Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Nicholas of Tolentino in Mexico

In our occasional series on the depiction of catholic saints—both well known and obscure—in Mexican art, we aim to illustrate through images how their cults developed in Mexico.
   This post is devoted to Nicholas of Tolentino, a popular Augustinian saint of the 13th century—in fact the first of that Order to be canonized. 
   While he is portrayed with some frequency in Mexican art—in paintings and statuary—it is mostly in the context of Augustinian churches or monasteries. The saint is traditionally shown as a solemn if austere figure, usually holding a book or a crucifix garlanded with lilies, with a single star or sunburst on his robe. 
St. Nicholas of Tolentino with quail — San Agustín de Oaxaca (facade)
In Mexico, though, his portrayals tend to focus on specific, more picturesque details. In both statuary and painting he is often depicted holding one or a pair of birds—traditionally quails—in illustration of his best known miracle.  (As a vegetarian, he was offered a cooked quail, which he rejected and then brought back to life)

Nicholas of Tolentino and the Miracle of the Quail. Alonso de Herrera  (1555-1624 attr.)
Nicholas of Tolentino with starry robe and dish of quail.  Santiago Tejupan, Oaxaca (pipe organ)
One almost universal aspect of the saint's portrayal in Mexico is his starry robe, covered with multiple stars rather than a single starburst:
San Nicolás Actopan (Hidalgo), portrait of the saint 
Nicholas of Tolentino as a penitent. San Agustín de Oaxaca—altarpiece of San Nicolás.  Tomás de Siguenza, sculptor 
Another popular portrayal of St Nicholas, possibly because of the affinity of Mexicans to religious images of physical suffering, is as a penitent. Usually shown on his knees, half naked, the saint holds a scourge and cross, gazing skyward with an agonized expression.
Nicholas of Tolentino with a Concert of Angels.  Ambroise Fredeau (1589-1673)*
A less common but happier portrayal of St Nicholas relates to an ecstatic episode in his later life in which, in anticipation of death, he heard songs of angels welcoming him to his Heavenly reward.
Nicholas of Tolentino hearing songs of angels.  
San Agustín de Oaxaca—altarpiece of San Nicolás.  Isidro de Castro, artist (1701-1732)
text & images © Richard D. Perry

See our earlier posts in this series: 
 San Antonio Abad, Duns Scotus, San Charbel Maklouf, St Rose of Lima, St Peter Martyr, San DionisioSt Ursula.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Epazoyucan. Part Three: the Sala murals

We conclude our posts on Epazoyucan with a review of the Sala de Profundis frescoes.
Sala de Profundis: the south and west walls
The Sala de Profundis
A passageway beside the cloister stairwell leads into this dimly lit former friars’ chapel where frescoes cover all four walls to the ceiling. 
   Once again the murals illustrate eleven scenes related to the Passion of Christ, framed by painted Plateresque niches and lettered borders. As with the open chapel fresco, the artist has used the triptych form, in which the central subject is flanked by supporting figures, to unify and dramatize the subject matter.  And in panel after panel the measured structure and sensuous lines of the composition complement the themes.
   Here the later coloring of some of the murals has been removed to expose the monochromatic, grisaille style of the underlying graphics, drawn from northern European print sources.  
   Although in poor condition, some of the murals have been stabilized and partly restored. More complete and appropriate conservation remains to be done.

Below we show some of the better preserved frescoes:
Early episodes in the Passion story unfold in a linked movement along the west wall, starting with the Agony in the Garden, continuing with the Taking, the Mocking and the Flagellation of Jesus.
The Agony in the Garden
The Agony in the Garden, owl detail
The Taking of Jesus
The Mocking of Jesus
The Mocking of Jesus, detail
The Flagellation
Sala de Profundis: the south wall
The sequence continues on the south wall where the Crucifixion is the main focus, flanked by another expressive Descent or Pietáand the Ascension.
The Crucifixion (detail)
The Lamentation (Pietá)
The Descent from the Cross (detail)
Below the Crucifixion extends an elongated Last Supper
Last Supper (detail)
Other, more fragmentary murals in the Sala include scenes of Pentecost, the Harrowing of Hell and a moving Noli Me Tangere with Mary Magdalene along the east wall, watched over by a portrait of St Augustine. (pictures to follow)
   The powerful classical influence on the unknown muralist is seen most clearly in the Resurrection on the north wall, in which the triumphant figure of the risen Christ soars above an Umbrian landscape. (pictures to follow)

