Tuesday, August 28, 2012

San Gabriel de Cholula

This is the first in a series of occasional pictorial pages on the great 16th century monasteries of Mexico.  Our focus will be on special aspects of each location and features outstanding photography.
   This initial post focuses on the impressive buildings at San Gabriel de Cholula and their fine stonework as photographed by my favorite Mexican photographer Felipe Falcón.

San Gabriel de Cholula

When the Spaniards first glimpsed Cholula in 1519 they could scarcely believe their eyes, "Temples and shrines rise like lofty towers above the city" wrote an awed Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the renowned chronicler of the Conquest.
This was the great temple of Quetzalcoatl, sacred to the Aztecs and famous throughout Mesoamerica.
San Gabriel, church gable
When the dust and bloodshed of the Conquest had subsided, the Franciscans started to build the grand monastery of San Gabriel on the site of the razed temple precincts.
The formidable fortress church, arcaded chapel and convento are enclosed in a spacious atrium by battlemented walls and imposing gateways.
Sculpted atrium cross in front of the Capilla Real
The domes of the Capilla Real (Carolyn Brown)
One of the first structures to be completed here was the great open chapel of La Capilla Real, a vast building to the north of the monastery church, designed to accommodate the vast numbers of Indian converts.
Capilla Real interior
Travelers who have seen the famous mosque in Cordoba, Spain experience a sense of deja vu on entering this unique space, which is reputed to stand atop the site of the former sacred dance floor of the lost Aztec temple. 
Its nine aisles are divided into seven colonnaded bays creating a forest of columns. Each bay is now capped by its own lanterned dome.
Capilla Real, baptismal font
The majesty of the architecture is matched by the magnificence of the stone carving. The most striking artifact inside the Capilla Real is the monolithic baptismal font, carved with rosettes, acanthus leaves and the knotted cord of the Franciscan order. *
Choir window arch (detail)
In addition to the baptismal font and the atrium cross, the circular choir window of the main church is delicately sculpted with urns sprouting flowers and prehispanic song scrolls, proclaiming to Spaniard and Indian alike that, despite all the changes, the church, and indeed the entire monastery, remained a sacred place, as it had been for centuries. 
Keystone with lamb
* Look for our forthcoming blogs on the crosses and murals of Cholula
Text ©2012 Richard D. Perry    Photography © Felipe Falcón A.

for more details see our guidebook Mexico's Fortress Monasteries

Friday, August 24, 2012

Mexican Eagles 5: Coats of Arms: La Casas de Cortés

For our final post on this thread we look at some complex colonial coats of arms associated with the conquistador Hernán Cortés.

Cuilapan:  La Casa de Cortés

Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico has many monuments. As Lord of the Marquesado— the estate granted to him by the Spanish Crown—he established señorial residences across this vast tract that stretched from Mexico City to Oaxaca. 
Powerful though he was, however, Cortés was unable to extend his domain into present day city of Oaxaca, although a mansion there popularly, but mistakenly, bears his name (see below

The town of Cuilapan, however, located just beyond the eastern city limits near Monte Albán and famous for its rambling Dominican priory, became one of his favorite outposts. 
Sections still remain of an imposing early colonial secular building facing the main plaza there. Known locally as the Casa de Cortés, it is reliably believed to be an authentic occasional residence of the conquistador rather than a native palace or tecpanThe structure is noted for its richly sculpted detail including two heraldic plaques of great interest. 

The one shown above displays a unique variant of an aristocratic coat of arms.  In this escutcheon, the two-headed Hapsburg imperial eagle is reduced to a single quarter above the royal lion on the left.  Reliefs on the right represent Tenochtitlan, the ancient Aztec island capital, and above, three crowns, probably symbolizing the defeated Aztec tlatoani Montezuma, Cuauhtemoc and Cuitlahuac. 
The chained heads of dead captives surrounding the inner shield are thought to symbolize the vanquished native lords of the lakeside cities around Tenochtitlan.
If this relief in fact dates from the time of Cortés, it is a unique historic and artistic monument and represents one of the earliest and most detailed sculptured escutcheons from the early colonial era.

Oaxaca: La Casa de Cortés 

Erroneously named for the famous conquistador of two centuries earlier, this early 18th century urban palace in the historic center is one of the few private residences from Oaxaca’s colonial era to survive largely intact. 
This restored mansion is now the home of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MACO) but was originally built to house a newly married couple who united two prominent regional families.

Dramatically set against a plain green stone front, the decorative, triple tier facade reflects many of the stylistic traits familiar from Oaxaca’s baroque churches.
On the upper tier of the facade an elegant statue of the Archangel Michael gazes out from an ornate shell niche. Prominently emblazoned on either side and flanked by classical fluted columns are the armorial shields of the Pinelo and Lazo de la Vega families. Baroque flourishes adorn these family coats-of-arms, capped by the plumed helmets that traditionally signify nobility. 

In the Pinelo family escudo on the left, fleurs-de-lis are quartered with pineapple or pomegranate pinnacles.  The Lazo de La Vega escutcheon on the right opposes the Five Wounds, in the form of Augustinian hearts, to the chain of the aristocratic order of the Golden Fleece.

Question:  The latter escudo features X's, or heraldic saltires, on the shield like those on the Cuilapan coat of arms. I am not sure of the meaning of these in either case, and would welcome suggestions.

text © 2012 Richard D. Perry;  photographs: Richard D. Perry

For details on the colonial churches of Oaxaca consult our regional guidebook:

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mexican Eagles 4: The Eagles of Santa Monica

The 18th century Augustinian nun's church of Santa Mónica is in my view the most beautiful and, in many ways, the most influential building in Guadalajara. Its exquisitely carved twin facades are widely considered to be the precursors to, and the models for, the many wonderful Jaliscan folk baroque church fronts. 

In this post, however,  I focus on several distinctive reliefs of the Hapsburg Imperial eagle that grace the nave exterior.   All are robustly carved in a popular style firmly in the Mexican tequitqui tradition

The most interesting of the group is the two-headed eagle on the north portal, flanked by archaic, fluttering angels who clutch spiraling foliage. The church on the eagle's breast mirrors that customarily held up by St Augustine—one of the many Augustinian emblems emblazoned on the church front. 

Both eagles are pecking at what appear to be bunches of grapes on their wings. There is also a budding flower between them that I thought was a crown before.  Also, the flanking angels are holding spirals of foliage. So the eagles may be seen as part of a vine?
Alternatively, the grapes might be viewed as wounds—a reference to the parallel
 sacrificial myth of pelicans drawing their own blood to feed their young? 

The long headed eagle between the two doorways is also vigorously rendered. Here the Cristic monogram IHS is displayed on the shield like breast.

A third imperial eagle appears on the wall beyond the north portal.  An eroded relief of the Augustinian pierced heart  is carved on its rounded breast.

The fluttering angels reappear on the south portal, flanking the Augustinian insignia of a tasselled miter and, again, the pierced heart of the Order.

Text: ©2012 Richard D. Perry   
Photography: Richard Perry; Niccolo Brooker; Diana Roberts; Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca

For more on the colonial churches of Guadalajara consult our guidebook:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Mexican Eagles 2: Eagle Warriors

Eagle Warriors

Eagle warriors, or  cuacuautzin, along with the Jaguar warriors (ocelomeh) were the two leading military orders in Aztec society.  As special castes, these were made up of the bravest soldiers of noble birth as well as those who had taken the greatest number of prisoners in battle.  
   The "Eagle warriors were called "soldiers of the sun," for the eagle was the symbol of the sun, but their lives were one of constant battle, as increasingly the primary purpose for this continual warfare was to take prisoners to be sacrificed to their gods.
A few depictions of Eagle warriors survived the Spanish conquest:
This 16th century relief sculpture of an Aztec eagle warrior is set into the tower of the great Franciscan church of Asunción Tecamachalco, in Puebla.
The eagle wears a tlatoani (ruler) headdress, or copilli, which indicates that this place was an ancient royal seat.  A complex speech scroll issuing from the eagle's beak incorporates the Aztec atl-tlachinolli glyph (fire and water = burnt water) signifying war. 
In addition, a second speech scroll extending behind the eagle's head appears to have a flint on it, which, together with the surrounding panoply of spears and other weapons, further reinforces the warlike message of the relief.
Beneath the relief is an inscription in Spanish and Nahuatl bearing the dates 1589, 1590 and 1591— probably referring to the construction of the tower. 

A second eagle relief is mounted in the nave wall at nearby Tepeaca, another early Franciscan foundation. Posed like the Aztec eagle, with spread wings, the bird perches atop a cactus on a stylized mound or island.  
Cupped below the heraldic frame is a chain like variant of the atl-tlachinolli motif, in which the twin rivers of fire and water intertwine.

This "escudo" is one of a pair of heraldic shields adorning the facade of the Augustinian priory church of Ixmiquilpan, in the state of Hidalgo. 
Aside from the heraldic frames, their content is entirely pre hispanic, without overt Spanish or Christian references.  
The intricately carved relief portrays the classic features of the Aztec eagle—perched on a cactus sprouting from the rock above a lake. Again the eagle wears a plumed tlauhquechol or war bonnet and brandishes a lance or war banner.
Jaguar warriors, the counterparts of the Eagle warriors, crouch on either side with chimalli, or native war shields.
text and drawing © Richard D. Perry.  Photography Niccolo Brooker

for more on the early monasteries of Puebla and Tlaxcala see our guidebook  Mexico's Fortress Monasteries

Monday, August 13, 2012

Mexican Eagles 1: The Aztec Eagle

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the role of the eagle and its portrayal in Mexican art,  with a focus on sculptural reliefs in Aztec and early colonial times.

The Aztec Eagle, from the Codex Mendoza

The Aztec Eagle

In the 15th century the wandering Aztecs founded their capital city Tenochtitlan in the middle of Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico.
According to their origin myth, their patron Huitzilpochtli a god of war, sun and fire, foretold that the long Aztec migration from Aztlan, their ancestral homeland in the north, would come to an end where they saw an eagle perched on a cactus, and there they would found a great city. 

The Hapsburg two headed eagle, with Crown and snake (Jalpan, Queretaro)

The Hapsburg Imperial Eagle

Following the Spanish conquest, the Aztec eagle was supplanted by the double headed Imperial Eagle of the Hapsburgs—the insignia of the ruling dynasty in Spain 

This emblem was universally emblazoned on churches and public buildings in the early colonial period in Mexico.

However, after Independence in 1821, most of these images were erased, and in many cases replaced in turn by the Aztec eagle—the symbol of modern Mexico.

The Mexican Eagle, with snake, cactus and Lake Texcoco

In following posts we will see how these sometimes conflicting and often ambiguous images were adapted in early colonial Mexico.

text © 2012 Richard D. Perry

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

St. Rose of Lima in Mexico

This is the third in our series of posts highlighting some of the more unusual Mexican santos.

These images portray St Rose of Lima and, again, are all from churches in Oaxaca.

Capulalpan, St Rose  (Felipe Falcón)
St. Rose of Lima has the honor of being the first person born in the Americas and the first mestiza to be canonized by the Catholic church. She was born on April 20, 1586 of a Spaniard, Gaspar de Flores, and Maria d'Olivia, a woman of Inca descent. Although her parents were anxious to have Rose marry, and there were several worthy suitors for her hand, she refused and instead joined the Third Order of St. Dominic.

Rose seems to have taken for her model St. Catherine of Siena. She donned the habit and took a vow of perpetual virginity.  For many years Rose lived almost as a recluse, indulging in extreme forms of penitence and mortification of the flesh. These led to visions, revelations, visitations and, as she thought, voices from God.

