Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Tlayacapan: Three more early murals

In a previous post on the extensive Tlayacapan murals, we looked at an unusual triptych in the former anteporteria of the convento.
   In this follow up post on other murals there we start with another unusual mural on the north wall in this same area, also conceived in the form of a triptych.
In the center panel the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven holds the Christ Child, who gestures towards the mitered St. Augustine beside him. Augustine holds his traditional bishop's crozier and a (flaming?) heart. Mary is flanked by her parents, Saints Joachim and Anne, portrayed life size in painted niches on either side. 
   Although in poor condition, this monochrome mural skillfully  accentuates the detailed contours of the costumes and draperies of the figures, based on a northern European print source.
Two Crucifixion scenes
The first mural is set in the lunette above the entry to the Sala de Profundis inside the convento. Christ on the cross is accompanied by the two thieves, Dismas and Gestas, tied to crosses on either side. Devils and angels hover over the pair.  
   A local landscape of trees and distinctive outcroppings is spread out behind, while the sun and moon shine in darkened sky above.  Saints Peter and Paul appear in painted shell niches on the inner archway of the entry.
   In contrast to the boldly drawn outlines of the earlier triptych, the figures here are more softly molded, and shaded in a warmer tones, with the crosses accented in a now faded red.
A second Crucifixion also appears in a lunette on the end wall of the convento museum, the former refectory. Here, the crucified Christ is alone, although curiously observed by kneeling saints on either side partially hidden behind trees—possibly Peter and Paul again. Birds and animals cavort in the heavily wooded background. 
   And the treatment of the figures is closer to the earlier triptych in style, with an emphasis on sharper outlines and realistic details of foliage, etc.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
images by the author and ©Robert Jackson

Please visit our sister site for details on the barrio chapels of Tlayacapan, and earthquake damage there.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Tlayacapan: a triptych

Fray Diego Durán, an early Augustinian chronicler, described Tlayacapan as a "veritable Garden of Eden." A wild and romantic place, located in northern Morelos state just below Mexico City, it is surrounded by the scenic, basalt bluffs of the Sierra Tepozteca.  
   The mission here started out modestly in 1534 as a visita of nearby Totolapan, but within twenty years the little stone chapel had grown into a major priory in its own right. 
An impressive structure, the church and adjacent convento are enclosed by a spacious walled atrium. Together with the wealth of early murals in the church and throughout the convento, Tlayacapan is artistically one of the most rewarding of the Morelos monasteries to visit. *
On the north side of the church, a long arcade stretches in front of the convento. Behind the largest archway lies the former open chapel, the oldest section of the monastery.
The Open Chapel
Two, large side rooms open beside the chapel’s vaulted sanctuary. Large fragments of 16th century murals adhere to the walls of this area, or anteporteria—the first group in a series of remarkable frescoes at Tlayacapan. 
In this post we focus on one of the better preserved of the murals, an unusual triptych on the east wall. Executed in the style of the Renaissance engravings from which they were freely adapted, the monochrome frescoes illustrate three key biblical episodes relating to the birth and early life of Christ.
On the right, the smallest panel depicts the Visitation (Luke 1:39-56). Mary greets Elizabeth, the aging mother-to-be of John the Baptist, beneath a portrait of her husband the prophet Zacharias—to our knowledge a unique portrayal in early mural art. 
   An outcropping of the distinctive regional Sierra Tepozteca is seen in the landscape behind.
Above the center doorway is another rare portrayal: the Dream of Joseph after he discovers Mary's pregnancy (Matthew 1:19/20.) 
   An angel hovers in a cloud above the sleeping man, saying "Arise Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife." 
In the background is a building complex, presumably the monastery of Tlayacapan.
The largest panel depicts The Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2: 23-24) on the left, showing the infant Jesus in the arms of a sumptuously attired rabbi. To his right, Mary and Joseph pray, accompanied by a group of draped figures who crowd through the doors of the Temple—all drawn in precise detail. Again, a hilltop church appears though the archway behind.
Grotesque style borders magnify the impact of the murals. Mythical creatures—part man, part lion, part fish and part plant—cavort along the walls, symbolizing life in all its aspects. 
Stylistically, the murals and friezes are similar to those at Oaxtepec, just down the road and may be the work of the same itinerant group of artists. 
Tlayacapan was one of the worst hit communities by the September 19 earthquake—see our main blog. There is no word yet on how the extensive convento murals have fared.
Look for details on the many barrio chapels at Tlayacapan in forthcoming posts on our main site.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
images by the author except where noted

