Monday, May 27, 2013

Yanhuitlan: the convento

To conclude our series on Yanhuitlan, we look at the convento and its various components.

Yanhuitlan convento entrance porteria (before restoration)
Yanhuitlan convento entrance porteria  (2012)
A huge basket handle archway, set at the top of a broad flight of stone steps beside the church, spans the stage-like portería, which may have functioned as an open chapel in the early years of the monastery. 
convento entry (Ramón Moreno Rodríguez)
At its rear, relief rosettes and urns frame the entry to the convento, which is surmounted by the Dominican cross and emblazoned with the motto of the Order, “Therefore We Preach Christ Crucified.” 

cloister before restoration                                 cloister today

The restored two-story cloister is the heart of the convento. Although the ancient cypress tree that once shaded the patio has been replaced by a tiled compass pattern, the stone-flagged walks still offer a traditional haven for meditation, despite having lost much of their ancient patina.

Finely carved stonework distinguishes the elegant lower cloister. Smoothly molded arcades rest on compound piers of Doric half columns, faced with sturdy prow buttresses. Ribbed vaults cover the five bays on each side, increasing in complexity above the corner compartments. 
   As in the church, the vaults spring from rounded corbels set in a running cornice along the inner walls. Diminutive roof bosses, carved with the eight-pointed Dominican star, are recessed into the ceiling at each corner. Large, rosette-studded niches at the end of each walk formerly housed sacred images for the contemplation of the friars as they perambulated the cloister.

From the entry vestibule, a monumental stone staircase winds around the adjacent stairwell, its heavy stone rail topped with globes and fleur-de-lis finials.

A striking fresco of St. Christopher stands above the stairs—the only intact mural to survive in the convento. Carrying the Christ Child on his shoulder, the saint strides from the stormy torrent, observed by a diminutive friar holding out a lantern—a portrait, according to local lore, of Fray Bernardino de Minaya, the pioneering Oaxacan missionary.
Notwithstanding its awkward bodily proportions and the rigid folds of the saint’s drapery and pantaloons—in contrast to the elegant statue of the saint in the church—the mural projects an iconic force.

Two wall confessionals, their openings also outlined with bands of rosettes, link church and cloister along the north walk. And on the east walk, a noble pedimented doorway with unusual spiral pedestals originally gave access to the Sagrario Chapel. 

Sagrario Chapel, Descent from the Cross  (Felipe Falcón)
At the far end of this long, dimly-lit chapel is a rare painted altarpiece reputedly carved entirely from alabaster, or Mexican onyx. 
Framed in the Dominican fashion with slender baluster columns and a flattened arch ornamented with rosettes, the central relief depicts the Descent from the Cross—an insistent motif at Yanhuitlan. 
St. John and the Three Marys mourn the dead Christ, whose limp body is gently lowered by turbanned figures. Despite its somewhat stilted, two-dimensional aspect—a reflection of the Italian engraving from which the anonymous native sculptor worked—this tableau achieves great expressive power. 

upper cloister, cell relief  (Roberta Christie)

Built of brick, the upper cloister walks have wood beamed ceilings instead of stone vaults. Rows of friars’ cells open off the corridors behind the walks. Although the partitions between most of the cells are gone, some of the picturesque window seats remain. 

Dominican insignia are carved on the lintels of each cell doorway and include such emblems as the hand of St. Catherine of Siena holding the heart of Christ, St. Thomas Aquinas holding a church and book, and the Five Wounds of Christ superimposed on the Cross of Alcántara. 
Death Enthroned
The reinstalled museum, in the long gallery to the right of the entrance foyer, displays an extraordinary collection of religious artifacts, including painted wooden angels belonging to the barrio chapels of Yanhuitlan. 
One of the most evocative of the figures in the collection is the macabre image of Death Enthroned. Fashioned in part from a human skeleton, it is a powerful artifact of the folk imagination.
costumed barrio angels in Yanhuitlan's Easter Procession (photo Alessia Frassani)
The town of Yanhuitlan has eight traditional barrios, each with its special image of Christ under the care of a religious confraternity.  These are lightweight cristos de caña, designed to be carried in procession on special feast days with its accompanying statue of an archangel. Some of these cristos and angels are in the museum, and two stand in the church. 
The most famous of these figures, El Señor de Ayuxi—patron of the principal religious fiesta in Yanhuitlan—resides in the barrio chapel of El Calvario, located north of the monastery. 

