Monday, October 29, 2018

Azcapotzalco: the west front

In an earlier series we looked at several late colonial church fronts designed in what has been termed neóstilo, or popularly, Neostyle.
Another facade that falls into this category is that of the church of Santiago y San Felipe de Azcapotzalco, in Mexico City.   
Carved from warm, light gray chiluca limestone, the elegant facade dates from the late 1700s. It marries the late baroque format of a soaring, open center section with layered passages of ornamental whorls, broken mixtilinear cornices and stalactite like pinjante pendants, with single and paired plain, elongated classical Doric, partially fluted columns. 


Multiple scrolls also frame the slender, ornamental niches between the columns—now vacant, but possibly once intended for statues of the patron saints, the apostles James Major and Philip. 
Emblazoned above the high, lobed choir window is the Dominican escutcheon of the fleur-de-lis cross.

The church is also noted for its Rosary Chapel and a variety of splendid baroque altarpieces which we will review in a later post.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry.
images © 1986 by the author
Check out our other recent posts on colonial facades and doorways of note: 
TecamachalcoMolangoTepeacaMixquiahualaLa Casa de MontejoAtlixco, La MercedThird Order ; IxtacalaTexcocoTlamacoNexquipayacTepalcingo; San Cristóbal de Mérida; Huaquechula; Huejotzingo;

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Tochimilco: St. Francis returns

As a follow up to our earlier posts* on Tochimilco we reprise the story of the St Francis relief:
In September 2006, three years after it was stolen from the church at Tochimilco, the U.S. ambassador formally returned a 400-year-old polychrome wooden relief sculpture to Mexico. Thieves had tried to sell it in the United States at a Santa Fe, N.M., art gallery for $255, 000. 
  This large, painted wooden relief, now cleaned and restored, depicts St. Francis receiving the Stigmata on September 14, 1224. Originally the centerpiece of a larger altarpiece, it measures 92 inches high by 69 inches wide and is believed to have been carved between 1575 and the early 1600s. 
In a classic representation of this seminal event in the life of the saint, Francis kneels on a rock at the foot of Mt. LaVerna in Tuscany, here realistically portrayed with trees and a running mountain stream. Although his feet are hidden, the open hands of the richly robed saint clearly depict two of Christ's five wounds. The wound on his side is less clear.
Francis gazes up intensely to the six winged, crucified seraph in the clouds on the upper right, although the heavenly rays usually emanating from the seraph to the five wounds are not shown in this relief version.
Brother Leo, Francis' companion, stares expressionless in the corner, seemingly oblivious to the miracle unfolding above him.
   In our view, this beautifully realized work of art is the finest of only a tiny handful of colonial reliefs portraying this event. 
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
color images of the relief © Felipe Falcón
*see our previous posts on Tochimilco: The Open Chapel; The Fountain; The Murals

Friday, October 19, 2018

Tochimilco: the Open Chapel

Some years back we posted on the exceptional sculpted fountain at the early Franciscan monastery of Tochimilco, situated on the eastern flank of the volcano Popocatepetl.
Asunción Tochimilco in 2018 - restored after the 2017 earthquake
The convento of The Assumption was founded by Fray Diego de Olarte, the noted former conquistador turned Franciscan Provincial, who supervised construction during the 1550s and early 1560s. 

open chapel and archway detail (monogram of Maria on capital)
It was only in the 1960s that the elevated open chapel at Tochimilco was recognized as such and unblocked after many centuries.
At that time, the beautifully carved Latin inscription around the grand archway was also uncovered and restored. The text reads, "SANCTA MARIA ASSUMPTIO OCOPETLAYUCA," thus, “Our Lady of the Assumption of Ocopetlayuca.”
open chapel inscription - detail
As it happens Ocopetlayuca ("fern shaped gourd") was the original name of the community, later changed to or superseded by Tochimilco and since largely forgotten.

   For some reason Fray Diego picked the aboriginal name for the chapel, perhaps to better connect with the local natives who may have still harbored resentment about an earlier annexation by the Tochimilca people.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
images courtesy of Felipe Falcón and Niccolò Brooker
see our other posts on Tochimilco: The Fountains; The Murals; St Francis relief;

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Chiapas: El Calvario de Chiapa de Corzo

Chiapa de Corzo, the ancient chiapanec capital of Chiapas, is known for its varied colonial monuments, most notably the spectacular 16th century brick fountain, the old Dominican priory of Santo Domingo, and the roofless hillside church of San Sebastián, dedicated to the town's patron saint.
   Less well-known is the tiny Calvary Chapel, located at the top of a hill, next to a spreading ceiba tree in the outer barrio of San Pedro, commanding panoramic views of the city and its monuments.
courtesy of Robert Guess
The Facade
At its heart a 17th century building, the chapel front was remodeled in popular neogothic style around 1900. Despite their folk gothic arches and pinnacles, the crowded belfry arcade between the squat towers remains in the tradition of vernacular architecture in Chiapas.
Unfortunately, El Calvario was damaged in the earthquakes of September 2017, but restoration work is currently under way.
photos courtesy of Robert Guess
One unique feature of the facade is a pair of large, painted bas reliefs, depicting Our Lady of Mt Carmel (L) and St. Francis of Assisi embracing the crucified Christ (R) both set in ogee-like niches or frames.
   Such painted facade reliefs, while a rarity in Chiapas, are firmly in the tradition of popular religious art in Guatemala and Andalusia, as well as other parts of southern Mexico.
courtesy of Robert Guess
The Descent from the Cross
Another unexpected colonial treasure at El Calvario rests inside the church. This is a venerable painted wooden relief illustrating The Descent from the Cross, thought to have belonged to the now lost 16th century main altarpiece taken from the old Dominican priory of Santo Domingo (located down the hill beside the river, just off the main plaza in Chiapa de Corzo).