But Rose was not wholly detached from the everyday world of Peru around her. Her awareness of the suffering of others led her to speak out publicly against the abusive practices of the Spanish colonial overlords.  She brought the sick and hungry into her home, inspiring devotion among the poor inhabitants of Lima.

Due in part to the rigors of her ascetic life, she died on August 25, 1617, at the early age of thirty-one, deeply venerated by the common people. She was laid to rest in the Dominican convent at Lima and, as time went on, miracles and cures were attributed to her intervention.
Finally she was canonized by Pope Clement in 1671 and today is honored in all Spanish-American countries.

St. Rose in Oaxaca
In colonial times, as a trading partner and principal entry point for trade goods, Oaxaca enjoyed close ties with Peru. As a Dominican and a new American saint, St. Rose became a favorite in Oaxaca, appearing frequently in the Dominican churches and missions of the region.

Oaxaca cathedral, south facade
Basilica de La Soledad, facade
Several emblems are associated with St Rose: traditionally she wears a crown of roses and holds up a bouquet of roses, usually in association with an image of the infant Jesus. This reflects not only her name and her personal affinity with Christ's sufferings but also signifies her status either as a novice or member of a Third Order rather than a cloistered nun.
She is also usually shown wearing the Dominican habit and a Rosary—another reminder both of her name and her link to this quintessentially Dominican devotion.

Her portraits in Oaxaca have a distinctive look and often include other attributes, notably an anchor and a city—the former holding the latter. This commemorates one of her miracles, in which she reputedly saved Callao, the port city of Lima, from a disastrous earthquake.

Santa Ana Zegache
text © 2012 Richard D. Perry;  photography: Richard D. Perry; Felipe Falcón & Richard Stracke.
All rights reserved 
For more on the colonial churches of Oaxaca and their santos, consult our regional guidebook
and the Stracke website

Sunday, August 5, 2012

St Peter Martyr in Mexico

This the second in our series of posts highlighting some of the more interesting Mexican santos.

Saint Peter Martyr

Also known as St. Peter of Verona, St. Peter Martyr was a 13th century Dominican preacher and inquisitor who participated in the Albigensian crusade against the Catharist heretics of southern France.

In 1252 he was murdered by two Cathar assassins on the road from Como to Milan. According to legend, one of the assassins attacked Peter first with blows to the head using an axe, and then stabbed him in the chest. Peter's body was taken to Milan, where it was entombed in a mausoleum. He was canonized the following year.

In portraits the saint appears tonsured, wearing the white and black Dominican habit. His skull is usually cleft by an ax, and/or his chest is pierced by a sword or dagger, the instruments of his death. 
He also holds the palm branch of martyrdom and a book, sometimes open, sometimes closed. The palm often bears three crowns or tiaras, denoting his Martyrdom, his Learning, and his Chastity.

Of the representations of the saint we feature, one is from a 16th century mural, and all the others are three dimensional images from Oaxaca.  First the mural:
Tetela del Volcán
This depiction is one of several portraits of Dominican saints and martyrs from the cloister of Tetela del Volcán, an early Dominican house in Morelos. 
Probably painted in the late 1500s or early 1600s, the haloed saint displays both the ax in the head and the dagger in his chest. He hold the palm with the triple crown and an opened book.

Peter Martyr in Oaxaca 

St Peter Martyr is especially well represented in the Dominican churches of Oaxaca, where most of the santos date from later colonial times.  In addition to those shown below, there are documented images of the saint at Achiutla, Santa Ana del Valle, Coixtlahuaca, Teitipac and Yanhuitlan.

Santa Ana Zegache, with open book
San Pedro Etla
Santiago Cuilapan, with rosary and palm but missing axe
San Pablo Huitzo
Diaz Ordaz, with triple crown palm
Tlacolula: Capilla de La Plata, with axe and dagger
text © 2012 Richard D. Perry;  photographic images: ©Richard D. Perry; Niccolo Brooker; Richard Stracke and others.

For more on the colonial churches of Oaxaca and their santos, consult our regional guidebook
and the new Stracke website

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

San Dionisio in Mexico

This is the first in our series of posts featuring unusual or colorful saints, as portrayed in images found in the churches of Mexico and, in particular, Oaxaca.

San Dionisio, or Saint Denis (also called Dionysus, Dennis, or Denys) was an early Christian martyr, a saint and a "cephalophore"—one who is generally depicted carrying his or her own head, signifying that the subject in question had been beheaded.
   In the third century, Saint Denis was made Bishop of Paris, but his relentless Christian proselytizing upset the local pagans, so he was arrested by the Roman authorities, tortured and finally beheaded.
Undeterred, Denis reputedly picked up his head and continued walking, preaching a sermon as he went.
   He is venerated in the Roman Catholic Church as the patron of Paris, France. Ironically, the name of this severe saint derives from Dionysius, the sensuous Roman deity of wine and riotous pagan revelry.  Denis' headless (heedless?) preaching after martyrdom has led to his being usually shown as a Bishop, holding up his severed, mitered head before him.

In this post we look at four depictions of the saint in different media from several areas in Mexico:

Culhuacan (Mexico State):  cloister mural
Cut from coarse black basalt, the brooding convento at Culhuacan is brightened by a series of extraordinary colorful frescoes. These illustrate classic Augustinian themes such as the Earthly Paradise and a Ship of Friars as well as numerous portrayals of Augustinian and early Christian martyrs.

Among the latter, located along a corridor on the upper cloister, is a portrait of San Dionisio. The saint, wearing red trimmed episcopal robes and red papal slippers, gingerly holds his mitered head in front of him, with the eyes closed. This simple but direct 16th century mural is among his earliest portrayals in Mexico.

Tlacolula (Oaxaca): painted bultos

The 18th century Capilla de La Plata, an adjunct to the Dominican cult church of Tlacolula, is celebrated for its colorful stucco reliefs and popular sculpture.  Among the numerous statues are not one but two intentionally headless figures: primarily John the Baptist (right)—a popular and important saint who, despite famously losing his head, is rarely shown in this pose.

On the opposite side of the chapel entry (left), similarly posed, stands the figure of San Dionisio, clad in somber episcopal vestments, clutching his mitered and luxuriantly bearded head.

His apparently pairing with John the Baptist, may indicate his importance to the guild of silversmiths who sponsored and funded this opulent folk baroque chapel.

San Dionisio Ocotepec
Ocotepec (Oaxaca): stone statue and sculpted wooden image 

Also a Dominican mission, this folk baroque church is dedicated to San Dionisio, although, curiously, he does not appear among the saints in the colorful facade. 

He is however the star of an opulent gilded baroque altarpiece filling the decorated apse.

San Dionisio Ocotepec

Set in the upper niche and clad in floral robes, the saint holds his mitered but beardless head over his chest, so that from the ground it seems almost as if his head is still attached.

San Dionisio Yauhquemehcan
Yauquemehcan (Tlaxcala)stone relief and painted wooden image

 The substantial gray stone front of San Dionisio Yauhquemehcan is enlivened by its whimsical spiral and zigzag columns as well as reliefs and angular statuary that includes Saints Peter, Paul and several assertive archangels with plumed helmets.
   However, the stylized statue of the patron saint is barely visible, lodged high in a niche at the apex of the gable.  Like the other depictions the saint is accoutered as a bishop with heavy cape and vestments and, here, a prominent crozier.  An embossed miter sits atop the saint's disembodied head, held like the others,  with both hands over the chest.

San Dionisio Yauhquemehcan, main altarpiece
San Dionisio also appears on the sumptuous main altarpiece, which is densely carved, gilded and replete with painted statuary. As at Ocotepec, the richly robed statue of the saint occupies a prominent location in a lighted vitrine at its center but here, unlike in the other portraits, he retains his head on his shoulders leaving his hands free to hold his crozier and gesture in benediction.

text © 2012 Richard D. Perry;  photographic images ©Richard Perry & Niccolo Brooker.  All rights reserved.

For more on the colonial churches of Oaxaca, consult our regional guidebook.