Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Arts of Colonial Mexico. The Guidebooks: Oaxaca and Chiapas

Our aim in this blog is to make Mexico's colonial artistic heritage come alive for the English speaking reader. 
   Over several years, your author, writer and illustrator Richard Perry has published a series of informative, pictorial guidebooks to those regions of Mexico with the richest colonial artistic heritage.   
   For each region we outline  in a clear descriptive style. the local history, folklore, and the artistic context for each building or work of art of note. In each case the text is supplemented by numerous illustrations, maps and plans.
   All the guides are illustrated by original line drawings by the author which render the architectural and sculptural detail with a clarity unobtainable in any other medium.

Here we showcase two of our guides to the more indigenous southern regions of Mexico: Oaxaca and Chiapas.

From the baroque temples of the city of Oaxaca, a colonial capital built on a human scale, to the glistening domed chapels that grace even the smallest village, the colonial churches of Oaxaca and their treasures are a source of pleasure and surprise to travelers.
   This new book, by specialist author and illustrator Richard D. Perry, is here to guide you—the first book to describe these splendid churches especially for the art traveler. Perry's detailed line drawings enhance his knowledgeable text.

The guide is divided into four sections:

Chapter One  Detailed descriptions of the principal colonial churches, monasteries and mansions of the City of Oaxaca, their history and artistic heritage.

Chapter Two  In which we look at the varied colonial arts and monuments of the many towns and villages of the populous Oaxaca Valley that surrounds the city, as well as the nearby Sierra region.

Chapter Three  Here we explore the historic priories, monasteries and many village churches of the rugged Mixteca Alta region, north of the city of Oaxaca.

Color Section  Following these itineraries, we include a special 40 page supplement of photographs by noted Mexican photographer Felipe Falcón, illustrating outstanding examples of Oaxaca's colonial art and architecture.

Designed in a compact but elegant format, with maps, plans, a useful glossary and full index, Exploring Colonial Oaxaca is an indispensable guide for the Oaxaca aficionado and the art traveler in Mexico.

After the 16th century Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas took up their cause in 1545, the plight of the highland Maya of Chiapas has occupied center stage in the history of this scenic but impoverished region.  During his brief term as the first bishop of Chiapas, Las Casas encouraged the founding of missions across the area, many of which remain in use by the Maya to this day.
   Forged in the artistic traditions of Islamic and Christian Spain, these unique colonial buildings also drew on the heritage of ancient Mexico and Guatemala, infused with the spirit of the native Maya.
   Our affordable guidebook sympathetically describes these missions, as well as the other notable Spanish colonial monuments of this isolated region: city churches, Dominican monasteries and convents, urban mansions and even a 16th century fountain -- newly restored and one of the most spectacular colonial structures in the Americas.
  • The first part of the guide looks at the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the colonial capital of Chiapas. There, we walk the visitor through its cathedral, urban churches and monasteries, colonial mansions and humble barrio chapels, describing the colonial artworks that they contain.
  • In the second Chapter we explore southern Chiapas, the less visited towns and villages along the old Camino Real between San Cristóbal and the Guatemalan border, and their often overlooked colonial monuments.
  • The last chapter describes the ancient town of Chiapa de Corso and its colonial buildings, notable its spectacular 16th century brick fountain unique in the Americas, and describes a foray north into the little known Zoque region of Chiapas, with its great ruined Dominican missions.
Author Richard Perry once again enhances his survey of the distinctive viceregal arts and architecture of the region with his detailed line drawings. 

Essential reading for the traveler along the "Ruta Maya", More Maya Missions is also a valuable reference work, complete with helpful maps, glossary, bibliography and full index.

These guidebooks may be ordered through 
from our preferred distributor Practical Patchwork.

Readable... Portable... Affordable...

