Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The lost monastery of Toluca

Little now remains of the grand Franciscan monastery of The Assumption that once dominated the city center of Toluca. 
     Founded in the 1550s as the hub of a network of missions in the region, the convento served to prepare the friars for evangelizing the various indigenous peoples of the highland border region between the former Aztec and Tarascan empires: Nahuas, Otomís and Matlatzincas.
   The primitive church and its convento were expanded and rebuilt in part over the centuries, notably in the early 1700s under Fray José Cillero, the energetic Guardian of the Toluca convento, when the Third Order chapel and the freestanding sacristy (La Capilla Exenta) were completed.
The Franciscan convento of The Assumption in 1834
Unfortunately, during the 1800s most of the monastery lands were sold or encroached on, and eventually the principal buildings demolished to make way for a neoclassic "cathedral" and arcaded marketplace.
Today the only remnant of the colonial monastic complex is the former sacristy, hidden away in an interior courtyard.
La Capilla Exenta exterior in 2012
La Capilla Exenta
This extraordinary octagonal Sacristy, added to the rear of the church of La Asunción and completed in 1729, is the first documented work by the innovative baroque designer and architect Felipe de Ureña— his only documented project in the Toluca area, where he was born into an established family of retablo designers and fabricators.   
   While the extent of his involvement in the architectural planning of the Capilla is uncertain, the interior design is entirely Ureña's. Probably on the drawing boards by 1727, when the architect was only 30, this ambitious project was a remarkable achievement for the time: sophisticated, innovative and amazingly complete in design and execution—a characteristic hallmark of all Ureña's projects where he was able to exercise full artistic control.
The unusual octagonal central plan of the Sacristy was its first innovation, an architectural feature that, although common in the Old World, was still rare in New Spain. Revolutionary for the time, it predates Lorenzo Rodríguez' influential, centrally planned Sagrario Chapel of the Metropolitan cathedral in Mexico City by several years.
La Capilla Exenta interior views in 1730
Large concave niches with arched openings around tall windows were cut into 7 of the 8 sides of the Sacristy (the doorway occupied the 8th) Detached estípite columns, now missing, formed the freestanding outer columns, and ornamental pilasters framed the windows, marking the earliest and boldest use of this signature, late baroque form by a Mexican designer. 
La Capilla Exenta interior niche in 2012
In recent years the Capilla has been restored and the interior refurbished as a monument to the history of the monastery, its designer Felipe de Ureña and other eminent Tolucans.
La Capilla Exenta, the restored dome in 2012
*  In 1730, the Franciscan chronicler Antonio Diaz del Castillo published an official commemorative folio, entitled "Mano Religioso del M.R.P. Fr. Joseph Cillero en la obra de la sacristía y altares del Convento Franciscano de Toluca.." which included a detailed description of the building and its furnishings with detailed engravings by Francisco Silverio, the only pictorial record of the original building interior. 
text and color images © 2020 Richard D. Perry
Other sources:
Nicolás León, El Convento Franciscano de la Asuncion de Toluca. Mexico 1969
Richard D. Perry.  De Valiente Fantasia. Felipe de Ureña (1697-1777) Master of the Mexican baroque  (forthcoming)

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Irapuato: La Soledad

The shrine of the patron saint of the city of Irapuato, Nuestra Señora de La Soledad, the 18th century baroque church front of La Soledad has been somewhat eclipsed by the arcaded patio of the adjacent convent school of La Enseñanza, now the Palacio Municipal—a spartan work by Eduardo Tresguerras added in 1810.
Nevertheless, the partly obscured facade—featuring filigree carving and stylish rococo statuary—can still be glimpsed from the courtyard.
An elegant portal on the south side of the church, around the corner from the Jardín Hidalgo, gives access to the interior with its colonial image of La Soledad.
Above the entry, is carved a fine if somewhat static relief of the Holy Family, or Cinco Señores.
text © 1997 and 2020 Richard D. Perry
color photography by the author and courtesy of Niccolo Brooker.

please visit our earlier posts on Irapuato: San José; El Hospitalito;

