Monday, February 12, 2018

Sabinas Hidalgo: the San José altarpiece

In a previous post we wrote about the great Ureña * retablo in Monclova. For this post, the third in our series on exceptional altarpieces from northern Mexico, we look at a related regional retablo in the church of San José de Sabinas Hidalgo in the state of Nuevo León.
Church front of San José
Early in 1700s, under the auspices of a pious governor, a new Franciscan church was founded in the settlement of Sabinas Hidalgo. Completed by mid century, the church then needed a suitably imposing main altarpiece.  
   Like San Francisco de Monclova, the otherwise fairly modest church of San José thus boasts a lavish, gilded, baroque altarpiece of stunning elegance. 
The San José altarpiece before recent conservation.  © Carlos Abrego
Dating from the late 1750s, the retablo is a masterly work in the late barroco estípite style, fashioned from prime cedar and mahogany and gilded throughout.  Primarily designed to showcase the statuary, elaborate, two tiered niche-pilasters stretch to the full height of the altarpiece, framed on either side by ornate estípite columns inset with portrait medallions and seated cherubs. 
   Like the Monclova retablo too, all the elements are densely ornamented by a golden tapestry of filigree scrollwork and foliage.
estípite columns with medallions and "winged circle" motif; *              San José
A crowned and elegantly robed St. Joseph, the patron, stands in the center vitrine, cradling the naked infant Christ. The saint is flanked by life size statues of different vintages in the niches, while polychrome relief busts of Franciscan and other saints look out from the oval medallions.
Restored in the 1990s and recently undergoing further conservation, this is the finest altarpiece in the state of Nuevo León and its immediate region.
The San José altarpiece during recent conservation—statuary missing (detail)
Although the designer of the altarpiece is so far undocumented, its reputed fabrication in Zacatecas, where the Ureña workshop was then finishing up its retablo commission for the church of Santo Domingo, together with its striking similarity to the Saltillo/Monclova altarpiece, make it quite plausible that it was also a product of the prodigious Ureña taller.  
*Known as El maestro transhumante, the "peripatetic master", Felipe de Ureña was the most influential of the Mexican born architect /designers to introduce and expand the Churrigueresque or barroco estípite style into New Spain. During the second half of the 18th century, together with family members, he was primarily responsible for the spread and subsequent evolution of this ornate late baroque style into cities across Mexico, especially along the silver routes north of Mexico City. Primarily an innovative designer and fabricator of altarpieces, he later adapted the barroco estípite style as it was called, for church facades. His elegant and distinctive designs are recognized as the  "felipense" style.  
* The winged circle is a signature motif in many Ureña altarpieces.
Other Ureña altarpieces: Rayas ChapelAguascalientesCataLa Valenciana; Saltillo/Monclova;
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
images by Niccolò Brooker except where noted

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