Friday, June 29, 2018

Huejotzingo: the Pereyns Altarpiece

In previous posts on the seminal Franciscan monastery of San Miguel Huejotzingo we looked at the north doorway, the posa chapels, the church murals, the convento murals and an intriguing painting in the nave.  
   Here we describe the recently restored, historic main altarpiece in the apse of the church—one of the great treasures of Mexican colonial art. Nine altarpieces, in styles from every colonial period, line the nave at Huejotzingo. But the masterwork of this collection is the retablo mayor, one of two superlative 16th century altarpieces to survive in Mexico—the other being the main retablo at Xochimilco.
   Like the Xochimilco altarpiece, the Huejotzingo retablo reflects the religious concerns and evolving artistic tastes of the period. For unlike the architecture of the church, which draws on a medieval past, the Pereyns altarpiece looks to the future. It is considered a pivotal work in the stylistic transition from the Plateresque to the Renaissance in Mexican religious art.
   Simon Pereyns was a Flemish court painter who came to Mexico in the 1560s. He established a workshop in the capital that attracted some of the best European artists and craftsmen of the time who, drawn by new opportunities in the Americas introduced the innovations of the Renaissance.
   Completed in 1586 and signed by Pereyns, the Huejotzingo altarpiece was a collaborative effort. Pereyns himself supervised the overall design and executed most of the paintings. While the statuary is largely attributed to the Andalusian sculptor Pedro de Requena, Pereyns, also a skilled sculptor, may have executed some of them. Members of Pereyns' workshop, including native artisans, were responsible for the architectural carving, painting and gilding.

Four tiers high and divided into seven vertical calles, the altarpiece soars to fill the polygonal apse. The sides flare forward like a folding screen into the nave, enticing the spectator into its mysteries. 
   The framework is highly structured. Doric and Ionic columns with carved and fluted shafts articulate the lower two tiers, changing in the upper tiers to ornate baluster columns—signature markers of this transitional Renaissance-Plateresque phase.
   Classical cupids and garlands festoon the shell niches and the intervening panels. Even a few tentative baroque touches—scrolled pediments and oval frames—make an appearance in the top tier of the altarpiece. 
As with every work of art at Huejotzingo, the altarpiece has a message. Its iconography links the story of Christ with the founding and building of the Church, emphasizing the role of the Mendicant Orders—especially the Franciscans. 
   Statues of luminaries of the primitive Christian Church and Franciscan saints alternate with large paintings that illustrate key episodes in the life of Christ. 
The Sculptures
On the lower tiers we are shown the four Doctors, the teachers and philosophers whose writings were the building blocks of the Latin Church. Sober and bearded, these patriarchal figures are dignified by their opulently textured estofado draperies. St. Augustine and St. Gregory, at bottom left, epitomize ecclesiastical dignity.   
   The middle tiers are dedicated to the founders of the monastic orders and include prominent Franciscan saints. Sumptuously attired figures of St. Bernard and St. Dominic flank the central panel of St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, a large relief carved by Pedro de Requena at a cost of only 150 pesos, according to the original contract!
   Martyrs and prophets, the conscience of Christianity, occupy the outer compartments and the top tier. These include St. Lawrence and the ascetic, San Antonio Abad. An unclothed St. Sebastian and John the Baptist, conspicuous in his wolfskin, stand apart from their elegantly attired companions.

Above a large statue of Christ Crucified, flanked by saints John and Antonio Abad, God the Father, in flowing cape and beard, gestures dramatically from the crowning pediment.
Realistic, careworn portrait busts of the Apostles, the founding fathers of early Christianity, are carved along the base panels. 
The Risen Christ  
The Paintings
Pereyns' paintings dramatize the significant episodes of Christ's life. Derived from Renaissance prints by the Flemish engraver Martin de Vos, the panels show a decided Mannerist influence, with a sharp eye for detail. 
Although the faces retain their classical serenity, the compositions display a vitality of gesture and movement that anticipates the baroque. 
The most accomplished and accessible paintings are on the lower tier: a charming Adoration of the Shepherds (left) and the Three Kings (right). 
Adoration of the Shepherds, detail
The figure of St. Joseph is particularly well realized, as is the sensuous reclining figure of Mary Magdalene? on the base panel—the only work signed by the artist. 
Pereyns signature — "ximõ perinez  f(e)c(i)t  1586"
See our earlier posts on Mexican altarpieces of note:
text © 1992 & 2018 Richard D. Perry

color images by the author, © Carolyn Brown and others

Friday, June 22, 2018

Huejotzingo: the Posa Chapels

As a follow up to our recent series on the sculpted posa chapels at Calpan, we now look at the closely related chapels of nearby San Miguel Huejotzingo.
However grand the Huejotzingo church may seem to-day, in the 16th century it was far too small to hold the vast congregation of newly converted Indians. By necessity, the friars preached out-doors, celebrating mass in the spacious, wooded atrium. 
   On feast days, friars and acolytes moved in procession around the perimeter, stopping briefly to pray at the four corner chapels, known as posas—from the Spanish posar, meaning "to pause."
Built and maintained throughout the colonial era by cofradías, the religious brotherhoods of the community, to honor their local saints, together with those at Calpan this quartet of chapels is one of the very few complete sets of 16th century posas to survive intact in Mexico. Each of the four is dedicated to the patron saint of the associated cofradía, and played an essential part in the Easter festivities at Huejotzingo.
   In addition to their remarkable decorative qualities, the complex sculptural program of the posas is also designed to link the Passion story with the Franciscan Order.
Capped by a distinctive pyramidal roof, each posa is elaborately carved on its two open sides—eight facades in all. The archway of each posa is formed by clustered Gothic colonettes and linked fetter moldings, and framed above by a rectangular alfiz in the form of the Franciscan knotted cord ending in a prominent tassel or knout.
At the center of each alfiz, an ornate, crowned monogram of either the Holy Name of Christ or the Virgin Mary is surmounted by a row of relief medallions displaying the Five Wounds of Christ.
   This central symbol of the Passion—intimately associated with the receiving of the Stigmata by St. Francis and thus doubly meaningful to the Franciscans—was universally emblazoned on all their buildings in the New World.
   Although all the facades have a common format, the iconography differs from posa to posa. Pairs of angel reliefs, frozen in flight, present the various Instruments of the Passion, in a sequence that runs counter-clockwise around the atrium, starting with the north east corner.

