Sunday, July 30, 2017

Hidden Gems: San Juan Bautista, Huasca de Ocampo.

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 historic or artistic interest. We call them Hidden Gems.*
   In an earlier post we visited the church at El Puente, in the mountainous mining region of eastern Hidalgo. Here we look at another church in the area with colonial art works and connections with the history of mining.
La Sierra de Pachuca near Huasca
The town of Huasca de Ocampo nestles in a 
picturesque outer valley of the Sierra de Pachuca, through which a river tumbles over basaltic outcroppings surrounded by forested ranges
   Although at one time a 16th century Augustinian ermita, the Huasca parish church, as it stands today, dates mostly from the 18th century. It was founded by Pedro Romero de Terreros, the first Count of Regla, a prominent mining magnate and philanthropist, who owned valuable silver mines and established several haciendas de beneficio in the area during a major mining boom in the 1760s.
The church front remains surprisingly modest, however, and despite the relief of the Archangel Michael above the main portal, is dedicated to John the Baptist. (This handsome relief was reputedly commissioned and donated by Romero de Terreros himself, a devotee of the archangel.) 
The relief of St Michael  ©Niccolò Brooker
Inside the roomy church, numerous side altars line the nave, mostly dating from the 18th century. One baroque example (1) framed by spiral columns, is dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua and features a statue of the saint along with a winged portrait of the Dominican preacher St. Vincent Ferrer
  Another retablo (2) centers on a large painting of Las Animas, portraying the Archangel Michael flanked by two Franciscan saints above souls in Purgatory. 
1.                                                                     2.

The festival of John the Baptist takes place on June 24 of each year, an event boisterously celebrated with masses, horse racing, cockfights, sporting events, folk dancing and of course fireworks.
The chapel of Our Lady of Loreto, Santa Maria Regla
Two former mining haciendas in the area, those of Santa Maria Regla and San Miguel Regla, have recently been refurbished as luxury hotels, their former chapels often used for weddings. 
   At Santa Maria Regla, the chapel is dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto, and is attractive mix of urban and rustic, with an ornate, colonnaded front, a soaring tower, a cylindrical stairway and one giant flying buttress.
* Check out our other Hidden Gems: Xichu de Indios; San Felipe Sultepec; San Pablo Malacatepec;  Ocoxochitepec; Mixquiahuala; Cherán;
text ©2017 by Richard D. Perry
images from internet sources and by Niccolò Brooker

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Cristóbal de Villalpando exhibit

Opening July 25th 2017 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, this new exhibition showcases works by the celebrated Mexican artist Cristóbal de Villalpando (ca. 1649–1714) 
   Born in Mexico City, he emerged in the 1680s not only as the leading painter in viceregal Mexico, but also as one of the most innovative and accomplished artists in the entire Hispanic world.  Influenced by the grand manner of Rubens, leavened by the warm, Mannerist inspired Andalusian artistic tradition, and informed by a naive New world earthiness, Villalpando's painting exemplifies the luminous high Mexican baroque, with daring compositions, dynamic movement, brilliant color and expressive elegance.
    The Met exhibit prominently features Villalpando's early masterpiece, the Transfiguration of Jesus, Moses and the Brazen Serpent. This monumental 28-foot-tall canvas was painted in 1683 for a chapel dedicated to a miracle-working image of Christ at the Column, located in Puebla Cathedral and commissioned by the controversial then bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz.    
    Newly restored, the painting had, until now, never been exhibited outside its place of origin. Ten additional works by Villalpando, most of which have never been shown in the United States, will also be exhibited including, among others, a recently discovered Adoration of the Magi, on loan from Fordham University, and The Holy Name of Mary from the Museum of the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
The Transfiguration of Jesus, with Moses and the Brazen Serpent
The first in a series of important ecclesiastical commissions, the "Transfiguration" marked a breakthrough in Villalpando’s work, in terms of its grand scale and its audacious conception and execution. He signed it “Villalpando inventor,” an inscription that emphasizes the artist’s intellectual achievement in addition to his artistic skills, thus asserting his professional status as a “learned practitioner of a noble art.”
   In his bold composition, Villalpando juxtaposed the Old Testament story of Moses and the Brazen Serpent with the New Testament account of the Transfiguration—an unprecedented pairing of these subjects. The two biblical events are staged against sacred landscapes that contrast the celestial realm, with misty mounts Calvary and Tabor, and the terrestrial realm of the desert wilderness as described in Exodus. 
   The two separate but linked sections are populated by life-size figures of every age and gender, clothed and nude, and in a striking variety of poses and attitudes.

