Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Altarpieces of Yucatán: Oxkutzcab

Land of Plentiful Tobacco
Nestled against the eastern slope of the Puuc range of hills in western Yucatán, the market town of Oxkutzcab serves a rich agricultural area which produces abundant maize, tropical fruits and, of course, tobacco.
   The historic Franciscan mission stands on an elevated site in the middle of town beside the main plaza. The broad, aisled church is the centerpiece of the mission, its late 17th century facade with classic twin belfries overlooking the teeming marketplace.
The spacious nave with tall, arcaded side aisles has recently been completely restored, its massive arches supporting traditional Yucatecan style log vaults or rollizos.

The Main Altarpiece
The most striking work of art at Oxkutzcab is the magnificent main retablo, lodged in the old open chapel or apse of the church.  It is one of a handful of baroque altarpieces in Yucatan to survive the Revolution and is closely related to the those at Tabi and Yaxcabá. 
   Although repainted in bright colors, the retablo retains its original, strong, sculptural qualities. Four tiers of relief panels and sculpted santos are boldly framed by green and gold Solomonic columns, embellished with twisted vines and capped by Corinthian capitals. The columns support gilded cornices, carved with delicate friezes of angel heads and swirling foliage.
   Six main reliefs illustrate events surrounding the life of the Virgin and the Nativity of Christ: the Marriage of Mary and Joseph, the Annunciation, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi and the Presentation in the Temple.
   Based on European print sources, the carvings have a medieval feeling infused with a strong folk aesthetic; the scenes have a static quality composed of densely grouped figures with stylized poses and draperies, and naive child-like expressions.

An image of the Virgin Mary (La Purísima) occupies the upper niche flanked by reliefs of Franciscan friars unfurling victory banners in the outer compartments.
  The figure of St. Francis stands in the center niche, flanked by statues of Sts. Peter and Paul. John the Baptist appears on the lower tier with the popular Franciscan saint St. Nicholas of Bari, who is often adorned with ex-votos—tokens of thanks for answered prayers.

Along the base tier, panels depicting the Four Evangelists alternate with cartouches of the Four  Doctors of the Latin Church on the column pedestals.

See our map for the location of the retablos in this series

text © 2002, 2014 Richard D. Perry
images © Manfred Schweda, Carlos Reich and Jurgen Putz & Christian Heck
for complete details and suggested itineraries on the colonial monasteries and churches 
of Yucatán, consult our classic guidebook.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Altarpieces of Yucatán: Mocochá

Fraternal Harmony at Mocochá

The attractive church of Asunción Mocochá stands beside a pleasant grove of palm trees, a welcome touch of greenery in the dry landscape of north western Yucatan.
Originally a 16th century visita of the Franciscan monastery at nearby Conkal, the mission at Mocochá was expanded in the late 1600s, primarily as a popular shrine to the Virgin of the Assumption, and the present church constructed with an impressive, two-story camarín mounted behind the main altar to house the venerated image of the Virgin Mary. 

The clean geometry of the plain, square facade is enhanced by a striking pair of classic, triple-tiered espadañas above, accented with pyramidal merlons. Both the main and side doorways are dated 1697 and a tiny stone statue of the praying Virgin adorns a shell niche above the west entry. 
A monolithic limestone font stands inside the church while a handsome carved stone cross is mounted out front—one of the few churchyard examples to survive in Yucatan.
Inside the church, a trio of fine baroque retablos in classic Yucatecan style have been recently stabilized and restored.
The Main Altarpiece
The elegant main altarpiece is similar to those at Tabí and Yaxcabá, rising in three tiers each framed with spiral columns encrusted with grapevines. Richly decorated with swirls of acanthus foliage in green and gold set against a subdued burgundy background, the retablo contains several large canvases of apparently late colonial date. 
   These illustrate scenes from the life of the Virgin, including a dramatic Assumption in the top tier, and an even more theatrical Ascension of Christ in the lower tier.
The Four Evangelists are portrayed in panels on either side of the bottom tier (predella).

