Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Apostles of San Felipe Sultepec

From time to time we take a look at rural churches across Mexico with colonial antecedents, that are overlooked by most students of viceregal art and architecture, but that often possess features of special artistic or historic interest. We like to call them Hidden Gems.
San Felipe Sultepec
This modest church, noted for its distinctive soaring tower, rests in a bucolic setting near Calpulalpam in the extreme northwestern corner of Tlaxcala, close to Mexico State.

The broad, arched entry is densely carved with stylized foliage. Above it, a classically framed niche encloses an unusual carved relief portraying two full length figures. 
According to the Latin inscription* that surrounds the niche, the figure on the right is Philip the Apostle, the patron saint of the church, holding a Latin cross and loaf of bread. On the left is St. James Minor, shown here with a club or staff—one instrument of his martyrdom.  
Traditionally they shared the same feast day in May, which may account for their pairing here.

The inscription quotes from a traditional collect or prayer in the Latin rite honoring specific saints, especially appropriate for their feast days:


Check out our other Hidden Gems: Xichu de Indios; San Pablo Malacatepec;  OcoxochitepecMixquiahuala
text © 2016 Richard D. Perry
color images courtesy of our friend Niccolò Brooker, who brought this church to our attention.

Monday, April 24, 2017

San Pablo Malacatepec

From time to time we take a look at modest rural churches with colonial antecedents that are overlooked by most students of viceregal art and architecture, but that often possess features of artistic interest. We like to call them Hidden Gems.
Like Ocoxochitepec, San Pablo Malacatepec is a small community in the wooded mountains west of Mexico City close to the Michoacan state line, recently in the news as a possible protected butterfly refuge.
   The pleasant but unexceptional church front retains vestiges of early stonework dating from the 17th century, but the main interest lies in the church interior. 
A handsome but plain wood beamed ceiling of recent vintage leads the eye to the apse, which preserves its older, paneled wooden artesonado ceiling above the main altarpiece.

The unusual aspect of the apsidal ceiling is that it is covered with murals—a feature unique to this region but more closely associated with the painted church ceilings of western Michoacán, which we featured earlier on this blog (map).

Like many of the Michoacán ceilings, the subject of the Malacatepec ceiling is the Virgin Mary, in this case portraying the Coronation of the Virgin by the Holy Trinity. 
   The centrally placed figures of the principal actors are flanked by symbols of the Virgin and ribbon like devotional inscriptions, and simply drawn in popular style—probably dating from the late 18th or early 19th century.
The keys of St. Peter and the papal cross above the Coronation scene emphasize the diocesan origin of the church—also underlined by the crossed keys emblazoned on the entry gateway.
The narrative scenes in the center are flanked by rows of fleurs-de-lis motifs amid swirling foliage lining the sloping side panels. Various hues of red, orange and blue together with earth colors predominate in the murals.
The Main Altarpiece
Framed in provincial late 18th century style, the handsome red and gilt altarpiece has been recently renovated. It is notable for its statuary, especially the sumptuously appareled figures of St. Peter, again with the crossed keys, and the church patron St. Paul, who occupy the principal side niches.  
St. Peter                                              St. Paul
Check out our other Hidden Gems: Xichu de IndiosSan Felipe Sultepec;  OcoxochitepecMixquiahuala
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
images by Niccolò Brooker and Wikimedia

Friday, April 21, 2017

San Martín Ocoxochitepec

From time to time we take a look at modest rural churches with colonial antecedents that are overlooked by most students of viceregal art and architecture, but that often possess features of artistic interest. We like to call them Hidden Gems.
The country church of San Martín Ocoxochitepec (Pine Flower Hill) nestled in the verdant hills of the Valle de Bravo in the northwest corner of Mexico State, is one example. 
Now serving as the parish church of nearby Ixtapan del Oro, the building dates back at least to the 17th century—the date 1689 is carved beneath the choir window—although parts of it may be even earlier. 
The rustic doorway, with fluted pilasters and sinuous, carved foliage on the archway, is oddly elevated, although this may have been reduced in height due to flooding.
The other item of interest at Ocoxochitepec is the atrium cross mounted in front of the church, cylindrical in section and carved with a simple ring at the crossing.
Check out our other Hidden Gems: Xichu de IndiosSan Felipe Sultepec; San Pablo Malacatepec;   Mixquiahuala
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry.  images by Niccolò Brooker and others

Monday, April 17, 2017

San Mateo Atlatlahucan, the architecture

San Mateo Atlatlahucan
The Augustinians in Morelos
As latecomers to the “spiritual conquest” of Mexico, the Augustinians were often obliged to confine their missionary activities to more remote or less attractive areas beyond or between those occupied by their Franciscan and Dominican rivals. 
   The benevolent northeastern valleys of Morelos were an exception to this pattern. Like the other missionary orders and the Aztec emperors before them, the Augustinians were enchanted by these green valleys clustered below the great volcano of Popocatépetl. Here in a “land of eternal spring” they too envisioned an earthly paradise where St. Augustine’s long dreamed of City of God might at last be realized.
   In 1533 their first primitive mission was founded at Ocuituco. The next year a second house was established at Totolapan and, within the year, two more, at Yecapixtla and Tlayacapan. Over the next decades, they completed the chain of imposing fortress monasteries along the foothills, including Atlatlahucan and Zacualpan, in addition to annexing former Franciscan houses at Tlaquiltenango and Tlaltizapan. 

Here we take a closer look at Atlatlahucan and its colonial arts, focusing first on its classic “fortress” architecture. 
The towering monastery of Atlatlahucan looks more like a medieval castle than a house of God.  An enormous atrium with high crenelated walls, pierced only by a fortified western gateway, guards the western approach to the monastery.
Two of the four original posa chapels have survived, in the southwest and southeast corners. Both have striking pedimented fronts and are capped with domed cupolas and spiky corner merlons. 
The Open Chapel
The oldest structure here is the open chapel, attached to the church on its north side.  Side walls flare forward from the small, raised sanctuary at the rear to embrace the arcaded front, framed by an exterior alfiz. A tall, narrow archway at center is surmounted by an espadaña studded with merlons—designed to harmonize with the church front.
© Robert Jackson
The Church 

The soaring west front is a study in verticality; angled buttresses topped with crenellated garitas, a crowning espadaña studded with merlons, long rainstreaks plunging like cataracts from the pinnacles atop the parapet—everything seems to accelerate the heavenward movement.
The martial character of the monastery extends to the arcaded portico and cloister, where ranks of merlons top the buttressed arcades.

Sharp, pyramidal merlons and pinnacles march along every wall and belfry emphasizing the fortress aspect of the church. Basalt crosses carved with Passion symbols top the lateral tower and the atrium gateway.

Other examples of early stone carving at Atlatlahucan include the ogival convento doorways and the sanctuary arch in the church sculpted with floral and Passion reliefs.
Looking across Atlatlahucan's battlemented parapets to the twisted gorges of the Sierra de Tepoztlan and the shining plain below, it is easy to feel like a feudal lord commanding his domain from atop the castle wall. 
Note: Our second post on Atlatlahucan, describing the murals, will appear on our sister blog.
text © 1992 & 2017 Richard D. Perry
images by the author except where noted.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Tlaquiltenango: the Franciscan heritage

Despite their success at Cuernavaca, the Franciscans erected few other monasteries within the boundaries of present-day Morelos. Their only other important house was located at San Francisco Tlaquiltenango, in the tropical sugar country to the south.    
   However in 1573 the Dominicans wrested control of the monastery from the Franciscans, who after ten years briefly regained control, only to lose it again to the Dominicans in 1590.   
   This ongoing conflict, with intervals of occupation by both Orders, is reflected in the Dominican repainting of much of the mural decoration within the monastery, which we examined in a post on our sister site.
Richard Perry 1987
However, the basic architecture of the monastery is clearly Franciscan, as evidence its austere, fortress like appearance, and in particular, its open chapel and the distinctive south doorway, which are the focus of this post.

© Richard Perry 1987
The South Doorway
The monumental south side of the church is a windowless wall of irregular dark basalt braced at intervals by narrow buttresses edged with white quoining. This rhythm is broken by the pedimented south porch, a country cousin of the great north doorway at Cuernavaca. 
The north doorway at Cuernavaca (© Richard Perry)

© Niccolò Brooker
The surmounting alfiz frames a Calvary cross, mounted on a simulated cairn of black boulders atop a skull and bones, and carved with stylized, pierced wounds and a crown of thorns at the crossing.
© Niccolò Brooker
The Open Chapel
Above the convento entry we can still glimpse the recessed archway of the elevated open chapel, also framed by an alfiz that encloses carved reliefs of the Five Wounds and the Cristogram in the center, ringed by the Franciscan cord. 
   An undulating vine with carved fruit and leaves snakes around the arch sprouting from an archaic “sliced mushroom” emblem at the base. 
© Niccolò Brooker

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

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Chiapas: Tecpatán

Before leaving Chiapas, we take a last look at the venerable priory of Santo Domingo de Tecpatán, the major Dominican house in the northern Zoque region of the state.
© 2016 courtesy of Robert Jackson
The rain stained hulk of this grand, 16th century priory still broods over its grassy atrium in the center of this tropical hillside town,  
   Imposing and original, the 16th century building complex draws on the diverse architectural traditions favored by the Dominicans—late medieval, mudéjar, Plateresque and Renaissance. 
© 2016 courtesy of Robert Jackson
While the brick and stone church front has lost much of its stucco veneer and original detail, its harmonious and inventive design continues to impress.  Giant Tuscan pilasters frame the entire center facade—plain, apart from shallow shell niches embedded at eye level.
   The simple arched doorway retains only vestiges of its fluted surround. Three blank sculpture niches separate the doorway from the handsome, layered choir window above, in turn flanked by worn Corinthian pilasters. capped by dentilled cornices. 
   A shallow triangular pediment caps the center facade. The crumbling espadaña—a picturesque silhouette of looping arches capped with eroded baroque pediments and finials—is a later addition 
© 2016 courtesy of Robert Jackson
The canyon-like interior of the church, now open to the sky, was originally spanned by a pitched artesonado roof supported on masonry arches, some of which still rest precariously in place. At the east end, a short flight of steps leads up to the narrow apse, which is framed by a classical archway and vaulted by a scalloped half dome. Typically Dominican, rounded, recessed windows open at intervals along the roofless nave.
The cavernous sacristy beside the apse is roofed by a lofty Gothic vault in a ribbed cloverleaf pattern, still bearing traces of floral mural decoration. 
Tecpatán, the south porch (1993)
Broad pilasters topped with plateresque finials frame the grand south porch, its "door-within-a-door" design related to the north entry at Yanhuitlan—the great Dominican priory in Oaxaca. 
The Dominican insignia are emblazoned on a crumbling stucco panel above. 

tower image by Ana María Parrilla Albuerne;  stairway © 2016 Robert Jackson
The fantastical, turreted tower is the most striking feature of this church, conjuring up the image of a medieval castle. Cylindrical and octagonal buttresses brace the corners, while the semi circular projection from the west face encloses a narrow, winding stairway of cut stone, illuminated by slit openings. 
© 2016 courtesy of Robert Jackson
The recently restored cloister at Tecpatán, a grandiose two-story structure, is distinguished by elegant arcades of burnt-orange brick.
The upper cloister (1993)
The renovated walkways are covered by lofty groin vaults and faced by arcades with paneled piers, further adorned along the upper arcade by plain and spiral colonnettes.
   Altogether a magnificent but timeworn monument to faded Dominican hopes and missionary efforts among the Zoques. 

text © 2017 Richard D. Perry. 1993 photographs by the author
color images © 2016 courtesy of Robert Jackson