Monday, March 13, 2017

Chiapas: The Saints of Teopisca

For our third post on the colonial retablos of Chiapas, we look at the magnificent main altarpiece at Teopisca.
The striking church of San Agustín Teopisca stands conspicuously beside the Panamerican Highway south of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the colonial capital. 
Built on the site of an ancient Maya shrine and necropolis, the spacious nave was even used for Christian burials in colonial times. 
© Robert Guess
The Main Retablo
The principal altarpiece is one of the largest, most refined and most lavishly ornamented colonial works of art in Chiapas, as well among the earliest, p
robably completed in the first decade of the 1700sDuring a 1993 re-roofing of the church, the retablo was disassembled and removed for cleaning and restoration. Today it occupies a place of honor in the sanctuary of the church. 
   It has an interesting history. Originally created for the former Jesuit church of San Agustín in the city of San Cristóbal, it was moved here in the 1880s apparently to replace retablos destroyed during an earthquake. (two other retablos from San Agustín are preserved in the city Cathedral)
This opulent retablo is a triumph of the Central American "Solomonic" style, similar examples of which can be seen throughout Guatemala and Oaxaca. 
   Its four main tiers are framed by encrusted spiral columns, intricately carved with twisting grapevines and sharply projecting cornices many hung with spindles—a distinctive feature of this southern style. Numerous carved angels and atlantes as well as a dizzying overlay of filigree ornament further enrich its gilded surfaces.
St Peter                                                            St Paul
Handsome statues of saints with sumptuous estofado draperies occupy the ornamental shell niches in the center sections.
  St.  Francis                St Augustine
In addition to traditional icons like the Virgin of the Rosary,* St. Peter and St. Paul, there are portraits of the founders of the religious Orders: St. Francis, St. Dominic and naturally, St. Augustine—the patron saint of the church. 
   Jesuit notables such as Ignatius Loyola, Francis de Borgia and Francis Xavier are also represented on the third tier, reflecting the original sponsorship of the altarpiece.
  * Although dressed in modern costume, the statue of the Virgin of the Rosary and Child is unusual and appears quite old. It may be an import from Guatemala or even Spain.
The Nativity (courtesy of Robert Guess)
In the outer compartments, large, rectangular paintings of individual saints occupy the upper tiers. On the lower tier are two quite distinctive narrative paintings. They portray on the right, a Nativity, or Adoration of the Shepherds, and on the left, the Resurrection.
The Resurrection (courtesy of Robert Guess)
In this unusual representation Mary Magdalene, accompanied by the mother of St. James, confront in amazement the empty tomb of Christ. An angel pronounces the Latin words, Surrexit, non est hic"He is not here, he is risen."
   Although we have no secure documentation, it seems likely that these two panels, may be the remnants of a cycle by the celebrated Mexican baroque artist Juan Correa the Younger, who created the paintings for the related retablo of El Perdón in the cathedral.
   In our view, this magnificent altarpiece is the finest in Chiapas and ranks among the outstanding examples of its kind in Mexico.
text & graphics © 2006 & 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author and courtesy of Robert Guess and Niccolo Brooker. All rights reserved.
SourcesFrans Blom,  El retablo de Teopisca. Unam-IIE Anales (1955)  
              Andrés Aubry,  El Templo de Teopisca. INAREMAC (1993)
              Virginia Guess (personal communication) 

for more on colonial Chiapas consult our guidebook


  1. Typically Mary is alone when the Archángel Gabriel approaches her. In the painting above is the other woman Anna, do you think? Possibly Elizabeth?

    1. Thank you for drawing my attention to this detail and I realize, a related error.
      In fact this painting, when shown in full (I have substituted a new image, provided by courtesy of Robert Guess) relates a scene from the Resurrection of Christ not the Annunciation.
      I have amended the post accordingly.

    2. That explains it. Thanks.