Tuesday, January 31, 2017

San Francisco Tepeaca, the facade murals

This is the first of two posts on the murals of Tepeaca, an early Franciscan monastery in the state of Puebla.
Tepeaca in 1989 before restoration
The fortress style of the monastery at San Francisco Tepeaca reflects the town’s historic role as a frontier stronghold; its high walls are topped with battlemented parapets and cannonball fringed turrets like a medieval citadel. 
Previously known for its austere, rather forbidding church front streaked with faded traces of faux brickwork, recent restoration of the facade, under the auspices of Conaculta and Los Amigos del Convento, has been an eye opener.  
Large expanses of extravagant foliated patterns in colorful red, orange and earth tones, spangled with blue stars, have been uncovered, stretching across the entire facade and the canted tower bases.  
   Believed to date at the latest from the remodeling of the church front in 1778, they may be even earlier, perhaps in part from the late 16th century.  

The West Doorway
One of the more arresting features of this classic Franciscan fortress monastery is its unique west doorway, now even more dramatic since the recent discovery and restoration of its original, colorful painted ornament.
   As with the church itself, the doorway has a medieval look. The squared, outer frame is bordered by rows of Isabelline “pearls,” evincing its Plateresque lineage. Within this frame, a sequence of shaped, painted moldings, including a tasseled, Franciscan knotted cord, lead inward to the Moorish inspired archway.  
   A channeled, double lobed opening, sharply cleft in the center, forms the outer archway, enclosing a rounded impost bordered by a more ogival inner edge. 
Foliar motifs in striking red and blue hues brighten the doorway. While the other facade murals are all composed of stylized, foliated decoration in some form, the doorway ornament is distinct and more figurative.
   Bordered by the knotted cord, red tendrils wind up the outer frame into the surmounting alfiz, enfolding a pair of seraphic angels’ heads at the corners. These in turn face inward to a portrait of St. Francis with outstretched, stigmatized hands in the center above the notch—an understated reference to this seminal event in Franciscan history.  
   A robust, pruned vine with spiraling leaves boldly climbs the inner jambs and along the flattened archway.
   In both its innovative form and painted ornament, the Tepeaca doorway is unique in early colonial art and architecture, although it is tempting to speculate that similar patterning may yet be uncovered on other Franciscan church fronts in Puebla.  

text © 2017 Richard D. Perry. 
images by the author, and courtesy of Beverley Spears and Diana Roberts

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