Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Our guidebooks to Mexico

We understand that many of our followers may have postponed their planned trips to Mexico. For these readers and other armchair travelers we recommend our regional guidebooks to the arts of colonial Mexico:

West Mexico: Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Queretaro
The monasteries of Central Mexico

All our guides are available through Amazon from our distributor Practical Patchwork.
Readable... Portable... Affordable...

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Chiapas. Forgotten missions of El Camino Real: San José Coneta

The most original and the best preserved of the ruined Camino Real missions, San José Coneta stands alone on a remote ranch close to the Guatemalan border. Founded in the late 1500s, the church dates from the next century, the facade being the final addition. Coneta was depopulated around 1800, and when John Lloyd Stephens visited in 1839 the church roof had already fallen and the mission was in an advanced state of abandonment.While its once grand convento now lies in ruins, the church, although roofless, remains in place.
Like Escuintenango, Coneta has a single nave with a polygonal apse. The walls and church front are of roughly cut stonework set in a matrix of lime mortar containing snail shells - a sturdy mix that may account for its good condition. The fallen vaulting was also of stone, a rarity among pueblo-de-indio churches in Chiapas. 
Coneta, the roofless sanctuary and polygonal apse

The spectacular west front is preserved virtually intact - the result of timely restorative work some years ago and again recently. Its unusual design and highly original decoration are remarkable for provincial Chiapas, and perhaps unique in Mexico. The broad facade rises in five tiers to its crowning gable. 
   Amazingly, much of the stucco facing has survived the centuries in good condition, retaining its intricate decorative designs - an intriguing blend of folk Plateresque, mudéjar and even Mayan motifs.
The central doorway, whose stepped frame is incised with angels, crosses and maize plants, retains traces of its original colors and painted decoration. It is flanked by blind arcades enclosing elongated niches—a regional peculiarity
Three shallow tiers rise overhead featuring rows of little ornamental niches separated by a variety of stubby pilasters in what might be termed a "folk estipíte" style - differing in detail on each level. A bulls-eye window above the doorway is surmounted by a succession of distinctive decorative niches on each level, culminating in a large bell opening on the espadaña. 
   The headless statue of the patron, St Joseph, occupies a larger niche on the fourth tier.
text and images © 1993 & 2020 Richard D. Perry 

Monday, March 23, 2020

Chiapas. Forgotten Missions of the Camino Real: Aquespala

Another ruined mission along the old Camino Real in Chiapas is that of San Nicolás Aquespala. 
One of the longer lived missions in this group, Aquespala was founded shortly after 1550 to resettle Lacandon and Coxoh speaking Maya and survived as a community until almost 1900. Located near the Río San Juan, which also flows into the Grijalva, the convento and much of the church - mostly built of adobe - have returned to the earth. 
The massive stone church front though, added in the 1600s and formerly faced with stucco, however remains largely intact, owing to its masonry construction. Great stone slabs inside and out make up sturdy curtain walls enclosing a mud-and-boulder core.
   In its design, the facade follows the format we saw at Coapa, although here simpler and more harmonious, with three broad bays and three tiers framed by giant pilasters. 
Although the crowning belfries and central espadaña have largely crumbled away, as at nearby Escuintenango the remnants of a caracol stairway are embedded in the facade on its north side.
text © 2020 Richard D. Perry

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Chiapas. Forgotten missions of El Camino Real: Coapa

In colonial times, the Camino Real, or "royal road", ran from Mexico City through Oaxaca and then Chiapas - at that time part of Guatemala - on its way to the then capital of Antigua.
   In the early years, the road followed an ancient Maya trade route south along the banks of the great Grijalva River, through the tropical Central Depression of Chiapas from Chiapa de Corzo to Guatemala. 
   Numerous pueblo-de-indio missions were founded by the Dominicans at strategic points along the old colonial highway through the tierra caliente. Most of these were, for various reasons, abandoned - usually because of depopulation - and the missions left to the mercy of the elements.
   These included a quartet of still abandoned and less well known missions along the upper Grijalva River basin, a region known in colonial times as Los Llanos. 
Coapa, Escuintenango, Aquespala and Coneta were initially visitas of the Dominican priory at Comitán, serving congregated villages of the now extinct Coxoh-speaking Maya. Later, all four became missions in their own right. During the1600s, masonry churches with elaborate fronts were built and small conventos added.
   Although the crumbling fabric of these early missions has in recent years been partially stabilized, the conventos have largely disappeared and only fragments of the four churches remain - some remains more extensive than others. 
   Isolated in empty fields, these evocative monuments, however, share a regional, vernacular style of architecture. Although related to the larger Chiapas churches at Soyatitán, Copanaguastla, and that of San Sebastián in Chiapa de Corzo, these venerable buildings still present distinctive features.

