Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Cristóbal, Antonio and Juan. Los Niños Martires in Mexican colonial art.

Among those canonized by Pope Francis in October 2017, were a trio of Mexican saints known as Los Niños Martires.
   One of the best known episodes of the Spiritual Conquest of Mexico is that of the Niños Martires.
   The story goes that shortly after the conquest, in 1527, Axotécatl, one of the Four Lords of Tlaxcala—allies of Cortés in the defeat of the Aztecs—sent his three sons to be educated in the Franciscan monastery of Tlaxcala.
   On their return, the young men set about smashing idols and reproaching their father for his polygamy and excessive drinking. The enraged lord beat his son Cristóbal and had him burned him to death. The other two boys, Antonio and Juan, fled but continued their preaching and iconoclastic ways, until they too soon suffered a martyr's fate. 
Although popular figures of the trio appear in a few Mexican churches, the martyrdom of the three only appears in two colonial era murals; initially in the porteria of the Franciscan monastery of Ozumba east of Mexico City and later in the church of Santa Maria Atlihuetzia, in the state of Tlaxcala, the location of some of the events portrayed.
At Ozumba, the boy martyrs are identified by inscriptions and are shown in a rural landscape being killed by the villagers by different methods in graphic detail. Churches in the background portray the nearby towns of Tlaxcala (l) and 
Tecali (r). Note the broken idol on the lower right.
Ozumba mural detail

Ozumba mural details

The parish church of Santa Maria Atlihuetzia is a shrine to the memory of Los Ninos Martires, as the boys are known in the pantheon of the Mexican church; their fate is recorded in a pair of dramatic, late colonial paintings with Nahuatl speech inscriptions.
text and images ©2002 Richard D. Perry

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Oaxaca. Ozolotepec

We journey south beyond the city of Oaxaca to the remote Zapotec village of Ozolotepec in the rugged Sierra Sur of Oaxaca.
At the heart of the community stands the 17th century church of Santa Maria Ozolotepec. 
The broad, much rebuilt church front presents a modified retablo facade flanked by stubby single tier bell towers. Statues of Sts Peter and Paul occupy niches on either side of the arched west doorway.
Ozolotepec. The nave after the 2017 earthquake.

Inside, the expansive single nave is covered by a spectacular, painted, beamed ceiling hung with spindles. Several baroque altarpieces line the nave, most notably the main retablo and the side altarpiece of St Antony.
The retablo mayor
The Main Retablo
 Bankrolled, like the church as a whole, by the eminent cleric Pedro de Otálora Carbajal, who also funded the building of the famous Sanctuary of La Soledad in the city of Oaxaca, the main altarpiece showcases a number of paintings. These include portraits of  St Dominic, St Lawrence and St Gregory as well as Catherine of Alexandria and the Archangel Michael.
St Dominic;                                                  St Lawrence
St Gregory;                                               Nicholas of Tolentino

The side retablo of San Antonio is of perhaps greater historical interest. 
In the center panel, cast in the form of a scene of Purgatory, the commanding figure of St Anthony stands above the struggling souls (animas) , among whom is, on the left, a bearded figure being rescued by an angel, thought to represent the church patron Otálora, and on the right an indigenous man assumed to be a prominent native figure and possible donor of the altarpiece, touching the cord of the saint's robe.

text © 2022 Richard D. Perry
photography by Fernando Herrera
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Monday, July 11, 2022

Oaxaca. La Defensa

For the last in our current series on the lesser known churches of the city of Oaxaca, we visit La Defensa.
   The simple baroque exterior of this little chapel, located close to San Francisco and dedicated to the rarely honored Virgin of La Defensa, is another minor Oaxacan classic.
Rebuilt between 1786 and 1792 after an earthquake in 1795, the cruciform church features sober portals, rebuilt more than once following further quakes—west and north facing—with attractive baroque accents. 
The west facade, faced with local greenstone, is neatly framed by an recessed arch linking the flanking tower bases. A diminutive painted statue of the Virgin occupies a niche above the doorway. 
Pillowed pilasters and layered cornices frame the more elaborate north doorway, which is capped by a fanciful curving pediment adorned with urns and volutes. The statue of a Spanish hidalgo bearing the insignia of the Order of Calatrava—probably a benefactor of the church—sits in the overhead niche.
As at Las Nieves, a circular fountain, part of the old city water system, stands in front of the church.
La Defensa is also worth a visit for its Churrigueresque main retablo. As glimpsed from the west entry, the altarpiece radiates a golden glow at the dim far end of the chapel. Two tiers of elongated estípites bracket several dark 18th century paintings portraying the Life of the Virgin, each enclosed by a complex mixtilinear frame. Swirling, shell-like forms fill the intervening spaces and cover the finely worked, gilded altar table in front. In the central niche rests the image of the Virgin known as The Sweet Name of Maria.
A second gilded altarpiece in similar style, dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, stands in a painted niche along the nave.
Also of note is another colonial art work, that of St Joseph with the Christ Child
text 2005/2022 Richard D. Perry
pictures by the author and from online sources
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Sunday, July 3, 2022

