Sunday, April 26, 2015

Zempoala. Part Two: the Church Murals

Inside a lofty nave at Zempoala, the dark ribs of the vaults stand out dramatically against a ceiling of celestial blue dotted with cherubs.
The Church Murals
In the last century, with the removal of several altarpieces, the parish priest noticed that mural fragments underlay the peeling walls of the apse, revealing a hitherto unknown cycle of 16th century frescoes. 
The mural panels: north side and south side
Four tiers of paired painted panels adorn the flared sides of the polygonal apse, extending to the full height of the nave wall, from a dado above the floor to the running cornice above.
   There are sixteen scenes altogether, separately framed by painted arcades. Two other now almost obliterated panels lie above the main altar. Although individually damaged to a greater or lesser extent, the murals have been restored as far as possible by SEDUE (Secretaria de Desarrollo Urbano y Ecologia), the Mexican government environmental and development agency. 
   The murals illustrate a variety of both familiar and obscure Old Testament scenes, drawn from graphic sources that include northern European prints by Erhard Schoen and Hans Springinklee.*  These early 16th century sources—engraving and woodcuts—were widely published in religious books including bibles. 
   Primarily monochromatic compositions, the murals are executed in a refined but lively style with exceptionally fine delineation, dramatic poses and closely observed details.  All are subtly accented with blues greens and earth colors. 

Below we identify some of the more complete panels in greater detail, starting with the familiar and continuing with less well known biblical events:
Well preserved base panels on either side portray Daniel in the Fiery Furnace on the north, and David and Goliath on the south.
One upper right panel shows Moses receiving Ten Commandments.

Among the more obscure episodes are Athalia tearing her clothes before King Jehoiada,  once thought to be the Dance of Salome before Herod, and Queen Esther before Xerxes on the upper left.

Formerly believed to depict the Holy Family before the Flight into Egypt, this scene is now thought to show the Prophet Hosea with his wife and children, in accordance with the Old Testament focus of the murals.
Another panel on the right illustrates Josiah ordering the reading of books and the destruction of idols.
And another top tier panel juxtaposes the prophet Isiah's vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem with an illustrated passage from the Book of Job.
   While there seems to be no single overriding theme, the chosen episodes emphasize sacrifice, martyrdom and above all establishment of the church both physically and spiritually—themes sanctioned by the Counter Reformation and dear to the evangelical purpose of the Franciscans in the New World.
text and images © 2015  Richard D. Perry


La iglesia y el convento de todos los santos de Zempoala, Hidalgo y su comarca.   By Víctor M. Ballesteros G.   UAEH  2003

* The PESSCA website

Monday, April 20, 2015

Zempoala. Part One: the Monastery

We continue with our series of revisiting notable early colonial missions, as described in our classic Mexico's Fortress Monasteries, with a new look at several of these monuments located in the state of Hidalgo north of Mexico City, starting with Zempoala.

Imposed against a stark landscape of dry plains and volcanic hills, the Franciscan monastery of Todos Santos Zempoala is a late 16th century gem. Beyond the austere architecture of the church front lies a treasure trove of colorful early murals.  
Zempoala started life as a modest visita of the great Franciscan monastery of Tepeapulco, but with the completion, about 1570, of Father Tembleque’s celebrated aqueduct, a vast labor force of 5000 natives was put to work building the new monastery of Todos Santos.
   The spacious atrium, framed by a triple gateway, allows ample room to take in the church, convento and arcaded former open chapel.  
En route from the arcaded gateway to the church stands a distinctive atrium cross, although now much eroded. 
   Mounted on a carved pedestal and stepped base it takes the unusual form of an octagonal tree cross, bristling with "pruned" stumps on its angled facets. 
A second cross, now headless, rests in the church. Possibly the original atrium cross, it is cylindrical in form and densely carved with Passion symbols. 
On the north side of the church stands the roofless open chapel, an elegant, arcaded structure that predates the rest of the monastery. 
From the hexagonal apse, rib vaulted and faced with blind arcades, the side walls flare out to meet a wide transverse nave heralded by tall arcades set on slender Tuscan Doric columns—recalling the earlier open chapel at Franciscan Cuernavaca.
A single, lofty tower of Florentine appearance is the distinguishing feature of the otherwise austere church front. 
   Set in a cliff like wall of plain stonework, the west porch follows the severely classical purista style of the late 1500s with fluted half columns and a coffered doorway. The rounded choir window overhead has a Romanesque simplicity.
In part two we describe the interior murals.