Coixtlahuaca: Inside the Church

Coixtlahuaca, the nave facing east (©Benjamin Ibarra Sevilla)
The Church Interior
The spacious interior at Coixtlahuaca exceeds even the grandeur of YanhuitlanMagnificent wheel vaults cover the choir and the main bays. Radiating ribs—molded, incised and painted with floral designs—create a colorful canopy high above the long nave.
The roof bosses, intricately carved in tequitqui style, are perhaps the most detailed in any 16th century Mexican church.   
Diminutive Crucifixion scenes with St. Dominic and Mary Magdalene occupy the two westerly hubs, ringed by miniature inscribed portraits and the attributes of various saints—the disembodied head of John the Baptist, his poisoned cup, and the eyes of St. Lucy appear in the outer medallions. 
The poisoned cup of John the Baptist (graphic courtesy of Carlos Rincón Mautner)
To one side of the vaulted under choir opens the festive entry to the chapel of the Virgin of Guadalupe, formerly the baptistry. 
   Flanked by a pair of spiral columns, its flattened arch is extravagantly carved with gaily painted stars and rosettes.
Painted stone fonts beside the entry and the boldly paneled red and gold wall pulpit, mounted high on a molded, corbeled base, add further color to the nave. An 18th century table organ rests in the choir loft.
   At the east end, in contrast to the narrow, coffered sanctuary at Yanhuitlan, Coixtlahuaca boasts a broad apse, roofed by an expansive rib vault which provides a grand setting for the magnificent main altarpiece.
The Main Altarpiece
The dazzling retablo mayor is the artistic and spiritual focus of the church. Its ornate white-and-gold baroque framework rises through five tiers, each encrusted with luxuriantly carved foliage and scrolled cornices. 
   The altarpiece is divided into five vertical calles by complex estípite columns, although a few Renaissance columns survive from an older, 16th century frame, identified by their swagged, fluted shafts.
 As at Yanhuitlan, the altarpiece is a showcase for paintings and sculptures from the earlier retablo. 
   Of the fourteen painted panels, eleven are attributed to the 16th century Sevillian master, Andrés de ConchaThese major works, considered to be among the finest cycles of Mannerist paintings in the New World, were recently removed and restored by INAH
The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Shepherds, before restoration (click to enlarge)
Occupying the outer compartments of the three lower tiers, they illustrate significant episodes from the life of Christ: the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
The Adoration of the Shepherds — as restored (©INAH)
The compositions are striking, with serene figures painted in a cool palette of blue, green and violet. The Annunciation in the lower right panel is particularly appealing: a lithe Archangel Gabriel inclines intimately towards the graceful Virgin, who modestly lowers her eyes.
In contrast to the tender Nativity scenes below, in the upper tier Christ ascends before the amazed gaze of the Virgin and Apostles—a slashing angular composition dramatized by Christ's red robe rising against a glowing background.

St Peter and John the Baptist
Simon Pereyns, the Flemish sculptor who created the famous altarpiece at Huejotzingo (Puebla) and collaborated with De Concha at Yanhuitlan and elsewhere, may have carved several of the figure sculptures at Coixtlahuaca. Various saints, apostles and Doctors of the Church are portrayed in heroic poses with luxurious draperies and eloquent expressions. 
  Restoration of this magnificent altarpiece is almost complete, assuring its rightful place of honor among Mexico's finest artistic treasures.
Several other retablos of considerable artistic and historical interest occupy side niches along the nave. One large and particularly handsome example is designed in classic Oaxacan baroque style, bordered by a gilded frame of intricate spiral columns and cornices hung with spindles. 
   The central painting of the Virgin of the Rosary, clad in billowing robes, is surrounded by statues of saints in shell niches and brightly hued paintings depicting the life of Christ in the outer compartments.
text & images © 2015 Richard D. Perry.  except where noted
sources:  Evangelizacion y arquitectura dominicana en Coixtlahuaca   Magdalena Vences Vidal Salamanca 2000
                Exploring Colonial Oaxaca.  Richard D Perry   Espadana Press  2007

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Coixtlahuaca: The Church, West Front

The West Front
While it is clearly related to the north portal, the west front is more assertively classical. 
   Based on the designs of the Renaissance architect Sebastiano Serlio, the bold forms and imagery of this facade create dramatic visual power, especially when thrown into sharp relief by the intense highland sunlight of the Mixteca Alta.
A coffered archway and pilasters, richly embossed with rosettes, frame the imposing doorway.  Dominican insignia again project from the spandrels and the Latin inscription on the frieze: "My house shall be called a house of prayer among all peoples," is dated 1576 and may commemorate the dedication of the church.
The triangular pediment above the doorway encloses a complex bas-relief of the Spanish imperial coat-of-arms, framed by a two-headed Hapsburg eagle that recalls in its form the entwined snakes of the open chapel—one of the finest pieces of tequitqui sculpture in Mexico.
The rose window overhead is virtually identical to that of the north portal, separated by slender colonnettes from the massed tiers of shell niches that extend upwards on both sides of the facade. Each niche is carved with winged cherubs and some contain knotty tree crosses, greatly adding to the texture of the facade. 