The Transfiguration
The rounded upper half of the composition represents the transfiguration of Jesus’s corporeal body into light. This strange event takes place while Jesus is still living and among the apostles. In his Gospel, Matthew recounts that in the evening, Jesus led the brothers James and John as well as Peter up to a high mountain, known as Tabor, where they could be alone. 
   As they all looked on, an extraordinary change suddenly came over Jesus: his face shone like the sun, and his clothes turned a dazzling white. The three disciples then saw the prophets Moses (horned with serpent) and Elijah appear to talk with Jesus. 
   Then an incandescent cloud came over them, from which a voice issued saying, ‘This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased – listen to him!’ When the disciples heard the voice, they were so terrified that they threw themselves face downward on the ground.
   In his visual treatment Villalpando emphasizes the ethereal aspect of this other worldly scene rather than its drama, by means of shimmering color and fluid brushwork.

The Brazen Serpent
In contrast, the lower register of Villalpando’s composition is by far the more dramatic section of the canvas. It illustrates the bizarre story of Moses and the Brazen Serpent—significantly, a scriptural precedent for the making and use of images in worship, thus affirming the importance of art and artists. 
   This Old Testament narrative tells of the Israelites who, frustrated by refugee life in the desert, speak out against God and their leader Moses. To punish them, God sends a plague in the form of poisonous snakes to ravage the unfaithful. 
   After the Israelites repent, Moses, as intercessor, appeals to God on their behalf. God instructs Moses to make a brazen image of a serpent and place it on a pole. Whoever was bitten is to look up toward the pole and he would immediately be healed. Moses then constructs the serpent, placing it on a pole as God had instructed.
Villalpando depicts the horned Moses dressed as a soldier, or archangel, pointing up at the serpent. 
In his dramatic presentation of the surrounding chaos, Villalpando emphasizes the horror and agony afflicting the Israelites as well as their common and individual humanity. 
His figures, from young to old, writhe in pain, despair and remorse, desperate to find redemption. Next to a horrified old man on the left, a young woman holds her baby up to the serpent in the hopes of saving her child. The near-hysteria of these women with their babies evokes the ‘Massacre of the Innocents, while the harrowing scenes and grotesque attitudes of many figures suggest the Last Judgment. 

Two angels, one in flight and the other grounded, occupy the middle plane of the painting, a traditional device linking the two main sections of the canvas. They bear shields inscribed with biblical quotations relating the two events: 
    The angel on the left announces the scene of Moses and the Brazen Serpent below, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life,” whereas the standing angel on the right points upward to the Transfiguration. His shield reads, “and behold, there talked with him two men which were Moses and Elias: who appeared in glory, and spoke of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.”

Although this blog is not the forum for detailed 
iconographical analysis, the complexity of this superb painting has provoked a variety of interpretations, both of its underlying meaning and theology as well as its historic place in the colonial art of Mexico, as expounded in these more extended commentaries:

Bargellini, Clara.  Cristóbal de Villalpando at the Cathedral of Puebla. 
Struggle for Synthesis. The Total Work of Art in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Actas del simposio llevado a cabo en Braga, Portugal, 1996.

Gutíerrez Haces, Juana, Pedro Ángeles, Clara Bargellini and Rogelio Ruíz Gomar.  Cristóbal de Villalpando. Exhibition cat. Mexico City: Fomento Cultural Banamex, 1997.

