Thursday, January 26, 2017

Tecamachalco: the Apocalypse murals

For our inaugural post on this new blog, featuring early Mexican murals, we look at some of the most famous of the 16th century murals, those at the great Pueblan monastery church of AsunciĆ³n Tecamachalco * by the native artist Juan Gerson.
Embellishing the vaulted entry vestibule beneath the church choir, is a remarkable cycle of panels illustrating scenes from the Old Testament and the Apocalypse of St. John. 
   Once believed to be the work of a Spanish or Flemish painter, the artist is now known to be an indigenous artist, one Juan Gerson, a talented tlacuilo or artist/scribe from the native nobility, who took the baptismal name of John Gerson, a medieval French preacher and theologian whose apocalyptic writings greatly influenced the Franciscans. 
   Gerson's paintings magnified intimate black-and-white images, prints from a medieval bible or breviary, adapted from northern European prints by Hans Holbein and others, into a visionary and colorful pageant, symbolically transforming the church entry into a portal of the celestial realm. 
   People and supernaturals are set in surreal landscapes painted in radiant rust reds, turquoise and earth colors that seem to have faded remarkably little since they were painted in 1562. Painted on ovals of amate bark paper and pasted between the ribs of the vault, the compositions fall into three main groups. 
The eagle of St John the Evangelist
1. At the center of the leaf-shaped vault is the Franciscan emblem of the Five Wounds. The tips of the leaves enclose medallions of the Tetramorph—the symbols of the Four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. 
   
2. Old Testament scenes, including Noah's Ark, Jacob's Ladder and the Tower of Babel, fill the spaces between the inner ribs. 
   
The Four Horsemen;   The Destruction of Babylon
3. But the most striking sequence is the cycle of sixteen visionary episodes taken from the Apocalypse of St. John, which are squeezed into the sharper angles between the outer ribs. 
   Although the graphic sources for many of the scenes are taken from early 16th century woodcuts, indigenous or folk art inflections may be seen in the clarity and brightness of the colors, the simplification of some figures and animals, and the emphasis given to the landscapes.  
   The artist clearly relished the dramatic subject matter, which includes apocalyptic scenes as the Four Horsemen, the Taking of the Dragon and the Opening of the Sixth Seal. 
   Several of the panels are illustrated below, adapted from a remarkable series of images taken by the celebrated Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo circa 1970:
  
Woman of the Apocalypse/Great Dragon;             Vision of the Lamb
  
The Twenty Four Elders;     Chaining the Dragon
  
The Sixth Seal;                                  The Plague of Locusts
  
New Jerusalem;                              Measuring the Temple  

* For details on the architecture and other colonial arts at Tecamachalco, see our sister blog.
Text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
Images by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, adapted from Juan Gerson. Pintor Indigena del Siglo XVI   
Fondo Editorial de la Plastica Mexicana.  Mexico, 1972.

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