Thursday, September 21, 2017

Huaquechula: the crosses

San Martín Huaquechula is an early Franciscan monastery in Puebla and one of the treasuries of 16th century Mexican art and architecture.* In earlier posts we looked at the extraordinary north doorway of the church, the main altarpiece, and the murals in the upper cloister.  
   Huaquechula also houses within its precincts a variety of unusual carved stone crosses, mostly in the form of reliefs but also as freestanding sculptures.

The Atrium Cross
Perhaps the most unusual one is the former atrium cross, now located in the plaza opposite the church in the company of several pre hispanic sculptures, including an Aztec calendar stone. 

Set on an old stone globe carved with Sun and Moon reliefs, the replica? cross takes the unusual form of an abbreviated crucifix, with the head, hands and feet of Christ. Other examples of this configuration can be seen at Santa Cruz Tlaxcala, Angahuan, and La Nativitas in Salamanca.
  The cowled Face at the crossing is flanked by large Hands on either arm, extended in a sign of blessing, while the crossed Feet are carved on the lower shaft. Neither Hands nor Feet are pierced and no Wounds are in evidence, although sprays of three Nails appear above the Face and at the foot of the cross.

The Cloister Cross
This relief cross features a large, woven style Crown of Thorns at the axis and a Skull and Bones at the foot, although the rocks of Calvary beneath look more like the flames of Purgatory. One unusual addition is a pair of flanking, angled crosses adorned with winding ropes.
The Lavabo Cross
This elaborately spiky tree cross relief is set above the principal water basin in the convento.

The North Wall Cross
While this relief is more conventional at first glance: its octagonal arms and shaft are free of carved detail save for three angled spearheads and a scrolled cap with the rockpile of Calvary below, an
 unusual element is the six, round chalchihuitl style motifs beside it—probably a prehispanic survival, which may account for its obscure position on the north wall of the church. 
Huaquechula, date stone
It may also be related to the early date stone of the convento, which includes Aztec numerals in the form of round reliefs or dots.
The Tree Cross
And in a niche on the south side of the nearby parish church, stands another tree cross with a Crown, angled stubs and an undulating INRI scroll.  
We can't leave Huaquechula without mention of the slender wooden "tree" cross inside the church, painted blue and wreathed with spiraling, gilded grapevines.
text and graphics © 2017  Richard D. Perry
color images by the author and Niccolò Brooker

* Earthquake update:
Unfortunately, the recent earthquake in Puebla caused significant damage in colonial churches across the region, including at San Martín Huaquechula, where parts of the facade, tower and interior vaulting fell.

Friday, September 15, 2017

THE SILVER CHAPELS OF GUANAJUATO: El Santuario del Señor de Villaseca (Cata)

The elegant La Valenciana facade is reinterpreted in a more popular idiom at the smaller, but no less ornate silver chapel of El Señor de Villaseca at Cata, located on a hilltop to the east, within sight of La Valenciana. 
   Although the Mineral de Cata mine had been profitable since the 16th century, in 1725 a major new silver vein was struck, and with the new wealth it yielded, the humble existing chapel was radically enlarged and redecorated. 
   Popularly known as El Santuario it is a pilgrimage shrine to El Señor de Villaseca, a miracle-working crucifix allegedly brought from Spain by one of the early mine owners.* The Santuario stands at the head of a flight of steps overlooking the quaint Plaza del Quijote, not far from the former mine entrance. 
   Work proceeded slowly on the new chapel, however, and the present front was only added in the 1760s, or even later—possibly executed by some of the stonecarvers who also worked at La Valenciana. The upper tier was never completed, and the tower belfry and gable are modern additions. 
The Facade 
The ornate, late baroque facade is dominated by bulky, multi-tiered estípites, draped with lambrequins, closely framing the sumptuous, interposed niche-pilasters. 
   The complex design is reminiscent of finely crafted silverwork in its profuse detail, but what is of special note is the abundance of religious imagery, which lends the facade its popular flavor.  
   Although the statuary is missing, miniature figure sculptures and reliefs are mounted above the doorway and adorn the niche-pilasters.  Some of these reliefs show traces of pigment, suggesting that the facade was at one time brightly colored.  
Cata: The Mexican Trinity
The principal sculpture over the doorway depicts the Mexican style Holy Trinity, a tableau echoed by the keystone relief of the Three Virtues underneath. 
Cata: The Three Virtues
Most of the other carvings are little tableaux illustrating episodes from the Passion of Christ, carved in a naive, almost neo-Romanesque style.
Tiny reliefs of Christ suffering on the Cross are embedded in the surrounding arabesques, while related Passion scenes are carved on the medallions and capitals of the niche-pilasters. These include the Taking of Jesus, Christ at the Column, and Christ before Pilate.
The chapel interior is almost as lively as the facade. More lilliputian sculptures embellish the underchoir, notably a delightful, folk baroque relief of the Last Supper.
An octagonal dome spans the crossing, whose lobed arches, studded with angels and rosaries, spring from flamboyant capitals carved with eagles.

The Retablos
In the transepts, a pair of superb, late baroque retablos pursue the themes of sacrifice and suffering. One altarpiece is dedicated to the Man of Sorrows, while the retablo of Our Lady of Sorrows, opposite, is distinguished by its affecting estofado reliefs of the grieving St. Joseph and Virgin Mary.
    These altarpieces are now known to have originated in the former silver chapel of San Juan de Rayas, a close neighbor until its dismantling in the 1940s (for more details see El Templo de San Juan de Rayas—forthcoming)

The grim, scarred image of El Señor de Villaseca, probably a regional cristo de caña rather than an imported image, stands in the sanctuary, framed by hundreds of ex-votos—eloquent testimony to the enduring appeal of this 17th century miner’s santo.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
images by the author, © Niccolò Brooker and courtesy of Benjamín Arredondo

Friday, September 8, 2017


The interior of La Valenciana outshines the exterior in its opulence. Beneath lush rococo rib vaults, arabesque shell niches alternate along the nave with foliated archways and coffered pilasters, in a controlled decorative procession. 
La Valenciana, the sacristy doorway;                               the pulpit
The ornate sacristy doorways are children of the north porch, their Moorish archways springing from cushioned pilasters headed with giant volutes. 
   Among the exceptional pieces of church furniture, the exquisite wooden pulpit is beautifully carved, painted and inlaid with ivory and marquetry. The rippling curves of pulpit, canopy and stair rail combining to create a dazzling display of artistic virtuosity.
La Valenciana, the crossing dome, sanctuary and transepts, with altarpieces 1, 2 & 3.
The Altarpieces 
Eighteenth century artistry achieves its climax in La Valenciana's three superb baroque altarpieces.  Although they have been attributed to Manuel Antonio de Cárdenas, a master carpenter and sculptor from Querétaro, who died in 1778 or 1781, they were completed by others, including members of the Ureña family under the maestro de obras Francisco Bruno de Ureña.
La Valenciana, el retablo mayor (#1)
La Valenciana, el retablo mayor, detail with statue of patron saint San Cayetano
The chief glory of these retablos is their dynamic sculptural quality, evident in their opulent frames of encrusted gilded estípites and niche pilasters, festooned with garlands and dripping with spirals, volutes and layered lambrequins—the climax of the terminal baroque style in Mexico
main retablo: the Virgin of Light with angels
In addition to numerous wriggling cherubs and heroic archangels, there are several superlative statues of saints in the rococo-inspired Queretaran style, marked by their elegant carriage, fluent gestures and sumptuous robes of gold and polychrome. 
La Valenciana, transept altarpiece of San Pedro Magister (#2)
altarpiece of San Pedro with statues of St Peter (below) and John the Baptist? (above)
La Valenciana, transept altarpiece of Guadalupe (#3)
La Valenciana, Guadalupe altarpiece detail: statue of St. Anne
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by Niccolò Brooker and José Ignacio Lanzagorta

Saturday, September 2, 2017


Concerned as much with their immortal souls as with the future of Mexico, the colonial aristocracy fervently believed in pious works, principally the endowment of churches and charitable hospitals.  
   Among the most conspicuous of these foundations were the "silver chapels" of the mining barons erected in the hills above Guanajuato, often located beside the richest mine shafts—at Cata, at Rayas, and above all, at La Valenciana.
  All of these chapels, as with much of the architecture in the colonial city, are framed in the ornate late baroque, co-called Churrigueresque, or barroco estípite style of the later 1700s. In addition, several of the architectural designs as well as the interior details and furnishings, may be influenced by or attributed to members of the prominent and innovative Ureña family of designers, who were primarily responsible for the adoption of this distinctive style across Mexico. 
El Conde de Valenciana
For the inaugural post in our new series on the "silver chapels" of Guanajuato we look at the best known and one of the most elaborate of these ornate late colonial temples: La Valenciana de San Cayetano.
In 1760, after many lean years, Don Antonio Obregón finally hit la veta madre, the mother lode, at the bottom of his deep mineshaft of La Valenciana. In sudden possession of fabulous wealth, Don Antonio celebrated his new status with the purchase of an impressive title from the Spanish crown and was henceforth addressed as El Conde de Valenciana. 
   As a more tangible tribute to the source of his wealth and with an eye to his place in heaven as well as to the esteem of his fellow citizens, Don Antonio decided to proclaim his civic spirit by erecting an imposing church beside the mine entrance. 
   The sumptuous temple, dedicated to San Cayetano, a pious 16th century Italian Catholic reformer, was founded in 1765. It was completed twenty years later for the then princely sum of 360,000 pesos—part of which came from the miners, who were compelled to donate cash, in addition to their labor, for the project. 
   Spectacularly sited on a knoll beside the mineshaft, the church commands a panoramic view of the city and its surrounding hills. Its elevated forecourt, enclosed by battlemented walls and an ornamental wrought-iron gateway, is approached by a steep double staircase.  
   Commonly cited as one of the finest examples of the barroco estípite architectural style, La Valenciana reveals several hands at work over its extended construction time. 
   Its principal architect and the presumed designer of its exuberant facade has been acknowledged as Andrés Manuel de la Riva, but following Riva’s untimely death in 1777, a year after construction began, Francisco Bruno de Ureña was named maestro de obras and, with other Ureña family members, including his brothers Cristóbal and Mariano, is presumed to have played a major role in its design and ornament, notably for the facades and interior design. 
The West Facade
Recessed between twin towers, the soaring facade is expertly carved from mellow, rose-colored stone, exhibiting a quality of workmanship unequalled in Guanajuato. 
    The design of the west front is very much in the Ureña mold.  Derived from the innovative Ureña design for the Jesuit church of La Compañía in the city, the facade exhibits a more fluid style.  
   Giant, protruding niche pilasters incorporating sculpture niches extend from the ground to the upper façade, embellished with scrolls, lambrequins and layered cornices. These are flanked by slender estípites which also reach almost to the gable. 
    Further emphasizing the soaring effect, the broad center pavilion rises almost uninterrupted from the high, arched doorway, narrowing as it envelopes the choir window and then embraces the decorative crowning gable, alive with massed floral relief, figure sculptures, ornamental cartouches and an undulating mixtilinear pediment.
Feathery rocaille decoration and curling foliage snake sensuously around the layered cornices and numerous sculpted reliefs. And traces of paint reveal that this magnificent façade may have been originally enhanced with color.
Although the statuary that once filled the main niches has gone, some of the delicate reliefs are still in place, most notably a medallion of the Holy Trinity set in an opulent moorish frame over the doorway. 
   Here, the Trinity is portrayed Mexican style as three bearded men in rich attire, solemnly resting their feet upon the globe. Only God the Father in the center has a nimbus, while two hooded figures—presumably portraits of El Conde and his wife—are hunched on either side. Winged angel heads appear above and below.
Reliefs of the sun, the lamb and the dove—the symbolic counterparts of the Trinity—are woven into the dense stone tapestry above the arch of the doorway. The sun medallion is superimposed on the two headed Imperial eagle of the Hapsburgs.
The North Doorway
Francisco Bruno de Ureña may also have designed the elegant lateral portal of La Valenciana, which is clearly related to other Ureña city facades, notably the south doorway at La Compañía and the San Diego facade. 
La Compañía, south doorway;                     San Diego de Alcalá, facade;
This facade exemplifies the final anástilo phase of the baroque, in which structure is almost eclipsed in favor of pure architectural decoration. Ornament has become structure. 
   Giant niche-pilasters, extravagantly scrolled and capped with multiple cornice fragments rise on either side of the doorway, canted forward with projecting, pedimented capitals to draw the eye inward and upward. As with the west front the sculpted ornament is especially luxurious, with fragmented cornices, complex scrolls, lambrequins and “winged circle” reliefs—a signature Ureña motif. 
North doorway, statue of St Joseph
For our next post we consider the church interior and its altarpieces.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author, Niccolò Brooker and José Ignacio Lanzagorta