Monday, October 29, 2012

Xoxoteco: The Torments

With the horrors of Halloween and the Day of the Dead coming up, we thought it appropriate to end our series of posts on the Xoxoteco murals with the most grisly images. (sensitive readers, be warned!)

In earlier posts we looked at the Expulsion from Eden and Jaws of Hell scenes on the apsidal wall. Finally we turn to the nave walls which, aside from some genre tableaux of a colonial Spanish couple and some pulque drinkers, are given over to terror inspiring scenes of the torments awaiting the damned in hell—beating, flaying, crucifying, torture on the rack and outright butchery—all zealously administered by a regiment of horned demons.

This image of Xipe Totec from the Florentine Codex portrays the triangular nose and rounded eyes—signs that the deity is wearing someone else’s skin on top of his own. The flapping hands and feet are the extremities of the flayed skin.
Flaying was an ancient tradition in Mesoamerica. The god Xipe Totec, also known as Our Lord the Flayed One, was among the oldest Aztec deities. He is usually depicted as a man wearing the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim and was impersonated by dancing priests during the agricultural festival of Tlacaxipeualiztli.

Actopan: the Torments of Hell (Ivan Martinez)

The following scenes from Xoxoteco, closely related to those at Actopan (above), depict in gruesome detail the range of torments and butchery reserved for recalcitrant sinners and the damned in hell.

text and photography ©2012 Richard D. Perry.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Xoxoteco: The Jaws of Hell

As we noted in our earlier post, the tiny chapel of Santa Maria Xoxoteco is the repository of some of the most remarkable murals in Mexico.  Uncovered only a few decades ago under layers of whitewash, the walls are covered with vivid, colorful but cautionary murals.

The Jaws of Hell
Previously we looked at the Expulsion from Eden on the apsidal wall. This area is also devoted to an expansive Last Judgment scene, and in this post we look at one dramatic segment: the Jaws of Hell, and compare it with other such portrayals in early Mexican murals


In medieval times the entrance to Hell was often envisaged as the gaping mouth of a huge monster, and remained common in depictions of the Last Judgment and Harrowing of Hell until the Renaissance.

The sea monster Leviathan, a monstrous animal whose mouth swallows the damned during the Last Judgement, was also conflated with this imagery.

Xoxoteco, The Last Judgment (detail) the Jaws of Hell
In the Catholic evangelization of the New World, this scene was often popularly portrayed in graphic, apocalyptic murals like those of Xoxoteco and Actopan, primarily as a means of impressing the native converts with the consequences of sin and the horrors of Hell. 

The somewhat faded but animated example above, from the east wall at Xoxoteco, depicts the souls of the damned being flung by demons into the open Hellmouth, there to be consumed by flames. The sharp teeth, upturned snout and wide eyes of the monster add to the drama.

Actopan: the Jaws of Hell
In this related, although fragmentary scene from the painted open chapel at Actopan, one can almost hear the fearsome jaws snapping shut on the hapless souls being pushed down by the attendant devils.

Tepetlaoxtoc, the Harrowing of Hell
By contrast, this scene of the Harrowing of Hell from the cloister murals at Tepetlaoxtoc shows the risen Christ ministering to the damned already trapped in the Hellmouth. Again the flames issuing from its mouth, with the sharp fangs and staring eye of the beast add to the sense of dread.

Tetela del Volcán: The Miracle of the Rosary (detail)
In this detail from the so-called Miracle of the Rosary mural at the mountain mission of Tetela del Volcán in Morelos, curling flames and the fearsome fangs and snout of the monster are again prominently displayed although the souls in its maw look less than terrified!

Finally, in the corner of a ceiling panel at San Lorenzo, in western Michoacán, the diabolical denizens of a bubble like, watery underworld—in the guise of familiar animals notwithstanding their fangs and spearlike tongues—appear less menacing and almost benevolent.

text ©2012 by Richard D. Perry.
 images by Niccolo Brooker, Carolyn Brown, Ivan Martinez & Richard Perry

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Xoxoteco: The Expulsion from Paradise

The chapel of Santa Maria Xoxoteco in the Sierra Alta region of Hidalgo contains some of the most remarkable murals in Mexico.  Uncovered only a few decades ago under layers of whitewash, the walls are alive with vivid, colorful murals that depict in a most graphic manner the punishments that await the unrepentant sinner.

In a new series of posts we explore some of the themes in these murals, comparing and contrasting them with similar colonial murals elsewhere in Mexico.

The Expulsion from Paradise
Among the sunnier frescoes at Xoxoteco is the cautionary scene depicting the original sin of Adam and Eve, and their subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Actopan: image detail © Ivan Martinez
The Xoxoteco mural is closely based on, and possibly created by the same artist(s) as the best known of early New World murals on this subject, that is the panel on the end wall of the grand open chapel at nearby Actopan (Hidalgo).
In this classic depiction, the naked Adam and Eve pluck apples from the Tree of Knowledge encircled by the snake on the left. God throws up his hands in the cloud above the tree. St Michael, in the center cloud, waves his sword at the now partly clothed banished pair on the right.

