Saturday, January 31, 2015

Stone Retablos: La Castrense, New Mexico

In earlier posts in this series we featured the stone altarpieces at San José Chiapa, Puebla Cathedral, Guadalupe in Aguascalientes, Chihuahua cathedral and San Pablo El Viejo in Mexico City.  
   Although it is beyond our usual purview, we now look at another exceptional stone altarpiece, this time across the border in New Mexico.
© Niccolò Brooker
La Castrense Altarpiece
In 1756, the Spanish military engineer and cartographer Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco was brought to Santa Fé by Governor Francisco Antonio Marín del Valle, to create a detailed map* of the province.  This was duly published two years later—a brilliant achievement.
   In addition to his other skills, Miera y Pacheco was also a sculptor and designer with knowledge of contemporary artistic currents in Mexico, and soon after his map making project, he started work on this remarkable altarpiece—a monumental work unique in the religious art of New Mexico.  
  Carved entirely from three enormous slabs of locally quarried limestone, it was completed in 1761 for the new military chapel of La Castrense, in downtown Santa Fé—another pet project of the governor.  
   This chapel, dedicated to Our Lady of Light, fell into disrepair and in 1859 was demolished, when its great retablo was moved to the cathedral, only to be later dismantled. 
   Rescued from storage and reassembled in the 1930s, it now resides in the nearby church of El Cristo Rey, where it is dramatically lit by the afternoon sun through transverse clerestory windows above the sanctuary—a distinctive New Mexico architectural feature.
Still in a good state of preservation, the altarpiece follows the orderly pattern of Mexican baroque retablo design in the late colonial period, in which images of saints—often paintings but in this case carved, painted reliefs—are displayed in tiers and framed by decorative columns or supports. 
   Here the supports take the form of bulbous estípite pilasters, a signature feature of many mid 18th century Mexican altarpieces, some incorporating busts and caryatids, some with three heads and others with native features.
Angels with cornucopia occupy the gable ends while bands of foliated ornament adorn the cornices and intervening spaces throughout. Numerous traces of pigment in the reliefs indicate that the altarpiece was once brilliantly colored.
Our Lady of Light
The Imagery
Iconographically the altarpiece also holds much of interest. Today the retablo is still officially dedicated to Our Lady of Light, whose cult, promoted by the Jesuits, enjoyed a great vogue in Mexico and the borderlands after the mid-1700s.
   The stone relief image appears in an octagonal frame in the lower center niche. Its washed out appearance and poor fit in the niche are due to the fact that the relief was originally placed in the facade of the chapel and saved before its demolition. Later it was placed in the lower niche, which formerly held a statue.
   Our Lady of Light is portrayed in her classic pose: accompanied on one side by an angel holding up a basket of flaming hearts to the infant Jesus, and on the other rescuing a youth from the jaws of hell.
   Although cracked and weathered, the relief has a more sophisticated, if conventional appearance than the other, more folkloric reliefs, although with less character to the eye of this viewer, suggesting a later, possibly post colonial date.
Santiago Matamoros
Above her in the center is another large relief, similarly framed, depicting Santiago Matamoros, the warlike patron of Reconquest Spain—an appropriate figure to appear in a military chapel
   Mounted, with sword and banner, the saint smites turbanned Moors beneath his horse's hooves.  Note the shell on his saddle blanket, the traditional symbol of his peaceable alter ego Santiago Peregrino. 
Our Lady of Valvanera
Perhaps the most interesting image in the retablo is a relief in the middle of the top tier depicting Our Lady of Valvanera—a rarely shown advocation of the Virgin Mary, especially in New Mexico, and possibly a patron of the governor's wife, María Ygnacia Martínez de Ugarte.
   Although her customary visual attributes are complex and variable, here she is shown sheltering in an oak tree seated on an eagle throne. The Virgin is crowned, along with the young Christ who holds an open book.  In her other hand she holds a flowering heart.  
   Other details include a beehive on the top right and below it the figures of an angel appearing to a hermit—the repentant thief who, according to legend, encountered the miraculous image in a tree while looking for honey and left an offering of his ill gotten gains, an open coffer of jewelry, at her feet (lower right).
   In the crowning pediment, God the Father, complete with triple tiara and orb, gestures in benediction.  
                                  St. Joseph;                    St. Francis Solano baptizing natives

