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

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