Several new and recent books have come across my desk this year that touch on different aspects of Mexican art, history and culture. Although varied in their topics and style, I found all of them of interest and think they might also find an audience among some of my readers. (click covers for publishers' details) Enjoy.
Mexican Kaleidoscope by Tony Burton
The Teabo Manuscript by Mark Z. Christensen
Birdman of Assisiby Jaime Lara
The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire by Catherine Mayo
For the final post in our year end series on Yucatán we go to the remote north eastern corner of the peninsula to look at the imposing ruin of San Román Chancenote. In our first visit here thirty years ago we photographed the church in what was, and sadly largely still is, its advanced state of neglect. Chancenote was among the furthest outposts of the Franciscan evangelical effort in the 16th century, founded in the 1570s as an outlying visita of their great monastery at Tizimín. But the primitive mission almost immediately came under the control of the diocesan clergy, who constructed the present grand church some 200 years later in the mid 1700s. The church looms above the atrium, which resembles a primitive oilfield—dotted with wells that tap into the vast underlying cenote.
San Román Chancenote in 1985
At dawn on February 10, 1848, two thousand Maya rebels swarmed into San Román Chancenote. The defenders of the town fought their way to the atrium and then retreated into the church, but to no avail. They were all cut down and slaughtered, except for a handful hidden on the church roof—the only surviving witnesses to these bloody events. The church was stripped of its altarpieces and other furnishings, which were put to the torch. All the wells were filled in and the settlement abandoned for almost a hundred years.
Chancenote in 2010
Although the handsome detailing of the facade is still evident, the imposing 18th century church is dilapidated. Gaps have opened in the delicate Moorish parapets and the great barrel vault is ominously cracked and in danger of falling.
In August 2010 the lone south tower of the church of San Román, already weakened and damaged from long years of neglect and frequent lightning strikes, finally succumbed to one more, and almost entirely collapsed.
Charred carved wooden beams that once supported the choir loft, together with the broad shell arches above the doors and windows, hint at its former elegance. The altar niches along the stripped nave are now occupied by rustic folk santos and crucifixes. The large, arcaded camarín behind the altar, which formerly housed an image of the Virgin, is now empty and in ruins.
santos in 1985
Colorful fragments of a colonial fresco portraying the Archangel Michael cling to the wall of the sacristy, and in the nave a substantial stone font is the sole remaining artifact at Chancenote to have outlasted the depredations of time and turmoil.
In our previous post we looked at the principal fresco of the Virgin Mary on the west facing wall of the polygonal apse at Dzidzantún (#1). Here we turn our attention to the murals that survive on the other apsidal walls:
The Lateral Murals The two more complete murals appear on the flared sides of the apse and serve in part to frame the apsidal windows. Although slimmer and less well preserved, both follow the "retablo" style format of the principal fresco (#1) deploying the same broad range of bright colors with the addition of shades of green. The narrative center panels are framed with triple striped, painted pilasters.
On the north side, (#2) the panel depicts the Ascended Christ with St. Francis, and on the south (#3) a portrait of St. Helen embracing a large cross.
St Helen with cross
The “Cut off” Murals
When the nave was shortened in the late 1500s, two other facing apsidal murals were cut in half vertically by a new east wall.
Remnants of both frescoes have survived, taking the form of painted wall retablos which feature inscribed portraits of kings and other notables on the north wall (#4) and of Franciscan friars and nuns on the south side (#5). Further interpretation of the themes of these murals is needed.
We continue our year end series on Yucatán with three posts on the recently restored murals inside the major church and convento of Dzidzantún in northern Yucatán.
Founded in 1553, Santa Ana Dzidzantún, "Precious Gleaming Stone", was the last and grandest of the great early Franciscan monasteries in Yucatán. Dedicated in 1557, the vast edifice rose rapidly and was vaulted by 1580. The scale of the fortress church is almost excessive, the largest 16th century church in the peninsula. Its prodigious nave—250 feet from the apse to the west door—proved to be too long, too high and too dark. The stone vault was daringly lofty and wide, and was soon considered unsafe; the navewas thus shortened and the apse closed off—a significant factor in the preservation of the murals. Fortunately too, the apse, covered by a handsome ribbed vault, survived the later collapse of much of the nave roof—another critical factor in the survival of the murals.
TheApsidalMurals By far the largest remnant frescoes are located in the polygonal apse—an ambitious mural program which covered all five walls of the apse and originally extended into the present nave. Recently more fully exposed, although not yet completely restored, they offer a relatively uncontaminated view into their original condition. Although not precisely dated, they are late 16th century, probably painted in the 1590s. (Restoration of the murals is ongoing under the aegis of the private agency Adopte una Obra de Arte.)