———. The Painter Cristóbal de Villalpando: his Life and Legacy. In Exploring New World Imagery: Spanish Colonial Papers from the 2002 Mayer Center Symposium at the Denver Art Museum. Edited by Donna Pierce, 104-128: Denver Art Museum, 2005.

Leyva-Gutiérrez, Niria E.  Painting Power: Images of Ecclesiastical Authority in Seventeenth-Century New Spain  PhD dissertation. Institute of Fine Arts. New York University, 2012

Maza, Francisco de la.  El pintor Cristóbal de Villalpando. México, 1964.

text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
illustrations adapted from color images by Patrick Kavanagh and Niria Leyva-Gutiérrez

Monday, July 24, 2017

Hidden Gems: La Capilla del Señor de Los Laureles

From time to time we take a look at modest Mexican churches with colonial antecedents that are overlooked by most students of viceregal art and architecture, but that often possess features of special historic and artistic interest. We like to call them Hidden Gems.
In the mountain community of El Puente, near the old mining town of Mineral del Chico in eastern Hidalgo state, we find this modest colonial chapel dedicated to El Señor de Los Laureles, a miracle working local santo. 
   Although of uncertain origin, the chapel probably dates back to the 1700s and may be the site of a former hermitage attached to the Augustinian priory at Atotonilco El Grande—as evidence, mural fragments in the nave bearing the arrow pierced heart of the Order.
An inscribed, dedicatory keystone dated 1777 (a later addition?) is set in the coffered arch of its venerable stone doorway, which is carved with a variety of relief rosettes.
The atrium cross, raised on a stone plinth in front of the church is one of a handful of “tilted” crosses in the region, incised with an inner cruciform outline and capped by a bescrolled INRI plaque.
"Las Monjas"  © Daniel Aguilar Bazan
The chapel stands in view of the celebrated regional rock formation known as Las Monjas.

Check out some of our other Hidden Gems: Xichu de IndiosSan Felipe Sultepec; San Pablo Malacatepec;  OcoxochitepecMixquiahuala; Cherán; Tetliztaca;
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
Thanks to Niccolò Brooker who brought this church to our attention 
and supplied most of the images

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Hidden Gems: Hill of White Stone: Santo Tomás Tetliztaca

From time to time we take a look at modest rural churches in Mexico with colonial antecedents that are overlooked by most students of viceregal art and architecture, but that often possess special features of artistic and historic interest. We like to call them Hidden Gems.*
Santo Tomás Tetliztaca
Hill of White Stone
Situated on a highway east of Zempoala, in the state of Hidalgo, this ancient community, now known simply as Santo Tomás, is historically noted for its 1581 map, on which the 16th century church prominently appears.

details of the map from the Relación Geográfica de Tetliztaca (1581) Nettie Lee Benson Collection.

Early colonial churches were often linked in the native mind, as in their pictorial records, with local sacred mountains and caves. This is made explicit in the Tetliztaca map, where a red line physically joins the church to the white capped mountain referenced in the original place name.
In the case of Santo Tomás, this identification is even clearer if we look at the sculpted doorway of the church, which could also be viewed as the entrance to a sacred mountain or cave.      
   In fact the entire convento,* originally established by the Franciscans as a visita of the monastery at Zempoala, may be founded on the site of an ancient temple, since at one time a long flight of steps led up to the gateway of the raised atrium. 

