Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Oaxaca. San Agustín: the church

We now return to Oaxaca to look in more detail at some of the colonial missions we visited on our February historic organ tour.  
   First, we had the opportunity to spend time in the newly restored city church of San Agustín which, in addition to its handsome sculpted facade, houses the finest assemblage of Oaxacan baroque altarpieces in the city. (more details on the history of the church and the recent restorations)

San Agustín de Oaxaca

As the last of the three religious orders commissioned by the Spanish Crown to evangelize the New World, the Augustinians were latecomers to Oaxaca, arriving in 1580. However they soon got to work building their first church, which was consecrated in 1589.

The present church and attached convento, however, are of later construction, completed over 100 years later. As throughout the city, earthquakes took their toll, and the church was reconsecrated in 1732—a date that appears on the facade. Along with many other city churches, it deteriorated again following closure in the mid-1800s, but at the end of the century it became another beneficiary of Archbishop Gillow’s restorations.
©Felipe Falcón
The Facade
This seminal Oaxacan church front is an early work—dating from 1696—by the architect and designer Tomás de Sigüenza, who also worked at the Cathedral and La Soledad, and was commissioned by Don Manuel Fiallo, the pre-eminent 18th century patron of religious buildings in the city, for whom a street is named.

Facing a spacious forecourt, the ornate retablo facade rises in three broad tiers. These are framed by classical orders of fluted Ionic, Corinthian and Doric columns, whose lower sections are richly decorated with interwoven, foliar relief—ornament that spreads along the friezes and into the spandrels around the doorway and sculpture niches.
©Felipe Falcón
The magnificent central relief—also the work of Sigüenza—is displayed in an ornamental eared frame, marking the first appearance of this motif on a Oaxacan facade. Based on a widely known engraving, the sculpture portrays the bearded St. Augustine as Protector of his Order, sheltering Augustinian friars beneath his spreading cape and trampling heretics beneath his feet. 
The facade: San Nicolás de Tolentino

The lateral niches are especially ornate, housing statues of Augustinian saints famous and obscure, each with an identifying inscription.  John of Sahagún and Nicholas of Tolentino occupy the lower tier; bishops Thomas of Valencia and St. Elipius are in the middle, and the female saints Clare of Montefalco and Rita of Cassia stand on either side of the octagonal choir window.
In our next post we look at the church interior.

text © 2007/2014 Richard D. Perry
photography by the author and courtesy of Felipe Falcón, whose color photographs feature in our guide book:

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