The Side Retablos
A matching pair of lateral retablos occupy deep niches on either side of the nave. Designed in a similar style to that of the main altarpiece with spiral columns, they feature contrasting red and gold ornament—as with many other altarpieces in the region
Together they reflect the fraternal ties of the two principal mendicant Orders involved in the evangelization of 16th century Mexico. While often seen as rivals, the Franciscans and Dominicans were ultimately more united than divided in the monumental task of conversion and mission building.
The retablo on the left bears the fleur-de-lis insignia of the Dominican order, together with portraits of prominent Dominicans including St. Dominic and a winged St. Vincent Ferrer.
The retablo opposite is devoted to the Franciscans, the dominant missionary Order in Yucatan. Emblazoned with the Franciscan emblems of the Stigmata and the Cross of Jerusalem in the upper tier, it showcases canvases portraying the popular Franciscan saints Francis of Assisi and Anthony of Padua.

See our map for the location of the retablos in this series
text © 2014 Richard D. Perry. photography by the author

for complete details and suggested itineraries on the colonial monasteries and churches 
of Yucatán, consult our classic guidebook.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Altarpieces of Yucatán: Yaxcabá

San Pedro Yaxcabá
The opulent church at Yaxcabá is one of kind—unlike any other in Mexico. Long before you arrive in town, the triple towers herald its presence, soaring above the treetops like the turrets of some medieval castle.
Yaxcabá was under episcopal control from its earliest days. Unlike the austere friars, the secular clergy developed a taste for luxury and display that reached new heights as the colonial period wore on.  By the time the grand church here was finished in the mid-18th century, the newly rich parishes of the region were competing to build the most lavish church.  Although the architect is unknown, San Pedro Yaxcabá rivals the churches of Mérida in its scale and extraordinary facade. 

 The Altarpieces
The long nave is covered by a barrel vault springing from carved cornices that extend uninterrupted to the sanctuary arch, directing and framing the visitor's gaze towards the splendid main altarpiece in the apse. 
Complementing its imposing architecture, Yaxcabá boasts a variety of baroque altarpieces.
The gilded main retablo is late 17th century in style. Like Tabí it is designed in classic Yucatecan form with painted relief panels set in a framework of vine clad spiral columns and swirling arabesques. 
It has recently been refurbished and lavishly re-gilded. Although officially dedicated to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, the picturesque central relief portrays St. Francis receiving the Stigmata in an uncomplicated folkloric style.
Mitered bishops accompany the Franciscan saint on either side while archangels occupy the upper panels. An energetic St Michael dispatches the chained devil in the crowning pediment flanked by Saints Joachim and Anne, the parents of the Virgin Mary.
Six side retablos stand along the nave, some designed in an ornate if provincial "estípite" baroque style from the mid 1700s.   Those shown here feature elaborately curved pediments and passages of decorative rococo relief decoration, some in blue and white—colors traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary.

See our map for the location of the retablos in this series

text © 2007, 2010 & 2014 Richard D. Perry. Photography by the author,
 Jurgen Putz & Christian Heck

for complete details and suggested itineraries on the colonial monasteries and churches 
of Yucatán, consult our classic guidebook.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Altarpieces of Yucatán: Tabí

In previous posts we looked at the main altarpieces of San Bernardino de Sisal and Tecoh, both fashioned in the late baroque "churrigueresque" or barroco estípite style. 
   Now we turn to retablos in an earlier, more traditional Yucatecan form: the so called "Solomonic" style, distinguished by often ornately carved, painted and gilded spiral columns—named for the legendary Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem from which they were believed to be derived.

The church at Tabí is a historic Marian shrinenear Valladolid in east central Yucatán, (not to be confused with the well known hacienda of the same name near Uxmal.)
   Tabí is home to a remarkable colonial altarpiece.  Located in the apse of the church, this superb retablo features exquisitely carved wooden panels illustrating scenes from the life of the Virgin.  A baroque masterpiece from the early 1700s, it is similar to but, in our opinion, superior to the main altarpiece at the spectacular nearby church of Yaxcabá.