St. Ignatius Loyola                                 St. John Nepomuk
The remaining relief figures include St. Joseph, a Franciscan favorite and the Franciscan St. Francis Solano, together with Jesuit saints Ignatius Loyola and John Nepomuk.
The presence of Franciscan and Jesuit saints in the same altarpiece may reflect the conflict or power struggle raging between the two missionary Orders in the borderlands at that time—a conflict that was settled when the Jesuits were summarily expelled from the New World in 1767 and their missions transferred to the Franciscans.

The altarpiece bears the following inscription:
“A devoción de Señor Don Francisco Antonio Marín del Valle, Gobernador y Capitán General de este Reino ... Y de su esposa María Ygnacia Martínez de Ugarte, 1761.” 

Aside from its intrinsic historical and artistic interest, this spectacular altarpiece and its imagery are believed to have inspired many later santeros in New Mexico.
1758 map of New Mexico by Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco
  • text © 2015 by Richard D. Perry.  color images © Robert Guess except where noted.
  • Thanks to our friend Ginny Guess for bringing this retablo to our attention 
  • And to Mike Lord of Voces de Santa Fe for his helpful assistance.
  • Much of the information for this post came from an article by an eminent art historian, the late Pal Kelemen, “The Significance of the Stone Retable of Cristo Rey,” El Palacio, Vol 61, No. 8, 1954: 243-273

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Stone Retablos: San Pablo El Viejo, Mexico City

The only documented stone retablo in Mexico City is that in the former church of San Pablo El Viejo, located in the historic Merced quarter of the city—reputedly originally founded as a barrio chapel by the pioneering Franciscan Pedro de Gante.
   After secularization and abandonment in the 1800s, the 16th century church was used as an adjunct to the adjacent Hospital de Jesus before narrowly escaping demolition in the 1900s.  Following repairs and strengthening, the nave is now used as the hospital auditorium.
* photograph of the San Pablo retablo by Guillermo Kahlo (father of Frida Kahlo)
The retablo reportedly remains in place and takes the form of ornamental stone relief decoration against a side wall of the nave. 
   Because the wall supplies the essential structure, aside from the arcade in front of the center niche there are no traditional support elements in the design. As a result the retablo might be classified stylistically as an example of the highly decorative anástilo phase of the late baroque. 
(updated photograph to follow)

* published in Gerardo Murillo’s monumental Iglesias de México, vol 5 (Altares). (Mexico, 1924-27)

text © 2015 Richard D Perry.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Stone Retablos: El Santuario de Guadalupe, Aguascalientes

El Santuario de Guadalupe
Located on Guadalupe St, in the barrio of the same name close to the historic center of Aguascalientes, the Santuario of Guadalupe is considered one of the most important and original of all the city churches. 
   It may be the most fully realized, as well as the most ornate, of Felipe de Ureña’s architectural projects in Mexico.  Construction began in 1767 but was not completed until after Felipe's death in 1777, under the hand of his son Francisco Bruno.    
   Nevertheless, he drew up the plans, designed the facade and probably most other ornamental details, inside and out, as well as personally supervising much of the early construction. 
Like other altarpieces in this series, there have been changes over the years. With son-in-law Juan García de Castañeda, Felipe also designed and fabricated the main wooden altarpiece, which was tragically destroyed in the 1800s and replaced by a dull neoclassical altar. 
   This in turn was replaced in the early 1900s by an expansive replica in stone and stucco, approximating Ureña's original design, by architect Refugio Reyes, who later added many features in felipense style.  It was reinstalled (reworked?) in the 1970s by the prolific architect and architectural historian Victor Manuel Villegas
   Even in this broad replica we can recognize the classic Ureña lines: a wide center pavilion, here showcasing the Alcíbar panel, flanked by giant pairs of estípite columns/pilasters enclosing ornamental shell niches, now empty.  
   This motif is repeated on a smaller scale in the crowning gable.  Although the original dramatic effect of painted baroque statuary against glowing, gilded wood has been lost, the masterly deployment of sumptuous but controlled ornament in a coherent design remains.  
Today the sole surviving fragment of the original Ureña altarpiece is the 1777 painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe by José de Alcíbar.
Look for our forthcoming posts on more Ureña retablos

