Wednesday, July 27, 2016

San Miguel Atitalaquia: a desert oasis

In contrast to the petite 16th century church of Tlamaco that we described in an earlier post, we now look at its grander neighbor, the imposing baroque church at Atitalaquia.
Isolated in the arid, chalky flatlands of central Hidalgo, the grand but little known * parish church of San Miguel Atitalaquia appears almost like a mirage, floating in its large, lushly landscaped atrium fringed by crenelated walls.
   Although the original Franciscan mission was founded here in the mid-1500s, and some reconstruction took place in the 1600s, the present church was extensively rebuilt in the later 1700s under episcopal auspices.
Some remembrances of the earlier mission are found in the surviving arcade of the cloister and the garitas, or pyramidal sentry boxes, that cap the buttresses along the walls. There are also reliefs of the sun, moon, stars and crosses embedded in the exterior nave walls.
   The overbearing red dome and distracting flying buttress bracing the tower on the north side are much later additions.
The most impressive feature at Atitalaquia is the church front, skillfully cut from rose colored stone. Its elegant "retablo" facade is compartmented in the manner of the earlier baroque although prominently structured by ornate estípite columns more typical of the later 1700s. The oval, moorish choir window and undulating cornices also support this later date.
   Several of the original statues remain in their shell niches notably St. Barbara with her tower on the lower tier and the patron saint, the Archangel Michael, in the crowning gable.

St. Barbara
Other examples of stone carving at Atitalaquia include the atrium cross, with its three spiked, bleeding "wounds," and a monolithic stone font carved with rosettes inside the church.
text & images © 2016 Richard D. Perry
* We have found nothing written on Atitalaquia since Manuel Toussaint's Paseos Coloniales published in the 1940s

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Folk Baroque: San Cristóbal Nexquipayac

This former salt making village on the shores of Lake Texcoco is home to a handsome temple dedicated to St. Christopher. (San Cristóbal)
Fashioned from dark basalt, the rounded west doorway may date from the late 1500s. It is framed by an elegant alfiz and carved with several medallions that incorporate the Dominican fleur-de-lis cross.  
The sculpted doorway features rosettes and fronds of acanthus foliage anchored by dog reliefs—another Dominican emblem.
Eagles (pelicans?) with spread wings adorn the surrounding alfiz.

Other carvings in folkloric style at Nexquipayac include a painted relief of the patron St. Christopher in the upper facade, the young Christ on his shoulder, flanked by bleeding, rose like wounds.
Inside the church, a scaly fish poised above a holy water basin is supported by an odd dancing figure.
Another item of early stone carving is the former atrium cross in the churchyard. A similar, plainer but related cross stands atop the gable. Both feature outsized heads of Christ in the regional manner (Acolman).

                     atrium cross                                                       gable cross

text © 2016 Richard D. Perry
color images courtesy of Niccolò Brooker and Felipe Falcón

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Folk Baroque: El Santuario de Tepalcingo.

In an early series of posts on this blog—in July 2012—we looked at a cluster of country churches in southern Morelos and western Puebla with vividly painted and sculpted popular baroque facades. 
   Most churches in this group trace their style and decor to the seminal church front of nearby Tepalcingo, which because of its complexity we can describe only briefly in this post.