For more on the barrio angels of Yanhuitlan see Alessia Frassani's web site

text © 2006 & 2013 Richard D. Perry.  Images by the author except where noted.

For more on Yanhuitlan and the colonial churches of Oaxaca, consult our illustrated guide book.

Look for our future posts on the church of San Felipe Neri in the city of Oaxaca.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Yanhuitlan: the church

In an earlier post we described the altarpieces inside the church. Here we consider some of its other treasures:

The dimensions of the Yanhuitlan nave are audacious for earthquake country—over 200 feet long, almost 60 feet wide, and a breathtaking 100 feet in height. 
Majestic Gothic vaults cover the three main bays of the nave and the choir, reinforced by clusters of ribs which spring from huge drum corbels embedded in a layered running cornice that encircles the nave. 

photograph  by Rodrigo Baldivia

A vast raised choir dominates the west end of the church. Beneath the choir is an exquisitely crafted alfarje, or wooden artesonado ceiling. Recently restored, it is one of a handful of surviving 16th century examples in Mexico. 
  Carved entirely of cedar, the complex mudéjar pattern is composed of alternating hexagonal and diamond-shaped modules, or casetonesEach recessed module is built up from richly carved and painted moldings, creating a densely textured tapestry. 
  A pendant carved in the form of a delicate rosette hangs from the center of each hexagon. 

photograph by Charlotte Ekland
The baptistry is also rib-vaulted and contains a monolithic font of striking design. 
While its stone basin is conventionally carved with foliage and Dominican rosettes, it stands on a fluted shaft supported by four corner legs in the form of plumed serpents devouring each other—a pre-hispanic motif referring to the four cardinal directions. 


A magnificent baroque organ stands on a giant pillar beside the choir. This ornate 18th century instrument has recently been restored to playable condition and during recitals, the church is filled with music not heard here for over 200 years.

text and images © Richard D. Perry, except where noted

for more on Yanhuitlan and the colonial churches of Oaxaca, consult our illustrated guide book

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Yanhuitlan: the altarpieces

For our second post on Yanhuitlan we look inside the church, which holds an extraordinary assemblage of colonial art. We focus first on the altarpieces which display a range of styles that span the viceregal era.
Yanhuitlan, the apse and retablo mayor

The lofty main retablo is one of the great masterpieces of Mexican art, towering 70 feet to almost touch the coffered vault of the apse. Having suffered serious deterioration, the retablo structure was recently stabilized and strengthened, and restoration of the framework, paintings and sculptures is near completion.
apsidal arch: relief figure of archangel