While the church front is generally plain, following much later remodeling, passages of the original 16th century architectural decoration remain, most notably the remarkably detailed entry.   
  Reminiscent of similar early entries, the arched doorway, carved from reddish stone, is supported on broad triple jambs and surmounted by a rectangular alfiz—sections which may also have been raised at one time
The complex imagery of this entry serves to link the Franciscan evangelical mission with the story of Christ's Passion.
   Each element of the doorway is densely carved with bands of stylized figures and foliage. Both jambs feature a projecting center pilaster, prominently linking the Franciscan emblem of the Five Wounds, framed by a knotted cord, with Christic monograms encased in circular wreaths. Each pilaster capped by a praying, winged angel with pronounced Indian features. 
These are flanked by panels of highly stylized reliefs of supporting Angels of the Apocalypse, carved in a dense tequitqui manner, also with indigenous visages. Reliefs of lush foliage and blossoms adorn the inner bands as well as the outer capitals of the jambs
A double band of angeles pasionarios in similar style, blowing horns and holding various Instruments of the Passion, alternate with sheafs of foliage to form the archway above. Two more angels blow horns in the corners of the carved alfiz overhead.
The scheme culminates in the carved relief emblazoned on the keystone, which depicts a bearded, winged head, framed by a layered arch. Taken together with the associated reliefs, this image has been interpreted to represent Christ in Judgment.
   This elaborately carved entry, with its proliferation of musical and floral symbols in conjunction with the Passion and apocalyptic imagery, served to convey the Franciscan message as well as underscore the sacred nature of the building to the indigenous and Spanish viewer alike. 
*The remains of the adjacent convento are now largely abandoned, its arcaded porteria blocked by rubble.
Check out our other Hidden Gems: Xichu de IndiosSan Felipe Sultepec; San Pablo Malacatepec;  OcoxochitepecMixquiahuala; Cherán;
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images courtesy of Diana Roberts and Niccolò Brooker

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Hidden Gems: Two at Cheran

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 special artistic interest.  We like to call them Hidden Gems.
The indigenous community of Cherán, in mountainous western Michoacán, is much in the news. In the face of violence and depredations on the part of criminal gangs and corrupt state authorities including the police, the purépecha speaking inhabitants, led by village women, have recently taken matters into their own hands, instituting their own government apart from the state, as part of the controversial autodefensa movement, and forming local armed militias to resist incursions.
   Despite this upheaval, the arcaded town plaza retains its colonial flavor, including two notable colonial buildings: the 17th century parish church, and the former Franciscan hospital chapel dating from the 16th century. 
   Both monuments are remarkable in that their original facades are now hidden at the rear of the present buildings, for the most part ignored but still preserved.

Cheran. the parish church, rear view
With the remodeling and reorientation of the parish church, its original west front has been partially blocked off, almost forgotten behind what is now the church sanctuary. 
However, the vigilant visitor can still spot statues of St. Francis and a pair of archangels peering over the surrounding rooftops from their niches in the upper section of the sober baroque facade.
Cheran. the hospital chapel, rear view
The former guatápera, or hospital chapel, now functioning as a community center and library, is largely in its original condition, except for a new front. However, the old facade, now located at the rear of the building, is intact although also blocked.
The facade is framed in the traditional, Moorish inspired, regional manner, with a simple alfiz, inset with a pair of outsize shell reliefs, above the plain, arched doorway. Mullioned ajimez windows pierce the massive stone walls above the doorway and along the nave.
text and b/w images © 1997 & 2017 Richard D. Perry.  All rights reserved
Check out more Hidden Gems: Xichu de IndiosSan Felipe Sultepec; San Pablo Malacatepec;  OcoxochitepecMixquiahuala

Sunday, July 9, 2017

San Martin Huaquechula: the Retablo Mayor

In the last of our three posts on the monastery church of San Martín we consider the historic main altarpiece. 