Oaxaca. Las Nieves

In another of our posts on lesser known churches in the city of Oaxaca, we turn to the exquisite chapel of Las Nieves.
   Originally the chapel attached to the Jesuit seminary of San Juan, this gem of a church is now dedicated to Our Lady of the Snows, the popular patron saint of Rome. Founded in the late 16th century, the church suffered repeated earthquake damage, but was rebuilt in the early 1700s and again in the 1770s, after the Jesuits were expelled from Mexico.
Facing east, its typically Oaxacan greenstone facade is surprisingly sophisticated. Fluted Corinthian columns on high pedestals flank the elegant arched doorway, morphing into plain tritostyle columns on either side of the large octagonal choir window overhead.
A striking stepped gable crowns the facade, accented by discreet volutes and outlined by a multi-layered cornice.
   A monogram of the Virgin with crossed keys is carved in the keystone of the doorway, a reference to the statue of the Virgin of the Nativity housed in the upper shell niche. The monogram of Christ is emblazoned above the choir window. A nice touch is the fluted molding outlining the entire facade.

The Altarpieces
Despite its modest scale, Las Nieves is distinguished by the high quality and variety of its altarpieces. Although the main retablo is designed in the later neoclassical style, the gilded retablos in the transepts and side chapels are refined baroque works, reflecting both the traditional Oaxacan and more cosmopolitan Churrigueresque styles. 
The graceful retablo of St. Anthony of Padua—possibly the former main retablo—is now installed in a side chapel. Its projecting center pavilion features intricate spiral columns of interwoven ornament and sharply projecting capitals hung with spindles. The altarpiece is a showcase for 18th century paintings of archangels and episodes from the life of this popular Franciscan saint.
Equally impressive is the almost semicircular altarpiece of the Virgin of Perpetual Help in the north transept, dated 1793. Elegant estípite pilasters project against a gilded tapestry of richly worked foliage and strapwork. The paintings glow with gilded accents, with especially luminous effect in the portraits of the Evangelists and the elaborately costumed Virgin at the top of the retablo.
The figure of Christ occupies the retablo opposite, surrounded by muscular paintings of Passion scenes. A simple but affecting statue of St. Anne with the young Virgin also stands in the south transept.

In colonial times, the venerable circular fountain outside the church was the focus of the eastern barrios of the city. Weary water carriers rested their jars in the saucer-like indentations around the rim as they exchanged local news and gossip.

text 2005/2022 Richard D. Perry
pictures by the author and from online sources

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Monday, June 20, 2022

Oaxaca city. Carmen Bajo

While the church of Carmen Alto was restricted to the Spanish residents of Oaxaca, its little known sister church of Carmen Bajo downtown was founded to serve the city’s mestizo and mulatto populations. 

Carmen Bajo, the bell tower

facade reliefs: The Lamentation;    St Peter.

Aside from a pair of reliefs on the facade and its decorative bell tower, today the church offers little of interest apart from an intriguing colonial painting of the Holy Trinity, portrayed Mexican style as three bearded young men seated in gold trimmed robes with their feet resting on angels’ heads. 
Below, Adam and Eve are pictured in Eden with the serpent entwined tree, and surrounded by a host of birds and beasts.

text © 2005/2022 Richard D. Perry
photography by the author.

