Friday, March 31, 2017

Chiapas: A Trip to Tapalapa

To wind up our current series, we visit another partially restored mission in the less traveled Zoque speaking region of northern Chiapas. 
Picturesquely sited below a lush green hillside, the church of San Agustín Tapalapa was among several founded by the Dominicans in this tropical region in the later 1500s.    
   Although several of these early missions have been damaged, drowned or otherwise lapsed into ruin over the centuries, recent efforts to restore or at least conserve the surviving handful of these historic buildings have borne some fruit.
A former visita of the Dominican priory of Tecpatán, Tapalapa is a substantial structure built of local stone. Its simple square facade features an arched doorway, a rose choir window with tracery, and a triangular crowning pediment with triple merlons, and three niches containing sculpted figures including the hunched figure of the patron, St. Augustine. A small, tiled belfry stands beside the church on its north side.
Among the most impressive features of the church is the large, barrel vaulted apse at the east end, the only surviving and probably the earliest part of the once roofed church, its walls adorned with stamped, formerly colored stucco. 
  The roots of the arches that supported the fallen dome testify to its grand scale.
The present church occupies only a part of the original nave, but is still lit by its tall, rounded windows in classic Dominican style. 
nave views by Robert Guess
Although otherwise plain, the whitewashed nave houses a trio of colorful folk retablos at the far end. Another statue of St. Augustine graces the center altarpiece. 
   In 2003 the Chiapas state government, in coordination with INAH, restored the wooden ceiling of the church—a rare surviving example of this roof style in the region.
Text ©2008 & 2017 by Richard D. Perry. 
Color photography courtesy of Robert Guess and Niccolò Brooker. All rights reserved.

for more on colonial Chiapas consult our guidebook

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Chiapas: Place of the Grasshoppers

For our last two posts on lesser known Chiapas missions we move to the northern Zoque region of the state.
Chapultenango "Place of the Grasshoppers" was one of a network of mission towns established by the Dominicans among the Zoque Indians, who populated the fertile tropical lowlands of northeastern Chiapas. Founded in the 1590s, this substantial mission was largely built in the 17th century, with some later additions.   
In 1982 the nearby volcano of El Chichonál erupted violently, bringing devastation to the surrounding area. The rain of volcanic ash and rocks damaged several of the old Dominican mission buildings in the Zoque region, including Chapultenango and Ostuacán, and completely destroyed the historic nearby church at Francisco León.

© Niccolò Brooker
The Church
The massive church, constructed of brick and stone, survived the holocaust and has been partly restored. It bears a strong family resemblance to the other churches of the region, notably those at Copainalá and the Dominican priory at Tecpatán.
   The facade is distinguished by an elegant classical arched doorway cut from smooth white limestone surrounded by a variety of now empty niches. Above the dividing cornice is a small choir window framed by narrow baluster columns. Another pair of baluster columns hangs below the cornice—a classic marker of Dominican architecture in Mexico.  
The outstanding feature of the front is a substantial bell tower that projects from the south side of the facade. Punctuated with numerous window slits and arched bell openings, the tower is capped with great corner pinnacles. 
   A domed, cylindrical caracol stairway is attached to the northwest corner—another regional feature also seen at Tecpatan and Copainalá, and even attached to the celebrated fountain at Chiapa de Corzo.

The baroque north entry, which boasts a large oval medallion, is an 18th century addition,  although the fine arched windows along the nave, with their continuous stepped frames, are typical of Dominican architecture in Chiapas and Oaxaca.
© Niccolò Brooker
The nave, now covered by a flat metal roof, was formerly pitched, and at one time thatched with palm leaves—the main victim of Chichonal's fury. However, the grand polygonal apse retains its original covering, a handsome, paneled half-dome sheltering a popular image of El Señor de Esquipulas, the patron saint of the community. 

© Niccolò Brooker
Of special interest is the restored sacristy, also roofed by a coffered dome boldly painted with the sun, moon, stars and the Instruments of Christ’s Passion in blue and white.
© Niccolò Brooker
The Convento
Although largely destroyed by the eruption, since 2001 much of the two-story convento and the mission garden have been rebuilt for use as a community center.
Text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
Color images © 2016 by Niccolò Brooker where indicated
For more information consult Elsa Hernández Pons' monograph,  El convento Dominico de Chapultenango (Instituto Chiapaneco de Cultura. 1994)

for more on colonial Chiapas consult our guidebook

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Chiapas. Escuintenango

In our previous post we visited the ruined Dominican mission of Soyatitán, located on the old colonial Camino Real in Chiapas.  
   Here we look at another of the ruined Dominican missions along this route, whose surviving remnants lie just off the Pan American highway near the Guatemala border.
Escuintenango in 2010
Situated beside the San Gregorio river, a tributary of the upper Grijalva, the Escuintenango mission was founded in the mid 1500s. The present church was built sometime around 1600 but was finally abandoned by 1800. Today it stands on private land, the Rancho San Francisco, in the municipio of Comitán.
The convento has largely gone, and the bell tower is the only readily distinguishable feature of the once monumental church to remain.  
   Ruined sections of the polygonal apse and massive nave walls still protrude from the surrounding vegetation, their earthen cores set in crumbling retaining walls of rudely fashioned local "chac" limestone.
The tower retains part of its surmounting belfry and encloses remnants of a spiral, caracol stairway. A few decorative details can still be made out, notably some bulbous half columns and an empty shell niche that until recently contained the headless statue of a saint—possibly the unknown mission patron.
Escuintenango in 2016
text & graphic © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color photography courtesy of Niccolò Brooker (2016) and Bob Guess (2010)

for more on colonial Chiapas consult our guidebook
for further details on Escuintenango consult Sidney Markman's classic  

