The facade, reworked in late colonial times, features a lobed doorway crowned by a handsome curved and bescrolled gable pierced by a slanted barbed quatrefoil opening—a motif repeated in the atrium gateway.
For another in our occasional series on notable early colonial doorways, we go to San Francisco Soyaniquilpan in Mexico State.
The celebrated church of San Juan Chamula, the dominant structure in Chamula center and traditional focus of religious life there, was originally a Dominican building. Although remodeled over the centuries, it remains one of the few pueblo-de-indios churches to survive in a form close to its 16th century appearance.
The first mission was founded here during the Spanish Conquest. The village formed part of an encomienda granted to the famous chronicler and conquistador, Bernal Diaz del Castillo. In 1549, the Dominicans built a primitive chapel here, which was supplanted by a stone church towards the end of the 16th century. As it was visited by a priest from Santo Domingo, no convento was ever added.
Chamula is nestled in a highland valley northwest of San Cristobal and reached via a narrow road that winds up through wooded hills. Three green-painted tree crosses mark the village entrance, from where the visitor can view the ruined early church of San Sebastian, standing in the middle of the village cemetery.
Simpler in form but related to the main church of San Juan, this abandoned chapel is thought to occupy the site of the first mission at Chamula, destroyed by fire.
In addition to the large, open plaza, the imposing church of San Juan has its own walled forecourt, or atrium, with three arched entrances. Today, as in colonial times, this is the arena for the vivid religious processions and ceremonies that crowd the Chamulan ritual calendar. During these celebrations, the church banners and santos are paraded around the atrium, which reverberates with the explosions of gunpowder and the blare of brass bands.
In plan and construction, San Juan Chamula exemplifies the rural missions of Chiapas. Nave walls of coarse stone are braced by buttresses and pierced by slender windows with stepped frames. A pitched terracotta tile roof covers the church.
The west front is especially striking, with its broad arched doorway, balconied choir window and lofty espadaña towering above the village. The stepped portal dominates the facade, its great coffered doorframe recalling the classic Dominican Renaissance doorways of Coixtlahuaca and Tlaxiaco, in Oaxaca and currently painted blue and green.
Alternating rosette reliefs around the doorway and choir window are picked out in red, white and ocher, adding a colorful folk touch. Narrow sculpture niches, now empty of images, are set one above the other in pairs beside the doorway. The enormous choir window, painted like the doorway, breaks dramatically through the cornice above the doorway into the gable overhead. The prominence of this opening is puzzling, although the presence of a balcony in front suggests that it may have been used originally as a preaching pulpit, or even an elevated open chapel. A narrow caracol staircase built into the north side of the facade gives access to both the balcony and the interior choir loft.
The cornices of the gable curve steeply upwards to a spectacular espadaña with three bell openings—a modern addition. Pot pinnacles are set on the corners of the facade, as well as above the espadaña.
Most architectural features of the facade—cornices, scrolls, assorted openings and niches—are boldly accented in green against the whitewashed stucco, lending a festive feeling to this essentially vernacular building.
Those with interest in religious folk art, should respectfully explore the church interior. Santos sacred to the unique Maya-Catholic cult of the Chamulas line both sides of a nave liberally strewn with pine needles during fiestas. In a haze of copal incense that fills the church, groups of Maya dressed in hand-woven apparel kneel in front of saints and crosses draped with ribbons and mirrors.
Before the main altar are placed the images of John the Baptist (San Juan) and St. Michael (San Miguel), the patron saint of the musicians who often play in the church.
text © 1993 & 2021 Richard D. Perry
color images from online sources
In this post we revisit the northeastern highlands of Chiapas, a region known in colonial times as Los Zendales—a corruption of Tzeltal—one of two Maya languages spoken by the inhabitants, the other being the related Tzotzil.
Most of the churches in the area have colonial origins and although invariable altered, much of their fabric dates back centuries.
The best known church in the region is that at San Juan Chamula, but in this post we look at San Miguel Huixtán.