text and images © 2015 Richard D. Perry

Friday, January 16, 2015

Stone Retablos: Chihuahua Cathedral

From the cathedral in Puebla we now turn north to Chihuahua cathedral.  Among its many other treasures, three stone altarpieces stand in the cathedral: the retablo mayor in the apse and two lateral retablos in the nave, albeit much later than the Puebla altarpiece.
Chihuahua cathedral. the main altarpiece today
The main altarpiece (retablo mayor) replaced a more ornate "churrigueresque" retablo in the 1790s, but was significantly altered in the 1930s when a neoclassical altar with fluted Corinthian columns was added in front, obscuring much of the original.
    The colonial structure, of which only the outer columns and sculpture niches are still visible, was the ultimate work of the Durango architect and designer Nicolás Morín and is dated 1791/2.  Nicolás died in 1791 however and the altarpiece was completed by his son Ignacio. 
Chihuahua cathedral.  main altarpiece before alteration
To judge by old photographs, the original design was in an elegant but restrained late baroque style, with tall, slender estípite columns, ornate bescrolled niches and lambrequin pendants—a mode that was already outdated by the 1790s.
Following the 1930s addition, in the 1940s the modest undulating pediment, housing statues of the Virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity, was replaced by a flashy, neo rococo gable.
The Virgin of Regla (Bargellini)

Currently, the statues in the side niches are those of San Felipe and, on the left, a handsome colonial folk image of the Virgin of Regla (repositioned from one of the side altars) which replaced the original figure of Santiago.

retablo of San José
The two other stone retablos in the cathedral are an almost identical pair that face each other across the nave and are dedicated to San José (1793) and N. S. de Los Dolores (1803-13) respectively. 
retablo of Dolores
While Nicolás Morín prepared designs for both in the style of the main altarpiece, after his death Ignacio Morín again assumed responsibility.  
   However they were later completed as they appear today by a different architect, Juan de Pagaza Urtundua, more in the turn of the century "neostyle" fashion, combining baroque and neoclassical elements.  Fluted Doric columns appear alongside broken baroque pediments and lambrequins.
text © 2015 Richard D. Perry. color images by Niccolò Brooker except where noted.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Stone Retablos: Altar de Los Reyes, Puebla cathedral.

In this blog we often report on the variety of colonial altarpieces in churches across Mexico.  For the most part these were fabricated from carved, painted and gilded wood—customarily rot resistant cedar.
   However a handful of retablos were built from some form of masonry—usually stone and/or stucco. Sometimes this was in response to the availability of local materials but the main mover was various royal edicts in the late 1700s requiring the use of stone in retablo construction in Spain and the Americas. 
   Purportedly intended to reduce the risk of fire in wooden structures by substituting a more durable medium, a prime motivation of these decrees was to encourage the use of more "noble" materials like marble and, not incidentally, hasten the adoption of neoclassical canons in altarpiece design.
   In our page on San José Chiapa, we described one of the most spectacular of these monuments. Going forward we look at the few other extant Mexican examples, notably those in the cathedrals of Puebla (El Altar de Los Reyes) and Chihuahua.
   Others are found in the Santuario de Guadalupe in Aguascalientes, the church of El Carmen in San Luis Potosí, San Pablo El Viejo in Mexico City and Huentitán near Guadalajara, as well as across the border in New Mexico.
   We continue with one of the earliest examples, that of the Altar de Los Reyes in Puebla cathedral.
image © Javier Bracamonte
El Altar de Los Reyes  
Like the retablo at San José Chiapa, this imposing altarpiece has a connection to the controversial Bishop Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, who commissioned the work. The retablo gets its name from the royal chapel or Capilla de Los Reyes in which it is located. *1 
   As viewed today, the altarpiece  is the work of many hands over many years. Although the noted Sevillian sculptor Juan Martínez Montañes has been credited with the overall scheme of the retablo, it is now thought that the design of the altarpiece as well as all the paintings, including the principal panel of the Immaculate Conception, are attributable to the Spanish painter Pedro García Ferrer, a protégé of Bishop Palafox.
   The statues of royal saints in the lateral niches, some well known and others more obscure, were the work of the sculptor and retablista Lucas Méndez *2
   Although the altarpiece was later much altered,*3 with added wooden components, its essential form is intact, notably in retaining the original spiral columns and fluted pilasters which, like those at San José Chiapa, were carved from tecali, a Mexican marble or alabaster quarried locally in the state of Puebla.
   Not only is this the earliest known retablo using carved stone, but it is also one of the first documented use of the spiral "Solomonic" column to appear in a Mexican altarpiece. 
detail of columns, with Nativity scenes (Tacho Juarez Herrera)
1* In this case the title does not refer to the customary Three Kings, although they do appear in a smaller painting below the main panel of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. Its companion piece is a depiction of the Nativity which reputedly includes a portrait of Bishop Palafox as one of the shepherds!

2* The royal saints include San Luis Rey and Isabel of Hungary on the lower tier, and in the main section, San Fernando Rey and Edward the Confessor on the left with the Empress St Helen and Queen Margarite of Scotland opposite.

3The original plan for the retablo is known from a contemporary engraving by the Flemish artist Juan de Noort. which includes the escutcheons of the royal arms of Spain placed atop the retablo, the focus of a lawsuit and attempted seizure by agents of the viceroy—another controversy in which Bishop Palafox was embroiled.
Main Altarpiece of the Capilla de los Reyes, Cathedral of Puebla de los Ángeles (engraving by Juan de Noort)  in Juan Alonso Calderón,  Memorial historico, iuridico, politico, de la Sta. Iglesia Catedral de la Puebla de los Angeles en la Nueva España,  Puebla, 1650.
It is worth noting that the painted cupola above the altarpiece, depicting the Triumph of the Eucharist, was painted in 1689 by the celebrated 17th century baroque artist Cristóbal de Villalpando.
text © 2015  Richard D. Perry.  color images © as captioned

Monday, January 5, 2015

Los Santos Reyes. 2015

Los Santos Reyes (Tizimín, Yucatán)
On the feast day of the Three Kings (Los Santos Reyes or Los Reyes Magos) we would like to thank our readers for their attention over the past year and welcome them to 2015.
   We would also like to acknowledge our colleagues who have contributed so many of their beautiful color images for our posts in the past and previous years, especially Niccolò Brooker, Diana Roberts, Carolyn Brown, Felipe Falcón, Charlotte Ekland, Robert Guess and Robert Jackson among many others.  
   We hope to work with you again in the coming year. Thank you one and all.  Gracias a todos!
   We have several exciting series of posts planned for the New Year that we hope you will all enjoy.

                                       Richard D. Perry
Los Reyes Magos  (Ichmul, Yucatán)