The subdued church interior, completed about 1570, is almost certainly the last work by, and the last resting place of the eminent Franciscan Fray Juan de Alameda, the architect of nearby Huejotzingo and other Puebla churches. 
His memorial plaque is mounted in the north wall under the choir, beneath a startling frieze of grotesque serpent masks with Aztec speech scrolls.
    Covered by a network of Gothic vaulting, the lofty nave is a treasury of colonial religious art, containing ornamental altarpieces, baroque paintings, local santos and a variety of carved stonework. 
The main altarpiece before restoration (1989)
The Main Altarpiece
Soiled and neglected f
or many years, and atrociously overpainted in the 1800s, this early colonial masterwork was finally restored in its entirety in 2012. Its Plateresque framework was probably fabricated around 1570—among the small handful of surviving 16th century altarpieces in Mexico.
the altarpiece as restored  (2012)
Slender baluster columns divide the four principal tiers, supporting classical entablatures decorously carved with Renaissance cherubs and swags. Originally covered with silver leaf and painted in brilliant reds, yellows and blue/greens—it is now visible again after 450 years!
The statue of the Archangel Michael dates from the 1600s, while the mitered image of St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of Huaquechula, occupies the place of honor in an ornate shell niche at the center of the retablo. 
God the Father (detail)
Most of the relief sculptures are original, notably God the Father at the apex and the Apostles and Evangelists along the base, whose expressive bearded faces and strong sinewy hands embody the simple faith of these pioneers of the early Church. 
The Four Evangelists (1989)   
The Adoration of the Magi (restored)
The Paintings
In the 17th century, many of the original paintings and statuary were replaced, notably with a cycle of 17 canvases by the then up and coming Mexican artist Cristóbal de Villalpando.    
   Signed and dated 1675, this sequence of paintings is the oldest known, most complete, and probably the finest early work of this influential baroque painter, predating his only other known complete cycle in the retablo of St. Rose of Lima at Azcapotzalco
  They retain the Seville influenced, Mannerist style of earlier in the century, using a subdued palette—very different from the richly colored, dramatic baroque compositions of the artist's later career—as well as a certain idiosyncratic, popular touch.    
Adoration of the Shepherds and Apostles relief (1989)
The most ambitious paintings are the six large outer canvases of familiar scenes from the life of the Virgin.* Many of the pictures have fascinating genre details. In the Adoration of the Shepherds, for example, a peasant woman offers the Christ Child a fresh egg from her basket. 
after restoration (2012)
Narrow canvases flanking the central calle portray somber Franciscan saints, probably replacing earlier figure sculptures. 
    During the restoration, traces of 16th century murals were uncovered behind the altarpiece, primarily consisting of floral decoration with medallions.
*lower tier: The Annunciation; Adoration of the Shepherds. middle tier: Adoration of the Magi; The Betrothal (Desposorios).  upper tier: Nativity of the Virgin;  Presentation in the Temple
top tier: Assumption of the Virgin;  Ascension of Christ?
See our post on the cloister murals at Huaquechula.
Please review our previous posts on Pueblan altarpieces of note: 
text and pre restoration images © 1989 & 2017 by Richard D. Perry

Monday, July 3, 2017

San Martín Huaquechula: the North Doorway

This is the first of three posts on the monastery church of San Martín Huaquechula in the state of Puebla. 
As we noted in a previous post on Huejotzingo, the north doorway, or portiuncula, of Franciscan churches assumed special importance in the religious beliefs and ceremonial of the Order in Mexico.
Tucked away in the shade of the north side of the great fortress church of San Martín Huaquechula, a neighboring monastery church in Puebla, the lateral entry displays a similar character—densely and expertly carved with imagery of special significance.
Bas reliefs of Saints Peter and Paul, guardians of the entrance to the Celestial City, fill the niches in the broad jambs on either side of the doorway. Despite their rich robes, the saints' feet are bare and their misshapen haloes resemble the caps worn by 16th century Flemish burghers—probably copied from a northern European print.
The Last Judgment
A Last Judgment scene is crisply carved tequitqui style above the flattened archway. Christ sits Majesty arms raised and sword to hand, flanked by four fluttering angels of the Apocalypse sounding the trumpets of Doom. Saints wearing crowns of the Elect kneel in awe below. 
As at Huejotzingo, the millenarian anxieties and apocalyptic expectations of the16th century Franciscans are again exposed.

Check out our other recent posts on Mexican colonial facades and doorways of note: 
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry.
color images © 1989 by the author. all rights reserved