Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Tlaxcala altarpieces: Zacatelco

Continuing our series on the colonial altarpieces of Tlaxcala, we look at the extraordinary main altarpiece at Zacatelco.
The city of Zacatelco (Grass Mountain) was founded in 1529 and soon after, the Franciscans established a mission here, visited from their monastery at Tepeyanco. Dedicated to St. Agnes, the visita was expanded over the years, notably with its grand atrium with corner posa chapels and crosses. But starting in the 1720s, the church was rebuilt on a larger scale.
Zacatelco.  facade relief of Santa Inés with lamb and martyr's palm 
Commissioning and construction of the grand main altarpiece, by the ensamblador José Mexicano Castillo, followed but was only completed by the turn of the 19th century. 
   Although some conservation measures were carried out in the mid-1900s, full scale restoration of the altarpiece was only completed in 2015.
Zacatelco: the main altarpiece as restored (2015)
Also dedicated to Santa Inés, the retablo is unique in the state of Tlaxcala for its hybrid character and grand scale. The three main tiers and gable are framed by highly ornate spiral columns—a throwback to the early 1700s—although flanked by slender, estípite style pilasters.
   The most innovative aspect of the retablo, however, is its use of cylindrical outer niches or projecting showcases, which display paintings of six archangels—an unusual feature seen in some earlier Spanish altarpieces but to our knowledge unique in Mexico*.
Apart from Peter and Paul on the first tier, the more conventional inner niches house life-size statues of mostly female saints, in company with the patron St. Agnes, whose figure occupies the center niche.  St. Joseph stands in the niche above her, while the Archangel Michael dominates the top tier below God the Father.

St. Agnes with lamb (detail)   God the Father
Aside from the archangels in the cylindrical niches, the only other painting in the altarpiece is a classic portrayal of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the upper level, attributed to the prolific baroque artist Antonio de Torres—a specialist in portraying the Virgin of Guadalupe—whose work we also saw at Parras de la Fuente.
Another historic painting, now in the sacristy?, purports to show work under way on the retablo itself, together with a portrait of its sponsor, reputedly a mounted Indian noble, with a Nahuatl inscription—one more example in the regional tradition of native patronage of religious art.
* The main altarpiece in the nearby Basilica of Ocotlan follows a related format, although more conventional statues occupy the niches rather than paintings.

text © 2018 Richard D. Perry. 
Color images by Niccolò Brooker, Felipe Falcón and others
see our posts on other Tlaxcalan retablos: Tepeyanco; Zacatelco; San José de TlaxcalaSanta Cruz de Tlaxcala; Apetatitlan;

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Parras de la Fuente, Coahuila. Church of Guadalupe. Retablo of the Archangels

For the second in our series on northern Mexican altarpieces of note we go to the resort town of Parras de la Fuente, in the border state of Coahuila.  
Parras de la Fuente, Coahuila.  Church of Guadalupe.
Among the eclectic variety of altarpieces in the church of Guadalupe there, apart from the retablo of Guadalupe itself which boasts an eponymous painting by the noted 18th century artist Antonio de Torres (a specialist in Guadalupe portraits) the most interesting may be the retablo of the Seven Archangels
Probably dating from the mid 1700s, the red and gilt retablo is fashioned in a provincial baroque style, enlivened by sculpted figures of angels. 
The center painting portrays the Virgin of Pilar in a vision of St. James the Apostle (who is shown beside her), while the Coronation of the Virgin dominates the gable tier.
Sinuous, painted portraits of the archangels on either side probably date from the same period. 

However, it is the intriguing predella portraits along the base that amplify the historic significance of this retablo. Like the Virgin of Pilar, all four of the saints/dignitaries portrayed here are closely associated with the city of Zaragoza, in central Spain.
From left to right these are Saint Vincent of Zaragoza, the Protomartyr of Spain, a deacon of the cathedral of Saragossa (La Seo). He was martyred under the Emperor Diocletian in Valencia around the year 304, and is the patron saint of Valencia and Lisbon.
The two bishops in the center panel are first, Saint Valerian, the patron saint of Zaragoza. Valerian was bishop of Zaragoza from 290 until 315. Both Valerius and Vincent suffered imprisonment under Diocletian. While Vincent was martyred, Valerian was just exiled.  
Valerian's relics were rediscovered around 1050, and a chapel dedicated to him can be found in La Seo, where a baroque retablo from the seventeenth century includes statues of the bishop/saint as well as Vincent, and St Lawrence.   
   Beside him is Saint Braulio (590 – 651 AD) a prominent bishop of Zaragoza under the Visigoths and an advisor and confidante of several Visigothic kings. He is buried in what is now the church of Nuestra Señora del Pilar in Zaragoza. 
On the right is Fray Pedro de Arbués, a combative 15th century inquisitor in the region, who was assassinated in the cathedral and thus martyred—a cause celebre at the time, blamed on aggrieved conversos whom he was persecuting.

