Monday, July 30, 2018

Churches of the Yucatan frontier: Peto, Petulillo and Pascual Estrella

Petulillo, the church front
After long years of neglect, the imposing frontier church of Petulillo, on the Yucatán/Quintana Róo border, is finally undergoing cleanup and restoration. Although damaged and abandoned during the calamitous 19th century Caste War, this former visita of the grand neighboring church of Asunción Peto, retains its massive limestone walls and interior barrel vaulting.
Although the church was long ago stripped of its more perishable furnishings, a single, carved wooden beam from the choir loft has survived in place, all the more remarkable for its fine foliated decoration—a great rarity in Yucatán.*

The imposing sanctuary arch also remains, framing the remnants of a neoclassic stone retablo in the apse.
Petulillo boasts a lofty facade, with pierced and ornamented openings and capped by a triple espadaña. Undulating parapets top the nave walls, also pierced with stars.
Although undocumented, some elements of fine stone carving in the church may represent more work by the talented Mayan sculptor Pascual Estrella, whose oeuvre we have described in earlier posts in this series.
The items in question are first, the elegant corbeled balcony below the choir window, a signature element in frontier church architecture, other examples of which are either attributed to or known to be the works of Maestro Estrella—at Chemax, Sabán and the especially ornate example at Petulillo's mother church of Peto.
Asunción Peto, the church front
Peto, the carved choir balcony corbel
A second and even more interesting item at Petulillo is the large baptismal font inside the church, which has miraculously survived the centuries, although now in two pieces.
The font is closely related in style and sculptural quality to Estrella’s other fonts at Chikindzonot, Hunucmá and Tihosuco. Around the broad basin, angels' heads float above a boldly carved thicket of luxuriant foliage and blossoms. And another carved cherub raises his arms in support on the detached base of the font.

* The exceptional carving of this unique relic suggests a skilled hand—could it be of Pascual Estrella?  If so, this may be the only extant example of his work as a wood carver.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
images by JB Johnson, Miguel Bretos, Edwin Baas Garcia and online sources
Please visit our other pages on the frontier churches of Yucatán: 
Chemax; ChikindzonotIchmul; SacalacaSabán; Peto/Petulillo; Huaymax/X-querol;

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Churches of the Yucatan Frontier: Huaymax and X-Querol

Having described the larger frontier churches of Sabán and Sacalaca, we should not leave the Yucatán/Quintana Róo border zone with a look at two of the typical smaller visitas in the immediate area, both of them in ruins since the mid-1800s and abandoned until recent times.
Huaymax in 1984

Concepción Huaymax
This little mission was an early victim of the 19th century Caste War. Until fairly recently, its crumbling belfries, fire-blackened choir beams and weed-filled sanctuary proclaimed its long neglect and disuse. These photographs, taken in the early 1980s, reflect its abandonment and neglect.
Huaymax, the burned choir loft. 1984

Huaymax started life as a dependency of the Franciscan mission at nearby Ichmul. Its primitive Indian chapel, the arch of which can still be seen, was expanded into a church in the 1700s, whose nave was covered by a steeply pitched, thatched roof, and faced with a stuccoed limestone facade with elegant "moorish" side belfries featuring pointed arches.

Although still missing its roof, the church has now been stabilized, cleaned up and reclaimed by local evangelists, who worship beneath a ramada—now metal instead of thatch—in front of the old open chapel/sanctuary, much like the Maya Christian converts of the 400 years ago.
San Juan X-Querol
Like Huaymax, X-Querol was burned out during the Caste War. Although the original thatched roof was destroyed, the new roof, part wood and part sheet metal, follows its original steep pitch, recreating the early internal ambience of the nave.
Here, diminutive towers replace the customary belfries on either side of the otherwise typical, plain triangular front. X-Querol also retains much of its original walled atrium—a rarity in Yucatan—possibly part of an old Maya sacbe.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author and courtesy of Benjamin Arredondo
Please visit our other pages on the frontier churches of Yucatán: Chemax; ChikindzonotIchmul; SacalacaSabán; Peto/Petulillo;

