Monday, May 7, 2018

Jarácuaro: The Last Judgment

In a post on our sister site, we looked at the exotic exterior stone carving of the church of San Pedro Jarácuaro, beside Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacán.
In this post we look inside the church. First we are impressed by the curved wooden ceiling that spans the nave—recently repainted sky blue and dotted with colorful new murals depicting scenes from the life of St. Peter, the church patron.
The Last Judgment
But our main interest here is a colonial art work of special note—a large painting (not a mural, sorry!) in poor condition and part of a former altarpiece. Its subject is an unorthodox Last Judgment combined with a Las Animas (Souls in Purgatory) scene. 

As is typical of Last Judgment tableaux, the scene unfolds in distinct tiers. A murky Holy Trinity sits in the curved pediment above, while Christ on the cross occupies the center—an unusual portrayal of Jesus in Last Judgment scenes. 
   He is flanked by ranks of the Elect on one side and—a special delight—an orchestra of musical angels on the other, playing period instruments including a cello, flute, horn and a pipe organ.  
Below, on the left, Souls in Purgatory gesture in hope for mercy from the flames, while opposite, the Condemned in Hell are tormented by devils. A guitar playing siren seems to enjoy the suffering. 
A partial, dated inscription contains a dedication and the name of the artist—thought to also be the author of a related Last Judgment panel at nearby Ziracuaretiro.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author and courtesy of Robert Starner
Thanks to Robert Starner, the distinguished scholar of the pictorial representation of music, musicians and instruments in Mexican colonial art, for bringing this painting to our attention and providing several of the images on this page.
Please review our other posts with mention of the Last Judgment: El LlanitoTotimehuacanSuchixtlahuacaHuaquechulaYanhuitlanXoxotecoActopanCuitzeo
for more on the churches around Lake Patzcuaro consult our guide book to West Mexico

Monday, April 30, 2018

Acolman: The Cloister murals 2

For the last of our posts on the Acolman murals we consider the celebrated frescoes of the upper rear cloister.
The Rear Cloister
Arcades smoothly fashioned from warm gray limestone distinguish the brilliantly lit rear patio at Acolman. Clustered columns ornamented with Isabelline pearls, feather capitals separate a sequence of sharply cut reliefs that explore variations on the  Augustinian pierced heart motif and the crucifix. 
The Upper Cloister
A handsome stone staircase, also lined with vestiges of murals,  leads to the upper story, where a spectacular cycle of late 16th century frescoes (after 1570) narrating the central drama of Christianity—the Passion of Christ—unfolds around the walks.
   Adapted from Northern European engravings and painted in charcoal tones with blue and tan accents, all are amply framed by columns, friezes and grotesque panels painted blue/black.
The sequence begins in the southeast corner, with the Scourging of Christ—a flogging administered by two robust Roman soldiers—and beside it, the Mocking of Christ, where again Romans affix the Crown of Thorns.

 Mutilated scenes of the Via Dolorosa, or Road to Calvary, follow along the south wall.

But the best preserved frescoes are in the northwest corner. Most notable is a conventionally posed, rather static Renaissance-style Crucifixion, enlivened by the background landscape. 
The anguished figure of Mary Magdalene kneels at the foot of the cross, her long auburn hair tumbling down like an ocher mane, while the Sun and Moon look down from above. Although set against a crowded Italianate landscape of steeples, trees and grottoes, the distinctive hill beside the cross resembles the local sacred mountain of Cerro Chiconautla.
The Last Judgment, on the other hand, is tumultuous medieval drama. In the upper panel Christ sits in majesty atop a rainbow with sword and scepter among the massed ranks of the Blessed. A Latin banner proclaims the damnation of sinners to eternal fire while the dead struggle from their coffins.
Underneath, against a black background, the naked white bodies of the Damned suffer unspeakable torments: demons with grasping claw and gaping jaws tie their victims to trees, break them on the wheel and toss them into a steaming cauldron. Confronted with this nightmarish vision, who would not strive for salvation?
See our other posts on portrayals of the Last Judgment : Xoxoteco; El LlanitoTotimehuacanSuchixtlahuacaHuaquechulaYanhuitlanCuitzeoIxmiquilpan;
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry.  images by the author, Robert Jackson and others

