Saturday, May 27, 2017

Oaxaca. San Mateo Capulalpan

For the last in our current series of posts on Oaxaca, we look at a close neighbor of Ixtlan, the mountain church of San Mateo Capulalpan. Following along a mountain road that winds southeast of Ixtlan, the first sight of Capulalpan is its imposing church, perched above a windswept atrium with panoramic views of the surrounding ridges of the Sierra Juárez
Between sheer, symmetrical towers, the severe classical facade rises in measured stages to a tall, triangular pediment. Nine steps lead up to the west entry, which is framed by subtly layered pilasters and sculpted cornices. 
   A carved inscription over the doorway is dated 1715, although another date, 1731, appears on the underchoir .
A simple statue of St. Matthew, the patron saint, holds up his gospel in the diminutive upper niche below a relief of the papal insignia.
The nave is a model for several other Sierra churches. Roofed by a trapezoidal wooden ceiling, it is braced at intervals by carved tie beams. The centerpiece is an octagonal ceiling over the crossing—a complex mosaic of shaped and fitted cedar in mudéjar style. 
The Altarpieces
As at Ixtlan, the chief artistic legacy at Capulalpan is its spectacular collection of colonial wooden altarpieces, which come in all shapes, sizes and finishes.
   Closely fitted into the narrow apse, the gilded main retablo is a masterpiece in traditional Oaxacan style, dating from the 1730s. Rising in four tiers and five vertical columns to the roofline, the center pavilion of the retablo projects dramatically forward, its rectangular compartments framed by spiral columns wreathed with vines and cornices dripping with spindles. 
Carved foliage and arabesques proliferate throughout. A solemn, bearded statue of St. Matthew stands in the recessed center niche, surrounded by fourteen large, rectangular canvases portraying scenes from his life. 
As at Ixtlan, smaller, highly ornate retablos are angled on either side of the sanctuary arch.
Exceptional late baroque, mostly Churrigueresque altarpieces line the whitewashed nave. While some are gilded, others remain unfinished, their dark red cedar estípite pilasters lacking their final paint and gold leaf.
Several retablos incorporate archangels in the form of caryatids, displaying elaborately layered, ruffled tunics—a signature motif in the Sierra region. A few, even more ornate, smaller retablos have undulating, shield-like outlines with fanciful foliated fringes.
Among the numerous engaging figures of archangels, one superb, unfinished statue of a youthful, fresh faced but one-eyed St. Raphael stands out, fitted with stylized wings, ruffled skirt, wide sleeves and a lofty plumed headdress all carved from cedar. 
   Elsewhere, a carved and painted figure of God the Father (part of a Trinity sculpture) sits in an ornate frame also encrusted with archangels.
A number of fine colonial paintings stand out at Capulalpan, among the most notable being a sympathetic 17th century portrait of the youthful St. Rose of Lima, in the south transept. 
   Dressed as a novice, in one hand she holds up a bouquet with an image of the child Jesus, while from the other hangs an anchor with a representation of the city of Lima, Peru, of which she is the patron saint.
text © 2017 by Richard D. Perry
color images by the author and courtesy of Felipe Falcón

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Oaxaca. Santo Tomás Ixtlan: the altarpieces

In our second post on Santo Tomás Ixtlan we take a closer look at the remarkable variety of gilded baroque altarpieces lining the nave of the church.
Lofty domes and groin vaults cap the church interior, with dates in the later 1700s inscribed on the arches. Its principal glory however, is the impressive assemblage of fourteen gilded baroque altarpieces—a vast artistic as well as financial investment for a rural Oaxacan parish, reflecting the influx of mining wealth in the mid-1700s. 
   The altarpieces fall into two main categories: first, those along the nave, which are mostly designed in the classic, compartmented Oaxacan "solomonic" tradition, and then those in the sanctuary and transepts, which are larger, later, and more lavishly fashioned in the sumptuous Mexican Churrigueresque, or barroco estípite style. 
In this second category, the majestic main retablo stands out like a gilded grotto. Dating from the same period as the facade relief, it rises high into the vault of the apse, thrusting forward at the sides. Giant estípites are richly encrusted with ornament, incorporating classical herms and skirted archangels, set against a filigree like background of spiraling, golden foliage.  
The recessed central canopy encloses a swagged, grotto like niche containing another tableau of Christ and St. Thomas—the church patron, who also appears, as we saw, on the facade
The transept altarpieces are similar in design to the main retablo, although executed in a flatter, even more ornamental vein—more in the opulent Queretaran style, notably that dedicated to the Virgin: of La Candelaria on the south side, with a crucifix silhouetted against the window opening. 
The retablos of St. Anthony of Padua and the Passion of Christ, on the north side of the nave (above), follow the traditional Oaxacan pattern, with spiral columns and jutting cornices with dangling pendants and a profusion of gilded ornament, as do the retablos of the Holy Trinity and St. Catherine of Siena opposite. 
Near the choir, the brightly gilded altarpiece of St. Nicholas of Tolentino showcases colorful paintings illustrating the life and death of the saint, rendered in a popular style with gilt and silver accents, and signed by one "Ionnes Antonius"—believed to be the regional artist Juan Antonio Chavez. 
Other art works of interest at Ixtlan comprise this classic Oaxacan style statue of the Trinity as well as individual paintings of quality, including a melancholy portrait of St. Catherine of Siena and a charming Last Supper with the Four Evangelists.
text © 2006 & 2017 by Richard D. Perry
legacy color images by the author and courtesy of Felipe Falcón and Niccolò Brooker

