Monday, August 22, 2016

Tecali 1: the altarpieces

This is the first of four posts on the art and artifacts of the early Franciscan mission complex at Tecali, Puebla.
Tecali, the roofless basilica (Niccolo Brooker)
The great arcaded basilica of Santiago Tecali, reputedly designed by the prominent Renaissance architect Claudio de Arciniega and completed in 1569, was one of the outstanding early architectural monuments in Puebla and colonial Mexico. 
   Now abandoned and roofless, the church has been stripped of all its colonial furnishing save for some fragmentary murals and carved stone crosses.
Tecali, the parish church (Felipe Falcón)
Tecali: The Altarpieces  
However, some of the superb early colonial art works were rescued from the basilica before it was abandoned, and are now installed in the adjacent parish church. 
Tecali, the main altarpiece (Niccolo Brooker)
The Main Altarpiece
The most precious of these relics is the main altarpiece (retablo mayor), dating from about 1580 and one of the earliest to survive in Mexico. 
   The framing of the retablo is notable for its understated Ionic pilasters and Renaissance motifs of cherubs, swags, urns and grapevinesAt its center is the beautifully carved and richly clad figure of Santiago, the patron saint of the monastery, shown here as a pilgrim rather than as the usual militant horseman. 
   Other statues include those of St. Francis and St. Clare on the left, and St. Dominic and St. Catherine on the right.
Tecali, the main altarpiece, The Annunciation;    The Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth. 
Four exceptional panels by an unknown master occupy the outer compartments. Derived from late Renaissance engravings, they depict scenes from the life of the Virgin; the figures, formally posed in flowing draperies, are luminously painted in blues, crimsons and ochers with a keen eye for detail. The glowing Annunciation is especially well observed. 
   Reclining figures of Faith and Charity flank the Baptism of Christ panel in the upper tier.
Tecali, the main altarpiece, St. Ambrose (Niccolo Brooker)
Along the base panels, the Four Doctors of the Latin Church, preoccupied with their studies, recline in idealized Italianate landscapes. 
Tecali, the main altarpiece, St. Jerome
Tecali, the altarpiece of St. Francis
A smaller side retablo of the Miracles of St. Francis, also originally from the basilica, is contemporary with the main altarpiece and similarly framed. 
   The extraordinary center panel depicts the saint receiving the Stigmata, ringed by anecdotal scenes from his life rendered in picturesque detail, including the Apotheosis (fiery chariot) scene in the pediment. 
Tecali, the altarpiece of St. Francis (detail)
altarpiece of the Archangels (Javier del Rio)
A third retablo of interest is the ornate, gilded altarpiece of the Archangels in the transept, dating from the late 1700s. 
   Confidently fashioned in sumptuous late baroque style, it employs tiers of encrusted estípite pilasters to frame elaborately canopied niches containing the richly robed figures of the seven archangelsLayered entablatures, along with sinuous, zigzag moldings and floral arabesques add to the complex textures of the retablo.
text and color images © 2016 Richard D. Perry, except where indicated 

See some of our earlier posts featuring important Mexican altarpieces:


  1. The paintings in the altarpiece seem like they might have been done by an Italian hand. They remind me of some paintings in the John Johnson collection of Italian Renaissance work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

    1. As I noted, the artist is not known although the panels are painted in an accessible but sober Mannerist style. The retablo has been attributed to the Spanish architect Claudio de Arciniega or his brother Luis, both sculptors although neither was known as a painter.
      It is more likely that the paintings are the work of Flemish artist Simon Pereyns or possibly the Spanish artist Balthasar de Echave Orio, both of whom worked in the Puebla region in the late 1500s.