Altarpieces dedicated to the Virgin of Pilar are uncommon in Mexico. In this instance no local connection is documented. (Although the state is now known as Coahuila de Zaragoza, it is named after a 19th century Mexican general, and Parras was founded by Basques with no known link to Zaragoza in Spain.)
   There is a local tradition that the retablo came from Spain, which seems unlikely, although it is conceivable that the predella portraits may have been imported and incorporated in the retablo. 
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
color photography by Niccolò Brooker, who brought this altarpiece to our attention. Thank you Niccolò

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Lost Retablo of Saltillo Cathedral

The first of our posts highlighting outstanding colonial altarpieces in northern Mexico focuses on the grand retablo of Saltillo/Monclova.
   In previous posts we have traced and highlighted altarpieces* by the prominent and innovative Ureña family* of 18th century Mexican designers and retablistas, several of which have survived in places apart from their original or intended locations.
   The retablo of Saltillo/Monclova is a case in point—the only surviving documented Ureña work in northern Mexico and, in our view, the finest baroque altarpiece in the state of Nuevo León.

The cathedral of Saltillo;                          The Santo Cristo chapel today
In 1760, Juan García de Castañeda, Felipe de Ureña's son in law and ensamblador, contracted with the wealthy merchant Pedro de Nain, on behalf of the confraternity of The Santo Cristo of Saltillo, for a sumptuous retablo to display the venerated eponymous crucifix in the newly built and dedicated Capilla de Santo Cristo in Saltillo cathedral.
   This retablo was duly executed by 
Castañeda  in the family workshop with the assistance of Felipe himself, who undertook to finish several Castañeda projects after his death in 1763. It was installed and fronted by a beautiful, chased silver altar commissioned in the same period, which remains in Saltillo cathedral.
   The altarpiece stood in the chapel until the 1890s when, due to remodeling of the interior, it was placed in the nearby Santuario de Guadalupe where it remained until the 1920s, after which the retablo was dissassembled and placed in storage.
San Francisco de Monclova
In the 1950s, the venerable but modest barrio chapel of San Francisco in the nearby city of Monclova (Nuevo León) was renovated and reopened. The bishop of Monclova then undertook negotiations for transfer of the Ureña retablo to the new chapel, as sanctioned in the will of the late bishop Echeverria of Saltillo.
The retablo under restoration 2012
Finally reassembled and installed in 1967 and then partially restored in the 1980s, in 2012 the retablo underwent further restoration by the local chapter of Adopte Una Obra de Arte.
Glowing beneath the renovated beamed ceiling, the gilded retablo is now the centerpiece of the chapel. The bold Ureña design was intended to more effectively display the miraculous crucifix and place it in the biblical context of a Calvary scene—originally flanked by the Virgin of Sorrows and St John the Evangelist.     
   Although another crucifix and new figures of the Virgin, St. Joseph and St Francis have replaced the original statuary in its present location, the bold, polychrome reliefs of various saints and apostles in the oval medallions of the estípites and niche-pilasters remain.
Richly ornamented and imaginatively detailed, the altarpiece is a classic Ureña/Castañeda work that draws on many influences—Plateresque, Mannerist, even Gothic—all integrated within a harmonious and coherent whole. 
    The Ureña hallmark of a relatively open, unstructured center effectively displays the crucifix, here flanked by broad, extravagantly scrolled niche-pilasters reminiscent of his grand earlier retablos of Belén and Regina Coeli in Mexico City.
These are bordered in turn by slender but decorative estípites at the edges of the retablo that extend from the predella to the high, rounded gable, visually heightening the altarpiece. 
Both estípites and niche-pilasters are prominently inset with relief medallions, some with portrait busts of apostles, nuns and figures associated with the Crucifixion.
Recent restorations have focused on the numerous heads of cherubs and angels throughout the retablo.

