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

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