The Descent from the Cross (detail).  courtesy of Niccolo Brooker 
Although displayed inside a glass case on the right hand side of the narrow nave (which makes it difficult to photograph in situ) the panel is carved, painted and gilded in an unexpectedly sophisticated style, of excellent workmanship and compelling composition, probably based on a European print or painting, and possibly the work of a European artist.
St. Mary Magdalene.  courtesy of Niccolo Brooker

The figures are convincingly modeled, especially the slumping body of Christ in the foreground; the elaborate robes of the many onlookers are carved in rhythmic, flowing lines and incised with estofado patterning, especially the figure of Mary Magdalene kneeling in the foreground.
the nave with El Señor del Calvario.   photo courtesy of Robert Guess
El Señor del Calvario
El Calvario is also the focus of one of Chiapas' most interesting folk festivals, dedicated to El Señor del Calvario, a venerated crucifix that rests above the main altar, fortunately undamaged during the 'quake.
courtesy of Robert Guess

The nine day observance begins on the third Friday of October, a colorful and well attended celebration at the chapel, which has been spectacularly decorated with floral enramas, fruits and festive foods including circular rosca breads for the occasion.

courtesy of Robert Guess
text © 2005 & 2018 Richard D. Perry
color images © Niccolo Brooker and Robert Guess with appreciation. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 8, 2018

San Bartolomé Otzolotepec 1. The Altarpiece

San Bartolomé Otzolotepec (On Jaguar Hill), now also known as Villa Cuauhtémoc, is located to the northeast of the city of Toluca in western Mexico State. 
   Although there was a church here in the latter 1500s, the present parish church is of later colonial origin, being built in the early 1700s under the episcopal clergy* and with the active cooperation of the indigenous Otomí of the region.
The church is substantial but unexceptional, its gray stone facade modestly but skilfully framed in the sober baroque style of the period. A statue of St. Bartholomew, the patron saint and martyr with flaying knife in hand, looks down from its niche.

The Main Altarpiece
This gleaming masterpiece of colonial art, epitomizes the high point of the Solomonic baroque style, which flourished in the first half of the 18th century. 
   Dating from 1726, it is documented as the work of the metropolitan designer/ensamblador Francisco Xavier de Olivares, and fortunately retains most of its original statuary and paintings. 
The retablo thrusts forward like a folding screen. Gilded, double helix columns divide three tiers of alternating sculpture niches and painted panels; the intervening cornices and panels are sumptuously encrusted with scrolls, shells and swirling foliage.
The Statuary
Variously framed arches cap the niches which house a series of handsomely wrought, elongated figures of saints conservatively posed but richly costumed in the decorative estofado manner.
   St. Bartholomew graces the upper niche in the broad central calle of the retablo, while Sts Peter, Paul and eminent Franciscans occupy the angled lateral niches.
St. Bartholomew
St. Ambrose?      St. Augustine;     St. Matthew
St. John the Evangelist;      St. Mark;     St. Luke    
Miniature reliefs of the Four Evangelists and the Doctors of the Latin Church are exquisitely carved along the base, or predella, at the foot of each column, further emphasizing the superb workmanship of this retablo.
The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by José de Ibarra
The Paintings
Another notable aspect of the altarpiece is the paintings in its outer calles. These include four major panels illustrating scenes from the life of St. Bartholomew, signed by the eminent baroque artist José de Ibarra—all the more important as they may constitute his earliest known complete cycle of paintings.
* The construction of the church was speedily completed under the direction of the energetic local priest, Prebendaro Nicolás López Jardón (for whom the recently established adjacent municipal museum is named) with the sponsorship of one José Ramo de Vera, a prominent local inquisitor.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
color images by Dolores Dahlhaus, Cecilia Gutierrez Arriola, ELTB, and others

Monday, October 1, 2018

Hidden Gems: The Pazulco Altarpiece

From time to time we take a look at modest rural Mexican churches with colonial antecedents that are overlooked by most students of viceregal art and architecture, but that often possess features of special artistic interest.  
Asunción Pazulco
At last report still in a dire condition of neglect, the exceptional 17th century altarpiece in the church of Asunción Pazulco*—a former visita of nearby Yecapixtla—retains most of its original fabric, above all, its wooden statues which, despite their urgent need of conservation, are among the highest quality colonial sculptural works in the state of Morelos.
The altarpiece is framed in classic “solomonic” style with gilded spiral columns, chains of relief rosettes, and hanging spindles in the Oaxacan baroque style. 
   Ornate sculpture niches encased in filigree relief hold the original statues which are of surpassing quality.

Flanking the image of the Virgin of the Assumption on the lower level, the figures of St. Augustine and St. Francis still glow in their faded but still sumptuous estofado robes.


St. Joseph bearing the Christ Child occupies the center niche on the upper level, accompanied by St. Andrew and the near naked figure of the martyr St. Sebastian.
St. Joseph
St Andrew;                                                 St Sebastian
The Crucifixion tableau in the gable includes reliefs of Mary and St. John the Divine. Naked cherubs dance atop the flanking columns. 
To either side, remnant painted reliefs depict Faith and Hope, while a bearded God the Father looks down from the apex.
It is much to be hoped that the long delayed restoration of this valuable altarpiece will be undertaken before its further, perhaps irreversible deterioration.
Facade earthquake damage 2017
*After the 9/19 earthquake of 2017, some structural damage to the church was sustained, notably the loss of a belfry, and interior problems including pieces fallen from the altar reported. Updates to follow.

Check out our other Hidden Gems: Xichu de IndiosSan Felipe Sultepec; San Pablo Malacatepec;  OcoxochitepecMixquiahualaCherán;
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry.  
color images by Niccolò Brooker and Irving Valerio