Thursday, July 30, 2020

Puebla. San Gabriel Cholula: La Capilla Real

 The Monastery of San Gabriel Cholula is the grandest Franciscan monastery in the Puebla region. The most striking part of the monastic complex is the former open chapel, or Capilla Real. 
La Capilla Real
La Capilla Real 
Travelers who have seen the famous mosque in Córdoba, Spain, may experience a sense of deja vu on entering the Capilla Real. The broad Renaissance facade, surmounted by classical cupolas, hardly prepares the visitor for the surprising interior, aptly named the "Hall of a Hundred Columns." 
   This elaborate structure was the Indian chapel. It is the oldest part of the monastery and may occupy the former inner shrine of Quetzalcoatl's temple, explaining its special sanctity for the native community, which commissioned its construction and paid for its maintenance throughout the colonial era. As designed by its Spanish architect, Luis de Arciniega, the chapel had no less than nine aisles side by side, each divided into seven bays by colonnades of octagonal and round shafts—creating a dense forest of columns. 
La Capilla Real doorways
Originally, the bays were roofed with brick vaults and wooden artesonado ceilings similar to those at Córdoba. These were replaced in the 18th century by the tiled and lanterned domes we see today. During the same period, the long arcaded west front, formerly open to the atrium, was enclosed and fitted with classical portals. 
La Capilla Real, chapel domes © Carolyn Brown
The spectacular flanking turrets have gone, and apart from the domes, only a few candelabra finials still project above the facade to remind us of its original dramatic outline. 
La Capilla Real, the restored interior © Felipe Falcon.
The recently restored interior houses numerous colonial paintings and statues, but the most striking artifact is the huge baptismal font, densely carved with acanthus foliage and a knotted cord rim. 
Although it may lack the rich Moorish detailing of its Andalusian ancestor, the Capilla Real of Cholula is nevertheless one of the most ambitious examples of colonial architecture in the Americas. 

text © 1997 & 2020 Richard D. Perry
photography by the author and courtesy of Niccolo Brooker, Carolyn Brown and Felipe Falcón

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Sunday, July 26, 2020

Puebla. The Acatzingo fountain

In an previous post we described the early baptismal font in the Franciscan monastery church of Acatzingo, in Puebla. In particular we noted the unique relief of the town place glyph carved on one side.
In this post we look at the related fountain located in the patio of the adjacent parish church, a sumptuous, later colonial tiled building in the Pueblan style.
Acatzingo, the parish church
Although not currently functioning and not clearly dated, the essential elements of the fountain remain in place; it has several features of interest, including corner reliefs, some replicating the ancient place glyph of the community in the monastery church.
Each relief - four in all - is held up by a helmeted angel, a figure also derived from the monastery church font. Elements include a heart pierced by an arrow, crossed eagle claws, one feathered, the other almost skeletal, a feathered headdress and below, two reeds emerging from water—a clear reference to the ancient place name (Where Reeds Grow)
Four lion's heads with embedded spouts sit atop the central column ringed by a now indecipherable inscription, while additional spouts issue from the helmets of the angel reliefs.
text © 2020 Richard D. Perry 
images by the author and courtesy of Niccolo Brooker

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Nayarit. La Santísima Trinidad de La Mesa del Nayar

As a follow up to our previous post on the ruined church of Santa Teresa del Nayar, we look at its companion church of la Santísima Trinidad de La Mesa del Nayar, the pioneer and flagship church of the Jesuit missionary effort in this remote area of western Mexico.
Dating from the mid 1700s, the rectangular stone church front is dominated by its massive tower which supports a single tier. Above the plain doorway a bulls eye choir window is situated in the upper facade with a variety of horizontal moldings and a heraldic relief at the apex.
Unlike Santa Teresa, La Santísima Trinidad at one time possessed at least one carved wooden altarpiece in late Baroque style. Probably manufactured in and transported from Zacatecas, and quite possibly created in the celebrated Ureña/Castañeda workshop, active there at that time. 
   All that has survived of the retablo is one or two statues and a focal painting of the Holy Trinity in the Mexican style (Three identical figures) which has been restored by the villagers under the supervision of Renata Schneider of the CNCPC/INAH. (picture to come) 
text © 2020 Richard D. Perry
My acknowledgments to the published research of Cecilia Gutiérrez Arriola

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Nayarit. Santa Teresa del Nayar.

Here is another post on outlying colonial monuments of interest in Mexico.
   Aside from some foundations in Baja California and Sonora, the Jesuits had a small footprint in Mexico at large. One exceptional cluster of Jesuit missions and associated Presidios is found in Nayarit state in western Mexico, a highland region known to the Order as San Jose de Toledo del Gran Nayar.
   Initially consisting of a group of primitive pole and thatch structures, most of these early missions were expanded into masonry or adobe churches in the later 1700s, shortly before the expulsion of the Order in 1767, following which some were taken over and expanded by the Franciscans.

The mission of La Santisima Trinidad was the principal church and convento in the group, but our focus in this post is the unfinished, roofless church of Santa Teresa, notable for its sculpted stone front and stone main retablo.  The “reduction” was established in 1722, but the present ruined church was probably built in the 1760s, and later virtually rebuilt by the Franciscans from the 1770s.
The Church
The church is still fronted by a large atrium or plaza which retains other colonial structures including the thatched Casa Real or community house of the area Cora Indians.
   The facade is constructed entirely of stone blocks. The handsome main doorway is carved with various ornamental foliated motifs including crowned, two headed Hapsburg imperial eagles on the lower jambs. The doorway is closely flanked by decorative colonettes, while reliefs of pelicans? and felines are embedded or either side .

The Retablo.
One of the handful of known colonial stone retablos*, this altarpiece is divided into three sections in two tiers, each with ornately framed but now empty sculpture niches, divided by sequences of plain half columns. 
   Probably dating from the 1770s, it is an artifact of the Franciscan occupation of the mission. The upper tiers are capped in part by knotted cord moldings—a classic Franciscan signature.
Like the facade the retablo is carved with ornamental reliefs including another prominent two headed eagle, this time without a crown but posed on a cactus with a serpent in each mouth—a reference to the Aztec and now Mexican national symbol.  Two similar smaller reliefs appeared on either side along with the Jerusalem cross—another Franciscan symbol.  Some of the original statues of saints are reputed to remain in the nearby parish church.

Other late colonial stone retablos in Mexico include those in the cathedrals of Puebla (Los Reyes) and Chihuahua, The Santuario de Guadalupe in Aguascalientes, San Jose Chiapa, El Carmen in San Luis Potosí, San Pablo El Viejo in Mexico City and Huentitán near Guadalajara.

text © 2020 Richard D. Perry

My acknowledgments to Arturo Saavedra Rubio who brought this church and retablo to my attention, and the published research of Cecilia Gutiérrez Arriola
   Un retablo en Piedra en la Sierra del Nayar.  en Retablos, su restauracion estudio y conservacion, UNAM. I.I.E. 2003

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

From the ashes: Santa Maria Acapulco

For our first post on outlying colonial monuments of special interest we go to the remote Sierra Gorda Potosina. 
Santa Maria Acapulco before the fire
On July 1st 2007 lightning struck the exceptional rustic church of Santa Maria Acapulco, located in an indigenous Pame village.
Within minutes the traditional wood and thatch roof, of a size unique in Mexico, was in flames, spreading to the nave of the church and its many retablos, a grievous loss to the villagers and the legacy of colonial art.
Santa Maria Acapulco, the nave before the fire
Founded around 1740, the temple is a former Franciscan mission. After the fire only the walls were left standing, with mural painting, and only a few sculptures and two paintings were rescued from the total of 125 pieces that had already been cataloged by the institute (INAH), including sculptures from the 17th and 18th centuries.
the facade as restored
The church front was also damaged, affecting the adobe sculptures and passages of mural painting.
facade lion relief detail
An existing INAH conservation and documentation program already under way assumed greater urgency. A full restoration project was launched to repair and as far as possible restore as much of the fabric and furnishings as possible.
   The walls were strengthened and a new wood and thatch roof fashioned after the original manner. 
Retablo of Dolores
main wall altarpiece, statue of St Francis
The original 18th century altarpieces and pulpit were destroyed, but to date only the Retablo of Guadalupe has been replaced.
The  new Guadalupe retablo 
Although the abundant wall murals were also damaged by the fire, many have been repainted with the participation of the Pame villagers.
mural fragments before and after
The partial restoration of this unique church and its treasures is heartening to the sorrowing villagers as well as lovers of Mexican colonial art and architecture.
text © 2020 Richard D. Perry
images  © Nicccolo Brooker and online sources

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Mexico. San Luis Huexotla

For the last in our current posts on the state of Mexico we look at the mission of San Luis Obispo Huexotla.
   Ancient Huexotla (Place of the Willows) was the major center of the Otomi speaking Acolhua people, allies of the Aztecs.
After the Spanish conquest, the Franciscans founded a mission here on a sloping, commanding site atop prehispanic temple platforms linked by an ancient stairway, which form the grand bi-level double atrium in front of the monastery. 
The earliest colonial structure here most likely is the diminutive cloister, at the center of the convento on the south side of the church, dating from the mid-1500s.  Sturdy ringed columns distinguish the arcades on the lower level, while wooden counterparts support the later upper walks.

Blocked arcades on the north side of the church and below the present tower, probably indicate an earlier porteria and open chapel, which is marked by a toponymic relief of lions flanking a stylized willow tree.

The present church, dedicated to St Louis bishop of Toulouse, was largely rebuilt in the 1700s, including the tower and ornate stucco facade which appears to date from late in that century, featuring, as it does, complex estípite pilasters.
Facade statuary includes rustic figures of the Evangelists, notably that of St. Matthew.
One remarkable colonial artifact inside the church is a handsome stone pulpit, intensely carved with Christic monograms, dated 1745 and ringed by an inscription on the lower level. No Franciscan insignia however appear, as might be expected.
Aside from the pulpit, the other work of note in the church is its gilded main altarpiece, also fashioned in a late baroque style similar to the facade. Sumptuous estípite columns flanked the sculpture niches which house saints including the patron San Luis Obispo and other Franciscans.
text © 2020 Richard D. Perry, graphic after John McAndrew.
color images by Niccolo Brooker and online sources - ELTB

Friday, July 3, 2020

Mexican Altarpieces: San Bernardino de Xochimilco

In this post we turn to one of greatest and most celebrated of early colonial altarpieces in Mexico, the retablo mayor of the church of San Bernardino de Xochimilco in southern Mexico City.  Here we rely upon vintage images of the retablo taken by the author in 1987 soon after its initial restoration.*
San Bernardino de Xochimilco, west front
Fray Martín de Valencia, the visionary leader of the Franciscan Twelve, founded the mission here in 1525, dedicating it to Bernardino of Siena, the popular 15th century preacher and reformer.  By 1580 much of the present monastery was built—a tribute to the skill and dedication of Xochimilco's famous artisans.
El Retablo Mayor
Although the church houses a choice collection of colonial art and artifacts, the undisputed masterpiece is the main retablo behind the high altar. Largely restored, this altarpiece was probably created in the final years of the 16th century and is considered the crowning achievement of late Renaissance altarpiece design in the Americas.
   Drawing on the talents of the finest artists and craftsmen of the day, it is a stunning synthesis of painting, carving and gilding, The elegant frame, richly carved and lavishly gilded, rises in four main tiers towards the vault of the apse. Fluted columns, delicately ornamented with saints and friars, support classical capitals, cornices and pediments—all finished in refined detail.
Paintings and sculpted figures alternate in the seven vertical columns, or calles. In the center calle, framed by Atlantean pilasters, the main relief depicts San Bernardino protecting several figures of both sexes beneath his ample cloak. These are believed to represent three native nobles* and their wives from the Xochimilco area, including some who may have sponsored the altarpiece. 
Two exceptional figures stand beside San Bernardino. John the Baptist, on the right, is an expressive figure of extraordinary power and beauty, while the virile Archangel Michael, on the left, seems poised to stride forth from his niche to defeat the forces of darkness. Both images possess a dynamism of movement and gesture that breaks free of the restrictive mold of the other figures, heralding the exuberance of the baroque era.
Above him stands the image of the Virgin Mary, resplendent in opulently textured estofado drapery. (Estofado was a technique of imitating cloth on statuary by incising surface paint to reveal the gilding underneath, a method perfected by colonial sculptors in Mexico.)
God the Father, youthful and bearded, gestures from the pediment at the top of the retablo, flanked by the reclining statues of Faith and Hope. Hope clutches a huge anchor, looking for all the world like a ship's figurehead. 
Luxuriously attired Franciscan saints and church dignitaries in stately classical poses occupy the lateral niches, including prominent Franciscan saints like Francis and Anthony of Padua.
Relief busts of homely Apostles fill the predella, or base panel of the altarpiece. Clutching the tools of their trade, these are clearly portraits of working men, perhaps even of the artisans who crafted the retablo. 
The Nativity: The Adoration of the Shepherds
Eight large paintings depict familiar episodes in the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary, from the Annunciation and the Nativity on the first tier to the Ascension of Christ and the Assumption of the Virgin in the top tier. 
   They are attributed to Baltasar de Echave Orio, a Basque artist who came to Mexico in the 1580s. A pioneer of the Mexican school, he founded one of the most successful and long-lived painting dynasties in the New World. 
   These panels are his only known complete cycle of paintings to survive in Mexico—all the more remarkable for having remained intact in their original location. They follow the prevailing Italian Mannerist style of the period. 
   In spite of the eccentric composition of some panels and the occasionally uncertain draftsmanship, the figures are sedate and aristocratic. Their serene, almost doll-like features are suffused with light, emphasizing their spirituality,just as their sumptuous draperies underscore their worldly dignity.
   Echave Orio was a master colorist, and the paintings are alive with rich warm tones accented with vivid greens and lilacs.

Martín Cerón de Alvarado, Joaquín de Santa María y Francisco de Guzmán.
* The paintings were cleaned and further restored in early 2016

text and images © 2020 Richard D. Perry.  All rights reserved.

See our earlier posts on Mexican altarpieces of note: