Not to be confused with the border town of Huautla de Jiménez, famous for its caves and magic mushrooms, San Miguel Huautla is located further south, east of Coixtlahuaca near the autopista, but currently only accessible along an unpaved road from Nochistlan.
Despite its remoteness, Huautla is of architectural note for its unusual early church front, which is designed in a style traditionally associated with the Franciscans rather than that favored by the Dominicans, who missionized most of Oaxaca.
Modest in most other respects, the church is outstanding for its carved stone facade, whose medieval forms recall early Franciscan church fronts in Puebla and Tlaxcala instead of the grander, Renaissance-inspired style usually favored by the Dominicans.
The square church front, braced by flared buttresses, stands above stepped terraces of possible pre-Columbian origin. The imposing west doorway is spanned by a spectacular star-shaped Moorish arch, a facade configuration rare in 16th century Mexican architecture.
Rosettes of varying sizes and shapes decorate the archway and the broad supporting jambs as well as ornamenting the ogee-arched choir window overhead. The sharply pointed keystone, with other sections of the archway, is carved from a single piece of stone.
The doorway is squared by a tall, beaded alfiz inset with an intriguing thorn-and-ribbon continuous molding which has been interpreted as a corn stalk entwined with serpents, suggesting a strong indigenous influence.
The alfiz encloses a large sculpture of St. Peter rendered in sharply undercut low relief, in the so-called tequitqui style of early Mexican stone carving. The saint wears the papal tiara and holds up the keys to Paradise. Panels of feather-like motifs flank the relief, which rest on stylized representations of an eagle and a jaguar on the sill—more pre-hispanic survivals. The portrayal of St. Peter rather than St. Michael, the village patron, may reflect the transfer of the church to the episcopal clergy after 1560.
Two smaller reliefs flank St. Peter. These display crosses surrounded by the Stigmata of Christ and framed by a knotted cord —emblems commonly found in Franciscan churches throughout Mexico.
The nave is dark and lined with some late colonial altarpieces, among which the main retablo stands out, fabricated in classic Oaxaca style with complex spiral columns and gilded ornament. A statue of the patron St Michael occupies the principal niche.
Although the Franciscans were very active across the border in Puebla to the north, there seems to be no record of them operating in this area of the Mixteca Alta. But the unusual facade at Huautla clearly suggests their influence, if not actual presence, during the building of the church. It may be that Franciscans from Huejotzingo or Tehuacán evangelized San Miguel Huautla and built the church in the 1540s or '50s before relinquishing it to the secular arm in the 1560s.
Stabilization and restoration of the church fabric was completed in 2017 under the auspices of the Harp Helu foundation.
text © 2007/2020 Richard D. Perry
color images courtesy of Niccolo Brooker and Felipe Falcón