A majestic coffered half dome covers the apse. Each coffer contains an eight-pointed golden star—the celestial symbol of St. Dominic—shining forth against the dark blue of the vault.
   The broad triumphal arch framing the sanctuary is exuberantly ornamented with ornate stucco reliefs, probably executed in the early years of the 17th century by Pueblan artisans. The figures of St. Peter, St. Paul and several archangels emerge from a web of interwoven strapwork.
   The magnificent altarpiece presents a screen-like profile with lateral wings projecting outwards to the nave. In the 17th century, the original 16th century frame was remodeled in baroque style, with spiral columns of twisted vines, shell niches and a profusion of ornate scrollwork and carved foliage. Gilded columns divide the retablo into seven vertical bands, or calles, with alternating paintings and sculptures, which mostly date from the earlier, 16th century altarpiece. 
   The principal paintings have been identified as the work of Andrés de Concha, the celebrated painter, sculptor and designer from Seville who traveled to Mexico in 1568, under commission by the encomendero Gonzalo de Las Casas to supervise the creation and installation of the altarpiece. (Before and after completing the Yanhuitlan altarpiece in 1579, De Concha worked extensively in Oaxaca, on retablos for Teposcolula, Coixtlahuaca, Tamazulapan, Tlaxiaco as well as later for Santo Domingo and the cathedral in the city Oaxaca, often in collaboration with the Flemish artist, Simon Pereyns.)  De Concha painted in the Mannerist style of the Andalusian school, noted for its subtly mellow colors. The paintings at Yanhuitlan are considered the earliest, the most complete, and the finest of his Mexican oeuvre. Their Renaissance composition is enlivened with hints of baroque drama in the realistic Spanish manner.
   Among the 13 panels, now largely cleaned and restored, we find familiar episodes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin placed broadly in chronological order as they rise, although some may have been misplaced during later changes to the altarpiece. The subjects are compelling, and the figures are grouped to create dramatic intensity with attention paid to facial expressions and graceful gestures. 
The penitential saints Jerome and a langorous Mary Magdalene appear on the base panel, or predella. 
On the first tier above the predella, a theatrical Annunciation scene contrasts an energetic Archangel Gabriel, bedecked in flying drapery, with the serene figure of the Virgin Mary at prayer. 
Adoration of the Shepherds (before restoration)
The Adoration of the Shepherds, on the right, captures the awe of the rustics, who gaze upon the Christ Child floating in the foreground. One of the shepherds is wearing Indian sandals. By way of contrast, the Adoration of the Magi on the next tier portrays splendid personages in luxurious costumes.
    On the third tier the themes shift from Christ's birth to events following his death with depictions of the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost.
Virgin of the Rosary (as restored by INAH)
The panels on the fourth level include a luminous Virgin of the Rosary, ringed by miniatures of the Mysteries of the Rosary. Among the pious worshippers assembled at her feet are  members of Spanish colonial society. The church hierarchy is to the left, including the pope, a bishop and a Dominican friar. The remains of Gonzalo de Las Casas and his family, the benefactors of Yanhuitlan, reputedly rest in niches behind the retablo.
Last Judgment (as restored by INAH)

The Last Judgment opposite, which may once have occupied top tier, has a Michelangelesque dynamism made even more dramatic by its brilliant Mannerist coloration.
Descent from the Cross (as restored by INAH)

The sinuous Descent from the Cross at the top of the altarpiece was recently cleaned and is now revealed as another masterwork. The rigid body of Christ is lowered from the cross to the grief stricken Mary at his feet. Subtle, melancholy hues predominate.
   Sixteen handsome statues, monumentally carved in dignified poses and set in shell niches, complement the paintings.  The figures come in fours: the Four Evangelists, the Four Founders of the religious orders, the Four Doctors and the Four Fathers of the Latin Church. St. Dominic, the patron saint of Yanhuitlan, stands alone at the top. 
   Attributed to Simon Pereyns, the hands and faces are expressively detailed, although the brilliant estofado treatment of the draperies may be the result of later retouching.
retablo of La Soledad (©Felipe Falcón)
No less than ten side altarpieces, large and small, and in varying states of repair line the nave. They run the gamut of colonial styles from Plateresque to Churrigueresque. The altarpiece of La Soledad (The Virgin of Sorrows) is thought to be the work of de Concha, as may be its graceful statue of St Christopher (sans staff and Christ Child.)
statue of St Christopher (Richard Stracke)
text and images © Richard D Perry, except where noted

We would like to acknowledge the wonderful scholarly work done recently 
on Yanhuitlan by Alessia Frassani 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Yanhuitlan: the exterior

This post initiates our series on the magnificent Dominican priory of  Santo Domingo Yanhuitlan, in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca. The founding, subsequent building and furnishing of the church and convento, and their maintenance was a collaborative enterprise between the Dominicans, the local Spanish officials and the native Mixtec elite of Yanhuitlan. 
   Our focus will be on the imposing architecture as well as the rich variety of colonial works of art housed within its walls. We look first at the imposing exterior of the venerable church.