El Santuario was built between 1759 and 1782 to house the miraculous image of Jesus the Nazarene, or El Señor de Las Tres Caidas, whose popular cult was then, as now, attracting increasingly large numbers of pilgrims from across the region. 
   The extraordinary, sculpted retablo style facade is a masterpiece related to the popular barroco poblano style, probably executed by masons and stucco craftsmen from Puebla, although it is quite unlike any church in that city. 
   Fashioned from warm sandstone, from time to time in the past the facade has been painted in contrasting hues, although currently much of the color has faded.
Described variously as a "sermon in stone"* or a "deeply moving folk drama,"* the facade recounts the Christian story—the fall and redemption of man through the Life and Passion of Christ—via a highly intricate iconography * that features a myriad of biblical figures and events, culminating in the Calvary spread across the gable. 
   These are related in a series of expressive tableaux and relief figures skilfully modeled in a popular tradition reminiscent of religious sculpture dating back to medieval times.  
© Niccolò Brooker
In addition to the Crucifixion scene, other focal tableaux include the sorrowful figure of Jesus the Nazarene below the choir window, and Jesus with the Apostles lined up with their attributes above the doorway. (Formerly erroneously thought to represent the Last Supper)
Although sui generis in the annals of Mexican popular art, these tableaux and statuary are framed in an eclectic mode of the late baroque by a variety of entwined pilasters, ornamental niches, friezes and archways, all enhanced by a tapestry of densely carved angels, heraldic insignia, swags, spirals and scrolls.
Imperial two-headed eagle                  west doorway & columns
* This unique colonial monument and its iconography have been studied by eminent art historians including Manuel Toussaint, Constantino Reyes-Valerio and Robert Mullen. 
* Joseph Armstrong Baird
* "... Architecturally, the cruciform church is not unusual. Sculpturally, its facade has no equal. Its purpose was meant to be didactic, since many episodes from the life and death of Christ are depicted. The tall rectangular facade is set so deeply between tower bases that it allows for a folding screen composition comprising three horizontal tiers and five vertical divisions. 
   Amidst a welter of images the drama unfolds section by section.  Immediately capturing one's attention is the high relief statue of Saint Peter in the section to the left of the door . Angels hold back heavy curtains allowing mortals to view him holding the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. In the niche above is a scene from the Agony in the Garden, an angel succoring Christ. The sleeping apostles are found on the outer panel on the far left. 
    Adam lies asleep in the capital of the doorjamb; opposite, on the right jamb, Eve gazes at the forbidden fruit. Mirroring Saint Peter, Saint Paul stands under the blindfolded Christ. The large figures on the four columns are the four evangelists with their respective symbols. 
Figures and flora emerge from bulbous columns. At the base of the farthest right column is a heart sprouting flowers; its mirror image to the left of the door is pierced with swords… Above the arched door frame and filling the spandrels, angels hold a cloth which forms the keystone. A frieze stretching across three divisions of the facade is devoted to the Last Supper (?). In the center, Christ holds bread and a chalice. To either side are four apostles; the other eight are located in the adjoining panels. 
   Above, the mocked Christ is seated in the niche, a wreath of thorns on his head, a cloak thrown over his shoulders. On both sides of the niche a flat floral pattern, fronted with squat square columns, stretches across the facade. An occasional angel floats downward. In the middle tier other scenes from Christ's passion are depicted. Here undulating columns are intertwined, more organic than structural. Their pattern of sinuous lines and drilled holes makes them almost serpentine. 
   The scene in the crest completes the iconography. In the center is Christ crucified, with Mary Magdalen at his feet; Mary, his mother, to his right; John to his left; and, to each side of Christ, the crucified thieves. At top center, God the Father blesses the Son with his right hand; the left holds a globe, symbolizing the universe. 
   While Adam and Eve are depicted still in their state of innocence, their fall into sin is clearly implied, since the overriding theme of the figured facade is mankind's redemption from eternal death. If thoughts and intentions behind this work were European, the execution was not. The native artist simply called on his experience and told the story, putting it together as a great piece of popular art. This facade, while echoing the didactic facades of Romanesque Europe, cannot be imagined in eighteenth-century Europe. "  (description adapted from Robert Mullen, 1997)
text © 2016 Richard D. Perry
images by the author and Niccolò Brooker 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Mexican Crosses: Ahuizotl's Box

the cross at Santa Maria Nativitas-Zacapa

Ahuitzotl's Box ?
In 1499, the Aztec emperor Ahuitzotl* completed an important aqueduct from Coyoacán in the southern part of present day Mexico City to his island capital of Tenochtitlan.
To commemorate this achievement, a number of carved, box like monuments, inscribed with this date Seven Reed (ácatl) in the Aztec calendar, were reputedly placed as markers along the causeway beside the route of the ancient aqueduct.
While most of these have been lost or mutilated, one putative complete example was recycled as the base of an atrium cross in the picturesque waterside community of Nativitas-Zacapa near Xochimilco, to the south of Mexico City. 
In addition to the 7 Reed glyph, the day sign 1 miquiztli, a skull signifying Death, was carved on two other faces.  On the fourth side is carved a relief of  4-ollín, the Aztec Fifth Sun glyph.
the Aztec date 7 ácatl, or Seven Reed
 the Aztec day sign 1 Miquiztli
4-0llín, the Aztec Fifth Sun glyph