In this post we focus on the principal fresco (#1) covering the west facing wall of the apse, which portrays events in the life of the Virgin Mary. Extending from the floor into the vault, the retablo style mural takes the form of a giant triumphal arch, capped with a rounded pediment and flanked by painted niches of saints. While the central image or images of the composition have been erased, many of the upper and surrounding pictorial elements have survived.
Just below the main arch is depicted the Assumption of the Virgin, framed by clouds and disporting angels bearing trumpets and roses, and colored in still bright hues of red and blue. The surrounding archivolt and pilasters of the archway and the lintel above feature images of the sun, moon, putti, as well as christic and marian monograms, together with floral motifs.
The best preserved section, in the tympanum above, presents the Coronation of the Virgin by the Holy Trinity, again surrounded by clouds and angels, some playing musical instruments, and again portrayed in red, blue and orange tones.
The imposing figure of God the Father is among the best preserved elements, demonstrating the exceptional graphic quality of the mural. We describe the other Dzidzantún murals in posts that follow.
For our next Yucatán post we remain in Mérida to take a closer look at its celebrated colonial mansion of La Casa de Montejo.
This intriguing building, facing the zócalo in Mérida, is acknowledged to be the finest civil example of Spanish Plateresque architecture in Mexico. Dated 1549 by an inscription,* the palace was built by Francisco de Montejo the Younger (El Mozo) son of the Adelantado Montejo, conqueror of Yucatán.
Its 16th century limestone front is currently undergoing much needed cleaning, repair and restoration.
The profusely sculpted facade, all that now remains of the original structure, is divided into two tiers which together illustrate the eclectic characteristics of the Plateresque. As developed in 14th and 15th century Spain, this movement drew on late Gothic, Moorish and early Renaissance sources to create an original and highly decorative style of architectural design and ornament.
reliefs on doorway paneling; putative portrait of El Mozo
The lower facade, surrounding the doorway, is outlined in Roman Renaissance fashion, with elegant fluted columns and pilasters, classical entablatures and coffered paneling. The inner panels are neatly carved with grotesques and enlivened with relief medallions enclosing sculpted heads (thought to represent Montejo's children)
Two larger, flanking busts above the doorway are traditionally believed to be portraits of the Adelantado Montejo himself and his wife, Beatriz Álvarez
Atop this decorous scheme, however, a frieze of horned cherubs and grotesque animal heads strikes a jarring note, while above the doorway a bowed figure wearing sheepskins, possibly representing Hercules, holds up the corbeled second floor balcony, which sets the tone for the upper tier.
While contemporary with or even later than the lower facade, the more sculptural upper tier nevertheless harks back to the medieval and Moorish antecedents of the earlier Isabelline Plateresque manner, and although the stonecarving is less sophisticated, it holds great sculptural and historic interest.
A prominent escutcheon of the Montejo coat of arms, carved in shallow tequitqui relief, stands above the window, surmounted by an armorial helmet signifying the heroic nobility of the owner. Granted to Montejo by the Emperor Charles V of Spain, the shield is traditionally quartered and features the Montejo crest as well as the those of both sides of the more highly ranked Herrera family of Seville to which his wife belonged. Set against a stone tapestry of stylized vines hung with rattle-like fruits—an indigenous touch—the escutcheon includes the traditional lions and castles, as well as the Herrera family insignia of gold cauldrons and an olive tree.
halberdier, wild man and heads of heretics (Wolfgang Lauber)
Giant figures of helmeted Spanish halberdiers flank the entire upper level, their feet resting upon the heads of the vanquished, popularly thought to be Mayan Indians but more likely the heads of heretics in the European tradition.
Beside the halberdiers, "wild men" clad in rough sheepskins brandish rustic clubs. These familiar denizens of medieval European myth are often found in Spanish facades (notably the doorway of Avila cathedral and the front of the College of St. Gregory in Valladolid, Spain.
An eroded, inexpertly carved inscription, mounted in the crowning pediment and flanked by rampant, heraldic lions, proclaims: * "Esta obra mando hacer el adelantado don Francisco de Montejo año de MDXLIX" (1549) (alternative date: MDLIV. 1554) While much has been made of Maya influence on La Casa de Montejo—by one account more than 300 Mayan stonemasons, artisans and laborers worked to build the mansion and carve the front—the imagery is clearly European in origin and political in intent, designed to emphasize the military prowess and noble antecedents of the Montejo family at a time when the authority of the conquistadors was threatened by the Spanish crown and its officials.