Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Water, Water. Drowned Churches: Jalapa del Marqués

JAWS ???

No, this is not a scene from a horror movie. But a watery disaster nevertheless.
In the 1960s, the Rio Tequisistlan was dammed, creating the lake of Presa Juarez in the tierra caliente of southern Oaxaca.  As a result, the 16th century Dominican mission of La Asunción, in Jalapa del Marqués, was engulfed by the lake waters— reminiscent of the fate suffered by the church at Quechula, another drowned Dominican mission in nearby Chiapas.
Today, the crumbling walls and domes of the church still protrude above the surface, to remind us of the demise of yet another early colonial monument.  The H shaped convento and adjacent open chapel can also be traced below the waves.
The intrepid visitor may inspect the ruins at close quarters by boat at his or her own risk.
This photograph, taken in the 1920s by the anthropologist Franz Blom, is one of the few images of the mission before inundation.

text © 2013/2017 Richard D. Perry
photographic images by the intrepid Niccolò Brooker.  Thank you Nick!

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Water, Water. Drowned churches: Quechula

In the colonial era, water management was designed to sustain and enhance life in the local mission and the community.
However, modern, large scale water management practices, primarily the damming of rivers and water sources, have often had the opposite effect, isolating, disrupting and even uprooting long settled communities.
In several cases this has entailed the flooding and even submerging of village churches established since early colonial times.
We continue our Water series with a look at a few of these victims of progress, starting with the old Dominican mission of Quechula, in Chiapas.

Santiago Quechula

With the construction in the 1960s of the Malpaso hydroelectric dam across the Grijalva River in the Zoque region of northern Chiapas, several river communities were inundated and their inhabitants relocated.  Chief among these was the ancient village of Santiago Quechula. 
    Quechula was evangelized by the Dominicans in the mid-1500s and chosen as the site for a mission town. Initially a simple visita, subject to the grand priory at Tecpatán, it later became a major mission in its own right
   By the early 1600s, an imposing church and convento had risen in Quechula. Related architecturally to other Dominican missions in the Zoque region, the Quechula church front displays several distinctive features, notably its double choir window and large archway enclosing the recessed west porch. Massed pilasters with sculpture niches enliven both the lower and upper facade, the latter originally crowned by a grand triangular pediment. 
   Other Dominican stylistic features include the prominent exterior running cornices and the classic cylindrical exterior stairway.
Although roofless and partly ruined by the late 1900s, the facade remained intact. Submerged beneath the rising waters, it seemed that the church would be lost to view forever. 
   In 2002, however, because of drought conditions in the region and the seasonal need to relieve pressure and release impounded water to the parched communities downstream, the lake level behind the dam was dramatically lowered.

For the first time in 40 years, the church was exposed once more. Townspeople from the new settlement of Nuevo Quechula, as well as many former natives from other communities, made a pilgrimage to their ancestral village to view the remains of the colonial church and pay their respects to Santiago, their beloved patron saint.
   Men and women who had left the area as children returned as grandparents, arriving by canoe and celebrating the re-emergence with music, dancing and prayers. 
Although the waters have since risen again and the church is once more submerged, its seemingly miraculous reappearance is destined to become just a memory.  "The water wiped out everything," said Don "Gilito" Vasquez, a 100 year old former resident who had returned, "and now, the monastery is time's only witness."
2014 update:
Our intrepid correspondent Niccolò Brooker revisited Quechula this summer. As predicted, the waters behind the dam have risen again, however, the tip of the church front is still in view, enough for our man to get a foothold!

2015 update:
In October 2015, drought conditions have lowered the water level behind the dam so that the drowned church of Santiago Quechula has once again partially resurfaced, allowing another brief view of this early Dominican mission.

text © 2004, 2013, 2014 & 2015 by Richard D. Perry
photographs © Richard Perry, Bob Guess & Niccolò Brooker

for more on the arts and architecture of colonial Chiapas, consult our guidebook

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Water, Water: Etla

In an earlier post, we described the aqueduct and fountains of the city of Oaxaca.
As a follow up we look at the less complex but earlier system of Etla to the north of the city.

San Pedro & San Pablo Etla, mission front

There are many Etlas in the Etla Valley north of the city of Oaxaca, each with its own saint’s name.   San Pedro & San Pablo Etla is the principal town, often known simply as Villa de Etla. 
Calle Juarez, formerly a cobbled causeway, leads up to the old Dominican monastery, which is spectacularly sited on a terraced ridge with wide views of the valley.

Calle Juarez is flanked by arcaded sections of a long colonial aqueduct which was built by the Dominicans at the same time as, or just before, the construction of the convento in the mid to late 1500s.