Xoxoteco: Expulsion from Paradise (photograph © Richard Perry)
This scene at Xoxoteco employs much the same imagery but with a local flavor.  The snake wound around the Tree bears the same face and flowing golden hair as Eve. 
God gestures in alarm from above and the Archangel Michael, here partly effaced, aims rays at the fleeing couple from the cloud on the right.

The Expulsion from the Garden is graphically shown in this superb late colonial painting from San Juan Tepemazalco, also in Hidalgo. Stolen from the church some years ago, it was later recovered, restored and returned to its home. 
   In the upper part of the painting, a heavenly vault guarded by archangels—possibly a representation of the celestial City of Jerusalem—opens to a view of Eden at the time of the Creation. God is portrayed in several scenes, creating Adam and then Eve from Adam's side, in an idyllic landscape of orchards and peaceable birds and beasts.
   The lower section shows the Expulsion, in a lacustrine landcape of trees and volcanic peaks teeming with a variety of birds, beasts and fishes—some acutely observed, others imagined but obviously never seen by the artist.
   The Archangel Michael, resplendent in a windblown red, blue and green costume, drives Adam, Eve and the snake forth with his fiery sword. The dove of the Holy Spirit hovers above the scene, almost lost among the flocks of birds in the sky.
   Although clearly stylized, the earthly landscape may represent the Valley of Mexico and Lake Texcoco as they might have appeared in the early 1700s.

photograph © Richard Perry

Finally, in this painting from the church of Santa Cruz in Tlaxcala, the beautifully rendered but modestly clad Adam and Eve pick an apple from the tree set in a lush and peaceable Garden of Eden alive with strolling creatures. The accompanying inscriptions are in native Nahuatl.

text ©2012 Richard D. Perry.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Duns Scotus in Mexico

In our continuing series of occasional posts * on the depiction of less common saints in Mexico, we consider the case of the Scottish theologian and scholastic philosopher, Blessed John Duns Scotus.  
   A noted medieval "schoolman," Duns Scotus was also a Franciscan. While not (yet) a saint, he is nevertheless an important figure in the history of the church. In his voluminous writings, the "subtle doctor" as he was known, advocated and defended the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, a cause championed by the Franciscan order.
   Portraits of the Virgin as Mary Immaculate are universal in Mexico, where she is popularly called La Purísima.  Despite this close association, Duns Scotus himself is rarely portrayed in Mexican art.  Here are a few known examples:  

Huejotzingo, Puebla

Perhaps the earliest, best known, and most conventional depiction of the 'subtle doctor' is in the famous mural of La Purísima in the convento of the Franciscan monastery at Huejotzingo.
   Duns Scotus, wearing the scholar's biretta, stands on Mary's left and points to his doctrine  advocating her Immaculate Conception.  St Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican who disputed with Scotus, is shown on  her right. 
   While commonly portrayed with his works in association with an image of the Virgin, Duns Scotus is also shown in at least two unusual representations with added wings, triumphing over heretics and a monstrous, multi headed Lucifer.

Izamal, Yucatan Among the many other artistic treasures of the great Franciscan monastery at Izamal, is a recently restored colonial painting of a winged Duns Scotus. 
  He gestures to his writings and holds up a statue of the Virgin Mary while trampling underfoot the snake like Lucifer, as well as the heads of various heretics and Lutheran reformers—a feature common to religious imagery of the Counter Reformation.
Recently restored by Adopte una Obra de Arte, this painted version is based on an engraving published in 1619 by Joannis Pitseus (John Pitts) in his Relationum Historicarum de Rebus Anglicis. 
Landa ceiling relief
Landa, Querétaro
A similar portrayal of Duns Scotus appears in a ceiling relief in the nave of La Purísima de Aguas de Landa, a mission church in the remote Sierra Gorda de Querétaro, dedicated to the Virgin. 
Landa, together with four other churches in the region celebrated for their painted folkloric fronts, was founded in the 1750s by a group of Apostolic Franciscans from Majorca, including Fray Junípero Serra, founder of several California missions.
detail: courtesy Niccolo Brooker
Again winged, Scotus holds up an image of the (headless) Virgin in one hand and a quill pen in the other—a reference to his famous dogma—and treads upon a winged Lucifer and the heads of Lutherans and dissenters spewing heresy.  
This portrayal is of special interest since he also appears on the facade of the church in another guise, paired with the visionary Franciscan nun and writer Sor María de Agreda.
Landa, facade relief of Duns Scotus
It is instructive to note that Duns Scotus was a special favorite of Junípero Serra, who had held the Duns Scotus chair of theology at Lullian University in Palma, Majorca, before he took up missionary work in Mexico.