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Oaxaca. Santo Tomás Ixtlan: the architecture

We continue our focus on colonial Oaxaca with posts on two extraordinary churches in the Sierra de Juárez.
view from the Sierra de Juárez
The scenic Sierra de Juárez, towering above the valley of Oaxaca, is a rugged area whose mountainous landscapes, clad with steep pine and oak forests, shelter numerous Zapotec villages.
   Despite their picturesque and often less accessible locations, many of these communities are home to churches of imposing scale and architectural complexity, together with rich colonial art and furnishings.
  Outstanding among these monuments is the cathedral like 18th century church of Santo Tomás Ixtlan—a rare dedication. In this two part post we look first at the architectural highlights.
Planted on an open hilltop, enclosed within high, sheer walls and capped with red domes, Santo Tomás seems like a great ocean liner about to set sail. 
Beyond its imposing site and scale, the sophisticated quality of the architecture is even more impressive. Fashioned from green and honey-colored ashlar stone, the west front rivals the principal churches of the city of Oaxaca for its rich sculptural variety. 
   Ornamental columns line the three tiers of the facade: Ionic baluster columns flank the grand, arched entry while spiral, tritostyle half-columns adorn the two upper tiers. A bold, octagonal window dominates the upper tier, and the facade is crowned by a triangular gable emblazoned with a relief of the papal tiara. 
   Decorative shell niches—now empty save for two statues of saints in the lower tier—are recessed between the columns. Relief swags, volutes, rosettes and angel heads enrich every surface, a true tapestry in stone. 
Above the portal, lavishly encased in a multi-layered "eared" frame, is a stunning relief of St. Thomas the Apostle, dated 1757. Under the astonished gaze of three other apostles, the doubting Thomas kneels to touch the wound of the risen Christ. 
   This beautifully realized sculpture, its figures expressively modeled in realistic detail, rivals the related tableaux gracing the city facades of La Soledad and San Agustín
Dated 1738—a little earlier than the west front—a second sculpted portal on the south side of the church, is equally ornate. Double Corinthian columns wreathed with upward spiraling vines stand to either side of the carved doorway, emblazoned with the Virgin's crown on its keystone. 
© Felipe Falcón
Densely carved, ornamental candlestick columns flank the relief of the Assumption of the Virgin above the doorway, which is set within an elaborate cruciform frame. 
   Rising amid heavenly clouds and cherubs, the Virgin is surmounted by the Holy Spirit and, looking out from the scrolled gable, God the Father. In contrast to the main facade relief, this static, more stylized composition evinces a more popular, vernacular flavor.
text © 2006 & 2017 by Richard D. Perry
legacy color images by the author and courtesy of Niccolò Brooker

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Oaxaca. Francis and Dominic together

In the summer of 1215, Francis of Assisi was in Rome with a small group of friars seeking approval for his Rule from the Pope. One night during his stay, the story goes, The Virgin Mary appeared to him presenting two men who would labor for the conversion of the world. Francis was startled to recognize himself as one of these apostles.
   The following day, he was in one of the churches of Rome when suddenly, an unknown person came up to him, embraced him, and said: "You are my companion, we will work together, supporting one another toward the same end, and no one will prevail against us." Francis immediately recognized him as the other man in the vision. It was St. Dominic, who had also received a similar vision. 
   This meeting of the founders of the two great Mendicant preaching Orders is still commemorated twice a year when, on their respective feast days, the brothers of both Orders sing Mass together, and afterwards break bread at the same table. 
   While the story of Francis and Dominic actually sitting down at table together may be apocryphal, its parallel to the Last Supper, when Christ charges the Apostles with spreading the Gospel, conveys a powerful message about the Mendicant mission in life and in art.
Despite the history of rivalry and conflict of the two Orders in the New World, the two founders occasionally appear together in Mexican colonial art. 
   In our previous post we saw statues of saints Francis and Dominic in the museum at Santo Domingo de Oaxaca. Here we feature two contrasting examples of the two together, from Dominican priories in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca: a pair of statues in the upper facade of the church at Teposcolula (above), and an extraordinary painting that still graces the former refectory at San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca.
The semicircular composition, by the poblano artist Pablo de Talavera and based on the Last Supper theme, shows the two saints gazing heavenward at the far table, while the Franciscan Twelve—the first friars to evangelize Mexico—sit at the adjacent tables, waited on by archangels with trays of food.
text and images © 2017  Richard D. Perry