The identity of the headless statue above the rose window was traditionally thought to be St. Dominic holding up the church or even an archangelHowever, the figure may in fact represent St Barbara, a substitute for an earlier statue—possibly a lost statue of Christ—whose presence there would better account for the busts of the Four Evangelists looking inward from the adjacent medallions.
Above the statue soars the eagle like dove of the Holy Spirit, now also headless
The single-stage south tower, much repaired, is typically Oaxacan, ornamented with a tiled cupola and applied pilasters in folk Ionic style.
text & images © 2015 Richard D. Perry (original color images from 1986 & 1990)
sources:  Evangelizacion y arquitectura dominicana en Coixtlahuaca   Magdalena Vences Vidal Salamanca 2000
                Exploring Colonial Oaxaca.  Richard D Perry   Espadana Press  2007

Friday, March 13, 2015

Coixtlahuaca: The Church, North Facade

In the following posts we look at the exterior features of the great priory church of Coixtlahuaca, focusing first on the north facade of the church, its design and iconography (#2 on plan).
The North Facade
Close to the open chapel, this portal was the main processional entry in early colonial times and enjoyed enormous symbolic as well as practical significance. In fact, this elaborate ornamental entry was seen both figuratively and literally as the gateway to Heaven, illustrating the Christian message for an unlettered congregation.
  The design and especially the iconography of this epic 16th century facade, with its details sharply carved in classic tequitqui style, spoke to the beliefs, concerns and motivations of the early Dominicans: that salvation and admission to the Kingdom of Heaven can only be achieved through the Catholic Church with the mediation of the Order.
  The lofty doorway takes the classic Dominican form of a coffered triumphal arch, simply but elegantly framed by fluted, paneled pilasters and dentilled cornices. Medallions of the Dominican cross are placed in the spandrels as in the open chapel.
Three life-size relief statues separated by floating half-columns occupy the pediment above the doorway. St. John the Baptist is the central figure, identified by an inscription as the patron of both the church (templo) and the community (ciudad). 
   Raising the banner of Victory and holding up a lamb, John the Baptist proclaims the coming of Christ as Saviour. On either side sit the saints Peter and Paul—pillars of the Latin Church and by tradition apostles to the Jews and the Gentiles (Indians) respectively.
image © Felipe Falcón
A handsome rose window with geometric Renaissance detailing occupies the upper tier of the facade. Rosettes—a classic Dominican motif—are set in coffered bands that ring the inner opening and stud the twelve outer "petals" of the design, symbolizing the Twelve Apostles.  A virtually identical opening also graces the west front of the church.
 Arma Cristi reliefs: left and right   (© Felipe Falcón)
The Arma Cristi
But the most arresting features of the north facade are the large scale, paired reliefs that flank the rose window. Arranged in a schematic composition and carved in a flattened, tequitqui style, these display the Arma Cristi, or Instruments of Christ's Passion surrounding a central crucifix.
Arma Cristi, detail  (© Felipe Falcón)
Sun, moon and stars add to a full panoply of associated objects: crown of thorns, scourge, ladder, cockerel, Veronica's veil, and the 30 pieces of silver spread in a band at the top.    
   Angry speech scrolls—a prehispanic motif—issue from the mouths of two onlookers and Judas is shown with a bag of silver around his neck.
text , graphic and color images © 2015 Richard D. Perry 
(original color images from 1985 & 1990)
sources:  Evangelizacion y arquitectura dominicana en Coixtlahuaca   Magdalena Vences Vidal Salamanca 2000
                Exploring Colonial Oaxaca.  Richard D Perry   Espadana Press  2007

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Coixtlahuaca: The Open Chapel

The open chapel in 1990
The Open Chapel
Approached via a sandy, tree-lined pathway that cuts across the atrium from the northern gateway, the first structure encountered at Coixtlahuaca is the dramatic open chapel (#1 on plan).
Built in 1546, the chapel is the earliest part of the monastery—a predecessor of its more elaborate cousin at Teposcolula. Raised on its own separate platform, the chapel is set back from the north side of the church,and comprises an elaborate vaulted sanctuary and adjacent sacristy. 
   A broad archway frames the chapel front like a proscenium, creating a stage for religious ceremonies and outdoor masses.
  As at neighboring Teposcolula, the chapel is braced in front by flared buttresses. The graceful arches and fluted columns that support these buttresses have recently been been opened and cleared of later rough masonry so that the original soaring effect can now be admired once more.