We focus first on Coapa, now located on private ranch lands known as Rancho San Isidro Corral de Piedra.
   Set in the swampy lowlands of the Central Depression, Coapa retains sections of its mission structures although in varying stages of decay. The earliest building is probably the T-shaped structure behind the main church. This may be part of the original 16th century mission - possibly an open chapel with a wood or adobe nave attached. Only part of the facade now stands, although this includes the remains of an attractive arched doorway framed by an alfiz and crudely carved rosettes.
The church dates from the mid-1600s. Its thin walls of coarse rubble are set in mud and chinked with pebbles - a pre-hispanic practice. These have mostly collapsed, however, although a small section of the north nave wall still stands, enclosing a classic Dominican window frame with recessed jambs. Only the lower tier of the facade survives, divided into three bays in a primitive "retablo" design with an arched main doorway and lateral niches separated by double half-columns. 
   Here the stoneworking is finer, suggesting a later date, although the facade was no doubt originally faced with decorated stucco. A ruined range of rooms, part of the convento, stands to the north of the church. Other foundations, including the possible base for an atrium cross, lie on the south side. 
text © 2020 Richard D. Perry
images courtesy of Niccolo Brooker

Monday, March 16, 2020

Chiapas. San Sebastian

St. Sebastian (San Sebastián) is one of the most popular saints in Chiapas. Almost every town has a church or chapel dedicated to him.  Perhaps his appeal springs from his medieval reputation as a protector against the plague and other epidemics—notorious scourges during colonial times. The indigenous people also associate this Christian martyr with the widespread pre-hispanic practice of Tlacacaliliztli, or arrow sacrifice. 
   Since St. Sebastian was an early patron of the Indian community in Chiapa de Corzo, his feast day is the most important and colorful festival in the religious calendar. Starting on January 6th and climaxing on January 23rd, a variety of masked figures—including chuntaes (dancers with fruit-laden headresses) and parachicos (bewigged flagbearers)— cavort through the city streets amid great revelry. 
    Besides the priory of Santo Domingo, and the barrio chapel of El Calvario, the outlying ruined basilica of San Sebastián is the only other surviving colonial church in Chiapa de Corzo. 
Built during the 1600s on a rocky promontory overlooking the town, the valley and the river, it was intended as the parish church for the large indigenous population of the town. But the Indians long complained about its inconvenient location so that by the late 1700s, following a successful lawsuit, Santo Domingo once again became the parroquia for the community. 
   With this reversal, however, San Sebastián fell into disuse and neglect, a condition from which it has never really recovered. Because of its commanding site, the church was used as a fortified lookout in the 19th century. In recent years, an outdoor chapel dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe has been erected beside the battlemented sanctuary—which also may have begun life as an open-air chapel from which the early friars preached to the assembled Indians. 
San Sebastian, the sanctuary block before restoration
In plan, San Sebastian borrows the basilican form of Santo Domingo, although it has no crossing or transepts and only reaches a single story in height.  The wooden roof that once covered the nave has long since collapsed, together with the mudéjar dome that once vaulted the massive sanctuary block, whose corners still carry the stumps of rugged merlons. 
the facade
The broad stone and brick facade has been partially restored, although it still lacks its stucco veneer and surmounting gable. Transitional in style between the Plateresque missions of lowland Chiapas and the popular retablo facades of the highlands, the west front of San Sebastian recalls the facade of the distant basilica at Cuilapan and may echo the original facade of neighboring Santo Domingo. 
   Colossal half columns, set on high pedestals, divide the facade into three wide bays. Breaking through the cornice separating the two main tiers, the columns also frame the arched central doorway and choir window. Paired blank niches occupy the lateral bays on both tiers. Massive projecting piers, perhaps originally intended as towers, anchor the facade at either end. Unfortunately, only a few fragments of the great triangular gable now protrude above the facade; the soaring central espadana has entirely eroded, together with the belfries that at one time capped the towers. 
   With the reinstatement of Santo Domingo as the parish church of Chiapa de Indios in the 18th century, all the furnishings of San Sebastian were moved down the hill along with the Indian congregation. One of the few surviving relics is the venerable statue of San Sebastián, which is now kept in Santo Domingo and displayed in all its richly embroidered finery each year during the January celebrations. 
statue of San Sebastián
In recent years some restoration work has been carried out. The basic structure and fabric of the church has been stabilized, the nave walls rerebuilt and the interior arcades replaced. The building remains roofless and no plan is forthcoming for its replacement or future role in the community.  
   As it has for centuries, it remains a picturesque ruin and a legacy of colonial faith and architecture.
text and images © 1993 & 2020 Richard D. Perry