Monday, April 23, 2018

Acolman: The Cloister Murals 1

There are two cloisters at Acolman: the smaller front patio, attributed to the Franciscans, and the grander rear cloister—an Augustinian addition. In this post we consider the murals of the smaller patio.
Dating from the 1530s, the front cloister is the smaller, plainer and darker of the two, its heavily buttressed arcades cut from black tezontle, as is the venerable cross in the center. Only the upper parts of the frescoes along the walks have survived the periodic inundations of the lower cloister. 
   The surviving frescoes, however, are later than the cloister itself, dating from the Augustinian period, circa 1560. They are broadly contemporary with those in the rear cloister and possibly by the same hand(s)  Outlined and detailed by a master draftsman in warm, sepia tones that reveal a powerful Flemish influence, all feature architectural backgrounds.
The Annunciation, witnessed by Saints Augustine and John of Sahagun
The four most complete corner frescoes are on the west side of the cloister and, rarely for cloister mural cycles, illustrate episodes from the Life of the Virgin Mary. 
   These comprise The Annunciation, The Visitation, The Nativity and a partial Adoration of the Magi. In each scene, except for the Magi fresco, two Augustinian saints, including Augustine and St. Jerome, witness the event from the lower corners.
The Visitation, witnessed by Saints Ambrose and Jerome
The Nativity (Adoration of the Child) with two female saints
Adoration of the Magi
Two other related but largely erased murals appear on the east walk of the cloister. Both are assumed to portray Marian themes, and again, pairs of saints observe the proceedings from either corner.

singing feline? and friar (images courtesy of Jim Cook)
All the narrative frescoes are framed by broad, bold grotesque panels with human and animal visages enmeshed in stylized foliage.
St. Ambrose and St. Jerome
Along the arcades, portraits of the four Evangelists, alternating with the four Fathers of the Church, cling to the inner faces of the corner piers, while Augustinian saints are shown on the intermediate ones.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
photography by the author, Robert Jackson, Jim Cook, & ELTB

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Acolman: The Open Chapel fresco

Between the church and adjacent convento, a broad archway opens on the upper level, crowned by a plain, rectangular alfiz. This is the original open chapel, which may date from the Franciscan years at Acolman before 1540. From this raised balcony the friars would preach to the Indians assembled on the terraces below.
view from open chapel to terraces below
Restoration of this elevated chapel revealed a dramatic mural on the rear wall portraying St. Catherine of Alexandria, the patroness of preachers. Although appropriate to the Franciscans, it is not associated with any particular religious Order and seems likely to postdate 1540.
   Swathed in rippling robes, she is crowned, as a royal, and holds up an open book, a symbol of her erudition; the saint also holds an impressive sword—the instrument of her martyrdom. A fragment of her traditional wheel remains at upper right and at her feet, the severed head of her tormentor the Emperor Maxentius. 
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author and courtesy of Marina Hayman

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Acolman: The Porteria murals

In our first post we looked at the frescoes inside the church at Acolman. In the next several posts we turn to the murals inside the adjacent convento, starting with the entry portería.

Unfortunately, no complete murals have survived inside the long, arcaded porteria at Acolman. The only remnant is a sprawling, if partial polychrome fresco across the end lunette, rendered in burgundy, turquoise and varied washes of earth colors. 
Sufficient vestiges remain to identify it as representing, among other elements, the Virtues, Prudence, Faith and Charity, as well as sins like Avarice, accompanied by other figures including friars and a partial Holy Trinity with the Virgin Mary, all afloat in a swirl of celestial clouds.
The Virgin Mary;                                             God the Father
The Virtues, detail
In the adjacent entry vestibule only the monochrome frieze remains above the painted doorway, elegantly inscribed with the Latin legend from Genesis:
 “How awesome is this place. It is none other than the House of God and the Gateway to Heaven.”  
Similar ornamental lettered friezes appear throughout the convento quoting in most cases from the Psalms and other Old Testament sources.
In addition, painted doorways and niches appear throughout the convento, including this colorful baroque wall retablo, portraying Augustinian friars.
text and images © 2018 Richard D. Perry

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Acolman: The Church Murals

This is the first in a survey of the colonial murals of Acolman, in tandem with posts on its architecture and sculpture on our sister site.
On the northern heights overlooking the Valley of Mexico close to the pyramids of Teotihuacan, stands the imposing monastery of San Agustín Acolman. Founded as a Franciscan house, in 1539 the monastery was ceded to the Augustinians who built their grand new priory around the Franciscan shell. The building is a formidable presence set in green cornfields framed by cool blue hills.
   Acolman is especially rich in murals from different 
colonial periods. Important, well preserved sequences of frescoes adorn the church and continue throughout the convento. We start with those in the church.

The Church Murals 
Inside the vast cool nave, the eye is immediately drawn towards the east end. Beneath an intricate web vault, the five-sided apse blazes with striking black, white and orange murals, that scale the walls and reach into the vault itself. Long covered by whitewash, the murals were rediscovered and restored in 1895.
Probably painted around 1600, the murals depict rows of gigantic figures of Augustinians seated on thrones. Above the bottom rank of lowly friars, stern-visaged cardinals and bishops line the two middle tiers, with popes at the top, an imposing hierarchy deliberately linked to the elevated position and traditional authority of the Order in the history of the Church. 
In the lunettes at the top, venerable apostles and Old Testament prophets sit uneasily among mythological figures borrowed from classical antiquity—naked youths, grotesque beasts and even prophetic sibyls—whose only other appearance is in the 16th century frescoes of the Casa del Deán in Puebla—all intended as further legitimizing sources for Augustinian authority, under question in the New World when the murals were painted.
   Overall, the apsidal frescoes recall the stairway murals at Actopan, and even those of the Sistine Chapel.
Vestiges of early murals survive in other corners of the church—we spotted this striking frieze fragment back of the choir loft with a foliated Leviathan like dragon.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
photography by the author, and courtesy of Marina Hayman and Carolyn Brown

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Epazoyucan murals: Two Lamentations

In an earlier post we looked at the polychrome murals in the cloister at Epazoyucan.
   Partly because of its highly emotional expression of grief, the Lamentation scene, which follows the Descent or Deposition of Christ from the cross, is one of the most widely depicted episodes in the Passion sequence. 
   Portrayals of the scene and its participants in art have changed with time and place, in Europe as in the New World and even within the same locale, as the two murals we examine at Epazoyucan can attest. 
The Cloister Mural
This mural is one of several to survive in the corner niches of the lower cloister. Several figures cluster about the dead Christ. Five are identifiable as saints, as evidence their haloes. 

   From the left, these are the youthful John the Evangelist, standing, and the three Marys, plus Mary Magdalene — the latter holding Christ's head, although she may alternatively be the figure in a red robe. 
The Virgin is of course in blue, holding the emaciated body, and the other two may be Mary of Cliopas or possibly St Anne in the background. The third woman may be Mary Salome, Mary, mother of James; or Mary of Bethany. The two secular figures standing on the right are Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.
Although the colors may have been altered over time, research has shown that the original mural was executed partially in color, with the blues and reds later much enhanced.
The Sala De Profundis
The second, similar depiction of the scene appears in the friar's chapel or Sala De Profundis, although with a slightly different cast of characters, and painted in a different style and hand.
   Executed in a warm grisaille, the treatment of the figures is less stylized than 
the cloister version, and its subtlety of line and modeling is its equal if not its superior. Both murals of course were executed by native Otomí artists under the friars' supervision.
While the specific graphic sources are unclear, both versions are derived from northern European prints and appear close to the widely known Albrecht Durer print of the episode.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry.
color images by the author; details by Niccolò Brooker