Friday, June 2, 2017

San Juan Bautista Cuautinchán: the main altarpiece

In a post on our sister site, we review the diverse early murals at the Franciscan monastery of San Juan Bautista Cuautinchán, south of the city of Puebla. 
   Erected in the 1570s to a design of Francisco Becerra, the Spanish architect who designed Puebla Cathedral, the rugged, twin-towered church was built to last, despite suffering recurrent blows from earthquakes.

Among its early colonial treasures, the main altarpiece in the church stands out. Although reputed to be the earliest altarpiece of substance in Mexico, its actual origins and authorship remain in question.
   One story has that it was originally commissioned and fabricated, circa 1570, for the main altar of Franciscan church of the Five Wounds in the city of Puebla. In this version, Francisco Becerra, the eminent architect, may have been the author of the altarpiece, although other documents name Nicolás Tejeda de Guzmán, a noted painter, and Pedro de Brizuela, a sculptor, as principals.
  Then, in 1599 the mestizo artist Juan de Arrúe, who is believed to have painted some of the main panels, acquired it as part payment for other work and sold it to the pueblo of Tehuacán for their convento, then in completion, and undertook various alterations.
   However, an earthquake severely damaged the church in Tehuacán before it could be installed, so the retablo was transferred to the community of Cuautinchán and duly installed in its church of San Juan Bautista in 1601. 
   Yet another version posits Arrúe together with his father, a Sevillian sculptor, as the authors of the altarpiece, which was actually created for Tehuacán. Damaged after the earthquake, it was restored in Puebla, and then, being out of scale with the rebuilt church at Tehuacan, passed on to Cuautinchán. Whatever the facts, its antiquity is undoubted.

Its structure is relatively straightforward, with the focus on the paintings. The compartments are simply framed by slender fluted and baluster columns in Renaissance Plateresque style and horizontal friezes with angel's heads.
The Cuautinchan retablo, upper tiers
The narrative program consists almost entirely of six large paintings, which we may attribute to Arrúe. They illustrate key episodes in the life of Christ in a sober if warm Renaissance style, tempered by a colorful Mannerist palette—perhaps reflecting his Andalusian heritage, or more likely the influence of the Sevillian painter Andrés de Concha with whom the artist may have worked in Oaxaca. 
On the first tier we see a dramatic Annunciation, and a Nativity scene (Adoration of the Shepherds) which includes a traditional bagpiper.
   The center tier depicts a related Three Kings (Adoration of the Magi) and the Resurrection, while the top tier includes the Ascension and Pentecost. The Assumption of the Virgin in the center panel is a later work.
Across the foot of the retablo, the predella, represents the Apostles, in this case including, unusually, Judas Iscariot, without halo but holding the bag of coins on the extreme right (i), whose large, bent nose signifies his moral deformity.   
   Columns of smaller scale portraits of saints flank the retablo on either side. The only statue, in the central niche, may have originally portrayed St. Francis, but was changed for Tehuacán, whose advocation was La Purísima, as it remains. 
   After long years of neglect the altarpiece was first conserved in 1987, and more recently in 2006 when the paintings were restored.

Please review our previous posts on Pueblan altarpieces of note: TecaliPuebla CathedralCuauhtinchanAtlixco Third OrderAtlixco San FranciscoSan José Chiapa
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by Niccolo Brooker and others.

1 comment:

  1. Although the figures are not so elongated, in these paintings the other-worldly back lighting and mannerist contrapposto put me in mind of El Greco.