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Chiapas: San Miguel Copainala

Returning to Chiapas, we take a new look at the venerable Dominican priory of San Miguel Copainalá in the Zoque region of northern Chiapas.
   Founded as a mission town in the 1550s, Copainalá sits picturesquely along a ridge, higher and dryer than nearby Tecpatán The high-way bypasses Copainalá on the far side of a ravine, affording a panoramic view of the terraced streets and the spectacular ruined colonial church, known to locals as La Ruina. 
   The settlement prospered during the late 1500s, evidently justifying the construction of a large church and convento. Of the original priory only the church remains, mutilated and abandoned. 
The convento on the north side was largely demolished and its site is now occupied by a schoolyard and the small 19th century parish church of San Miguel. 
   The period of church construction was a lengthy one, from circa 1570 to the mid-1600s, which helps explain the variety of building materials and stylistic anomalies. Stucco originally covered most of the interior and exterior surfaces, but has fallen away to reveal the underlying fabric. Roughly quarried stone predominates in the lower walls of the church, changing to brick in the upper elevations. 
Copainalá in 1993
    Raised on a terraced stone plaza—its former atrium—the church faces west across a steeply sloping barranca. Presently, the nave ends at the crossing. The former apse, which cut into the hillside at the east end, has collapsed or been demolished, leaving behind a gaping hole currently filled with rubble. 
   The transepts still stand, along with two small adjoining chapels. Pitched beam-and-tile roofs at one time covered the now roofless church except for the apse, which was vaulted in stone. 
Churches in northern Chiapas are conspicuous for their towers, an attribute generally lacking in other parts of the state. The tower at Copainala, a massive square structure adjoining the south side of the facade, is the most unusual feature of the church, with its own distinctive characteristics that include a huge blind archway of un-known purpose on the north face and a circular brick stairway, tucked into the corner behind the tower. The stairway employs decorative mudéjar brickwork and a castellated turret strikingly similar to the stair tower of the fountain at Chiapa de Corzo. 
The west front in 1993
As elsewhere in the region, monumental pilasters buttress the west front of the church. Here mounted on high pedestals, they frame the entry portico, rising to meet the broad triangular gable that stands atop the facade. The pilasters terminate in outsize obelisks, also set on pedestals. 
A third obelisk surmounts the central gable, which is pierced by a small rose window that still preserves fragments of tracery. The 17th century Italianate portico takes the form of a triumphal arch, elegantly framing the west doorway with paired pilasters and urn-like pinnacles that echo the obelisks atop the facade. 
The attic above the doorway retains traces of a Latin inscription referring to St. Michael, the patron saint of Copainala. 

