Thursday, March 3, 2016

Treasures of Mexico City: Tlalnepantla

"Middle Ground" 
After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec capital, the Franciscans founded a new mission town on the boundary between two lakeside communities—the Otomí of Teocalhuacan and the Nahua speakers of Tenayuca—long divided by political, cultural and linguistic differences. 
   In an effort to reconcile the rivals, the Franciscans founded the monastery of San Lorenzo Tlalnepantla as a "middle ground" between the two groups. The enterprise succeeded in a manner unforeseen by the friars, for as the original Indian communities declined, colonial Tlalnepantla grew and flourished. 
© Niccolo Brooker
Known locally as the Cathedral, because of its imposing north tower, the former monastery church of Corpus Christi, reputedly designed by the prolific Spanish architect Francisco Becerra, was rebuilt in the 17th century following a disastrous fire which destroyed the beautiful wooden roof and damaged the main altarpiece. 
north doorway detail © Niccolo Brooker
Nevertheless, a unique, crosscultural record of the founding of the monastery has been preserved above the north doorway of the church. Two reliefs flank a niche with a tiny statue of the Virgin. 

On the left, carved under a relief image of St. Bartholomew with the date 1558, is a row of battlements above a frieze of disks—a glyph that signifies "Walled City," the Aztec place name for Tenayuca.  On the right is a relief medallion of St. Lawrence, the patron of the monastery, beneath which is inscribed the name of Teocalhuacan (Place of the Large Temple) in Roman letters. A dedicatory inscription in Nahuatl mentioning the two towns appears on the pediment overhead with the date 1554. A sculpted disk, also inscribed, is flanked by hovering angels and represents the Host, which, with the monstrance above, tells us that the church is dedicated to Corpus Christi. 
west entry gable © Niccolo Brooker
Another sculpted disc is mounted atop the main west entry.
atrium cross © Diana Roberts
The former atrium is now a landscaped garden. At its center stands the original red sandstone cross, its arms and shaft densely carved with the Instruments of the Passion, some of them now much eroded. 
cross detail © Felipe Falcón
A Crown of Thorns at the crossing is flanked by stylized, bleeding Wounds on both arms, their deep center holes designed to hold nails or plugs. Outstretched hands at the tips point inwards to the Wounds. One hand holds a bag—presumably of silver coins. Pincers, a hammer, a chalice and the martyr's palm proceed down the shaft to the elevated base.
A third Wound now appears on the side of the lower shaft, which originally faced forward as with the other two, but was later turned. 
On the reverse, a pair of profile heads with streaming hair stand out on the arms, one with a speech glyph issuing from the mouth.

Facing the garden, a handsome arcaded loggia of seven bays stretches across the entire front of the convento. 
   Behind its center arch, emphasized by broad supporting piers, lies the recessed sanctuary of the former portería chapel. Perhaps such a long arcade was necessary to accommodate the two rival Indian groups on either side of the sanctuary altar on ceremonial occasions.
The cloister recalls the one at nearby Azcapotzalco, an airy, stone-flagged patio enclosed by simple Tuscan arcades of broad arches. Along the walks are remnant friezes and partial portraits of Franciscan bishops and friars painted in dark gray and sepia tones.

An ancient baptismal font rests in the secluded sacristyRimmed by the Franciscan knotted cord, it is also engraved with the worn glyph of Tenayuca and the date glyph of 1554, a further reminder of the complex history of Tlalnepantla. 
The other principal treasure in the church is the gilded, three part main retablo, which replaced the burned altarpiece. 
   Dating from the later 1700s, and attributed to the eminent designer and retablista Isidoro Vicente de Balbás, it combines a variety of ornate late Baroque and rococo features.  The iconic crucifix at center, El Señor de las Misericordias, is reputedly a processional cristo de caña from the 16th century.

text & b/w images © 1992 & 2015 Richard D. Perry
color images by Niccolò Brooker, Diana Roberts & Felipe Falcón.

See our other posts in the series: San BernardoTepepanSan Felipe Neri El Nuevo;


  1. Lovely photos and enlightening text--as usual. Thanks for your devoted work on Mexican colonial art.
    Asuncion Lavrin

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