Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Altarpieces of Yucatan: the lost retablo mayor of Mérida Cathedral

As a seasonal offering, and as a preview of our forthcoming series on the colonial altarpieces of Yucatán, we update our page on two delightful polychrome reliefs of Nativity scenes—all that survives of the lost altarpiece of Mérida cathedral.
Merida cathedral:  main entry
The Lost Retablo of Mérida Cathedral
During the infamous noche triste of September 24, 1915, an anticlerical mob inflamed by revolutionary zeal burst into Mérida cathedral and set about destroying its priceless contents.
   These included the gilded, 17th century main altarpiece, which was ripped from its supports in the cathedral apse, stripped of its gold leaf, crudely dismembered, then carried out into the street and burned, along with several other side altars.
   Happily, two painted relief panels in a charming, popular style survived the holocaust.  Both panels, beautifully crafted from local mahogany, have been recently restored and illustrate scenes from the Nativity of Christ.  
The Adoration of the Shepherds
One panel, depicting the Adoration of the Shepherds, is currently on display in the new Mérida City Museum. Although the infant Jesus and a cherub have sadly lost their heads, the other rustic figures are expressively portrayed.
The Adoration of the Magi
The second relief, now in the collection of the site museum at Dzibilchaltún, illustrates the scene of the Adoration of the Magi, or Three Kings, rendered as an affecting folk tableau.
   The Holy Family is shown facing the richly costumed Three Kings, whose hands, once holding their gifts, are now missing. The figures are simply but sympathetically depicted against a classical architectural background.
   Note the folkloric touch of the heads of the ox and ass poking out between pilasters reminiscent of the cathedral portals.

text and photography ©2012 Richard D. Perry  

Merida cathedral doorway courtesy of Jim Cook

Mérida cathedral
An authoritative new history of the cathedral was recently published 
by Miguel Bretos, the pre-eminent scholar of colonial Yucatán.

For complete details of the arts of colonial Yucatán and suggested travel itineraries  
consult our updated guidebook

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Mexican Crosses: San Pedro Martir

San Pedro Martir
For the last of our present series on the crosses of Mexico City, we look at the church of San Pedro de Verona, located close to Santo Tomás Ajusco, which boasts an atrium cross whose flamboyant finials take the regional fleur-de-lis style to an extreme.
The swirling crown of thorns at the crossing encloses an octofoil rosette at center and is framed by the luxuriant curves of the finials that, in effect, substitute for the arms and head of the cross.
photo © Diana Roberts
text © 2013 Richard Perry, images by the author except where noted.  All rights reserved

Crosses in this series: 
Coyoacán; Axotla; Chimalistac; Mixcoac; Atoyac; Huipulco; 
Sto Tomás Ajusco, San Pedro de Verona, San Pedro de Verona.
Look for our forthcoming guide to Mexican Stone Crosses

Friday, December 20, 2013

Mexican Crosses: Santo Tomás Ajusco

Santo Tomás Ajusco
Gushing Water

Recessed behind its large, walled atrium set beside winding Calle Matamoros on the chilly heights above Tlalpan, in the southern reaches of Mexico City, the church of St. Thomas displays its rugged front of irregular red tezontle.
                            Ajusco, the atrium cross; front.                              reverse side

The Atrium Cross
Facing north and mounted on a high octagonal base in front of the church, this complex 17th century cross is perched atop a large globe pedestal.  The base is partly hollow at the front, with an arched opening for offerings.

A cross-within-a-cross design is incised on both sides of the stunted arms and shaft into which deep Wound holes are drilled. On the front, a pinwheel like woven Crown stands out at the crossing, its recessed center once perhaps inlaid with obsidian. 

Broad arrowheads radiate out from the arms to wildly gushing fleur de lis finials which are tipped with delicate rosettes.  Although now eroded, with some of their fine detail lost, these outsized finials represent the apogee of the exuberant foliated style of the region.
A modern, decorative cross in a different style can be found at 
neighboring San Miguel Ajusco.

text © 2013 Richard D. Perry.  
photographic images by Diana Roberts, Eleanor Wake, Alejandro Linares Garcia

Look for our forthcoming guide to Mexican Stone Crosses

Monday, December 16, 2013

Mexican Crosses: Huipulco

San Lorenzo Huipulco
Place of the Sacrificial Spines

Located where Coyoacán meets Tlalpan in the southern part of Mexico City, the modest 17th century chapel at Huipulco, currently painted in yellow ocher, has been overshadowed by the adjacent construction of a modernistic, red roofed church.

