Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Espadañas of Yucatan

Second only to the Virgin of Izamal, the Virgin of Tetiz today enjoys the greatest devotion of any marian santo in Yucatan. Thereby hangs a tale:  
   Early in 1746 the newly appointed Spanish bishop of Yucatan, Francisco Martínez de Tejada had occasion to pass through Tetiz, then an impoverished visita of the main regional mission at Hunucmá. The church, such as it was, was described as, "... made of sticks and straw, and in the final stages of decay." 
   As he approached the simple wooden image of the Virgin on the altar, the bishop recognised her features as those of a pious but poor woman he had once known in Seville, who, on receiving alms of a silver peso, had promised to rebuild "a ruined house for herself and her son."
   When the astonished prelate raised the hem of the Virgin's robe to kiss it, he saw the same peso coin resting underneath. Amazed and inspired by this seemingly miraculous sign, the bishop immediately undertook to build a new church on the same spot - the present church - and dedicate it to the Virgin of The Assumption.
   Raised on a platform built with stones from a demolished Maya pyramid nearby, the single nave of the church extends westward from the remains of a 16th century chapel, terminating in a facade with a lofty espadaña bordered by baroque scrolls. 
   This distinctive church front is strikingly similar to several other Yucatecan facades of the mid-1700s rebuilt during the stewardship of Bishop Martínez de Tejada. All feature rectangular fronts capped by elegant espadañas in the form of rising concave curves bookended by prominent carved scrolls, and pierced by tiers of arched bell openings.
The first colonial building in this former Maya village on the outskirts of Mérida—originally named for Itzamná, the ancient Mayan reptilian sky deity—was an arched Indian chapel, part of which may form the fabric of the raised sanctuary of the present church. Usually painted red and crowned by a lofty, scrolled espadaña, the facade of this attractive 18th century church is a prominent landmark in this now fashionable suburb.
Cacalchén is close to the Maya site of Aké. Behind its walled forecourt, the 18th century church is also graced by an espadaña with projecting scrolls strikingly similar to those at Itzimná and Tetiz.
   At the rear stand the remnants of an earlier mission, complete with portería, carved convento doorway, and what may be an original posa chapel—now the domed Chapel of St. Francis. The entire structure is raised on a platform, probably of ancient Maya origin.
Located near Yaxcabá, south of Chichén Itzá, the handsome 18th century church at Tahdzibichén features a delicate espadaña, with large bell openings and double scrolls, soaring above the square limestone facade. 
Like those at Cacalchén, Itzimná and Tetiz, the church was rebuilt under the auspices of  bishop Francisco Martínez de Tejada, whose inscribed escutcheon is displayed over the frieze above the doorway. Unfortunately, the fine gilded retablos he reportedly installed inside the church are no longer in evidence. 
text and facade images © Richard D. Perry.  All rights reserved

for itineraries and full details on the colonial churches of Yucatán, order our classic guide

Friday, April 26, 2013

Water, Water: the Pilas of Oaxaca

As a follow up to our post on the city of Oaxaca, we look at a selection of colonial baptismal and holy water fonts found in regional churches across Oaxaca.

Tiltepec, painted pila
One of our favorite fonts in Oaxaca is this carved and painted example, with shell motifs, relief foliage and Mixtec style serpentine legs from Tiltepec in the Mixteca Alta region.  It is a close copy, or perhaps the model for the very similar pila at the great priory of nearby Yanhuitlan * of which Tiltepec was an early tributary.
Yanhuitlan, baptismal font (Charlotte Ekland)
Zegache, holy water pila
One of the more dramatic examples is this composite "angel" font at Santa Ana Zegache, one of a pair of holy water basins near the entrance incorporating serpentine foliated pedestals.
The true baptismal font in the body of the church is older, boldly carved with foliage and winged angel heads.
Zegache, baptismal font
Ornate angel heads and intricate stylized foliage also decorate this monolithic baptismal font from Cuilapan, another important Dominican priory just outside the city of Oaxaca.

Finally, we show a group of more modestly carved examples from lesser known regional churches.