text and images © 1992 & 2015  Richard D. Perry

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Chikindzonot: The Legacy of Pascual Estrella

For our third and final post on colonial Yucatán this month, we turn to one of its formerly ruined but recently repaired and refurbished frontier churches. 
   In 1853, during the devastating Caste War, Maya rebels burst from the surrounding jungle into the eastern town of Chikindzonot. After massacring the non Maya inhabitants, they sacked and burned  the town including the elegant colonial church of La Candelaria.
Chikindzonot in 2001
Chikindzonot lay abandoned for almost a century and until the late 1900s the roofless shell of the church was open to the elements.    
   Typical of many frontier Yucatecan churches in style, the handsome stone structure had been built by the secular clergy during the expansion of the colony into eastern Yucatan during the mid 1700s. Set on a lofty limestone outcropping beside a large cenotewhich gives the site its name—the imposing twin towered church is approached by a long stone stairway. 
   However, Candelaria Chikindzonot was set apart from other frontier churches by the quality of its stone carving, executed by the indigenous Maya sculptor Pascual Estrella (a Spanish version of Ek, meaning star—a popular Maya name) 
   Although Estrella worked on other area churches, notably at Ichmul, Sabán and Tihosuco, the imaginative variety and skill of the stonework at Chikindzonot —much of which survives—is extraordinary. 
Chikindzonot, the west front before restoration (1998)
A grand west porch, framed in provincial baroque style, first impresses the visitor. Complex estípite style pilasters are carved with frontal figures of Adam and Eve, and surmounted by statues of Saints Peter and Paul. 
St Paul
Reliefs of masks, serpents and dragon like fish also adorn the doorway.
But perhaps the most striking feature of the facade is the complex relief in the crowning pediment. In this virtuosic, stylized composition, the figure of the Virgin of Candelaria is set in an elaborately carved canopy surrounded by a radiant nimbus. Ornate candelabra, censer swinging angels and bands of floral stucco ornament complete the tableau.
   Inside the church, naive angels and lions decorate the sanctuary arch and the massive baptismal font, also carved by Estrella, which has miraculously also survived.
Chikindzonot: the burned out, roofless nave (1998)
 Reroofing the nave (2001)
Since 2000, repair, reconstruction and conservation of the church have gone forward, with a new concrete roof and a dramatic painted facade, erasing in the process many traces of its troubled past.
Chikindzonot, the new facade (2012)  © Iglesias de Yucatán
text and images © 2015 Richard D. Perry

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Altarpieces of Yucatán: Calotmul

Following our previous post on a "lost mission" of Yucatán, we look now at one of the region's better known colonial survivals.
   Last year we ran a series of posts on outstanding colonial altarpieces of Yucatán, many of which have been restored in recent years.  Among the other magnificent 18th century retablos extant in the peninsula, the recently restored main altarpiece at Calotmul is a classic of its kind.
   As the shrine to Our Lady of Calotmul (La Purísima), in colonial times San Esteban Calotmul was an important pilgrimage stop on the way to Tizimín from Valladolid in northeastern Yucatán. 
   The venerated image of the Virgin, brought from Spain and dating from the 16th century, was credited as a protectress of mariners. She was displayed in the main altarpiece and housed in an elevated camarín behind it.  On special feast days the image descends from the altarpiece into the nave.
San Esteban Calotmul in 1984
Although there was a Franciscan mission here in the early 1600s,  the present church was only completed in the mid-1700s according to the facade inscription
   The monumental square facade, anchored by massive flanking towers bereft of belfries, is reminiscent of the earlier church of Los Reyes Tizimín, its heavily buttressed exterior enlivened with arched niches and decorative merlons above.
Calotmul, nave exterior, south side (1984)
Calotmul, nave interior (2007)
Inside the church, dramatically framed by a whitewashed, tunnel like nave vaulted with striking log ceilings that draw the eye eastward, the main altarpiece is a classic example of a late baroque retablo in the Yucatecan style.
Calotmul, main retablo (2007)
Seamlessly crowned by a rounded pediment, the retablo rises to the ceiling and is divided by densely carved and ornamented estípite pilasters that enclose ornate shell niches. 
   The broad center pavilion, or calle, of the altarpiece gently pushes forward, subtly focusing attention on the central cult image of La Purísima.
Calotmul, main retablo detail (2007)
In the classic regional pattern, intertwined passages of gilded floral and filigree ornament fill every space, standing out against the burgundy background.
Calotmul, main retablo sculpture niche (©Jürgen Putz)
text and legacy images © Richard D. Perry (except where noted)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Lost Missions of Yucatán —Tahcabó update

