Friday, July 31, 2015

Treasures of Tepeapulco: the Crosses

The Crosses
Among the many colonial artifacts at Tepeapulco is an extraordinary group of carved limestone crosses, all believed to date from the 1500s. Each of these monolithic crosses bears distinctive imagery related to Christ’s Passion, executed with an intriguing variety of detail and skill.
1. The Wall Cross
The largest and most prodigiously detailed cross is mounted on the west front of the church beside the doorway. It is profusely sculpted in high relief on three sides with a panoply of Passion symbols. 
These include a large crown of thorns at the crossing, with spines radiating inwards and outwards. The crown is flanked on the stubby arms by two stylized bleeding Wounds punctured with deep holes.   
   Below, a third Wound on the main shaft appears to cascade blood into a chalice. A bearded head on the shaft utters an imprecation while Adam's skull grins at the foot.
wall cross details by Niccolò Brooker

2. The Portería Cross
The second cross is located in a niche at the back of the adjacent, arcaded portería that fronts the convento. The details of this small, battered cross are weathered by time and the elements, suggesting that it may have been the original atrium cross of the monastery set up in the open in front of the monastery. 
Niccolò Brooker
Although carved with few sculptural details, this cross displays what may be an Ecce Homo or Christ at the Column relief beneath the crossing flanked by two helmeted figures, probably Roman soldiers.
3. The Church Cross
A third, slender cross currently rests in the apse of the church. Similar to wall cross, although less profusely carved and in lower relief, it combines imagery from the two others.  
  Flanked by a looped, hanging rope and a bleeding Wound on either arm, a stylized Crown of Thorns again adorns the crossing, its deeply recessed center at one time no doubt inset with an obsidian disk.  Like the wall cross, a scrolled INRI plaque slashes across the neck at an angle.
As with the portería cross, a diminutive figure of Christ is shown, here standing atop a large, stylized Woundagain flanked by his tormentors. Below is the head of Judas with a purse around his neck spilling coins into the crossed spear and sponge beneath.

4. Painted Crosses
In addition to these sculpted crosses, several other painted examples appear throughout the monastery in varying contexts, lining the corridors and conventual rooms:

                  Calvary cross with frieze                           Cross with Five Wounds and knotted Cord

                   Framed cross in landscape                           Three Calvary crosses

Other examples of ornamental stonework at Tepeapulco, include several monolithic stone fonts carved with knotted cord rims, that date from early colonial times.
Baptismal font
holy water basins

Up the road behind the monastery, at the end of a 20 kilometer-long aqueduct, is the famed Caja de Agua. This communal fountain and washhouse, built in 1545 to channel spring water, is one of the few early colonial examples of its kind left that functioned until very recentlyIn colonial times the system extended to the monastery, which was its prime beneficiary.
The stumpy pinnacles atop the building are carved with reliefs of lions and rams as well as local flora including corn, cactus and, of course, maguey. 

text and images © 2015 Richard D. Perry, except where noted.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Treasures of Tepeapulco: the Church

Continuing our illustrated series on early Mexican monasteries, we present the first of three posts on San Francisco Tepeapulco, an important 16th century Franciscan monastery, located in the state of Hidalgo some 100 kms northeast of Mexico City.
   We look first at the monastery site and the church with its sculpted doorway. In our next post we describe the numerous crosses, both carved and painted, throughout the monastery. Finally we look at the wealth of early murals inside the convento.
Beside the High Hill

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, the cult of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec war god, held sway in Tepeapulco, his imposing temple superimposed on an older site sacred to Tlaloc, the ancient rain god. His dominion was short-lived, for immediately after the Conquest, Hernando Cortés personally ordered the destruction of the deity's bloodstained shrine that towered above the town. 
   Franciscan missionaries arrived in Tepeapulco in 1527, led by Father Toribio Motolinia, one of the original Franciscan Twelve—a dedicated missionary and chronicler of the Spiritual Conquest. 
   The monastery was founded in the following year by the eminent preacher and scholar Fray Andrés de Olmos, also one of the Twelve. The imposing new monastery, dedicated to St Francis, was built atop the prehispanic pyramid, using the stone of the demolished temple. Construction was often interrupted by plagues among the Indians and a perennial shortage of friars. 
   However, both church and cloister were complete when Fray Bernardino de Sahagún stayed here from 1558 to 1560, working on the Primeros Memoriales, the first part of his epic account of native society and religion.
From the town plaza below, a flight of stone steps climbs steeply to the western gateway of the atrium—a huge enclosed area of shady gardens crisscrossed by stone-flagged pathways. At the far end, another broad stairway, in part of prehispanic origin, leads to the monastery itself, set high on an upper terrace. 
   Although the church was substantially rebuilt in the 18th century, its plain facade is original. The tower, dated 1530 by a plaque on its north face, is very early, possibly the first ever built in Mexico. Officially prohibited by the constitutions of the Order, towers were especially rare in Franciscan churches of this period. 
The Church Doorway
Apart from the siting, the first thing to catch the eye of the visitor is the intricately carved porch, whose simplicity of design and richness of detail established a pattern for numerous other church and chapel doorways throughout the region.
Derived from an even earlier doorway at Texcoco, it features broad jambs inset with densely carved relief foliage, a sculpted archway and a surmounting alfiz framed by the Franciscan knotted cord.