Architecture and Urbanization in Colonial Chiapas, Mexico

Friday, March 24, 2017

Chiapas: Asunción Soyatitán

For our final posts on Chiapas, we look at several less well known pueblos-de-indios missions founded by the Dominicans at strategic points along the old colonial highway and beyond. Most of these were, for various reasons, abandoned, usually because of depopulation, and the missions left to the mercy of the elements.
   In colonial times, the Camino Real, or "royal road", ran from Mexico City through Oaxaca and then Chiapas, at that time part of Guatemala, on its way to the colonial capital at Antigua. In the early years, the road followed an ancient Maya trade route south along the banks of the great Grijalva River, through the Central Depression of Chiapas from Chiapa de Corzo to Guatemala. 
   Later, with the establishment of the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, a secondary road was added which follows the present route of the Pan-American Highway, through the Chiapas highlands from San Cristóbal south to Comitán, after which it headed back down into the tierra caliente to join the original route.
Some of these pueblos have since been re-settled, and their little known but imposing standing missions partially preserved and once again in use. These include Copanaguastla and Soyatitán, as well as lesser, still ruined examples at Coapa, Escuintenango, Aquespala and Coneta.
   We focus first on one of the most impressive of these ruined missions at Asunción Soyatitán.

Crowning the brow of a hill half way down the road to the tierra caliente, the imposing stone church front of Asunción Soyatitán is a prominent local landmark. 
   Founded in the 1560s, Soyatitan was the principal visita of the Dominican monastery at Copanaguastla. Much of the fabric dates back to the 16th century, although the church was extensively rebuilt following a catastrophic fire in 1641.

Today, although partly conserved in recent years, much of the old mission is still in ruins. The roofless nave, remains exposed to the weather, and while the sturdy rubble stone walls of the sanctuary block at the east end have resisted erosion, these too now show ominous cracks.
The restored sanctuary window on the north side, stepped and recessed with slender colonettes fitted into its jambs, is the only one to survive intact—a classic example of Dominican style openings in the region.
Inside the old nave, the villagers have erected a small tin-roofed chapel which is used for catechism and occasional services.
Facing a grassy atrium, the recently stabilized, monumental west front is the best preserved part of the church. Postdating the 1641 fire, it measures almost nine feet in thickness. The three tiers of the broad, retablo style facade are economically but harmoniously articulated by paired, plain pilasters set between narrow, continuous cornices. 
   Atop the facade, a massive, stepped bell gable retains enormous merlons on each corner. 

Like the sanctuary window, the rounded central doorway and choir window are recessed behind multiple archways in the Dominican fashion. Slender niches, empty of statuary, extend on either side of the doorway, embellished with supporting corbels and projecting scalloped arches.    
   A few token stucco urns and floral reliefs above the doorway constitute the sole ornament in this strong but sober facade—an architectural composition of considerable coherence and presence. 
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color photography by Niccolo Brooker and José Baldemar García Ozuna

for more on colonial Chiapas consult our guidebook

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Chiapas: Victims of the Plague

The 1770s were a time of great trials in colonial Chiapas. Repeated infestations of locusts decimated crops and threatened famine. In 1773 a major earthquake caused widespread damage, and a series of epidemics, including smallpox, took a heavy toll.
   A striking commemorative painting, located in the church of San Francisco in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, refers to and is believed to date from this troubled period.

It portrays San Roque, the patron saint of protection against the plague, standing with arms crossed in the mode of blessing and wearing the brown habit of the Franciscan order. His pilgrim's hat and staff lean against the wall behind him. An angel tends to his wounded leg while the saint’s faithful dog, bread in mouth, looks up to him.
   A poignant inscription below reads, “The victims of the plague, entreat 
with faith their patron San Roque that they retain their health.” 
   A second dedication indicates that the signed but undated work was commissioned by the lay brothers of the Franciscan Third Order, of which San Roque was a prominent early member.
text and color image © 2017 Richard D. Perry.  All rights reserved 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Chiapas. El Calvario: The Mystic Vintage

We follow our posts on the altarpieces of Chiapas with a look at two unusual and historical paintings in other churches of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. First, at El Calvario chapel, and then in the church of San Francisco.
Hidden away in a shady courtyard behind the church of La Merced stands the little 18th century chapel of El Calvario. Like other barrio chapels in the city, its plain, brick and stucco facade is surmounted by an attractive espadaña belfry ornamented with volutes and pyramidal merlons. 
A relief of the Calvary cross with the instruments of the Passion is emblazoned at its apex.
The Mystic Vintage painting before and after restoration
Inside the chapel, the most intriguing colonial artifact is a recently restored painting of the Mystic Vintage, locally known as the Christ of Redemption. 
Christ bows under the weight of the cross in a stormy landscape with the hill of Calvary in the background, bleeding profusely into a winepress, while God the Father at right tightens the screw.
© Niccolo Brooker
The figures of St. Joseph and the Virgin of Sorrows kneel on either side while below, angels collect the precious blood in a chalice.
This remarkable and rare portrayal is a fairly faithful reproduction, in vibrant reds and blues, of a famous print by the Flemish artist and engraver Hieronymus Wierix. 
   Although no inscription appears on the El Calvario painting, a Latin caption on the Wierix print reads: Torcular calcavi solus 
et de gentibus non est vir mecum, a partial quote from Isaiah 63: 
" I have trodden the winepress alone, and of the people there was none with me... for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment."
    This stern Old Testament prophesy was further popularized in the Book of Revelation, (14:19) " So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God." The theme was recycled again in the old apocalyptic favorite, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: "... He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.." 

text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author and Niccolò Brooker