Copainala today

2020 update: Recently the church has been re-roofed and partially restored. It is again in use as the parish church.

text and pictures © 1993 and 2020 Richard D. Perry.
please visit our other Chiapas pages: Quechula; Chapultenango; Soyatitan; Escuintenango; Teopisca; Tapalapa; Tecpatan;

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Chiapas. Tecpatan

It is a while since we posted anything on colonial Chiapas, but today we are posting a piece on the grand former Dominican priory of Tecpatán, the principal Dominican house in the northern Zoque region of the state.
The mossy hulk of the 16th century priory still broods above its overgrown atrium in the center of this tropical hillside town—a magnificent but timeworn monument to faded Dominican hopes and missionary efforts among the Zoques. 
Imposing and original, the 16th century building complex draws on the diverse architectural traditions—late medieval, mudéjar, Plateresque and Renaissance. 
Tecpatan, the priory as restored, 2016 (Robert Jackson)
The Church
The canyon-like nave of the church, now open to the sky, was originally spanned by a pitched artesonado roof supported on masonry arches, some of which still rest precariously in place.  
The nave facing east 2016  (Robert Jackson)
At the east end, a short flight of steps leads up to the narrow apse, which is framed by a classical archway. This is surmounted by a Moorish alfiz and vaulted by a scalloped half dome—the only remaining roof section in the church. 
    In contrast, the cavernous sacristy, beside the apse, is roofed by a lofty Gothic vault in a ribbed cloverleaf pattern, bearing traces of geometric mural decoration.
The south entry
But the most prominent of these openings is the lateral entry to the church. Broad pilasters topped with plateresque finials frame the grand south porch, its "door-within-a-door" design related to the north entry at Yanhuitlan—the great Dominican priory in Oaxaca. A second set of pilasters flanks the archway, enclosing a Renaissance-inspired inner doorway, and the Dominican insignia are emblazoned on a crumbling stucco panel above. 
The West Front 
While the imposing brick and stone church front has lost much of its stucco veneer and original detail, its harmonious and inventive design continues to impress.  Giant Tuscan pilasters frame the entire center facade, plain apart from shallow shell niches embedded at eye level.
  The simple arched doorway retains only vestiges of its fluted surround. Three blank sculpture niches separate the doorway from the handsome, layered choir window above, in turn flanked by worn Corinthian pilasters. capped by dentilled cornices. 
A shallow triangular pediment caps the center facade. The crumbling espadaña—a picturesque sil-houette of looping arches capped with eroded baroque pediments and finials—is a later addition
The tower in 2012
The Tower
The tower is the most striking feature of this church. Even more fantastical in design, with turret-like buttresses at the corners, the tower conjures up the image of a medieval castle. A rounded buttress anchors the southeast corner while an imposing octagonal buttress braces the southwest corner of the tower. 
sacristy mural detail 1940 (Berlin)
(Robert Jackson)
The cylindrical turret projecting from west face encloses a narrow caracol stairway illuminated by slit openings. 
Beside the stairway, a narrow Romanesque window illuminates the former baptistry located within the tower. The vaulted belfry retains traces of murals that include biblical subjects, religious symbols and floral ornament—decoration that must originally have adorned almost every surface in the church and monastery.
The convento front 2016 (Robert Jackson)
The Convento
The convento at Tecpatán, a grandiose two-story structure that has been recently restored, is distinguished by elegant arcades of burnt-orange brick. 
The upper cloister before recent restoration 
The cloister walks are covered by lofty groin vaults and faced by arcades with paneled piers, further adorned along the upper arcade by plain and spiral colonnettes.

text © 2020 and pictures © 1993 by  Richard D. Perry.
other photography courtesy of Robert Jackson
all rights reserved.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Yucatán: Asunción Dzitbalché

For the last in our current series on smaller Yucatán churches, we visit that of Asunción Dzitbalché, a village noted for its colonial trove of ancient Mayan ritual songs and poetry (Los Cantares de Dzitbalché)
The rustic church of Asunción Dzitbalche, a former visita of nearby Calkini now in the state of Campeche, shows traits typical of many Yucatan missions: a mid-16th century colonial open chapel and belfry at the east end fronted by a castellated masonry nave and simple facade capped by a curved espadaña, added in the late 1700s.
As the name indicates Dzitbalche is noted for its venerated image of the Virgin of the Assumption, which is carried from the church in procession through local communities on her August 16 feast day.

text © 2019 Richard D. Perry
images by the author and from online sources