Thursday, May 18, 2017

Oaxaca. Santo Tomás Ixtlan: the architecture

We continue our focus on colonial Oaxaca with posts on two extraordinary churches in the Sierra de Juárez.
view from the Sierra de Juárez
The scenic Sierra de Juárez, towering above the valley of Oaxaca, is a rugged area whose mountainous landscapes, clad with steep pine and oak forests, shelter numerous Zapotec villages.
   Despite their picturesque and often less accessible locations, many of these communities are home to churches of imposing scale and architectural complexity, together with rich colonial art and furnishings.
  Outstanding among these monuments is the cathedral like 18th century church of Santo Tomás Ixtlan—a rare dedication. In this two part post we look first at the architectural highlights.
Planted on an open hilltop, enclosed within high, sheer walls and capped with red domes, Santo Tomás seems like a great ocean liner about to set sail. 
Beyond its imposing site and scale, the sophisticated quality of the architecture is even more impressive. Fashioned from green and honey-colored ashlar stone, the west front rivals the principal churches of the city of Oaxaca for its rich sculptural variety. 
   Ornamental columns line the three tiers of the facade: Ionic baluster columns flank the grand, arched entry while spiral, tritostyle half-columns adorn the two upper tiers. A bold, octagonal window dominates the upper tier, and the facade is crowned by a triangular gable emblazoned with a relief of the papal tiara. 
   Decorative shell niches—now empty save for two statues of saints in the lower tier—are recessed between the columns. Relief swags, volutes, rosettes and angel heads enrich every surface, a true tapestry in stone. 
Above the portal, lavishly encased in a multi-layered "eared" frame, is a stunning relief of St. Thomas the Apostle, dated 1757. Under the astonished gaze of three other apostles, the doubting Thomas kneels to touch the wound of the risen Christ. 
   This beautifully realized sculpture, its figures expressively modeled in realistic detail, rivals the related tableaux gracing the city facades of La Soledad and San Agustín
Dated 1738—a little earlier than the west front—a second sculpted portal on the south side of the church, is equally ornate. Double Corinthian columns wreathed with upward spiraling vines stand to either side of the carved doorway, emblazoned with the Virgin's crown on its keystone. 
© Felipe Falcón
Densely carved, ornamental candlestick columns flank the relief of the Assumption of the Virgin above the doorway, which is set within an elaborate cruciform frame. 
   Rising amid heavenly clouds and cherubs, the Virgin is surmounted by the Holy Spirit and, looking out from the scrolled gable, God the Father. In contrast to the main facade relief, this static, more stylized composition evinces a more popular, vernacular flavor.
text © 2006 & 2017 by Richard D. Perry
legacy color images by the author and courtesy of Niccolò Brooker


  1. Totimehuacan: a great report with very good pictures! It is magnificent to see what wonders came about thanks to the skilful hands of the indigenous tribes of Puebla, under the enthusiastic direction of the 16th century Franciscan missionaries! Keep up with your work, Richard!

  2. Thank you Patrick. We should never forget that although the colonial arts of Mexico seem overwhelmingly European in concept and appearance, virtually all the early work of construction and crafting was by the hands of indigenous artisans. And prehispanic influences are found everywhere. See Framing the Sacred by the late Eleanor Wake