The Refectory Murals
The darkened former refectory on the south side of the cloister contains fragmentary, full length portraits of Augustinian saints and martyrs, and in another triptych on the far wall saints Augustine and Nicholas of Tolentino stand on either side of another Crucifixion scene. (pictures to follow)
text © 2015  Richard D. Perry.   images by the author and courtesy of Niccolò Brooker

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Epazoyucan. Part Two: the Convento and its Murals

In contrast to Zempoala, all the Epazoyucan murals are contained in the adjacent convento.

The Convento
Part of the ancient temple stairway now leads up to the entrance (portería) of the convento attached to the south side of the church.  
   Although partly restored, it remains open to the sky. Two plain arcades bridge the deep entry, some of whose columns are headed with unusual foliated capitals—models for the cloister arcades, whose plain molded arches and and simple banded columns are transformed by the capitals. 
Their feathered scrolls swell like bulbs and curl up to embrace the rising curves of the arches—a striking effect that is amplified in the corner piers of the two story cloister.
upper cloister
Mullioned Venetian style windows in the long corridors of the upper cloister frame vistas of the bare surrounding hills.
lower cloister with corner niche and painted doorways
The Murals
Almost every surface in the Epazoyucan convento—walls, vaults, niches, friezes and even the door frames—was covered with frescoes.  Among the richest and most program of 16th century mural decoration to survive in Mexico, most of the frescoes have been restored by INAH, the government agency in charge of historic sites.
   The murals fall into two main groups, the cloister frescoes, and those in the former Sala de Profundis.

The Cloister Murals
Most of the narrative murals along both the upper and lower cloister walks have been erased save for their decorative bands and grotesque borders, which display complex patterns of ribbons, vines, fruit, flowers and birds as well as the ornamental lettered friezes favored by the Augustinians.
The sole survivors are the four scenes of Christ’s Passion in the corner niches at the end of each walk. Originally monochromatic, the murals were much later crudely accented with blues, reds and ochers. 
   A native artist skillfully transposed and enlarged these scenes from various European print sources—French, Flemish and Italian engravings—to the grander scale of the monastery walls, thereby enhancing their graphic power. 
The Way of the Cross
As we enter the cloister from the west we first confront the Way of the Cross or Road to Calvary. In this dynamic composition, derived from a well known print by the 15th century German engraver Martin Schongauer, the head of Christ is wrenched awkwardly to one side of the cross to face the viewer, dramatically focusing on his suffering. 
The fresco is crowded with incident and anecdotal detail—note the little dog trotting by unconcerned in the foreground.
The Crucifixion
By contrast, the Crucifixion or Calvary scene in the southwest niche is more static. The two Marys, elegantly robed and elongated in the Mannerist fashion, seem emotionless, as is the calm look on the face of Christ.  Turreted buildings dot the landscape in the background, which mirrors the distinctive local topography.

Ecce Homo
In the Ecce Homo portrayal of the south east corner, the surprisingly unscathed, near naked figure of Christ looks out almost serenely beneath the crown of thorns, accompanied only by a turbaned man who opens Christ's robe, lending movement to the scene.  
   Here much of later added color has been removed to better reveal the original lines, although there is no landscape as in the other scenes. One unusual indigenous detail is the large corn plant that Christ is holding.
The Lamentation
Here, the attenuated body of Christ, lowered from the cross is surrounded by the stricken faces of his family and friends. The Lamentation is crowded with figures.  Five are saints, as evidence their haloes. From the left, these are John the Evangelist, standing, and the three Marys, plus Mary Magdalene—the latter holding Christ's head, although she may alternatively be the figure in a red robe. The Virgin is of course in blue and the other two are Mary of Cliopas and possibly St. Anne in the background. The third woman may be Mary Salome, Mary, mother of James; or Mary of Bethany.
The two secular figures standing on the right are Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.
Here too, the background landscape includes identifiable local formations including the prominent peak of Cerro Epazoyu for which the town was named.
The other remaining mural in the lower cloister, above the stairway entrance to the upper level, is an extended portrayal of the death or Tránsito of the Virgin Mary.  The blue robed Virgin, laid out on her bier, is attended by a group of solicitous Apostles and a flock of ten mournful, praying angels below.
   The Holy Trinity appear in the heavens, above an inscription from the Song of Songs.
For our next, final post on Epazoyucan we describe and illustrate the superb sequence of murals in the former Sala De Profundis, or friars chapel.
text and images © 2015 Richard D. Perry. except where noted