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Thursday, June 9, 2022

Oaxaca City. Carmen Alto

We continue our series on the lesser known churches in the city of Oaxaca with posts on the two Carmelite foundations, Carmen Alto and Carmen Bajo, starting with the former.
   The convento of Carmen Alto was founded on the site of an Aztec temple, dedicated to their maize deity Centeotl, and probably the location of even more ancient devotions. The temple primarily served the Aztec garrison quartered on the nearby Cerro Fortín and became a focus of pilgrimage, ceremonies and human sacrifice.       
   Anxious to stamp out the old religion, the Spanish erected a cross and chapel here in the 1500s, transforming the pagan festival into the feast day of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. 
   This modest chapel was replaced in the late 1600s by the Carmelite monastery, intended for the exclusive use of the Spanish population.
Although much of the large, fortress-like convento has been converted to other uses, including a former prison, the church endures, skirted by an L-shaped, walled atrium with two pedimented gateways bristling with merlons.
In front of the main west entrance to the church stands the best preserved original section: a broad, arcaded portico or narthex—a common feature of Carmelite churches in Mexico. 
Above the arcade, a large relief in a fretted frame shows Our Lady of Mt. Carmel sheltering friars and nuns of the Carmelite order beneath her ample cape. Oval medallions of the Carmelite insignia—a cross and three stars beneath a coronet—are prominently emblazoned on either side.
Recessed between deep exterior buttresses, the south entry takes the form of a triumphal arch with double tritostyle columns. A statue of St. Joseph stands in the niche above, flanked by large merlons. A carved cross—known as La Cruz Acordonada because of its cordlike striations—occupies the upper facade, enclosed within a cruciform frame.

text 2005/2022 Richard D. Perry
pictures by the author and from online sources
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Friday, May 27, 2022

Oaxaca. Santo Domingo; the underchoir

The earliest surviving work of art in the church of Santo Domingo in the city of Oaxaca is the spectacular painted relief of the Genealogy of St. Dominic adorning the under choir (sotocoro). 

Based on the medieval motif of the Tree of Jesse, it spreads out across the vault in the form of a multi-branched vine. Springing from the inconspicuous reclining figure of Don Felix de Guzmán, the patriarch of the family, it traces the earthly lineage of the founder of the Dominican Order. Members of his noble family, real and imaginary, emerge like blossoms from buds set among the tendrils and bunches of grapes. 

Santo Domingo, the relief of the Virgin

These diminutive, fresh-faced figures exude a charm and directness that establish this ceiling as one of the earliest masterpieces of Mexican popular art. The Virgin Mary relief is a later addition, placed like a Christmas ornament at the top of the tree.

text © 2005/2020 Richard D. Perry

color photography by Felipe Falcón.

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Sunday, May 15, 2022

Texcoco. The Third Order chapel

The chapel of the Third Order is one of several buildings in the precincts of the cathedral of Texcoco, formerly a major Franciscan monastery and evangelical center. 
    Also known as the "Expiatory Temple", it was founded in the late 1500s to serve the lay Third Order of Franciscans, but essentially rebuilt in the early 1700s.
The West Facade.
The lobed main doorway is the only remaining element of the 16th century front, framed by spiral wreathed Corinthian columns. Foliated fleur de lis reliefs adorn the archway, whose keystone bears the relief of a bishop, possibly representing San Luis Obispo.
Paired tritostyle columns with wavy fluting — barroco de estrías móviles— flank the upper level, where relief archangels with Indian plumed headdresses stand on corbels to either side of a stone statue of an unidentified figure, thought to portray St. Philip of Jesus, a Franciscan and the first Mexican saint.
   The Franciscan crossed arms are emblazoned above the octagonal choir window.
The Cathedral entry
The entry is related to the nearby side entry of the cathedral which is more complex, with a lobed, moorish inspired doorway adorned with rosette reliefs and octagonal window. Paired spiral columns and plain pilasters on the upper level flank three sculpture niches occupied by statuary.
The Chapel Interior
The main event here is the sumptuous gilded main altarpiece, fashioned in late baroque estípite style and now dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe whose image stands in the center. 
main altarpiece
Statues of Saints Joachim and Anne occupy the lateral niches.
   This retablo is very much in the style of the main retablo in the cathedral, and may well be from the same workshop.
side retablo
There are also retablos in the transepts, one of which on the south side appears somewhat earlier and is notable for relief portraits of rugged apostles on the predella level.

text © 2022 Richard D. Perry
images courtesy of Niccolo Brooker and ELTB