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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Art of Oaxaca: The Seven Princes

For our next post on artistic themes we encountered in Oaxaca, we look at the imagery of the Seven Archangels, or Seven Princes as they are often known.
   The seven archangels, also called the Seven Princes of Heaven, as derived from Jewish and biblical sources, both canonical and apocryphal, are Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Jegudiel, Raguel and Selaphiel, although there are acceptable variations.
   Michael, Gabriel and Raphael are the most popular and best known due to their mention in the Bible and promotion by the Catholic church.
Hieronimus Weirix: The Seven Princes of Palermo
The widespread popularity of this subject dates from the early 1500s, when a related icon or fresco, complete with their names and attributes, was discovered in a chapel of the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Palermo, shortly after the Spanish occupation of Sicily.  
Originally known as the Seven Princes of Palermo, or the Seven Secret Angels of the Apocalypse, they were adopted as heavenly protectors of the imperial house of Hapsburg. 
   Enjoying papal and royal endorsement, this devotion and its imagery, much of it based on a widely circulated 16th century print by the Flemish engraver Hieronimus Wierixspread rapidly across Europe and into the Americas, where it enjoyed a vogue in Mexico and especially Peru.  
Oaxaca cathedral: The Seven Princes of Palermo with the Holy Trinity  (© Conde de Selva Nevada)
The subject is illustrated in several Oaxacan churches: Two portraits of the Seven Princes are found in the city of Oaxaca. The best known is that by Martial Santaella in Oaxaca cathedral.  
   The restored Santaella painting is notable for its brightly clad, elongated figures in a neo-Mannerist style. The principal archangels are clearly named and portrayed with almost feminine features that contrast with their sturdy buskined legs.  A traditionally portrayed Holy Trinity is shown prominently overhead.
The Seven Princes with the Holy Trinity (Capuchin church of The Seven Princes, Oaxaca)  ©Felipe Falcón
The other painting, attributed to the noted baroque painter José de Páez, hangs in the outlying city church of the Seven Princes, built for the Capuchin nuns.  
   Again the archangels are richly costumed, with gold trimmed robes, and portrayed in a more popular, sentimental vein, although only Michael, Gabriel and Raphael are named. As per the Weirix image, the Holy Trinity surveys the lineup from above. 
Mitla: the Seven Princes with the Holy Trinity  (© urbey1)

Another, very similar version, although faded and in poor condition, is reputed to be in the church of San Pablo Mitla, in the Valley of Oaxaca. Here none of the archangels appear to be named.
Basilica of Guadalupe (Mexico City): The Seven Princes with the Mexican Trinity * (detail)
Other versions of the subject can be seen throughout Mexico, notably the sinuous example in Mexico City and the splendid painting in the great Augustinian priory of Tiripetio,
Michoacán (below).
Tiripetio: the Seven Princes 
This spectacular, richly hued painting of the Seven Princes is in the Andean style of Cuzco, another area of the Americas where the archangels were very popular in colonial times,  
   The seven include the familiar archangels Michael, Raphael and Gabriel,with the four so called apocryphal archangels: Uriel, Sealchiel, Jehudiel and Barachiel. They stand in a row elegantly robed in sumptuously embroidered and gilt trimmed garments. Michael and Uriel are armed. 
   Each is identified by an inscribed, gilded halo, although naming the apocryphal angels was officially forbidden by the church in Rome to little effect in the Americas. St. Michael stands in the center holding the red banner of victory while the snow capped peaks of the Andes, bathed in a sunset glow, rise in the background.


*  The Mexican Trinity is a depiction of the figures—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit— as three bearded young men, often shown seated on thrones. This portrayal is also known as the Synthronous Trinity, and was initially employed as an aid in introducing this difficult religious concept to new Catholic converts.  Although later banned by the Inquisition as heretical, it continued to be popular in Mexico until late colonial times and beyond.

text © 2014 Richard D. Perry.  images by the author except where noted

Friday, June 27, 2014

Art of Oaxaca: The Nativity of the Virgin Mary

We follow our post on the Virgin with Portraits of St. Dominic with a look at several portrayals of The Nativity of the Virgin Mary,  as seen in Oaxacan churches.  


In an earlier post we referred to this endearing painting of the Nativity of the Virgin, located in the city church of San Felipe Neri, by the distinguished 18th century Oaxacan artist Marcial Santaella.
   This work portrays an alert St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, reclined on a curtained bed as the aged St. Joachim sits on an elegant chair beside her. One attendant holds the elaborately swaddled infant while others present food and warm a blanket over a brazier.
   The Holy Trinity looks down from above while a pair of doves—a symbol of St. Joachim—commune in the background. The fine clothing, rich, red furnishings and the many servants present reflect the wealthy household into which Mary was supposedly born.
   Versions of this event that appear in several Oaxacan churches, as elsewhere in Mexico, are generally portrayed in an accessible, folksy style that emphasizes its popular appeal in a domestic setting.
   These intimate scenes dispense with the elaborate architecture, and the numbers of attending angels and distinguished witnesses to the event often shown in European art, while prominently including Joachim, who was customarily excluded from the birthing chamber in many medieval portrayals.
   Part of the Christian story since the era of the early Church—although apocryphal and not canonical—the increasing popularity of the Nativity of the Virgin during the later colonial period in Mexico reflected a heightened interest in the controversial doctrine of her Immaculate Conception, as promoted by the religious orders, especially the Franciscans.


Another example, so far unrestored, can be seen in the church of Zautla, north of Oaxaca city, where, along with other scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, the Nativity acts as the focal painting in the lateral retablo of the Rosary. 
   Many of the same elements are here: the seated patriarch Joachim with his hand on his heart, the fine furnishings, the servants, the warming brazier, etc., although this version is even more intimate, with a close focus on the curtained bed. No celestial onlookers here. 
   The portrayal of the birth of the Virgin in such a luxurious setting both prefigured and acted as a counterpoint to the later birth of Christ in much more humble surroundings.

A third painting on the Nativity theme, in even poorer condition although undergoing restoration, comes from the historic church of Teotitlan del Valle, a well known textile village south of the city of Oaxaca, dedicated to the Virgin of the Nativity. 
   Once again, bed curtains of sumptuous red velvet closely frame the scene as Joachim, richly attired in his traditional green robe, watches the infant Mary being washed by two servants—the focus of the painting.  
   Here too Joachim appears as a witness to a miracle rather than a participant, underscoring his special but limited role as defined by the Immaculate Conception doctrine, as well as prefiguring the parallel situation of St. Joseph in the birth of Christ.
text and images © 2014 Richard D. Perry

Monday, June 23, 2014

Art of Oaxaca: The Virgin Mary and portraits of St Dominic.

As an addendum to our series on the churches of Oaxaca we take a closer look at some themes we saw illustrated in the colonial art of the region.
   For our first post we compare three paintings of The Virgin Mary with portraits of St Dominic that appear in some of the churches we described earlier.
The Virgin of the Rosary presenting the rosary to St Dominic, who kneels in a penitential stance. (relief on the facade of the Rosary chapel of the flagship priory of Santo Domingo in the city of Oaxaca)  © Mary Ann Sullivan 
The 16th century evangelization and subsequent building of a mission network in Oaxaca was almost exclusively the domain of the Dominican order of friars. Dominican themes and insignia can be found emblazoned on all their priories and even smaller missions across the state of Oaxaca.

Many of the illustrated themes concern the central part played by St Dominic, the founder of the Order, in its history. One of the more common themes is the saint's leading role in popularizing the cult of the rosary and establishing Rosary chapels—an important adjunct to many Dominican churches. 

Another less common subject, but one that is encountered in several Oaxacan churches, is the painted portrayal of the Virgin Mary presenting a portrait of St Dominic to a Dominican friar.
   The paintings record the appearance of a miraculous portrait of the saint in Soriano, Calabria, in the 1500s, an event that was popular with baroque artists in Spain and, although relatively rare in Mexican art, apparently popular in colonial Oaxaca.
   All the images portray the Virgin Mary, crowned as the Queen of Heaven holding up the painting of St Dominic, accompanied by Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Mary Magdalene.

Here are three examples from Oaxacan churches we have mentioned in earlier posts:
retablo painting in Santiago Tejupan (© Charlotte Ekland)
retablo painting in San Miguel Tlalixtac
retablo painting in San Pablo Huitzo 
Although the appearance of St. Dominic in different versions of the miraculous portrait varies, he is traditionally shown in Dominican robes holding a book in one hand and a lily in the other—very similar to this separate depiction of the saint at San Andrés Zautla.
Zautla: portrait of St Dominic
text © 2014 Richard D. Perry.  
images by the author, Enrique Méndez Martínez, and courtesy of Charlotte Ekland and Mary Ann Sullivan.
for more on the churches of Oaxaca consult our guide book

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Enrique Luft Pávlata

Enrique Luft Pávlata (INAH)
The noted painter, architect, restorer and champion of the cultural heritage of Michoacán, Enrique Luft Pávlata, died earlier this year in the city of Patzcuaro, Michoacán, at the age of 83.
Born in Linz, Austria, in 1931, Henry Luft Pávlata entered the School of Fine Arts in Berlin, Germany in 1956 and studied under the Expressionist painter Max Kaus. At the prestigious Atelier 17, in Paris, he also studied engraving with the eminent printmaker Stanley William Hayter.
In 1961 he moved to Mexico and from 1964 to 1994 worked as a restorer-conservator of historical and cultural monuments in the Directorate of Historical Monuments of INAH. His projects included the excavation and conservation of the pre-Hispanic ruins found in what is today the Regional Museum of Popular Arts in Patzcuaro, of which he became director with his wife Maria Teresa Davalos.
Patzcuaro: the Regional Museum of Popular Arts (Cristina Potters)
One of his special contributions was the study of the prehispanic technique of pasta de caña, a fusion of cornstalk paste and orchid bulbs—a material commonly used in colonial times to create light weight sculptural objects, notably the portable crucifixes of Michoacán.

For over 30 years he was a tireless and vocal supporter of historic preservation in the region, consulting and working on the conservation of numerous colonial buildings in the Patzcuaro area, including Quiroga, Tzintzuntzan and Tuxpan among others. 
In addition to his architectural and conservation work, Luft also created numerous works in painting, collage, printmaking and drawing, some of which reside in private collections in New York, San Francisco, Switzerland and Mexico.
Luft is probably best known, however for his work in the colonial pilgrimage church of Tupataro, also in Michoacán. Over several years during the 1970s he undertook the conservation and restoration of gilded main altarpiece and the long neglected painted ceiling, one of the finest in Mexico.
Here, by kind permission of Judith Hancock Sandoval, we reproduce early sketches from his research notes there (click to enlarge): 
Cross section of the Tupataro ceiling
the painted ceiling — key to panels


Tupataro, the altarpiece diagram
text © 2014 Richard D Perry. graphics courtesy of Judith Hancock Sandoval

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Oaxaca. San Andrés Zautla


San Andrés Zautla

Finally, we look at San Andrés Zautla, in the lush Etla Valley, another of the off the track villages that we visited on the Historic Organ Tour. Despite its modest size, however, the church is home to a treasury of folk art and numerous colonial altarpieces.
In the 16th century the simple wood and adobe church at Zautla was a visita of the mission at nearby Huitzo, but was almost entirely rebuilt in the 1700s.  The church front was again remodeled in recent times.
   A modern statue of the patron St Andrew occupies the niche above the doorway although his symbol, an X shaped cross, is carved in the arch overhead and may belong to the earlier church.
Inside the church carved ribbons and rosettes border the triumphal arch framing the narrow, rounded apse. A towering altarpiece in classic Oaxacan baroque style fills the apse, ornamented with vine encrusted spiral columns and gilded arabesque ornament.
The imposing bearded statue at center is that of St Andrew, again holding his beribboned X shaped cross. Large chiaroscuro portraits of saints occupy the surrounding niches: Sts Peter and Paul on the lowest tier and above, various Dominicans, including St Dominic and a winged St Vincent Ferrer.
St Dominic
The gilded retablo of the Virgin of the Rosary, in the south transept, is similar in format, showcasing episodes from the life of the Virgin, except here in a charming, more popular style, that includes an especially affecting scene of her Nativity (of which more later).
Zautla is also the proud possessor of what may be the finest table organ in Oaxaca. Recently restored to playing condition by IOHIO, this colonial jewel is beautifully designed and decorated in rococo style.  Fitted doors, exquisitely painted with portraits of saints and archangels including, once again, St Andrew, protect the colorful 18th century pipes and keyboard. A joy to see as well as hear.

Numerous other examples of statuary, colonial and modern, are found in the church, including four old carved and painted figures of the Four Evangelists in niches around the dome, and another Christ Entering Jerusalem—a fixture of many Oaxacan churches (see Teotongo)


A gallery of Zautla's santos
text © 2014 Richard D. Perry. images by the author.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Oaxaca: Santiago Ixtaltepec


One of the more unusual stops on our Mixteca trip was at Santiago Ixtaltepec, a remote village located more than hour east of Yanhuitlan on a camino blanco from Nochistlan.


Although in a Dominican dominated region, the appearance of this rural chapel, with its plain arched doorway of orange sandstone surmounted by an alfiz studded with pearl reliefs, owes more to Franciscan architectural tradition.
While the rosettes around the archway might indicate a Dominican presence, the arrangement is closer in style to many early Franciscan monasteries.
There is no image of the patron saint Santiago in the church, although there is an expressive old crucifix by the apse.
images © IOHIO
The painted table organ in the adjacent, newly opened museum of musical instruments is the only one of its kind in Oaxaca to survive with pipes, although not all of them appear original. The table on which it rests is painted to match the organ decoration, as are the bellows.
text ©2014  Richard D. Perry. Photography by the author and IOHIO

Monday, June 2, 2014

Oaxaca. San Mateo Yucucui

As an example of the treasures to be found in even the most modest Oaxacan church, we look at San Mateo Yucucui, another of the smaller colonial churches we visited on the recent Historic Organ tour.


Yucucui, or Green Hill, was the original Mixtec name for the famous prehispanic site of Monte Alban. Although that name has been forgotten there, it still lives on at this small settlement just beside the highway south of Yanhuitlan.
   From the outside, the church is rustic enough, its rough stone facade free of almost all ornament and its simple niches empty of statuary.
   By contrast the complex modern tower is resplendent with corner statues and a tiled cupola. 
Wall reliefs of the sun and moon below are bracketed by a "cut and curl" cornice, like we saw at Tlaxiaco.
Inside the church, patchy murals of archangels, sunbursts and floral patterns in ultramarine and earth colors brighten the vaulted nave.
Although most of the altars along the nave are mediocre, the main altarpiece is quite splendid, reaching high into the domed apse.
   It is fashioned in classic Oaxacan baroque style with spiral columns, jutting cornices hung with turned spindles and a profusion of gilded ornament. The niches in the projecting center section are sumptuously framed by richly ornate columns incorporating Caryatids.
San Mateo — St Matthew
Deep shell niches contain several beautiful but now dusty and faded statues: on the bottom tier, an imposing St. Matthew, the patron saint, stands pen raised and holding his gospel, and above, a majestic Padre Eterno with a golden nimbus and a dove in his lap, raises his arms—originally part of a Trinity tableau (see Tlacolula.)
A battered Niño Dios rests in the upper niche. 
Large rectangular paintings of Dominican notables in dramatic chiaroscuro hang on either side.
El Padre Eterno — Holy Trinity
Another colonial gem at Yucucui is its large pipe organ, dated 1743. Legend has it that when it was played, it could be heard for miles around. Never painted or gilded, it is precariously set on a pedestal beside the choir loft. This handsome baroque instrument awaits restoration to its former sonorous elegance.


Your author holding forth at Yucucui (photo courtesy of IOHIO)
text and images ©2005 & 2014 Richard D Perry