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Epazoyucan. Part One: the Monastery Church

We continue our series updating Mexican Monasteries, especially those containing early murals, with a look at another in the state of Hidalgo: San Andrés Epazoyucan.
Epazoyucan 1990

San Andrés Epazoyucan

As early as 1528 Franciscans from Zempoala evangelized the Otomí people of the area, building a primitive mission on a hill called Tlaloc, whose ancient temple was sacred to the Mexican deity of rain and lightning.
click to enlarge
Although the Franciscans went on to found a new monastery here in 1540—dedicated to St. Andrew, by tradition the apostle to distant pagan peoples—it is to the Augustinians that we owe the present magnificent building.  
   Reportedly built in a brief “seven months and seven days,” it was the first Augustinian mission to be finished in this region.
The monastery is silhouetted against volcanic hills dotted with cactus and maguey. Its sloping atrium containing scattered tombstones, a handsome carved cross and three of the original posa chapels. 
   Instead of being being built into the corners of the atrium walls as was customary, these chapels are isolated, box like shrines with carved archways and decorative parapets.
Epazoyucan 2010
The Atrium Cross
Mounted atop a large squared base, the plain octagonal cross displays the simplest of designs. The sole relief is a magnificent, medallion like Crown of Thorns motif that covers and extends beyond the crossing. 
© Felipe Falcón
With a woven, wreath like fringe and a hole pierced in the center surrounded by a carved floral design, this armorial looking pattern may be intended to represent, the two headed eagle emblem of the Hapsburg empire, of which colonial Mexico was a province.
The Open Chapel
Carved fleurs-de-lis parapets surmount the chapel, which projects  from the church front beside the west entry below the single north tower.  Standing atop a broad flight of stone steps, the chapel resembles a larger posa with intricate filigree carving on the arch, jambs and quoining.
Open Chapel, mural detail: St Nicholas of Tolentino (1990)
Behind the elevated altar, a now mostly effaced Crucifixion mural features on one side the figure of the Augustinian saint Nicholas of Tolentino in his star spangled robe, drawn in the style of the convento frescoes (see Part Two). 
   Despite its unusual position in front of the church, this modest chapel may be the oldest part of the monastery, as described by the Augustinian chronicler Fray Juan de Grijalva.
church front, 1990
The Church
Although Epazoyucan has elements of a fortress church, with great stepped buttresses and a squared front, the facade shows considerable refinement, 
   Its unorthodox, geometrical framework of refined alfiz moldings and cornices serves to unite the rounded doorway and sharply pedimented choir window, all against a background of handsome ashlar stonework. 
facade columns 1990
Half columns of alternating vertical and spiral fluting with miniature horseshoe shaped tips constitute the most decorative element of the facade.  Greek and Latin monograms of Christ are incised in the upper facade—a decorative motif repeated inside the church.
© blxm
Today the vast, grey interior is almost painfully bare apart from the monograms on the walls. A wooden floor overlays the recesses of the prehispanic foundation below.
   The long, lofty nave was originally roofed by an exceptionally wide, wood beamed ceiling, which was replaced circa 1700 by a stone vault, now cracked.  
One surviving section of this artesonado ceiling under the choir, however, gives us an idea of its original majesty; supported by stout hand hewn beams, the decking is inlaid by eight pointed moorish stars in contrasting woods 
The baptistery beneath the choir contains the only remaining mural inside the church: a 16th century Baptism of Christ, recently restored to reveal an angel on the upper left.
text, graphics and images © 1990 & 2015 Richard D. Perry. except where noted