Sunday, October 1, 2017

San Pedro Etla: the cloister murals

As an addendum to our series on the murals of Oaxaca * we now look at the unusual cloister murals of San Pedro Etla.
The grand mission of San Pedro Etla dominates the Etla Valley, north of the state capital. Its vast church, twice the size of neighboring Huitzo and notable for its imposing front and massively buttressed nave, was only completed in the early 1600s.
The convento boasts a long, arcaded porteria and a handsome cloister in classic Dominican style with tall, vaulted arcades faced with projecting "prow" buttresses. While the lower cloister may once have borne frescoes along the walks, no traces now remain. 
However, the cloister is noted for its four spectacular corner vaults, which offer a brilliant display of intricate baroque stucco work in the Pueblan style, similar to those at Santo Domingo in the capital, encrusted with Dominican fleur-de-lis crosses set in ornate cartouches.

Below the vaults, painted portraits of apostles and Dominican saints & martyrs appear in the eight supporting lunettes. These include eminent saints like St. Peter and St. Andrew, together with lesser figures like St. Ambrose of Siena, Blessed Henry Suso, Blessed Ceslaus of Poland, and even St. Elmo holding a ship.
   Here we illustrate six of these portraits, all dressed in Dominican habits and wearing rosaries:
St. Elmo;                                                            St. Ambrose of Siena;
Blessed Henry Suso;                                                   Blessed (Wen)Ceslaus of Poland; 
St. Vincent Ferrer?                                                          Blessed Jacobo Salomoni
text & images © 2016 Richard D. Perry, except where noted.
closeups of individual saints © Niccolo Brooker

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

San Gabriel Azteca, the baptistry murals

Located close to the mission town of Zempoala, whose church of Todos Santos is noted for its spectacular early murals, the community of San Gabriel Azteca is more modest.

Its colonial church front, although altered in the 1700s and again more recently, retains its original doorway of dark basalt, densely carved with bands of stylized "windmill" and eight point rosettes and vine like foliage, and the jambs framed by the Franciscan cord.
Our special interest here, however, is in the colorful murals in the church baptistry. Like other painted baptistries, the walls and ceiling are lightly covered with 18th century frescoes on the theme of baptism.
Here we see the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist, simply portrayed, beneath a heavenly, Mexican style Holy Trinity—all swathed in red robes. 
The scene is enlivened by several angels playing period instruments including a bassoon and a cello amid clouds and flowers.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry. images courtesy of Niccolò Brooker

Monday, September 4, 2017

Atlihuetzia: an exemplary mural

For another early Tlaxcalan mural, we visit the now roofless church of La Purísima Atlihuetzia, another once substantial 16th century Franciscan monastery located not far from Tizatlan.
Although naturally much degraded, vestiges of murals and friezes can still be traced along the nave walls. And with the prolonged weathering of the whitewashed surfaces, one extraordinary if only partial fresco has emerged from the south wall of the church.
Recent research has established that this “exemplary” mural, which was hastily whitewashed in the late 1600s because of its supposed emergence as the focus of an idolatrous cult among the Indian community, refers to the fate of a Spaniard, one Valentín de la Roca. 
   According to legend, because of his blasphemous disdain for the sacraments and catechism of the Catholic church, Valentín was one day seized by a large, fire breathing serpent and for his sins consumed in flames and consigned to Hell.
   This cautionary tale, with illustrations, was featured in popular religious confessionary tracts and manuals that circulated in the New World, especially among the eschatologically obsessed Franciscans.
 The Atlihuetzia mural, however, is the only known pictorial example of this theme, although there may have been others, since its portrayal was forbidden by the Inquisition in 1689. 
In the now faded but originally bright polychrome mural, the principal panel shows the rattlesnake wound around the unfortunate figure of Valentín with flames licking at his feet. 
He is surrounded by six, small scale illustrations of his sins—each with a red demon urging him on. The best preserved scene, on the lower left, depicts the richly dressed Valentín on his knees confessing before a friar. Sins in the form of toads and lizards stream from his mouth, reminiscent of the mural at Tlaquiltenango, while the red demon at his shoulder urges a false confession.
   On the lower right, Valentín appears unrepentant before his civil judges together with a partial inscription in Nahuatl, referring to the “shame of sin,” indicating that although it was a Spaniard portrayed, the mural was intended primarily as a warning for the indigenous congregation—a motif we saw at Actopan and Xoxoteco.
Few other mural fragments survive at Atlihuetzia, save for this frieze with eagles, angels and christic monograms.
The author at Atlihuetzia 1999
text © 2016 Richard D. Perry