Likewise, the lofty lateral archways have been infilled and the majestic polygonal vault that once crowned the sanctuary has also fallen, its jagged ribs now silhouetted against the open sky
   The ribbed vault in the adjacent sacristy still survives, which gives some idea of the original chapel roof (see below)

The Archway
Although the outward form derives from classical architecture, curving bands around and under the archway repeat a chain-like motif that combines pre-hispanic and Christian elements. 
Rendered in tequitqui style—sharply undercut bas relief—it creates a powerful indigenous effect.
Entwined, plumed rattlesnakes—a clear reference to the native place name—enclose eagle-like pelicans beneath the Christic acronym INRI, pelicans symbolizing the blood sacrifice of Christ.  
   Angels of the Apocalypse, wearing crowns and fluttering robes, head the supporting capitals.
Reliefs of the Lamb of God and God the Father are carved on the head of the arch.
relief medallion of the Dominican fleur-de-lis cross above the archway
The Sacristy
A low, rosette studded doorway on its south side links the chapel to its own vaulted sacristy, from which a sculpted, flattened archway gave access to the elevated choir loft at the rear of the chapel, now vanished.
   The sacristy vault, however, remains intact, giving an indication of the appearance, albeit on a more limited scale, of the original chapel roof.
Open chapel sacristy vault (Vences Vidal)
While the overt iconography of the open chapel refers to the Christian symbols, its interposed indigenous imagery and style would certainly have invoked the sacred power of the former temple site, creating a special resonance for the new native converts, whether the friars were fully aware of it or not.
text and color images © 2015 Richard D. Perry

sources:  Evangelizacion y arquitectura dominicana en Coixtlahuaca   Magdalena Vences Vidal Salamanca 2000
                Exploring Colonial Oaxaca.  Richard D Perry.   Espadana Press  2007

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Coixtlahuaca: The Priory of San Juan Bautista

In our classic 1992 guidebook, Mexico's Fortress Monasteries, we described the 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 arts of these early monuments.  
   For our new series we revisit many of these colonial complexes, updating the information and adding color images, some recently taken and others chosen from our newly scanned slide archive.
   In an earlier group of blog posts we looked at the celebrated Dominican priory of Yanhuitlan in Oaxaca, and more recently the Augustinian church at Yecapixtla.
Next in this series we feature the great priory at Coixtlahuaca, the earliest, the most complete and the least altered of the great 16th century Dominican foundations in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca. In the following posts we will look at its history and illustrate its numerous salient artistic features.
Now a sparsely populated village, in prehispanic times Coixtlahuaca was an important religious center. According to tradition, and as Coixtlahuaca's place name suggests, this was the site of a celebrated temple devoted either to Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, or the regional motif of Entwined Serpents.
   When the Dominicans arrived here in the 1540s, they appropriated the ancient site for their new monastic complex. Fray Antonio de Serna and Fray Francisco Marin, the architects of Yanhuitlan, drew up the plans and by the end of the decade construction was under way.
San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca: priory plan
The buildings were completed by 1570 with the help of a team of skilled artisans. A major legacy of this unique heritage is the fine stonework throughout the priory, a unique assemblage of tequitqui carving by indigenous masons led by one Tomás Ramírez—one of a handful of 16th century native stone carvers whose name has come down to us.
The complex stands apart from the village atop the former temple platform. The monastery buildings are grouped together at the south end of an elongated walled atrium, which was laboriously built up on its western side. 
text & images © 2015 Richard D. Perry
sources:  Evangelizacion y arquitectura dominicana en Coixtlahuaca   Magdalena Vences Vidal Salamanca 2000
                Exploring Colonial Oaxaca.  Richard D Perry   Espadana Press  2007

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