Thankfully, this superb altarpiece has not been lost or destroyed like too many other similar works of colonial art, a historic masterpiece of late baroque art that has survived for our delight and instruction.
*Known as El maestro transhumante, the "peripatetic master", Felipe de Ureña was the most influential of the Mexican born architect /designers to introduce and expand the Churrigueresque or barroco estípite style into New Spain. During the second half of the 18th century, together with family members, he was primarily responsible for the spread and subsequent evolution of this ornate late baroque style into cities across Mexico, especially along the silver routes north of Mexico City. Primarily an innovative designer and fabricator of altarpieces, he later adapted the barroco estípite style as it was called, for church facades. His elegant and distinctive designs are recognized as the  "felipense" style. 
text ©2018 Richard D. Perry
color images by Niccolo Brooker and internet sources

Saturday, January 13, 2018

San Martin Huaquechula. earthquake update

As readers may have seen in our earlier posts, damage from the 2017 earthquake was extensive in the Puebla/Tlaxcala region. Repair and mitigation efforts are still in the early stages.
   In a post late last year we noted the severe damage suffered by the early Franciscan church and monastery of San Martín Huaquechula:
2017 picture of church front showing the fallen belfry immediately following the 'quake 
detail of collapsed vault above the church choir
Today we publish some more recent pictures of the extensive structural damage in the church at Huaquechula, courtesy of Robert Jackson.
San Martín Huaquechula, the church front 2018
the nave facing east
the cracked vaulting above the nave
the crushed choir beneath the fallen vault
color photography © 2017 & 2018 by Robert Jackson.  all rights reserved

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Tlaxcala altarpieces: the Dancing Kings of San José

We start our new series on the colonial altarpieces of Tlaxcala with a look at an historic retablo in the principal parish church of San José * in the city of Tlaxcala:
Hernán Cortés with the Lords of Tlaxcala 
Before the Spanish conquest and throughout the colonial period, the native lords of Tlaxcala enjoyed considerable power and prestige in the region. As indispensable allies of the Spanish during the defeat of the Aztecs they continued to enjoy special privileges above the indigenous nobility elsewhere in New Spain.
The original Capilla de Los Indios beside the monastery of San Francisco (Lienzo de Tlaxcala)
When the Franciscans founded their first monastery in Tlaxcala, the four principal native lords built their own substantial chapel, La Capilla Real de Los Indios, since removed, adjacent to the church.
In the 1700s, with the secularization of the monastery, the Lords established a new, imposing baroque Capilla de Los Indios (now the Palace of Justice) in the main plaza across from the tiled parish church of San José.
In the nave of San José stands an impressive 18th century altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, framed with giant estípite pilasters like those of the Capilla de Los Indios. In fact it is probable that this altarpiece was commissioned by the Tlaxcalan nobles themselves, like other art works in the region, and formerly rested in the Capilla. 
The altarpiece retains most of its original paintings and statuary, but of special interest are the four polychrome reliefs of "dancing kings" framed in ornate cartouches along the predella or base level of the retablo. These represent four royal saints, from left to right, St. Hermenegild; St. Ferdinand of Castile; St. Louis of France, and probably Edward the Confessor of England.
Since this altarpiece is not dedicated or related to the Franciscan royal Tertiaries, as for example the retablo in the Third Order church of Atlixco, the presence of these "Reyes" is puzzling. 
   However, they may stand for, by analogy, the indigenous lords of the four ancient regions of Tlaxcala themselves, emphasizing their continued importance in the region during the colonial era, and their support of the native Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe.  
   By further extension, their choreographic poses may covertly refer to the stylized sacred dances, known as netotiliztli, performed by the native lords in prehispanic ceremonial. 
* Note: Because of recent earthquake damage, San José is currently closed to visitors. 
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
color images courtesy of Jim Cook
based in part on the monograph, The Glories of the Republic of Tlaxcala by Jaime Cuadriello.

See our posts on other Tlaxcalan retablos: Tepeyanco; Zacatelco; Santa Cruz de Tlaxcala; Apetatitlan;