images by the author, Robert Jackson and Juan M. Alcantara

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Tizatlan: the open chapel frescoes

from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala
Tizatlan was the hilltop capital of Xicoténcatl, "Man with a Bee at his Lips," one of the Four Lords of Tlaxcala. It was here, in 1519, that Cortés had his fateful encounter with the lords, who later allied with the Spaniards in the defeat of the Aztecs. The Lienzo de Tlaxcala, a famous 16th century painted document, portrays them all gathered in front of a wooden cross. 
Tizatlan was the site of Xicotencatl's palace, an extensive compound adorned with statuary and painted altars depicting Tlaxcalan and other deities.
Tizatlan is also noted for its early open chapel with a projecting, arcaded front, modeled on other Franciscan structures like those at Cuernavaca or the nearby Rosary Chapel at San Francisco de Tlaxcala. Although tucked behind the later church of San Esteban, for which it served for many years as a sacristy, the chapel remains a separate structure. 
Its striking but functional design features a projecting, arcaded west front, beyond which stretches a lofty transverse nave, high enough to accommodate a pair of raised wooden choirs. The chapel is covered by a substantial beamed roof set on a supporting arrocabe of carved brackets inset with painted angels' heads. 
arrocabe with painted angels (Robert Cox)
A variety of colorful murals glows on the chapel walls, executed in a still vivid palette of reds, yellows, indigo and earth colors. They fall into three groups: the early apsidal murals, the later painted archway, and the large narrative frescoes in the nave.
                   Apsidal murals: north wall;       south wall; (courtesy Robert Cox)
The Apsidal Murals
The oldest frescoes, possibly dating as early as the 1540s, fill the two high side walls of the polygonal apse. The murals on the east wall are now largely erased.
   Although rendered in a style similar to the murals of Actopan and Xoxoteco, the focus here is on events following the Crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The three panels on the south wall depict, at the top, a hybrid scene shows Adam and Eve, on the left, witnessing the Risen Christ, red victory banner in hand, reaching into the flaming Jaws of Hell on the right 
In the center panel, the stern figure of Christ is seated in Judgment, flanked by angels and figures of the Elect, apparently directing the legions of the Condemned towards the gaping mouth of Leviathan. St. Francis appears above Christ, apparently with a tail?. Below, the partial figure of an archangel intercedes for the damned—or perhaps hastens them on their way.
On the north wall opposite, a tiered sequence in the same manner represents the Ascension at the top with the company of the Apostles, the Risen Christ in Glory with the red banner of victory in the center, and an uncertain scene below with Christ again brandishing the crimson banner.
The Sanctuary Arch
Painted later than the apse, possibly as late as the 1700s, this crowded fresco strikes a more festive note. God the Father sits at the apex like an oriental potentate, surrounded by a host of angels, some swinging censers, others singing or playing a variety of colonial era musical instruments.
God the Father

 musical angels over the archway (images courtesy of Robert Starner) 

Incense burners, music stands, the sun, moon and clouds fill the intervening spaces; a profusion of flowers, medallions and cherubs' heads frame the archway and flow between the beam ends.
The Nave Murals
Remnants of large narrative murals along the lateral nave walls, also in color and probably of intermediate date, explore further themes from the life of Christ including his Baptism, with John the Baptist, and a partial Adoration of the Magi. 
Adoration of the Magi, detail

text and images © 2017 Richard D. Perry, except where noted.