Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mexican Crosses: The "Cristos" of Tzintzuntzan

Tzintzuntzan, the monastery front

Place of the Hummingbirds
This former capital of the Tarascan kings was the site of one of the earliest missions in Michoacán, its grand atrium still shaded by ancient olive trees said to have been planted by Bishop Vasco de Quiroga in the 1500s.  
In this post we look first at the stone crosses and then the wooden crucifixes located in the precincts of this venerable Franciscan monastery. 

The atrium cross, which stands on a squared base in the main avenue leading to the church, features the bulbous, flared finials typical of many in the region.
Fashioned from volcanic stone, the cross is modest in size and its carving is simple. Passion reliefs include the stylized Crown at the crossing together with Nails, Pincers, a Hammer and Ladder, carved in high relief on the front of the shaft. A circular relief may once have adorned the battered neck, although it is now only a faint outline. The reverse of the cross is plain. 

An intriguing wall cross incorporating sunburst like rays is set above the side entry to La Soledad.
The "Cristos" of Tzintzuntzan

Michoacán is especially noted for its cristos de caña, lightweight crucifixes bearing life size, often hyper naturalistic and agonized figures of Christ with bloody wounds and torn flesh. Formed from a malleable but durable compound of corn pith and orchid glue—a prehispanic sculptural material—they were especially suited for processional use. 
   In fact, in early colonial times, under the sponsorship of Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, these cristos were mass produced in the Patzcuaro area and carried by priests and friars throughout west central Mexico. A remarkable collection of these crucifixes can be seen in the Museum of Colonial Art in the regional capital of Morelia, and many still survive in churches across the region.
   The focus of this page, however, is on a trio of pasta de caña sculptures, including crucifixes, located in the precincts of the rambling Franciscan monastery of Tzintzuntzan, on the shores of Lake Patzcuaro—briefly the seat of Vasco de Quiroga's bishopric in the 1530s.
These three celebrated but distinct sculpted figures are El Señor del Rescate (Our Lord of Redemption) in the old church of San Francisco; the Pietá, or Lamentation of Christ, in the convento cloister, and the articulated cristo known as El Señor del Santo Entierro in the Third Order church of La Soledad.
El Señor del Rescate
El Señor del Rescate is the most traditional of these images, probably dating from the early 1600s. His scarred, attenuated body, bright with blood pouring from his wounds, is suspended from a wooden cross. 
   Every February, he leaves his chapel inside the main church to preside over the colorful celebrations of his feast day, which culminate in the traditional Tarascan "Dance of the Old Men".
La Soledad
El Señor del Santo Entierro 
El Señor del Santo Entierro is also of early colonial origin, although carved in a more stylized, folkloric and less realistic mode than El Señor del Rescate, who lodges in the Third Order church of La Soledad across from the main convento.
Because of his movable limbs the saint is displayed in various attitudes depending on the season. During the Semana Santa, for example he rests on a bier swathed in embroidered clothes until he is carried out in procession on Easter Sunday.
El Señor de Santo Entierro in procession
© Hugo Rudinger

The Lamentation of Christ
The painted relief of the Pietá, or Lamentation in the cloister is traditional in its composition and iconography: the slumped figure of Christ—closely resembling El Señor del Rescate—is attended by his Mother (above) and Mary Magdalene (below) and, less conventionally, flanked by angels. 
Despite its marble like appearance, it is in fact sculpted from pasta de caña. 

Text and Drawings © 1997 & 2012  Richard D. Perry
Photographsby Richard Perry & Niccolo Brooker

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