Papaló, holy water font with rosettes and angel head
San Miguel del Valle, baptismal font with Dominican insignia
Achiutla, holy water basin with shell and sun? motifs
text and images  © Richard D. Perry

* look for our forthcoming posts on Yanhuitlan

Our guide to colonial Oaxaca

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Water, Water: the Fountains of Tochimilco

View of San Francisco Tochimilco (© Felipe Falcón)
Field of Rabbits
The picturesque Franciscan monastery of San Francisco Tochimilco lies on the slopes of the volcano Popocatépetl, in the western foothills of the state of Puebla.
Facade with atrium cross © Niccolo Brooker
The imposing 16th century church is notable for its lofty Plateresque front and arched open chapel, cut from blocks of dark tezontle stone.  A lengthy aqueduct known as Los Arcos, whose sources lay on the upper slopes of the volcano, is linked to the plaza and monastery fountains.
Located in the town plaza below the monastery, the grand octagonal fountain is dated 1560 by an inscription and may be the oldest working 16th century example in Mexico.
Its walled basin is punctuated by water bearing columns prominently capped with pyramidal finials. The main column at its center issues water through multiple spouts and is headed by an inscribed coat-of-arms bearing reliefs of a rabbit, an eagle, and native foliage including agave.
The enigmatic inscription mentions Tecuanipa, a village above Tochimilco higher on the flank of the volcano—possibly the source of much of the water—and also refers to Xiuhtecuhtli, the Aztec fire god, although the water deity Tlaloc might seem more appropriate! 
A second, more modest octagonal fountain stands in the center of the ample cloister.
text and drawing © Richard D. Perry photographs by Felipe Falcón, Niccolo Brooker & others including MIT archives
for more on Tochimilco and the monasteries of Puebla consult our classic guidebook.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Water, Water: The Pilas of Tlaxcala

We resume our series on water with a look at selected fonts and fountains in colonial Mexico:
As we saw in our previous posts, some of the finest 16th century colonial stonework is found in the state of Tlaxcala. Much of the earliest stonework however, consisted of baptismal fonts, the indispensable vessel for the initial rite of religious conversion. 

Here we show a varied group of four fonts from the city of Tlaxcala and two more from the region.
San Francisco de Tlaxcala.  
This plain, monolithic basin is reputed to be the historic font in which the Four Lords of Tlaxcala were baptised in the presence of the conquistador Hernán Cortés.
San Francisco de Tlaxcala.
This unusual squared baptismal font now rests in the convento museum  
San José de Tlaxcala.

This is one of two extraordinary pilas in the parish church. Although the basin is plain, the supporting shaft is a piece of pre hispanic stonework, allegedly depicting Camaxtli, the Aztec god of war and hunting. 
San José de Tlaxcala. 

This companion font stands on a section of a fluted column and rests on a fragment of an early Spanish coat of arms featuring the two headed imperial eagle.

Old stone fonts are found in churches across Tlaxcala.  Two examples can be seen at Tepeyanco and Santa Cruz de Tlaxcala :
San Francisco Tepeyanco, basin incorporating pre hispanic stonework

Santa Cruz de Tlaxcala, angel basin and support
For more on the early colonial monuments of Tlaxcala and Puebla, 
consult our guidebook Mexico's Fortress Monasteries 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Oxtoticpac Two

In this second post on San Nicolas Oxtoticipac, we look at some of the art works inside the church and its adjacent convento.  We start with the convento:

The Convento
The modest 16th century convento was the first permanent structure at Oxtoticpac.  Handsome arcades, now partly encroached upon, with ringed bases and capitals, front the convento, which faces the atrium on the south side of the church.
   On the upper level, recessed behind the wider center arch is the former open chapel, used by the friars for open air services before the church was built.
The monastery doorway opens from the lower arcade, leading to the diminutive cloister with its low colonnades. In the center of the patio stands a venerable stone basin carved with rosettes and rimmed by the Franciscan cord.
   Side rooms contain early murals that show San Nicolás de Bari (San Nicolás Obispo) in the company of archangels with other Franciscan saints and martyrs.
In the murals St Nicholas is shown bareheaded, but wears the Y shaped robe and pallium embroidered with crosses—a mark of his standing as a bishop in the Eastern Orthodox Church.  He holds his traditional golden balls and is accompanied by three children in a tub—whom he reputedly raised from the dead.
courtesy of Marina Heyman
Another, later mural at the top of the narrow stairwell depicts St. Christopher, the bringer of Christ to the New World, who is frequently shown in Mexican Franciscan monasteries. 
   Other murals include a folkloric floral Calvary crucifix.
Baptismal fonts
The lower arcade houses the old baptistry with its original stone font, dated 1570 and carved with monograms of Christ. A partial inscription appears around rim and the font was once painted red and blue.
A second ancient, monolithic stone basin sits precariously atop a pyramidal base emblazoned with a primitive relief of a figure with a plumed headress.
The Church interior
Turning to the church, the nave holds much of its original fabric including the sanctuary arch, decorated like the church doorway with rosettes and cord reliefs.
   It also retains its old wooden floors, which may overlay pre-hispanic structures and tombs as well as the extensive network of subterranean caves or volcanic tubes, as the place name suggests.
Other colonial furnishings include a handsome wooden pulpit and several fine gilded retablos.
The Retablos
Completed in the late 1600s, the gilded main altarpiece of San Nicolás was designed in Renaissance style with the addition of Baroque spiral columns. A profusion of ornament includes carved eagles and angels in addition to floral and "grotesque" motifs. 
   The upper niche showcases a statue of the saint in his bishop's robes and regalia. The Virgin of Guadalupe also appears in the lower niche, flanked by four large canvases depicting her Apparitions on the hill of Tepeyac.
   A second ornamental altarpiece, of intricate anástilo design from the 18th century, also survives in the nave.
text © 2013 Richard D. Perry. photography courtesy of Niccolo Brooker and Marina Heyman

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Oxtoticpac One

In earlier posts we looked at the church of San Nicolás del Obispo in Michoacán.
   Now, in a two part series, we visit another early mission dedicated to St Nicholas, that at Oxtoticpac, located northeast of Mexico City near the ancient city of Teotihuacan.

San Nicolás Oxtoticpac
Oxtoticpac was a visita of Otumba, famous as the scene of an epic battle during the Spanish conquest, in which Cortés defeated a pursuing Aztec army.
   In the colonial period, Oxtoticpac (Above the Caverns) was a mining town, the source of fine-grained volcanic tufa (tezontle) for stonecarving, and later, metal ores.    
   The Franciscans adopted St. Nicholas of Bari as the patron saint of the mission, which was founded in 1527.
Facade doorway;                                     statue of St Nicholas of Bari
The Church
Carved rosettes and the Franciscan cord motif adorn the deep set church doorway - a cousin to the main entry at Otumba. 
   A statue of the robed and mitered St. Nicholas rests in a niche above the doorway, flanked by octagonal ocular windows—later additions, as are the dome and the soaring, multi-tiered bell tower.
The Atrium Cross
A magnificent, twelve foot high cross stands on a high zócalo, or base, just outside the church atrium. Confidently carved with the Instruments of the Passion, it exhibits the high standard of craftmanship that might be expected in this traditional stoneworking center. 
   Rectangular in section with beveled corners, the upper part of the cross is largely plain and smooth on the front and back, apart from tiny holes and scratches in the arms suggesting Wounds
The square pedestal on which the cross is mounted is older than the cross itself. 
   A Ladder and Chalice stand out on the front of the lower shaft, whose sides are chiseled with Passion symbols in sharp, bold relief —suggesting a recarving of the cross, or perhaps even a modern copy.  A striking Skull and Bones relief is flanked on either side by reliefs of a longsleeved, pleated Tunic marked with three triangles—perhaps a reference to the Trinity—and a primitive Angel of the Apocalypse depicted in flight with a windblown Roman skirt and cape.
   Smaller crosses in the corners of the atrium mark the locations of the former processional posa chapels.

atrium cross, Angel of the Apocalypse
text © 2012 Richard D. Perry. photography by Niccolo Brooker & Diana Roberts