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Oaxaca: the statues of Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo, the cloister
A prime destination for visitors to Oaxaca is the opulent city church of Santo Domingo and its adjacent former convento, now a state cultural center, home to the noted Burgoa Library and the extensive Museo de la Culturas de Oaxaca.
Among the treasures of the Museo are its displays of colonial arts, housed in renovated galleries off the upper cloister.  
   In this post we focus on the statuary: a representative selection of carved and painted wooden figures in varying states of preservation, largely drawn from area churches. As such they portray prominent religious and biblical personages.
Contrasting portraits of the founders of the Mendicant Orders, saints Dominic and Francis, are included. They depict Dominic as magisterial, richly robed and holding his symbols of office, while Francis is shown as a more humble and ascetic figure.
Saints Peter and Paul are portrayed likewise: Paul as a heroic standing figure with his sword and book of epistles, and in contrast, an agonized Peter, barefoot and seated humbly with a battered and sorrowful face.
Two statues of female saints show Mary Magdalene, here looking up in awe although missing her long haired wig and jar of ointment, and a polychrome bust of Saint Lucy, formerly used as a reliquary, holding her eyes on a plate.
Once again, a simple, seated figure of the youthful, barefoot St. John the Evangelist is in sharp contrast to the elaborately costumed and well shod statue of St. Joachim, the elderly father of the Virgin Mary, sitting proudly in his baronial chair. 
Youthful and beardless like John the Evangelist, St. Joseph is tenderly portrayed as a loving father to the Christ child, while a bearded God the Father sits in majesty upon his celestial throne.

Please review our page on the murals of Santo Domingo, posted on our sister blog.
text and photography © 2017 by Richard D. Perry and Rosalind Perry.  All rights reserved

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Oaxaca. San Pablo then and now

Oaxaca city center
The early years in Oaxaca were difficult ones for the Dominican Order.  A handful of friars arrived here in 1529 and quickly put up an adobe chapel, dedicated to St. Paul (San Pablo), not far from the main square (zócalo).  But because of limited space, by 1550 the Dominicans had decided to build a new priory on a large grant of land situated on higher ground, where the priory of Santo Domingo now stands. 
   Although San Pablo remained the main residence and training center for the friars until the end of the century, in 1603 and 1608 catastrophic earthquakes struck the city and severely damaged the mission of San Pablo as well as the Santo Domingo. The friars were forced to seek refuge in the monastery of Cuilapan, then under construction just outside the city.
   By 1617 however, reconstruction began of a larger church, using the surviving walls while extending the nave and adding new chapels. By mid century the convento was  enlarged and the entries refashioned in sober classical style.
   Space in the old historic center remained limited, however, in part due to the friars selling some of the land to fund the reconstruction.  Another major quake in 1696 struck the monastery, causing the church roof to collapse; although reconstruction ensued, this time to include a Rosary chapel, it reopened in 1728.
   Relations between the friars and the diocesan clergy worsened in late colonial times, and the Dominicans gradually lost control of the native parishes that had been their stronghold. The final blow fell in 1856 when the convento was ordered closed under the Reform.
   By 1900 a new road (Reforma/Fiallo) was cut through and new residences and workshops began to occupy the former San Pablo property. During the last century its precincts were invaded by private construction, a hotel and a parking lot. Several of the buildings were demolished, including part of the church, and by 2000 the historic former Dominican mission had virtually disappeared from view and its existence almost forgotten, although some of the old doorways remained to be discovered by persistent visitors*.
The church and convento doorways in 1990
The Rosary chapel entry in 1990
Between 2006 and 2011, the Harp Helu Foundation undertook the clearing of the mission precincts and began reconstruction, as far as was feasible, of the church buildings.
   These included the surviving part of the nave, the Rosary chapel and the partial rebuilding and repurposing of the former cloister as the Centro Cultural San Pablo, now housing the Helu Foundation offices as well as other research and museum display areas.
The renovated church and convento doorways in 2012
The restored Rosary chapel entry in 2012
The Rosary chapel retablo in 2012 (not the original)
* In 1990 your author, in company with Ross Parmenter, the noted researcher and writer on Oaxaca, managed to gain entry to a private bodega to photograph the surviving San Pablo doorways, which remained in remarkably good condition.
text and 1990 and 2012 images © 2017 Richard D. Perry.  All rights strictly reserved