In a recent series of posts we looked at the Lost Missions of Yucatán—ruined and abandoned colonial churches or Indian chapels around the peninsula.
   One example that we did not include in the survey was the largely ruined church of San Bartolomé Tahcabó, north of the city of Valladolid in eastern Yucatan.  
   Occupation at Tahcabó, a small Yucatec Maya village of around 500 people, can be traced back from the present to as early as 400 BC. A substantial Maya settlement with ancient pyramids and platforms formerly occupied the site.
Tahcabó, ancient Maya temple mound beside the mission
In the 16th century Spanish Franciscan friars evangelized the region and established a mission, starting with a stone open air chapel. Like most other early missions, stone from nearby Maya buildings was used in its construction.
Tahcabó, the sanctuary, former open chapel  ©Tajinrojo
As can be seen from this picture, the original open chapel was a substantial, squared stone building with a high archway and side rooms plus an added belfry.  The steeply pitched roofline of the original thatched nave, extending in front and now gone, can still be traced above the arch.  
   Later, the open sided thatched nave was replaced by a longer, permanent structure with a masonry facade, the old open chapel serving as the sanctuary of the church. The church was burned and abandoned during the devastating 19th century Caste War.
Tahcabó, the restored church facade  © AIA
While the original sanctuary remains to be restored, the façade of the church has been refaced. Its peaked profile echoes the steep angle of the fallen roof.
   Currently, religious services are held in a small covered chapel behind the façade. A wooden bull ring sits next to the present-day church within what would have been the atrium of the original church.
The mission site  © AIA
Recently, the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) awarded a Site Preservation Grant to The Alliance for Heritage Conservation (AHC) under the direction of Patricia McAnany, AHC Executive Director and Kenan Eminent Professor in the Department of Anthropology at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Sarah Rowe, AHC Program Director and Research Staff at the Research Laboratories of Archaeology at the UNC, Chapel Hill.
   The AIA grant will support a conservation and education program focused on stabilization and restoration of the early church, in collaboration with the community of Tahcabó

A short video from AHC can be seen on you tube

Details of another lost jungle mission at Lalcah, located near Felipe Carrillo Puerto in Quintana Roo, have recently been published.

text © 2015 Richard Perry

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Temple of Carmen, San Luis Potosí: The Camarin of the Virgin of Carmen

portal of the Archangels (detail) with view of camarín  (image © Carolyn Brown)
Previously we looked at the fantastical stucco portal of the Archangels inside the church of El Carmen.  As we noted, this structure serves as the entry to the Sagrario chapel or camarín of the revered image of Our Lady of Mt Carmel.
   In this final post we look inside this sumptuously ornate side chapel, to focus on the main altarpiece housing her image.
 Designed, like the entry, in the highly ornate anástilo style of the late baroque, this dynamic gilded retablo fills the apse of the chapel. Lateral wings flare forward from the center pavilion, drawing one's gaze in to the focal image of the Virgin of Carmen.  
   Giant estípite columns elegantly anchor both wings, whose shallow niche-pilasters, framed by much rococo ornament, display statues of saints Joachim and Anne, the parents of the Virgin.
Layered pilasters inlaid with carved foliage project the center pavilion forward. In the vitrine, the Virgin cradles the crowned Jesus in one arm and in the other holds a brown scapular emblazoned with the Carmelite insignia—a form of devotional apparel special to the Order. 
   Together with the rosary, the scapular was popularly associated with indulgences and salvation which accounted for much of its appeal in colonial Mexico.
An enormous, protruding shell canopy caps the entire altarpiece, again directing attention in and downward to the central image.

text © 2015 Richard D. Perry.  images courtesy of Jim Cook, except where noted.