The Atrium Cross
However, the old atrium cross survives along with the repainted chapel. Now embedded in a raised pedestal in front of the old chapel, it looks almost like a cross designed by Dali.

The elongated, rectangular shaft of the cross is quite plain, but the main features of the cross are of a piece with other stone crosses in this area: an outsized but now eroded Crown of Thorns at the crossing and especially the exaggerated, but drooping foliated finials sprouting from the shortened arms and head.

Floral reliefs on the tips of either arm open their four petals to reveal a cluster of stamens in the center—a finely observed detail. They have been altered over time, however, and today it is difficult to determine their original appearance. The arm finials are slightly mismatched and different in design from the head.

However, a separate finial, capped with an INRI plaque, currently rests at the side of the atrium. As photographs from the 1930's reveal, this may have been the original surmounting element of the cross.
text and drawings © 2013 Richard D Perry  All rights reserved.  b/w photograph © INAH
Look for our forthcoming guide to Mexican Stone Crosses

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Mexican Crosses: Atoyac

Santa Cruz Atoyac
Beside the River
This 16th century chapel, formerly a visita of neighboring Coyoacán, features an elegantly carved porch of mauve volcanic tezontle whose broad arched doorway is outlined by a knotted cord and relief rosettes.
The doorway is surmounted by a high alfiz studded with medallions of Maltese or Jerusalem crosses (the church is dedicated to Santa Cruz de Jerusalén)—a style of cross associated with the Franciscan order.
Framed by a stylized, crown of thorns border, the Franciscan emblem of the Stigmata with three nails is emblazoned overhead.
The Atrium Cross
Known locally as the Jerusalem Cross, this tall, octagonal cross stands atop an artificial concrete mound set in front of the church. Similar in style to Chimalistac, it has minimal arms and neck, but like the Mixcoac cross, prominent, sharply contoured fleur-de-lis finials sprout from the arms and head of the cross.
   As with other local crosses, no Instruments or other Passion symbols appear on the cross itself, aside from a huge, complex Crown of Thorns that projects in high relief at the crossing—an innovation seen in other area examples.
Like others in the area, too, the foot of the cross stands on a carved base: in this case, a box pedestal emblazoned with the Franciscan emblem of the Five Wounds on three sides and a crude Skull and Bones on the main face—the bones placed vertically on either side of the skull as at Axotla.
And like Chimalistac, a revered colonial pasta de caña crucifix—controversially newly restored—occupies a place of honor inside the church.

text © 2013 Richard D. Perry.  pictures by the author and Niccolo Brooker
Look for our forthcoming guide to Mexican Stone Crosses

Monday, December 9, 2013

Mexican Crosses: Mixcoac

Shrine of the Cloud Serpent
Located in the southern part of the city, also not far from Coyoacán, the imposing church of San Juan y Guadalupe—reputedly designed by Pedro de Arrieta, the prominent Mexico City architect and master of works at the Cathedral—presents an ornate 18th century front showcasing a grand bas relief of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The Atrium Cross
The atrium cross at Mixcoac is of medium size and rectangular in section. It is set on a brick base beside the large garden in front of the church which it predates. 
   It follows the regional pattern of crosses, with prominent, curling, fleur-de-lis finials capping the arms and head. A unique embellishment here is the attachment to the extremities of each finial of three pomas, or large pearls, of which unfortunately only five of the original nine now remain. 
   As with its neighbors, no major Passion reliefs appear apart from an interwoven, spiny Crown of Thorns prominently placed at the crossing, although three inconspicuous Wound holes have been drilled on the arms and lower shaft; these house spikes used to attach seasonal decorations.
Like those at Axotla and Chimalistac, the unusual pedestal at the foot of the cross is a feature of particular interest, enfolded with feathery motifs on each corner—reminiscent of the pre-hispanic serpent bases found on several 16th century crosses and fonts, and possibly of Aztec origin.
Another pre hispanic survival is the holy water font, formerly inside the church, probably a cuauhxicalli basin, inscribed with the Fifth Sun among other Aztec motifs.

text and images © 2013 Richard D. Perry
Look for our forthcoming guide to Mexican Stone Crosses

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Mexican crosses: Chimalistac

Carved White Shields
Dedicated like Axotla to St. Sebastián, Chimalistac was originally founded as a retreat for Augustinian friars and remains one of the most delightful churches in the Coyoacán area of Mexico City, enjoying a rustic setting with trees, bridges and a fountain.
   Originally a simple one room chapel, its shallow transverse nave was a later addition, which provides a broad viewpoint for the splendid, late baroque, gilded retablo behind the main altar, on which is displayed a statue of the patron saint and martyr.

Although encroached upon by the surrounding city, Chimalistac retains its long tree-lined atrium that frames the approach to the church.
An exceptionally tall stone cross stands in the center of the walk that bisects the atrium. Probably dating from the early 17th century, it is closely styled on the Coyoacán and Axotla crosses.
  Octagonal in section, with a segmented shaft and shortened arms, it bears no reliefs other than a stylized crown of thorns made up of carved beads at the crossing. A single drilled hole in the lower shaft may represent one of Christ's wounds.
The arms and head are tipped with petaled, fleur-de-lis finials as at Axotla but more fully developed,  although much less extravagant than other crosses in this area at Huipulco, San Pedro Martir or Ajusco.
   As at Axotla and neighboring Mixcoac, a most interesting feature is the worn pedestal supporting the cross, here incised with bones against a serpentine, zig-zag leaf pattern of possible pre-hispanic inspiration.
Inside the church, in addition to the gilded altarpiece there also hangs another exceptional colonial artifact—a fine early cristo de caña or lightweight processional crucifix.
text and images © 2013 Richard D. Perry
Look for our forthcoming guide to Mexican Stone Crosses

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mexican crosses: Axotla

San Sebastián Martir Axotla
Where Lizards Roam
Hidden away in the southern part of Mexico City near Coyoacán, San Sebastián Axotla is a small gem of a church—a leafy oasis of tranquility in the teeming surrounding metropolis.
   The church is primarily distinguished by its superb 16th century arched doorway, robustly sculpted in tequitqui style with luxuriant, spiky foliage that may reflect the horticultural heritage of this ancient barrio.
   Franciscan insignia, including the Stigmata and the knotted cord, recall its origins as an early foundation of the Seraphic Order. And woven into the roundel relief at the center of the arch are the initials of the patron saint (SSM)
Beyond the broad entry gateway, two stone crosses stand in the narrow, garden like atrium in front of the church, although neither is as lavishly carved as the doorway.

The octagonal atrium cross, simply adorned with a wreath like Crown at the axis, is clearly derived from the Coyoacán cross but with more pronounced finials.  The chamfered lower shaft rests on a rectangular pedestal carved with worn reliefs of a primitive, toothy Skull and Bones.
There are no other reliefs beyond the sprouting leaves of the corona like finials, here decorated at their tips with whirling stars—a motif that has been linked to the huacalxochitl (basket flower) an important indigenous ceremonial plant and hallucinogen.
A second cross, mounted against the side wall of the atrium, is a newer, smaller version of the principal cross with minimal finials, set on a pedestal ornamented with fleurs de lis
text and images © 2013 Richard D. Perry
Look for our forthcoming guide to Mexican Stone Crosses

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Mexican Crosses: Coyoacán

In earlier posts we looked at selected Mexican crosses in Michoacán and Querétaro as well as, more recently, several among the Metztitlan visitas.  
     We follow these up with a new series in which we describe a related group of carved stone crosses located in the southern areas of Mexico City.
     Many of these crosses may be traced stylistically to the early atrium cross at Coyoacán, the principal Franciscan monastery of the region.

Place of the Coyote People
The great monastery of San Juan Bautista Coyoacán was one of the largest and most important in the Valley of Mexico, favored by famous local residents, including the conquistador Hernán Cortés, and administered at different times by both Franciscans and Dominicans.

The surviving atrium cross, placed in front of the church, is among the most austere in the area. Mounted on a plinth composed of former column sections, the cross faces away from the church facade towards the extensive Jardín de Hidalgo—the former monastery atrium.

Its basic configuration however, provided a template for other crosses in the southern area of the city,then a loosely connected network of  mission towns and villages—a form that was expanded upon and embellished in numerous regional examples—several of which we explore in our upcoming posts.
Coyoacán: the atrium cross, upper front
While both the shaft and crosspiece are octagonal in section, the head of the cross is a mere stump, terminating, like the arms, in a swallowtail like configuration that prefigures the more exuberant finials that characterize the other area crosses. 
     Aside from the worn Crown of Thorns at the axis and the Wounds on each arm—little more than holes with metal spikes protruding outward at an angle—there are no other discernable carvings.
text and cross images © 2013 Richard D. Perry
Look for our forthcoming guide to Mexican Stone Crosses