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

San Gonzalo in Mexico: El Bailador

For another in our occasional posts on the distinctive portrayal of certain saints in Mexico we consider the medieval Dominican Blessed Gonzalo de Amarante.
Gonçalo was born into a wealthy family in northern Portugal, near the town of Amarante, in 1189.  He entered the church but after ordination shunned worldly goods and embarked on a ten year pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On his return, his brothers did not recognize him and set the dogs on him!
   Gonzalo then entered the Dominican Order, living as a hermit and performing good works including the building of a bridge over the treacherous waters of the nearby Tamega river. He commanded fish to leap from the river to feed the hungry laborers. Many other miracles were attributed to him, including the alleviation of illness, infirmity and hunger among the poor. 
Reflecting this history, the saint is usually portrayed in the Dominican habit, holding his pilgrim's staff and often a string of fish.*
   After his death, a tradition grew up of chanting* and dancing before his image, especially among poor women supplicants seeking fertility. This custom spread to Mexico where modest chapels to San Gonzalo sprang up, often in working class or indigenous barrios in outlying locations. 
   But by late colonial times the practice of dancing to San Gonzalo, known as El Bailador (The Dancer), grew so popular among the urban poor and marginalized, taking place even in front of major Dominican churches—that it was seen by the Bourbon officials and church authorities not only as impious and vulgar but as a potential threat to public order, and was increasingly restricted.
   Although, as official inquisitors, the Dominicans were charged with banning such practices, the fact that San Gonzalo was a popular Dominican saint persuaded them to often turn a blind eye to the dancing, which has survived until recent times in a few places notably in Guadalajara and Guanajuato.
San Gonzalo Salamanca (Guanajuato) native dancer and fish banners
In these locations, festivities accompany the saint's day on January 10 with music and dancing. 
altar of San Gonzalo (in Mellado, Guanajuato) with statue of the saint, harp, drums and guitars
* Traditional Mexican appeal: "San Gonzalo de Amarante, que sacas pescado del mar, sacame de este cuidado, que y a te vengo bailar"  
    "St. Gonzalo, who draws fish from the water, rid me of this care so that I may dance before you."
* Several other saints are portrayed with fish, notably the Archangel Raphael, Sts Francis and Anthony of Padua, as well as more obscure figures like St. Blaise and St. Benno. 
San Rafael with fish (Cansahcab, Yucatan)
text © 2020 Richard D. Perry.  images by the author, Benjamin Arredondo and online sources.

visit our earlier posts on other Mexican images of uncommon saints: 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Irapuato: El Templo del Hospitalito

Facing its own open plaza, set apart from the other colonial buildings of Irapuato, El Hospitalito is reputedly built on the site of a 16th century hospital established by order of Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, soon after the city’s founding, to minister to the Otomí Indians of the fledgling settlement. 
Its rustic retablo facade, dated 1733, is similar to that of the parish church in its emphatic outlines—the spiral columns and shell niches are heavily accentuated. But because of its popular baroque sculpture, it seems more approachable. 
The bold scalloped pediment rising above the church front is reminiscent of the Nativitas Chapel in Salamanca. A statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, carved by the native sculptor Crispín Lorenzo, occupies the curtained center niche of the gable, flanked by outsize reliefs of the sun and moon—common symbols of La Purísima.  San Miguel stands in triumph atop a demon above the pediment.
                     Hospitalito cross © Nick Brooker
A handsome stone cross, carved with Passion symbols, stands before the chapel door, and gargoyles in the form of elephants and alligators jut out from the parapet along the nave wall. The oversized tower is a later addition.
text and images © 2020 Richard D. Perry

Friday, January 10, 2020

Irapuato 1: El Templo de San José,

The bustling industrial city of Irapuato, in Guanajuato, boasts numerous colonial churches in varying styles, many of them distinguished by their single, monumental towers.
courtesy of Carolyn Brown
One of the most striking is that of San José—El Templo del Patriarca Señor San José de Los Indios Otomíes, to give it its full name. Although now located in the rambling main square, as the name implies this was originally an indigenous Otomí quarter. 
    While a barrio chapel or ermita was founded here as early as the 16th century, the present building dates from the later 1700s. Aside from its grand tower, the principal feature of San José is its colorful folk baroque facade, animated by its skillfully modeled stone carving, believed to be the work of indigenous masons. In fact the 18th century rebuilding is thought to have been funded by a native cofradía from the barrio. 
   The architectural ornament includes figure sculpture, elaborately curtained niches and passages of ornamental rococo relief, embraced by complex estípite columns on each level.
On the lower level, to either side of the venerable wooden doorway, stand the static figures of Saints Peter and Paul, ensconced in sumptuous canopied niches flanked by cascading curtain folds.
Statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph appear, similarly framed, on the next level to either side of the choir window.
But the thematic focus of the facade is the large sculpted full body crucifix in the upper tier, again framed by an extended canopy and flanked by statues of St. John and the Virgin Mary set on rounded, projecting corbels. 
   Although the figure of Christ is more compact and somewhat more stylized than that of San Agustín de Salamanca, it exhibits less of the bodily tension and facial finesse of the former. It does however retain the flared bow of the draped loincloth missing from San Agustín, although this might be a modern replacement.
   Archangels gesture atop outlying pedestals carved with classical herms.  Gargoyles project on either side of the facade–a feature of many city chapels.
At the apex of the scalloped, bell shaped gable, framed by complex, freestanding colonettes, another curtained niche shelters the figure of St. Joseph, the patron of the church. 
text © 2020 Richard D. Perry.
color photography courtesy of Carolyn Brown and ELTB

Visit our other posts in this series on facade crucifixes: Totolapan; San Agustin Salamanca; Santiago SilaoSan Jose Irapuato; San Agustin de Queretaro; Zacatecas Cathedral; Singuilucan;

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Santiago Silao.

We continue our review of sculpted crucifixes with a look at the 18th century parish church front of Santiago Apostol in Silao, also in Guanajuato, which boasts several exterior sculptured reliefs of interest. 
First and most striking is the relief of the patron posed as St James the Moorslayer in the upper facade, dated 1739. 
The mounted saint raises his sword smiting infidels whose turbaned heads roll beneath horse’s hooves. Detailed folds of the saint’s cloak and the horse’s mane and tail are telling touches. 
   Above the saint, the Spanish royal arms are mounted atop the surmounting pediment—a rare colonial survival.
Less obvious is the appealing folkloric full body crucifix set in a niche above the north doorway. 
Now somewhat battered, it is carved in the customary posture, with taut, outstretched arms, inclined head and partially flexed legs. The Christ figure has a serene, almost angelic facial expression that seems to deny His suffering on the cross. A grinning Skull and Bones sits at the foot of the crucifix.
text © 2020 Richard D. Perry
photography by Niccolo Brooker and ELTB 

Friday, January 3, 2020

Crucifixes: San Agustín de Salamanca

San Agustín de Salamanca, church front
Next in our series on sculpted stone crucifixes, we turn to the great Augustinian priory of San Agustín in the city center of Salamanca, Guanajuato, a major attraction for its extensive convento and superb late baroque altarpieces. 
But the church is also of special interest for the sculpted stone crucifix mounted in the upper facade, a distinguished member of a group of such crucifixes in this region of Guanajuato including those at nearby San José Irapuato, the parish churches of Silao, Dolores Hidalgo and the priory of San Agustín in Querétaro.
  The Salamanca cross, complete with fleur-de-lis finials and an INRI plaque, displays the full body of the crucified Christ, distinguished by its large, bowed head, and long limbs stretched tautly upon the cross. The remains of a knotted garment on the right side of the figure indicate the former presence of a flared bow, one of which still survives at Irapuato.

text and images © 1997 & 2020 Richard D. Perry
Visit our other posts in this series on facade crucifixes: Totolapan; San Agustin Salamanca; Santiago Silao; San Jose Irapuato; San Agustin de Queretaro; Zacatecas Cathedral; Singuilucan;