Winged Saints
While angels and archangels are routinely shown with wings in Mexican Art, some saints are also occasionally portrayed with wings.  Aside from the above portraits of Duns Scotus, St. Francis, St Vincent Ferrer and even Christ himself are shown with seraphic wings.
We welcome commentary and further examples on this topic.

text © 2012.2015 Richard D. Perry. Images by the author except where noted
* thanks to aficionado Almerindo Eduardo Ojeda 
for bringing this source material to my attention.

please review our previous posts on Mexican saints: Rose of Lima; Peter Martyr; San Dionisio; San Charbel Maklouf

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Missions of Michoacán: San Nicolás de Obispo 3.

Our third and final post on San Nicolás looks at its gilded altarpiece, a spectacular example of the "Salomonic" baroque style.

The Altarpiece

At the far end of the church, this magnificent Baroque altarpiece, commissioned for the episcopal visit in 1746, now fills the apse. 

Although time and the elements have taken their toll, plans are under way for the conservation and restoration of this unique colonial monument—a stunning example of consummate 18th century craftsmanship.

Painted and gilded throughout, the retablo takes a screen-like form: the layered center section projects forward, as the lateral calles flare outwards to embrace the worshipper. 
Spiral "Salomonic" columns—named after the legendary Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem—support projecting cornices hung with spindles in the Oaxacan fashion, and frame the sculpture niches. All the intervening spaces are densely ornamented with whorls of vines and gilded floral decoration.


The principal niches house elegant statues of San José, holding the young Christ and, in the center of the retablo, a charming, smaller tableau of St Anne with the young Virgin Mary. Below her, stands the figure of the Augustinian saint and bishop Nicholas of Tolentino for whom the church is named. 
A remarkably sumptuous work of art for such a humble church.

As noted in a previous post, the nave walls are largely plain. One of the few early colonial art works on display there is a classic  cristo de caña, so common in the churches of Michoacán (see our post on Tzintzuntzan) Scarred and emaciated with protruding ribs, this crucifix may date from the earlier Franciscan period at San Nicolás.

text © 2012 Richard D. Perry.
photographs by Richard Perry and Niccolo Brooker. All rights reserved.

For more details on the colonial churches of Michoacán consult our illustrated guidebook 
Blue Lakes & Silver Cities.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Missions of Michoacán: San Nicolás de Obispo 2

In our second post on San Nicolás, we consider the church interior.  There are two main features of interest here: the ceiling and the main altarpiece. First we look at the ceiling:

The artesonado ceiling facing towards the apse

The Ceiling

The most interesting artifact is the intricately crafted, wooden artesonado ceiling that stretches from the choir to the apse—an especially striking feature, resting atop the largely unadorned white walls of the nave.
The artesonado ceiling facing west towards the choir 
In addition to the ceiling, the 18th century wooden choir loft has also survived complete with its carved beams and balustrade.
San Nicolás: ceiling detail
In an unusual colonial survival, the painted planks and beams of the ceiling are secured by leather latticework and accented with red and blue stars.  Ornamental carved wooden corbels, or zapatas, support and strengthen the beams and crossbeams along the nave.
San Nicolás: carved corbels

text ©2012 by Richard D. Perry. photography by Niccolo Brooker

Our guide to west Mexico, including Michoacán

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Missions of Michoacán: San Nicolás de Obispo 1

We take a break (mostly) from Mexican crosses to resume our series on the old missions of Michoacán.

In a series of three posts we will look at the little visited mission of San Nicolás del Obispo.

One of our favorite places in Michoacán is the rustic village of San Nicolás del Obispo, located just outside the colonial city of Morelia. 
Set amid a bleak lava field overshadowed by an unsightly quarrying operation and overlooked by most travelers, San Nicolás nevertheless manages to retain much of its colonial charm, most notably in the precincts and interior of its venerable parish church.
Founded and built by the Franciscans in the late 1500s it was later handed over to the Augustinians. And in the 18th century San Nicolás attracted pilgrims from across the region.

In the next few posts we take a look at the church and its varied colonial treasures.

The Exterior

Large lava blocks distinguish the rugged church front, whose baroque gable was added in 1736 in celebration of a visit by Bishop Hoyos of Michoacán. 

San Nicolás is exceptional for the quality of its stone carving. The west doorway is framed in the classic Franciscan manner with broad jambs of intricately carved foliage, sinuous vines, and rosettes above and below.


San Nicolás is also one of a handful of churches in the region to retain its freestanding tower, which has recently been saved from ruin with a new roof.

A rugged basalt cross faces the church door, featuring a giant, stylized Crown of Thorns at the axis and carved on either arm with large, bleeding Wounds like bunches of grapes, pierced with angled spikes.  
Reflecting the colonial history of the mission, both Franciscan and Augustinian insignia are carved on the cross.

Some of the finest work is on display in the monolithic stone font, which stands just inside the church door, and is ornamented, like the doorjambs, with foliage and rimmed by the Franciscan knotted cord.

text and line drawing © Richard D. Perry.
photographs by Richard Perry and Niccolo Brooker. All rights reserved.

a shout out to Tony Burton, who introduced me to this colonial gem many years ago

For more details on the colonial churches of Michoacán consult our illustrated guidebook 
Blue Lakes & Silver Cities.
Look for our forthcoming guide to Mexican Stone Crosses