Like Chamula, Huixtán is a village of Tzotzil-speaking Maya. The settlement is perched on the side of a narrow ridge, overlooking the scenic valley below. The women of the village dress in white huipiles with floral embroidery and the men wear homespun wool ponchos against the highland chill.
The mission of San Miguel was founded as a visita of the Dominican priory of Santo Domingo some time late in the 16th century, although it was later subject to the nearby mission at Ocosingo.
As in all Maya villages, the church is the religious and social center of the community. It faces a large terraced plaza, undoubtedly the former mission atrium. At the far end of this plaza is mounted a traditional green tree cross, gaily bedecked with flowers and pine branches on feast days.
The modest church is built in the 16th century pueblo-de-indios style, with rubblestone walls and a pitched tile roof. Recently renovated, the powerful west front is similar to San Juan Chamula, with a conspicuous arched entry flanked by wall niches. Above the doorway, however, Huistan has a more clearly defined retablo facade, divided by prominent pilasters and cornices.
Massive buttresses flare out on either side, visually integrated into the facade by inset niches and extension of the cornices. Giant merlons, set on high pedestals and surmounted by enormous cannonball finials, flank the upper facade.
Curving, scrolled cornices sweep up in front of the merlons, anchoring the upper pediment and supporting a freestanding espadaña. The crowning parapet is perforated by open brickwork—a decorative mudéjar touch in this otherwise rather austere folk-baroque facade.
The box-like nave contains a few altars, including a shrine to the Archangel Michael (San Miguel), the patron saint of the village, whose fiesta is celebrated in late September.
text ©1994 & 2021 Richard D. Perry
images by the author and from online sources
This hilltop Tzeltal village overlooks the Pan-American Highway, south of San Cristóbal some 5 kms past Teopisca. Best known for its traditional hand-made and wood-fired folk pottery which is displayed along the highway, Amatenango attracts many tourists, who are often besieged by pottery sellers—local Maya girls dressed in vivid red and yellow huipils and blue skirts.
A typical 17th century pueblo-de-indios church in plan, San Francisco Amatenango was largely rebuilt in the 18th century following a particularly severe earthquake.
The fabric of the church is an amalgam of adobe, brick and rubblestone. Attractive tiles of various hues and textures overlay the beamed roof with its overhanging eaves.
The brilliant white church front with its stepped doorway and red wooden doors faces the central plaza and is constructed of finely cut stone—rare indeed for a country church.
The colonial retablo facade has been altered in modern times, losing some of its integrity in the process. The sharply silhouetted upper tier was added during the facelift, and much of the surface relief erased, giving the facade its present pristine look. However, vestiges of the old stucco ornament—mostly arabesques and scalloped decoration—have survived inside the sculpture niches. A grid of ribbon pilasters and simple cornices crisscrosses the lower tiers of the facade, cleanly framing the rounded shapes of the niches, bell openings and choir window.
As a foil to this neat geometrical pattern, the stocky stone figure of St. Francis, Amatenango's patron saint, gazes down from the central niche. The top tier rises well above the nave, drawing attention to the somewhat out-of-scale bell openings of the espadaña and domed belfries. The espadaña is appropriately capped with pottery urns.
A traditional wooden plank ceiling covers the dim nave, leading to an octagonal mudéjar vault over the sanctuary. Below this vault stands a baroque altarpiece, painted in Venetian red and greenish-blue hues.
Unusually elegant for a country church in Chiapas, the retablo features a scalloped outline and gilded rocaille work in Guatemalan style. Plateresque and spiral columns decorated with grapevines frame a group of naive canvases, including a crowded Nativity and several episodes from the life of St. Francis, whose festival is celebrated here in early October. A statue of the saint appears again in the center niche.
text © 1993 & 2021 Richard D. Perry
photography by the author, Niccolo Brooker, and from online sources
We begin our new series on the churches of colonial Chiapas with a visit to Aguacatenango.
Set at a distance from the highway beside a shallow seasonal lake, Aguacatenango has a more indigenous feeling than either Teopisca or Amatenango. Fishermen stand waist deep in the lake to cast their nets, while pigs and small children run through the narrow, rocky streets.