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Churches of the Yucatan frontier: Sacalaca

We continue our current series of posts on the frontier churches of Yucatán with the former mission at Sacalaca, which now lies across the state line in the present state of Quintana Róo.
Sacalaca in 1984
Purísima Sacalaca, the earlier of two churches here is a typical, smaller colonial church, whose wide triangular front is flanked by small belfries. Torched and abandoned after the 1847 Caste War, it remains roofless and essentially untouched to this day.
   However, some of its architectural ornament and figure sculptures 
still survive, all now considered to be the work of the celebrated Maya stone carver Pascual Estrella, whom we profiled in earlier posts.
The only statue still in place is a monolithic stone figure of the patrona, La Purísima, standing in the center niche atop a pedestal liberally carved with cherubs.
Other former facade sculptures, now in storage, include the headless figure of St. Paul (there is a matching statue of St. Peter) —its vigorous lines accentuating the formidable persona of the saint.
Lifesize reliefs of Adam and Eve, complete with detailed fig leaves, recalling those at Chikindzonot, once flanked the doorway and have also been preserved nearby. These too are attributed to Maestro Estrella, as is his signature carved corbel below the center niche and the spiky, foliated stucco framing of the window and niches.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry.  images by the author and courtesy of Jürgen Putz

Please visit our other pages on the frontier churches of Yucatán: 
Chemax; Chikindzonot; Ichmul; Sacalaca; Sabán; Peto/Petulillo; Huaymax/X-querol;

Monday, July 16, 2018

Churches of the Yucatan Frontier: Sabán

San Pedro Sabán today

The next stop in our series on the frontier churches of Yucatán is at San Pedro Sabán. Until recently Sabán was one of the many "lost towns" of Quintana Róo, a monument to the shifting history* of the colonial frontier.
    In the early days of the Caste War, Sabán was overrun and sacked by Maya rebels, then left to molder in the bush. The 18th century church of San Pedro and the many fine colonial houses around the plaza fell into ruins, soon overgrown by the advancing monte. Although still a ghost town as late as the 1960s, Sabán has now been resettled.
San Pedro Saban in 1984 before restoration work
The Church
During its brief flowering in late colonial times, the grand church—a former visita of Ichmul—was the pride of the community. 

   Founded under the ambitious expansion of the church into the frontier under Bishop Luis de Piña y Mazo in the 1780s, the new parish church at Sabán was built by the Jesuit priest Juan Manuel Rosado—who also had a hand in the church buildings at nearby Chikindzonot and Ichmul.
   These new churches shared a distinctive architectural style. Inspired in part by Mérida Cathedral, they were built on a grand scale in an ostentatious manner quite alien to the plain Franciscan missions of old. 