But the chief focus of interest is the fantastical archway or archivolt frieze, expertly carved in the round. The iconography of the frieze, especially its unusual bestiary, raises a number of questions as to its meaning and sources.
Putti mounted side saddle on lions and jaguars, some of which appear to be feathered, ride around the archway in a frieze with birds, crosses, acanthus leaves and codex-style speech scrolls.
   The exact significance of these felines is unclear, although big cats were associated with Tlaloc—felines also appear in the monastery friezes and the nearby Caja de Agua. 
(In prehispanic imagery there are many fabulous beasts with mixed attributes, some including feathers. The plumed serpent is the best known, considered to represent the deity/folk hero Quetzalcoatl, but there are others including dogs (el coyote emplumado) and felines—el tigre emplumado—reportedly an earth and water deity in nearby Teotihuacan.
Also it is not certain that the riders are cherubs; they may be other supernaturals. There are other items in the frieze like the owl/eagle and drum like objects. Song/speech scrolls issue from the mouths of both the human and animal figures.
In contrast to the sophisticated carving of the archway the relief of St. Francis receiving the Stigmata above the door is primitive, the rudely formed figures set in a locally inspired landscape of cone-like hills and, significantly, maguey plants. 

   Maguey sap is the source of pulque, the mildly alcoholic native beverage, for which Tepeapulco was famous in prehispanic and colonial times. Other references to pulque appear throughout the monastery.
text & black and white images ©1992 and 2015 by Richard D. Perry. 
color images by the author and Niccolò Brooker

Saturday, July 18, 2015

San José Tula: the Convento and its Murals

San José Tula, the cloister
The Convento
The convento is earlier, more modest and less refined than the later church at Tula. Although the portería has been rebuilt, the arcaded cloister is original. 
   Cut from cool gray limestone, the molded, concave arches of the lower level spring directly from plain supporting columns without benefit of any capitals. These contrast with the slab capitals of the pinkish brown arcades of the upper cloister.
fluttering angel with corn? plant
The Murals
The surviving Tula frescoes are confined to the stairway to and the walks of the upper cloister. Although in generally poor condition, they have been recently restored as far as is possible.
   Finely delineated in grisaille monochrome and based on northern European print sources, the murals were accented with reds, blues and earth colors.
Three friars mural
A pair of frescoes, in the lunettes above the entry arch and over the stairwell, depict three Franciscans—probably St Francis flanked by the kneeling Sts Anthony and Bonaventure—and an unusual, reclining St. Mary Magdalene in a cavelike landscape with a church and groups of figures.
Mary Magdalene mural
Mary Magdalene mural details   © Niccolò Brooker
The remaining murals along the walks comprise often unusual portraits of various saints, including St. Joseph, Sts. Paul and Paul, St. Isabel of Hungary, St. Peter, St. Lawrence, St. Helen and the martyr St. Sebastian.
St. Peter and his keys
St. Lawrence and his grill with local landmark Cerro Xicuco behind  © Niccolò Brooker

San Sebastián Mártir and helmeted archer  © Niccolò Brooker

St. Helen and the Tower of Babel  © Niccolò Brooker

text © 2015 Richard D. Perry. images by the author and courtesy of Niccolò Brooker 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

San José Tula: the Monastery

We continue with our series on the early monasteries of Hidalgo with a look at one of the largest, San José Tula, located near the site of the ancient imperial Toltec capital of Tollan, home of the prehispanic cult of Quetzalcoatl.
© Niccolò Brooker
The grand fortress monastery of San José Tula was once the focus of the entire Franciscan missionary enterprise in this area of Hidalgo. 
Although some of its 16th century character has been compromised by later accretions, neglect and even ill considered renovation, its majestic scale and noble architecture still impress.
   The raised, battlemented atrium extends over 200 feet in front of the monastery, accessed by moorish style gateways.
The exceptionally high walls of the church are veneered with ashlar stonework and braced by cyclopean prow buttresses topped with turreted garitas, or sentry boxes. A crenelated parapet encircles the church at the roofline.
© Niccolò Brooker
© Niccolò Brooker
We can admire the elegant but somewhat severe Renaissance lines of the west door, its coffered archway flanked by Corinthian columns and echoed in the surmounting rounded pediment.
   The original porciúncula, or north doorway of the church, similar in style to the west porch, has been preserved inside the entry to the Trinity chapel.
The narrow but lofty nave impresses, roofed by a series of Gothic rib vaults. The superior quality of the stone work stands out in the the fluted pilasters dividing the bays, the molded windows and the sober baroque entry to the side chapel of the Sagrario.
Sagrario chapel doorway   © ELTB
Although the church interior is fairly sparse, with few altars or images, two items stand out. First the tormented, bloody figure of the Man of Sorrows, an earthy folk image that contrasts with the sober classical surroundings.
Almuerzo mural  © ELTB
And in the lunette above the altar in the Sagrario Chapel, a large, rare and complex painting of the youthful Christ taking breakfast with his family, by the noted poblano artist Luis Berrueco.
   Other paintings in the church include a series of canvases on themes related to the life of St. Francis by the 18th century artist Cristóbal de La Torre—the largest selection of his known works, currently scheduled for restoration.
text & graphic © 2015 Richard D. Perry
images by Niccolò Brooker and Enrique López-Tamayo Biosca