The Main Retablo
For many years this colonial treasure suffered neglect as well as water and insect damage to the point that by the 1990s collapse seemed a distinct possibility. Fortunately plans were soon under way for the stabilization and ultimately, the restoration of this magnificent altarpiece. 

the Tabi altarpiece before and during restoration
Under the direction of Fernando Garcés Fierros of INAH, and with the support of the active Yucatan chapter of Adopte Una Obra del Arte, the project was brought to a successful conclusion in late 2003.
   Outwardly spiraling columns wreathed with vines divide the altarpiece and frame the carved relief panels. Once virtually bereft of their original paint, these have now been colorfully restored, together with the red, gilt and blues that distinguish the rest of the structure. 

The Tabí altarpiece is prototypical of several principal Yucatecan retablos with large narrative panels composed of gilded and painted reliefs—in this case key scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, that include an unusual portrayal of the Assumption in the center, in which the Virgin is transported aloft by various cherubs and angels. 
   This event is flanked by depictions of the Annunciation, her Nativity, the Presentation at the Temple and her Betrothal or Marriage—all portrayed in a vivid and richly detailed popular style.  A relief of the Trinity occupies the crowning pediment.

The restored sequence of painted reliefs along the base (predella) of the retablo depict Peter and Paul in the center flanked by the four Evangelists, each with his symbol, and on the spiral column bases, the four Doctors of the Latin Church—all portrayed in a direct and colorful popular style.
One day in the early 1600s, the astounded villagers of Tabí witnessed an apparition of the Virgin rising from the green waters of the town cenote, formerly sacred to an ancient Mayan water goddess. Soon afterwards, the Virgin miraculously reappeared, this time carrying to safety a horseman whose mount had lost its footing at the brink threatening to plunge him into the depths.
   A painted figure of the miracle-working Virgin of the Assumption soon became the focus of a popular cult here, attracting followers from across the region and leading to the reconstruction of the church and an elevated camarín behind the main altar to house the image of the Virgin.
   During the 19th century Caste War, the inhabitants fled to Sotuta, taking the image with them. Enraged Maya rebels besieged Sotuta, demanding the return of the Virgin in exchange for the lives of the townspeople. 
The Virgin was duly returned to Tabí but disappeared for good during the Mexican Revolution. Some claim the image was removed to Mérida and sold, while folklore has it that she was spirited away by the Maya and is still worshipped in some hidden jungle shrine!

   Although the Virgin has gone, a cycle of elaborate 18th century murals covers the walls of the camarín behind the main altar, where the statue of the Virgin of Tabí formerly rested, and the lost retablo there has been replicated.
See our map for the location of the retablos in this series
text © 2014 Richard D. Perry.  color photography by the author and Niccolò Brooker

for complete details and suggested itineraries on the colonial monasteries and churches 
of Yucatán, consult our classic guidebook. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Altarpieces of Yucatán: Tecoh

So far, our posts on the altarpieces of Yucatán have focused on two of the better known Franciscan churches of the region—those at Mani and San Bernardino de Sisal.  
Forthcoming pages will concentrate on the retablos in some of the less familiar missions of the peninsula, starting with Tecoh.
Located just a few kilometers from the ancient walled city of Mayapán, the gigantic fortress church of Asunción Tecoh is set atop a vast former pyramid and approached via a broad stone stairway that once led up to the Mayan temple which the mission replaced.

Although it began with a small stone chapel, established here in the mid-1550s, the Franciscan mission grew rapidly, terminating with the construction of the grand church in the late 17th century. The arched open chapel of the early mission, with its misshapen dome, is still in use as the present sanctuary. 

The plain, squared facade is animated by a curved baroque gable, flanked by multi-tiered twin towers in the mold of Mérida cathedral. In addition to the high parapets surmounting the nave, the massive walls enclose narrow passageways, or caminos de rondo, with slit-like openings on both sides that overlook the nave interior and the surrounding landscape.

