screen into the nave, enticing the spectator into its mysteries. 
   The framework is highly structured. Doric and Ionic columns with carved and fluted shafts articulate the lower two tiers, changing in the upper tiers to ornate baluster columns—signature markers of this transitional Renaissance-Plateresque phase.
   Classical cupids and garlands festoon the shell niches and the intervening panels. Even a few tentative baroque touches—scrolled pediments and oval frames—make an appearance in the top tier of the altarpiece. 
As with every work of art at Huejotzingo, the altarpiece has a message. Its iconography links the story of Christ with the founding and building of the Church, emphasizing the role of the Mendicant Orders—especially the Franciscans. 
   Statues of luminaries of the primitive Christian Church and Franciscan saints alternate with large paintings that illustrate key episodes in the life of Christ. 
The Sculptures
On the lower tiers we are shown the four Doctors, the teachers and philosophers whose writings were the building blocks of the Latin Church. Sober and bearded, these patriarchal figures are dignified by their opulently textured estofado draperies. St. Augustine and St. Gregory, at bottom left, epitomize ecclesiastical dignity.   
   The middle tiers are dedicated to the founders of the monastic orders and include prominent Franciscan saints. Sumptuously attired figures of St. Bernard and St. Dominic flank the central panel of St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, a large relief carved by Pedro de Requena at a cost of only 150 pesos, according to the original contract!
   Martyrs and prophets, the conscience of Christianity, occupy the outer compartments and the top tier. These include St. Lawrence and the ascetic, San Antonio Abad. An unclothed St. Sebastian and John the Baptist, conspicuous in his wolfskin, stand apart from their elegantly attired companions.

Above a large statue of Christ Crucified, flanked by saints John and Antonio Abad, God the Father, in flowing cape and beard, gestures dramatically from the crowning pediment.
Realistic, careworn portrait busts of the Apostles, the founding fathers of early Christianity, are carved along the base panels. 
The Risen Christ  
The Paintings
Pereyns' paintings dramatize the significant episodes of Christ's life. Derived from Renaissance prints by the Flemish engraver Martin de Vos, the panels show a decided Mannerist influence, with a sharp eye for detail. 
Although the faces retain their classical serenity, the compositions display a vitality of gesture and movement that anticipates the baroque. 
The most accomplished and accessible paintings are on the lower tier: a charming Adoration of the Shepherds (left) and the Three Kings (right). 
Adoration of the Shepherds, detail
The figure of St. Joseph is particularly well realized, as is the sensuous reclining figure of Mary Magdalene? on the base panel—the only work signed by the artist. 
Pereyns signature — "ximõ perinez  f(e)c(i)t  1586"
See our earlier posts on Mexican altarpieces of note:
text © 1992 & 2018 Richard D. Perry

color images by the author, © Carolyn Brown and others

Friday, June 22, 2018

Huejotzingo: the Posa Chapels

As a follow up to our recent series on the sculpted posa chapels at Calpan, we now look at the closely related chapels of nearby San Miguel Huejotzingo.
However grand the Huejotzingo church may seem to-day, in the 16th century it was far too small to hold the vast congregation of newly converted Indians. By necessity, the friars preached out-doors, celebrating mass in the spacious, wooded atrium. 
   On feast days, friars and acolytes moved in procession around the perimeter, stopping briefly to pray at the four corner chapels, known as posas—from the Spanish posar, meaning "to pause."
Built and maintained throughout the colonial era by cofradías, the religious brotherhoods of the community, to honor their local saints, together with those at Calpan this quartet of chapels is one of the very few complete sets of 16th century posas to survive intact in Mexico. Each of the four is dedicated to the patron saint of the associated cofradía, and played an essential part in the Easter festivities at Huejotzingo.
   In addition to their remarkable decorative qualities, the complex sculptural program of the posas is also designed to link the Passion story with the Franciscan Order.
Capped by a distinctive pyramidal roof, each posa is elaborately carved on its two open sides—eight facades in all. The archway of each posa is formed by clustered Gothic colonettes and linked fetter moldings, and framed above by a rectangular alfiz in the form of the Franciscan knotted cord ending in a prominent tassel or knout.
At the center of each alfiz, an ornate, crowned monogram of either the Holy Name of Christ or the Virgin Mary is surmounted by a row of relief medallions displaying the Five Wounds of Christ.
   This central symbol of the Passion—intimately associated with the receiving of the Stigmata by St. Francis and thus doubly meaningful to the Franciscans—was universally emblazoned on all their buildings in the New World.
   Although all the facades have a common format, the iconography differs from posa to posa. Pairs of angel reliefs, frozen in flight, present the various Instruments of the Passion, in a sequence that runs counter-clockwise around the atrium, starting with the north east corner.

Northeast Posa.   “John the Baptist”
On the south face of the first chapel, to the immediate left of the church door, angels depict the amphora and ewer of water used by Pontius Pilate, and the lantern by whose light Christ was discovered and arrested.

Above the adjacent archway, facing west, angels display the lance and hyssop (sponge of vinegar) with a cup of honey. 
The date 1550 is carved on the roof beside a skull and crossbones. 
Northwest Posa.  “St Peter & St Paul”
The best known and preserved of the four chapels. On the east side, angels with trumpets sound the Last Judgment. Musical flowers issue from the bells of the trombone like instruments On the south face, another angel brandishes the sword of Saint Peter, while the thirty pieces of silver are shown opposite.


Southwest Posa.    “The Assumption”
Here, the angels carry the cruel tools of the Crucifixion. On the north side they bear the scourge and a vicious club, and opposite, the flagellation column with the cockerel crowing on top. On the east face, one angel brandishes a cane and a plant, and the other a spiky crown of thorns.


Southeast Posa.    “Santiago”
Unfortunately, the reliefs on the last posa have been much defaced and are indecipherable. The chapel interiors are all empty now. The altars and shrines that once adorned them have been removed and only a few patches of colored fresco remain. 

Tree crosses, also carved with the Instruments of the Passion, once stood atop each chapel roof. Only one such cross has been preserved and now stands in a simulated crown of thorns on a pedestal in front of the church.
text and graphics © 2018 Richard D. Perry
photography by the author and courtesy of Patrice Schmitz and Carolyn Brown.
see our earlier post on the north doorway at Huejotzingo