Founded as a mission town in the 1550s, Copainalá sits picturesquely along a ridge, higher and dryer than nearby Tecpatán The high-way bypasses Copainalá on the far side of a ravine, affording a panoramic view of the terraced streets and the spectacular ruined colonial church, known to locals as La Ruina.
The settlement prospered during the late 1500s, evidently justifying the construction of a large church and convento. Of the original priory only the church remains, mutilated and abandoned.
The convento on the north side was largely demolished and its site is now occupied by a schoolyard and the small 19th century parish church of San Miguel.
The period of church construction was a lengthy one, from circa 1570 to the mid-1600s, which helps explain the variety of building materials and stylistic anomalies. Stucco originally covered most of the interior and exterior surfaces, but has fallen away to reveal the underlying fabric. Roughly quarried stone predominates in the lower walls of the church, changing to brick in the upper elevations.
Raised on a terraced stone plaza—its former atrium—the church faces west across a steeply sloping barranca. Presently, the nave ends at the crossing. The former apse, which cut into the hillside at the east end, has collapsed or been demolished, leaving behind a gaping hole currently filled with rubble.
The transepts still stand, along with two small adjoining chapels. Pitched beam-and-tile roofs at one time covered the now roofless church except for the apse, which was vaulted in stone.
Churches in northern Chiapas are conspicuous for their towers, an attribute generally lacking in other parts of the state. The tower at Copainala, a massive square structure adjoining the south side of the facade, is the most unusual feature of the church, with its own distinctive characteristics that include a huge blind archway of un-known purpose on the north face and a circular brick stairway, tucked into the corner behind the tower. The stairway employs decorative mudéjar brickwork and a castellated turret strikingly similar to the stair tower of the fountain at Chiapa de Corzo.
|The west front in 1993|
A third obelisk surmounts the central gable, which is pierced by a small rose window that still preserves fragments of tracery. The 17th century Italianate portico takes the form of a triumphal arch, elegantly framing the west doorway with paired pilasters and urn-like pinnacles that echo the obelisks atop the facade.
The attic above the doorway retains traces of a Latin inscription referring to St. Michael, the patron saint of Copainala.
Copainala today2020 update: Recently the church has been re-roofed and partially restored. It is again in use as the parish church.
text and pictures © 1993 and 2020 Richard D. Perry.