Friday, January 2, 2015

Stone Retablos: San José Chiapa

For our initial post of 2015, and as an introduction to our new series on Mexican stone retablos, we look at one of the most distinctive and unusual Pueblan churches, that of San José Chiapa, located northeast of the city of Puebla close to the state of Tlaxcala in the shadow of the volcano Malitzín.
   In addition to an intriguing back story, San José Chiapa boasts dramatic architecture and rare works of art including its luminous main altarpiece. 
But first the history:
portrait of Juan de Palafox y Mendoza. 1728  (©John Carter Brown Library)
San José Chiapa enjoys a special association with the flamboyant and controversial Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, a 17th century bishop of Puebla and briefly the archbishop and viceroy of New Spain, whose sumptuous library remains one of Puebla’s prime attractions.  
   Among the many political and ecclesiastical issues in which he was embroiled, his conflict with the Jesuits in Puebla was the most bitter. His attempt to secularize the holdings of the religious orders and secure their traditional tithes, thus increasing Crown and episcopal revenues, was firmly resisted by the Jesuits, prompting a protracted series of lawsuits, papal proclamations and political maneuvering.
   Things reached a point in 1647, when, under threat of arrest by the incoming viceroy and fearing subsequent local unrest, Palafox fled the city of Puebla to take refuge in the remote highland village of San José Chiapa with its rustic local chapel.
   Although Palafox ultimately failed in his bid to humble the Jesuits, the state of Puebla and the community of San José Chiapa did not forget him. 
   A century later, in the mid 1700s, the then bishop of Puebla, Francisco Fabián y Fuerobuilt the present church to honor Palafox. It was completed in 1769—as it happened, only two years after the expulsion of the Jesuits from Mexico.
  This history is reflected in the design and iconography of the striking church front as well as the unique main altarpiece inside. 
Although the eclectic front of San José Chiapa features a soberly classical, grey stone entry like many churches in the city of Puebla, by contrast the rest of the broad front follows the colorful baroque style of other poblano facades. 
   Its most prominent decorative elements are the brilliantly whitewashed estípite pilasters to either side of the porch, set dramatically against a painted, brick red background and incorporating painted relief medallions.
The Palafox y Mendoza crest
The three principal escutcheons emphasize the special connection with Bishop Palafox. The two flanking the entry are emblazoned with heraldic shields like those in the 1728 portrait (above). 
   On the right are the arms of the noble Palafox y Mendoza family of Aragon, and to the left, the Palafox episcopal seal—a heart with a crucifix inscribed with his motto "The Crucifix is My Love" framed by a tasseled galero hat.
The Palafox episcopal seal
The Spanish imperial arms
The third escutcheon, in the overhead gable, displays the Spanish Royal arms with the quartered lions and castles of Leon and Castile at center, surrounded by other symbols and framed by the chain of the aristocratic Order of the Golden Fleece—intended as a tribute to Bishop Palafox' devoted support of royal authority.  
   Since most Spanish royal insignia have been erased from Mexican buildings since Independence, this remains one of the few still in place.
Slender neoclassical bell towers with tiled cupolas complete the picture. Of special interest are the forged iron crosses atop the cupolas, which bear the archiepiscopal insignia of the miter, crozier and patriarchal cross.

The Retablo Mayor
Inside the church, the imposing main altarpiece is one among a rare handful of Mexican retablos carved in stone* instead of the customary wood. 
   In addition, the chosen stone is tecali, or Mexican alabaster, a colorfully striated, translucent marble that is quarried in Puebla in a variety of tints—here a warm silvery/green.
   Probably dating from the late 1760s, the altarpiece features twisted, salamónica columns and several stone statues of saints, including the Virgin Mary swaying against the window. 
   The centerpiece of the retablo is the Crucifixion with the Two Marys—no doubt a reference to Bishop Palafox' motto—an amazing work of art especially considering the difficulty in working this kind of stone.

Recently, after centuries of petitioning, Bishop Palafox has been beatified, the first stage in eventual canonization, testimony to his continued relevance and veneration among poblanos.  
  As we shall see, Palafox was also involved in another seminal stone altarpiece in Puebla.

Other late colonial stone retablos in Mexico include those in the cathedrals of Puebla (Los Reyes) and Chihuahua, The Santuario de Guadalupe in Aguascalientes, El Carmen in San Luis Potosí, San Pablo El Viejo in Mexico City and Huentitán near Guadalajara, several of which we plan to describe in future posts.

text © 2015 Richard D. Perry.  images by Niccolò Brooker and Benjamin Arredondo.
additional source material: La Capilla de San José Chiapa by Francisco de La Maza 
México,  Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1960.

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