Northeast Posa.   “John the Baptist”
On the south face of the first chapel, to the immediate left of the church door, angels depict the amphora and ewer of water used by Pontius Pilate, and the lantern by whose light Christ was discovered and arrested.

Above the adjacent archway, facing west, angels display the lance and hyssop (sponge of vinegar) with a cup of honey. 
The date 1550 is carved on the roof beside a skull and crossbones. 
Northwest Posa.  “St Peter & St Paul”
The best known and preserved of the four chapels. On the east side, angels with trumpets sound the Last Judgment. Musical flowers issue from the bells of the trombone like instruments On the south face, another angel brandishes the sword of Saint Peter, while the thirty pieces of silver are shown opposite.


Southwest Posa.    “The Assumption”
Here, the angels carry the cruel tools of the Crucifixion. On the north side they bear the scourge and a vicious club, and opposite, the flagellation column with the cockerel crowing on top. On the east face, one angel brandishes a cane and a plant, and the other a spiky crown of thorns.


Southeast Posa.    “Santiago”
Unfortunately, the reliefs on the last posa have been much defaced and are indecipherable. The chapel interiors are all empty now. The altars and shrines that once adorned them have been removed and only a few patches of colored fresco remain. 

Tree crosses, also carved with the Instruments of the Passion, once stood atop each chapel roof. Only one such cross has been preserved and now stands in a simulated crown of thorns on a pedestal in front of the church.
text and graphics © 2018 Richard D. Perry
photography by the author and courtesy of Patrice Schmitz and Carolyn Brown.
see our earlier post on the north doorway at Huejotzingo

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Calpan. The Posa Chapels 4

In our previous posts we looked at three of the four posa chapels at Calpan. Here we look at the fourth and perhaps most intriguing, the southwest posa, dedicated to the Archangel Michael.
chapel of St Michael, north face
4. The Southwest Posa
This extraordinary chapel displays two sculpted faces. Over the north facing entry the Archangel Michael, the patron saint, is identified by name and occupies the center spot  He raises his sword in triumph as the vanquished devil clutches at his leg. Michael is flanked by the two other principal archangels, Gabriel and Raphael.
The Archangel Michael
Carved bands of alternating hearts and shells entwined in foliage frame the archway.
chapel of St Michael, east face
But the piéce de résistance here is the expansive relief of the Last Judgment which fills the east facade, a sculptural masterpiece derived from a 15th century woodcut.
Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, The Last Judgment,
 from The Nuremburg Chronicle (Nuremburg, Germany 1493), woodcut.

reprinted in the Flos Sanctorum Spanish edition (Zaragoza 1521)
Christ sits in Majesty in the center, wearing a radiant tiara of the Tres Potencias, symbolizing the three powers of the soul: memory, understanding and will.  He is flanked by a lily and a sword, respective emblems of salvation and damnation. Angels blowing a horn and bearing the Instruments of the Passion float below.
Large reliefs of the Virgin Mary (left) and John the Baptist (right) kneel on either side, interceding for the diminutive souls rising from their gaping coffins below.  Latin inscriptions beside them read respectively, "Intercede O Sacred Virgin and pray for us. 1 and "The Lord judges all of them. 2
The dead rising to judgment
The Latin text below Christ reads: "Rise, ye Dead and Come to Judgment."3  
One significant difference from the original woodcut is the addition of these inscriptions, which add powerful emphasis to the overall message.
1.   Intercede Virgo Sacra ora pro nobis
2.   Dedit illi Dominus omne iudicio
3.   Surgite mortui venite ad iudicium
Winged angels and Gothic crockets climb the steep sides of the roof, towards the crowning papal tiara of St. Peter, the keeper of the gate to Paradise.
Please review our other posts with mention of the Last Judgment:
 El LlanitoTotimehuacanSuchixtlahuacaHuaquechulaYanhuitlan; Xoxoteco; Actopan; Cuitzeo; Ixmiquilpan;
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry 
photography by Carolyn Brown, Patrice Schmitz and the author

Monday, June 11, 2018

Calpan: The Posa Chapels 3

southeast posa, west side
3. The Southeast Posa 
A third posa is dedicated to St. John the Evangelist, author of the biblical Book of Revelation. The figure of the saint stands, bearing the poisoned chalice, in the center niche over the west archway, surrounded by bold medallions of the Tetramorph—the symbols of the Four Evangelists.
   The association of these symbols with the Four Evangelists springs from the passage in Revelation 4:7, "  The first living creature was like a lion, the second like an ox, the third had a face like a man and the fourth was like a flying eagle."
Matthew; Angel                                            Mark; Lion
Luke;  Bull                                                     John;  Eagle
On the east side of the posa an eroded relief depicts a bearded God the Father reigning in glory with the angels over the celestial city—all that remains of the sculptural ornament here

© Niccolo Brooker
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry.
 photography by Carolyn Brown, Patrice Schmitz, Felipe Falcón, Niccolo Brooker and the author