   Soaring facades were crowned with multi-tiered bell towers. Ornate baroque entries, balustraded balconies, and pierced parapets blossomed, their surfaces animated by abundant stone sculpture and decorative carved stucco.
Pascual Estrella
In our previous post on Chikindzonot, we drew attention to the exceptional quality of its stone carving, executed by the indigenous Mayan Pascual Estrella—one of the few artisans whose names have come down to us. 
   Estrella also worked on other area churches, notably at Ichmul and here at Sabán, where the imaginative variety and skill of the stone carving, and especially the reliefs, adds to the extraordinary legacy of this native sculptor.
Although simple in plan and form, the church at Sabán is noted for its imposing scale and ornamented facade—a classic example of Yucatecan frontier architecture. The entry door is framed by a pair of complex estípite columns, lavishly carved with scrolls and foliated motifs.
Above the portal, a curving, corbeled balcony beneath the choir window rests on a stone angel with outstretched arms, who in turn stands upon a demon's head—possibly inspired by the Casa de Montejo in Mérida.
A large, square relief of St. Peter, the patron of the church, occupies the upper facade. Seated with knees splayed, the saint gazes up quizzically at a cockerel strutting along the balustrade, his crossed keys on the floor below.
Overhead, slender, elongated towers sit atop the main facade on either side, pierced by ogival openings and crowned by high cupolas fringed with tiaras. 
   Like El Santuario in Ichmul, the raised parapet atop the facade is liberally spangled with star-shaped openings and terminates in a bow-shaped crest—a reference together with the tower tiaras to the Virgin Mary. 
Virgin of La Candelaria relief (restored)
As at Ichmul, and Chikindzonot too, the apex of the parapet houses a densely sculpted relief depicting a stylized Virgin of La Candelaria with candelabra, here carved in the form of a medallion in a foliated, circular frame.
   Today, although some parts of the sanctuary and former choir area are covered with metal roofing, much of the nave stands open to the sky, a reminder of Sabán's violent past.
*After the final defeat of the Maya in 1547, Spanish settlers spread virtually un opposed across the Yucatan peninsula. Close behind them, Franciscan friars fanned out across the countryside, and in their zeal to evangelize the vast native population, they founded missions in every corner of the colony. 
   But the devastating diseases and profound dislocation that followed the conquest caused rapid depopulation along its southern and eastern fringes. With the flight of the Maya from the harsh Spanish rule, the effective limits of the colony shrank to the northwest corner of the peninsula, between Campeche and Valladolid.  And in the 17th century, frequent incursions of British, French, and Dutch pirates from the Caribbean into the hinterland posed a constant threat to the already precarious Spanish hold on the fringes of the colony, and many outlying settlements withered. 
   The borderlands slumbered in neglect until the mid 18th century, when a period of prosperity stimulated a feverish search for more land in the southern and eastern parts of the peninsula. Whites and ladinos poured into the mushrooming towns of the frontier region, seizing Indian communal lands and forcing the Maya into peonage on the new sugar plantations. During the 18th-century boom, the few Franciscan frontier missions in the area were revived and enlarged by the episcopal clergy. Most of their effort went into the building of elaborate new parish churches in border towns like Peto, Ichmul, Chikindzonot, Tihosuco, Chemax and Saban. 
   However, these changes fanned Maya resentment of the intruders into a smoldering hatred that eventually exploded into the Caste War of 1847, when most frontier settlements were laid waste, the churches burned out and abandoned to the bush.  
   Although the region has been resettled, many of the church buildings remain battered and roofless to this day, stern reminders of the devastation that attended the clash of cultures, and melancholy monuments to the brief flowering of 18th century elegance along this remote colonial frontier.
Text © 2018 Richard D. Perry. 
Photography by the author and courtesy of Jürgen Putz.

Please visit our other pages on the frontier churches of Yucatán: Chemax; Chikindzonot; Ichmul; Sacalaca; Saban; Peto/Petulillo; Huaymax/X-querol;

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Churches of the Yucatan frontier: Ichmul. Part Two

For our second post on Ichmul, we consider the unfinished parish church.
Just before the turn of the 19th century, the foundations were laid for a grand new church next to the Santuario, completed less than twenty years before. 
The priest in charge, Jose M. Olivera, again engaged sculptor Maestro Pascual Estrella in the ornamentation and possibly even the design of the new building—his name appears inscribed on a plaque above the west doorway with the date 1802, and we know that he continued to work there in 1804 and 1805.
However, this imposing cruciform church was never completed. Despite the fine carving of its shell doorway and choir window, the vast nave remains open to the sky, its expansive stone vault never built.
The sober Roman porch, framed by double columns and a simple pediment, is much enhanced by panels of delicate, foliated relief and the sculpted, octagonal choir balcony above it—a signature architectural device of this period in Yucatán.
carved ornamental details

Estrella's hand is evident in the carved sacristy doorway as well as the beautifully worked baptismal font that stands inside.

So, why were two huge churches built at Ichmul, one beside the other, only a few years apart? and why was the latter unfinished?. 
   It may be that the Santuario was too successful; that it could not accommodate the numbers of the faithful who streamed in from across the region, and that larger church was deemed necessary, perhaps to be funded by the pilgrims’ donations.
   In any event, the expense and logistics of building another great pile in this still distant part of the Yucatán peninsula proved over ambitious or invited criticism of extravagance. The death of Father Olivera in 1809, the prime mover in the project, may also have been a factor.

text © 2018 Richard D. Perry, with acknowledgments to Miguel Bretos.
color images by the author and courtesy of Miguel Bretos and Júrgen Putz

Please visit our other pages on the frontier churches of Yucatán: ChemaxChikindzonot; Ichmul; Sacalaca; Saban; Peto/Petulillo; Huaymax/X-querol;

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Churches of the Yucatan frontier: Ichmul. Part One

We continue our series on the frontier churches and missions of Yucatán with visits to a group of churches associated with the colonial Maya sculptor Pascual Estrella.
Forty kilometers east of Peto in south central Yucatán lies the ancient city of Ichmul, “Place of the Pyramids” —a powerful Maya religious center since prehispanic times.    
   After the conquest, Ichmul became an important mission town. Initially a shrine to Christ of the Blisters, it later became a cult center of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. However, the whole town was laid waste during the Caste War and abandoned on Christmas Day in 1847—a catastrophe from which it has never fully recovered.
   Although the Franciscans founded a modest friary here in the 16th century, a simple convento and an open chapel with a thatched ramada,the present enigmatic complex of buildings dates from the late 1700s and early 1800s—one of several ambitious building projects launched in the region by the diocesan clergy under Bishop Luis de Piña y Mazo.

Ichmul, the mission complex
Grouped around a grassy plaza with its well and cenote, the structures include the ambitious but unfinished parish church, the extraordinary Santuario beside it, and across the plaza, an L-shaped cemetery complex. We begin our description with the Santuario of the Virgin.
El Santuario
One of the most singular religious structures in Yucatan, this grand chapel preceded the adjacent main church. Built by the prominent Jesuit priest Juan Manuel Rosado, it was complete by 1784—contemporary with his churches at Sabán and Chikindzonot.
Santuario plan
Possibly occupying the site of the original Franciscan open chapel and even harking back to its original form, the square Santuario with its triple doorways and enclosed atrium was intended as a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary and a possible regional pilgrimage chapel. 
   Triple doorways in the soaring, rectangular chapel front give entry to the broad but narrow transverse sanctuary. The facade is surmounted by the twin towers characteristic of Rosado's churches,  pierced with ogival openings and crowned by coronet shaped cupolas.

The striking, scalloped gable between the towers, another signature feature of Rosado’s churches, takes the form of a crescent moon pierced with star openings—together with the crowning cupolas clear references to the Virgin Mary.
A spectacular canopied image of the Virgin of La Candelaria, appears in a medallion at the center of the pediment. Virtually identical to the facade medallion at Sabán, it is believed to have been carved by the preeminent sculptor of the day, the Mayan Pascual Estrella.
Virgin of La Candelaria relief—detail

The Mural
A huge red, blue and ocher mural on the rear wall, representing a retablo in neo-classical style, dominates the spacious but otherwise colorless interior.  A
 replica of the miraculous black Christ of the Blisters stands in front of the fresco.
The “Cemetery”
The L-shaped complex on the north side of the plaza is the former cemetery, with its 
abandoned chapel and gateway. Like the Santuario, with which it is contemporary, the chapel front is topped by an undulating parapet pierced with stars, again suggesting a dedication to the Virgin Mary.

text © 2018 Richard D. Perry, with acknowledgments to Miguel Bretos
color images by the author and courtesy of Miguel Bretos and Júrgen Putz

Please visit our other pages on the frontier churches of Yucatán: Chemax; Chikindzonot; Ichmul; Sacalaca; Saban;