Isolated atop a pre hispanic temple platform, Yanhuitlan was singled out by art historian John McAndrew as “the handsomest sixteenth century church in Mexico.” 
The choice of a former temple site for the monastery served to dramatize the triumph of the Christian religion and, not incidentally, take advantage of existing foundations and building stone. 
   As might be expected in a building that took almost a century to complete, the architecture of the monastery is a fascinating stylistic mix of elements shared by other Dominican houses in Oaxaca. The main influence is that of the Spanish Plateresque, a fusion of Renaissance forms with late Gothic and Moorish elements, leavened here with baroque additions.

The formidable exterior has the look of a medieval citadel, fortified against the ever present risk of earthquake. Stepped, pierced buttresses brace the rugged walls and the great rounded apse. 
photograph © by Felipe Falcón

Arched windows with Gothic tracery are cut into the lofty nave, which is covered by handsome ribbed vaults. The mercurial stonework seems to change color with the weather and the time of day: sometimes chocolate brown or pinkish white, at other times greenish gold. 
photograph © by Felipe Falcón
The West Front
The sober baroque facade we see today is not the original one. It was superimposed on an earlier Plateresque front, probably after an earthquake in the early 1600s. 
In fact, remnants of the original facade including its coffered diamante doorframe are still in place, masked by the present one; two arched upper openings, similar to those of the unfinished west facade at Cuilapan—another grand Oaxacan priory—are now visible from the choir.

Yanhuitlan, old doorway;                                                                    Cuilapan, west front

The present "retablo" style facade follows the pattern established by the west front of Santo Domingo de Oaxaca. Confined between plain tower bases, its three tiers are cleanly outlined by classical orders of columns and pilasters. In each tier, the center section is emphasized, flanked by sculpture niches in the outer compartments. 

photograph © by Felipe Falcón
A diamond paneled arch with fleurs-de-lis outlines the main doorway, its ornate shell like keystone carved with a book symbolizing the Gospel. Dominican dogs with curly ears and tails hold up torches on the pedestals of the flanking Tuscan columns, and statues of St. Francis and St. Catherine of Siena occupy the lower niches. Intervening spaces are carved with shells and intricate scrolls and tendrils in a popular style, reminiscent of those adorning Oaxaca Cathedral—another replaced facade.

Above the doorway, a boldly carved relief in a cruciform frame depicts the Virgin of Mercy with the Christ Child sheltering St. Dominic and St. Catherine beneath her ample cloak. Chubby cherubs add to its naive charm. The upper facade terminates in an ornate, curved pediment—an 18th century addition, as is the recently strengthened bell tower. 

The North Doorway 
Now handsomely restored, the elegant north portal is the most sophisticated Plateresque facade in Oaxaca, closely related to the unfinished north doorway at Cuilapan. Although conceived on a grander scale, it may well be the work of the same designer, the Portuguese sculptor Antonio de Barbosa.
   The design skilfully manipulates the door-within-a-door motif. Giant candelabra columns, with bulbous, urn-like sections piled one upon another and headed by rosette-studded capitals, frame the portal and continue above the upper cornice to embrace the Gothic tracery of the nave window.

    The inner doorway echoes the outer pattern. Fluted Corinthian columns rise on either side, while rows of coffered panels radiate around its basket handle arch—a classic Dominican motif. The scalloped pediment above is also flanked by candelabra pinnacles. 
   Although the medallions in the spandrels are blank—probably intended to bear the Dominican cross—the escutcheons beside the pediment are intricately carved with armorial plumed helmets, possibly the crest of the Las Casas family—the encomenderos of Yanhuitlan.

Cuilapan, the unfinished north doorway

text and drawings © Richard D. Perry. 
Photography by the author, Felipe Falcón and others
 For more on Yanhuitlan, Cuilapan and the arts of colonial Oaxaca order our guidebook