Niccolo Brooker
The Main Retablo

The principal treasure of the church is its late baroque main retablo that fills the east end. 
Similar in style to the main altarpieces of  San Bernardino and Maxcanú, this tall, richly ornamented masterpiece is among the most sumptuous and costly of its kind in Yucatán, painted predominantly red and gold—a favorite regional combination. 

Three tiers of elaborately layered cornices and complex estípite pilasters frame a series of four large paintings—unusual for Yucatán where retablos generally feature reliefs or statuary rather than paintings.
The four panels depict St. John the Baptist and three Archangels and are of considerable historic interest.
While being restored, these paintings were discovered to be works dating from the late 1760s by Miguel Cabrera, Mexico's best known baroque painter.  The painting of the Archangel Raphael bears his signature, and these are the only known works by Cabrera in Yucatán.
Tecoh, the main retablo: before and during restoration
The altarpiece has recently undergone thorough and much needed renovation—part of the ambitious program of altarpiece conservation all across Yucatán. This program involves restoration work on more than 60 endangered art works, including major retablos at Tabi, Yaxcabá and Sotuta, all of which we feature in this series.
    Now restored and reassembled, this magnificent altarpiece resumes its place as the jewel in the crown of Tecoh, and one of finest surviving examples in the region.
Two Side Retablos
In addition to the retablo mayor, there are five restored side altars at Tecoh, two of which are especially strikingBoth are dedicated to the Virgin Mary in her different aspects—one to La Candelaria (left) and the other to La Purísima—and are designed, like the main retablo, in the barroco estípite style, replete with ornate pilasters much decorative scrollwork and finished in classic red and gold. 
   Both are imaginative and dynamic in their design and ornament and, together with the elegant main retablo, the presence of such sophisticated styling and superb craftsmanship further dispels the notion of colonial Yucatecan art as provincial and inferior to that of the metropolis.
See our map for the location of the retablos in this series

text © 1998, 2004 & 2014 by Richard D. Perry. photography by the author and Niccolo Brooker

for complete details and suggested itineraries on the colonial monasteries and churches 

of Yucatán, consult our classic guidebook. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Altarpieces of Yucatan. Mani: along the nave

In our previous post we described in detail an exquisite pair of nave altarpieces by the "Master of Mani."   In our final post on Mani, we look at the remaining retablos in the church.

A second pair of side retablos, although less richly detailed, may be the earliest in the church. Painted dark red and gold, they are framed with Plateresque "baluster and spiral" style columns. Heads with floral "crowns" or capitals appear on some of the columns as well as on the ornamental panels between them.

The altarpiece of Santa Lucia, on the north side of the nave, houses a statue of the saint against a floral backdrop. Her strangely bloodshot eyes recall her reputation as a healer of the blind.   A faded but fine painted relief of St. Joseph with the Christ Child occupies the rounded pediment overhead.

Opposite, the retablo of the Virgin of Light displays a classic tableau of the saint, standing on a cloud of cherub heads, holding a diminutive Christ Child.
The pediment frames a polychrome relief image of St Bernardino of Siena—to whom the retablo was originally dedicated—with the three rejected bishop's miters at his feet.

A fifth retablo, with richly carved shell niches and intricately carved and gilded spiral columns—here wreathed with grapevines and headed with "feathered" capitals—is typical of the "Solomonic" baroque style of the later 1600s.

And a sixth retablo of even later date presents a more ornate profile, fashioned in exuberant 18th century "Churrigueresque" style with its trademark estípite pilasters and rococo flourishes, although still with the red and gold hues favored in Yucatán.
The Franciscan emblems of the Five Wounds and the Jerusalem cross adorn the gable.

See our map for the location of the retablos in this series

text © 2007  & 2014  Richard D. Perry.  All rights reserved.
photography by the author and Robert Hansen

for complete details and suggested itineraries on the colonial monasteries and churches 
of Yucatán, consult our classic guidebook.