Ahuitzotl, the eighth Tlatoani of Mexico (Codez Mendoza)
* Ahuitzotl was the eighth ruler, or tlatoani, of the Aztecs. He took power in the year 7 Rabbit (1486) following the death of Tízoc, the 7th tlatoani. After the reign of his weak predecessor, the youthful Ahuitzotl oversaw an aggressive expansion of the Aztec/Mexica empire and consolidated its power. 
One of the best known Pre-Columbian military leaders, Ahuitzotl conquered the Mixtecs, Zapotecs and other groups along Mexico's Pacific coast as far as Guatemala.
At home, Ahuitzotl supervised a major rebuilding of Tenochtitlan, his island capital, on a grand scale, notably with the expansion and completion of the Great Pyramid or Templo Mayor. 
The aqueduct project was less of a success; its completion precipitated disastrous flooding, from which Ahuitzotl himself barely escaped, reputedly suffering a head injury that may have led to his death soon after.
He took his name from the mythical animal Ahuizotl, a combative, beaver-like creature with sharp teeth and claws also known as the Water Monster.
Ahuitzotl died in the year 10 Rabbit (1502) and was succeeded by his nephew, the ill-fated Moctezuma II. An Aztec royal tomb believed to be that of Ahuitzotl was recently uncovered in the precincts of the former Templo Mayor in Mexico City.
©2016 Richard D. Perry.   cross images by Niccolò Brooker & Diana Roberts

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Bulls of Totolmaloya

In the past we have run several posts on the parish church and chapels of Aculco in northern Mexico State, often with a focus on the wealth of carved stone crosses in the region.
San Lucas Totolmaloya is yet another church of interest in the Aculco area, also noted for its varied stone crosses and relief carvings.
Cross One
The stubby but decorative atrium cross is mounted in front of the church, set on a pyramidal base with whitewashed corner merlons.    Probably a late colonial work or a modern copy thereof, the cross employs a simple cross-within-a-cross motif as at San Jerónimo Aculco.  
   A starburst is incised at the axis and tiny Calvary crosses nestle in the showy fleurs-de-lis finials that blossom from the arms and neck. Another finial sprouts at the foot, from whose "ears" the cross seems to issue. 
   The pedestal on which the cross sits is more densely carved, with tiny reliefs of Calvary crosses, floral urns and petaled blooms on each corner—possibly predating the cross itself.
Note: the cross is currently (2016) lodged in the church while the atrium pedestal is under repairs.
Cross Two
A second, plainer but older cross—possibly the original atrium cross or a model for the present one—is set above the atrium gateway. 
   Here the underlying stepped pedestal is carved on both sides with paired reliefs of facing bulls—the bull being the symbol of the patron saint, St. Luke the evangelist
Cross Three
The third cross, in the form of a relief, is located inside the nave of the church beside the sanctuary, and also underlain by a pair of anatomically correct if skinny bullocks.
More carved bull reliefs are found on the medallions supporting the pinnacles atop the facade on either side. On their backs, both animals bear what appear to be books (or ink pots?) with projecting feathers or quills—a further reference to the Gospel of St. Luke, whose disembodied arm projects into one of the reliefs!
   While the date of the bull reliefs is uncertain, they may belong to the later colonial period.
Finally, one more cross, also plain, sits atop the church gable, behind which is mounted a remnant colonial sundial.
text & graphic © 2016 Richard D. Perry.  color images by Javier Lara, by special permission
Many thanks to Javier Lara for his valuable research, commentary and images on which this post is based.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Dogs of San Gerónimo Tlamaco

We take a break from our series on murals to look at the portrayal of animals in carved reliefs from a variety of early Mexican churches.
San Gerónimo Tlamaco  (Alessia Frassani)
Among the pleasures of traveling through the state of Hidalgo, north of the Valley of Mexico, is exploring the lesser known colonial churches and monuments of the region.
   One of these gems is the little church of San Gerónimo Tlamaco with its arcaded open chapel, built in the 1570s using the local, fine grained cantera stone whose apricot hues lend a warm glow to the facade.
The main interest of the facade is its sculpted porch. In a quite original configuration, the broad door jambs are topped and tailed by rows of rosettes that continue upwards into the tall, square alfiz that frames the entire porch. 
   A spiraling, thorn-and-ribbon molding extends above the doorway into an inner, sharply triangular alfiz that terminates in a rosary enclosing the crowned Marian monogram. 
A fleur-de-lis cross pierces the facade overhead.
Dogs' heads peer out from the finely modeled, stylized grapevine that curves around the basket handle arch above the doorway—an example of tequitqui stone carving at its best.
text © 1992 & 2016 Richard D. Perry
images courtesy of Niccolò Brooker and Alessia Frassani