Water from the aqueduct was channeled into the rear of the convento, where a large caja or collecting basin is still attached.
From there it was piped into several other outlets including the moorish cloister fountain.

text  © Richard D. Perry
photography © Richard D. Perry and

for more on colonial Oaxaca, consult our illustrated guidebook

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Water, Water: Los Arcos del Sitio

Los Arcos del Sitio (photograph courtesy of Niccolo Brooker)
We cannot leave our review of Mexico's aqueducts without mentioning the Aqueduct of Xalpa, better known as Los Arcos del Sitio.
It was built by the Jesuits, under the supervision of Father Santiago Castaño, to bring water from the Oro River to their great monastery and college at Tepotzotlan as well as the hacienda at Xalpa.


This monumental structure is the highest aqueduct in Latin America, reaching 61 meters at its height with four levels of arches above the Sitio gorge for which it is named. It is also one of the longest at almost 42 kilometers

It was still unfinished when the Jesuit Order was expelled from Mexico in 1767, but was finally completed in the late 19th century by Manuel Romero de Terreros, one of the Counts of Regla, who owned mining haciendas in the area.

photograph courtesy of Niccolo Brooker
Interestingly, a single arcaded section of the aqueduct is portrayed in a colonial mural that adorns the rear entry to the convento at Tepotzotlan.

Today, the aqueduct is now part of a conservation and recreation area and is accessible to the public

©2013 Richard D. Perry

Background image: cloister reflecting pool at Singuilucan, Hidalgo (courtesy Beverley Spears)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Jalisco Retablos: El Cabezón

As we saw in our earlier post, Jalisco is notable for its numerous large haciendas, many of which date back to colonial times. Originally dedicated to cattle ranching and agriculture, some of these estates were expanded in the 1800s for the production of sugar or tequila, the alcoholic spirit uniquely associated with this region.
El Cabezón chapel (Edward Fesler)
Hacienda El Cabezón

One of the largest of these is the venerable hacienda of El Cabezón, located near the town of Ameca, some 50 kms west of Guadalajara. In 1765, El Cabezón, so named for Don Pedro de Cabezón who acquired the property as early as 1572, was bought by Don Calixto de Cañedo, whose family then occupied the hacienda for more than 150 years, adding sugar and alcohol to its many other products.
After acquiring the estate, the Cañedo family commissioned the design and construction of a new chapel, primarily to house an image of the Virgin of Purification, also known as La Candelaria, the patron saint of the family. The wooden figure of the Virgin is reputed to date from the 16th century and is the venerated object of pilgrimage from other communities in the area.
The Altarpiece of La Candelaria 
The chapel is chiefly notable for its rich interior and especially its superb late 18th century altarpiece - one of the few to survive intact in Jalisco.
Although its designer is not fully documented, it is known that the gilder and retablista Domingo Casillas, who also worked on the similar altarpieces of the Aranzazú chapel in Guadalajara, was closely involved in its fabrication. The gilded altarpiece is designed in the ornate, late baroque style popularly known as the Churrigueresque, after the Spanish family of retablo designers, 
The retablo features a broad, bescrolled central section flanked by giant, highly decorative estípite pilasters. The lavishly dressed and ornamented figure of La Candelaria stands in the center vitrine, surmounted by an elaborate crown and encircling silver halo.  She is also accompanied by a tower, a heraldic emblem of the Cañedo family. 
Below her, a gilded tabernacle at the base is adorned with polychrome relief of the Good Shepherd, while above, stands a life size polychrome statue of St Joseph with the Christ Child and flowery staff.  
 Lions and pelicans are carved at the base of each pilaster, with polychrome reliefs of the Four Evangelists flanking the statues above.
Niches between the pilasters house statues of seven, beautifully sculpted and painted winged archangels dating from the 1860s. Recently restored and reinstalled, they include San Miguel at the top, beneath a bust of El Padre Eterno, flanked by San Gabriel and San Rafael.

Text © 2006 & 2013 by Richard D. Perry. 
Based in part on the work of Verónica Hernández Díaz (UNAM) 
Photographic images courtesy of Jim Cook except where noted. 
All rights reserved

Monday, February 4, 2013

Sierra Gorda exhibit up

The exhibit is now up and running!  Entitled Junípero Serra in Mexico: Five Missions in the Sierra Gorda de Querétaro, the show can be seen in the historic Casa de la Guerra,  Santa Barbara, California and will run through April 28.
The Casa is open to the public on weekends from 12 to 4 pm. There will be a public reception on Thursday, March 7th, from 5 to 8 pm with free admission.

The mission churches of the Sierra Gorda, co-founded by Junípero Serra before he arrived in California, are noted for their spectacular painted and sculpted fronts.  They are the subject of this traveling exhibit by photographer Jeff Becom, a specialist in capturing the colorful architecture of the Americas. The exhibit has been curated by Julianne Burton-Carvajal and includes a suite of original drawings of the Sierra Gorda missions by your editor, Richard Perry.

Here are some views of the installation: