Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Guanajuato. Acámbaro: the royal hospital

Before the Spanish conquest, when it bordered the banks of an ancient lake, Acámbaro was a key link in the chain of garrison towns protecting the eastern flank of the Tarascan empire.  Later, under Spanish domination, it became one of the first missionary towns in the area, settled with Otomís, Tarascans and even a sprinkling of Chichimec tribesmen.
   Early chronicles tell us that the friars erected a wooden cross and a rude chapel with a belfry. To inaugurate the mission, a formal mass was celebrated here on September 1526, with processions and great ceremony to impress the Indians.
At the heart of town, surrounded by spacious plazas and parks—once part of a vast atrium—the Franciscan monastery is the most ambitious and architecturally original religious complex in the region. 
 A wonderful 16th century fountain, known locally as La Fuente Taurina, sparkles under the trees. It was reputedly installed to celebrate the first bullfight held in Acámbaro, and is carved in tequitqui style with scenes of the corrida, playful reliefs of fish, seashells, grotesque masks and even an Aztec speech scroll. We described this fountain and others in Acámbaro in an earlier post.

The Royal Hospital
The hospital dates from 1532, the year in which the convento was founded, and its chapel remains the oldest surviving structure in the group. The restored facade, carved from the warm local graystone, is its most picturesque feature. A triumph of the mudéjar-influenced ”Pidgin Plateresque” style, it recalls the Michoacán church fronts of Santiago Angahuan and La Guatapera Chapel in Uruapan.

The porch contains the most accomplished stone carving. Stylized busts of Saints Peter and Paul, encased in wreathed medallions, are emblazoned on its wide door jambs, alongside winged cherubs and ornamental cords with stylized tassels and birdshead knots. 
St. Peter relief
Similar medallions, enclosing the Five Wounds of Christ, are linked by a grapevine with sharply undercut leaves and fruit that undulates around the arch of the doorway. The archway is outlined by the Franciscan knotted cord and a thorn-and-ribbon molding in high relief.

Another cord, flanked by complex rosettes, frames the stone cross above the doorway. Wooden doors, carved with reliefs of saints and angels, complement the sculpted porch. A great alfiz fringed with Isabelline pearls frames the entire upper facade, including the star-spangled attic and choir window. 
   The carved stone facade is nicely set off by the whitewashed chapel front, whose only other features are a north tower, notable for its sheared off belfry and archaic ajímez, or divided window. The simple chapel interior houses a full complement of local santos, including at least one gruesome cristo de caña with gaping wounds and a fearsome crown of thorns.
   Two low archways beside the chapel are all that remain of the former “pilgrims’ portico,” or hospital entrance. Unfortunately, too, the interior patio has been altered beyond recognition.
Sunrise behind the chapel, February 2020 (Courtesy Robert Jackson)

Text © 1997 & 2020 Richard D. Perry
photography by the author and Niccolo Brooker

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