Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Metztitlan: The Cloister Murals

The Cloisters 
Like the portería, the cloister is a model of Roman sobriety. Paneled piers support plain molded arches and cornices of austere refinement. 
Although the cloister is relatively small, the walks are broad, roofed by high barrel vaults painted with artesonado designs and fringed by grotesque friezes. Complex ribbed vaults cover the corner compartments, colorfully decorated with angels and foliage. 
A painted balustrade of convoluted Mannerist design—a riot of wild bearded heads, waterfowl, swags and strapwork—runs along the cloister walks. 
Huge beribboned Augustinian emblems, some with bulls' heads, have been added at eye level around the lower cloister, possibly obscuring earlier 16th century wall paintings.
St. Luke the Evangelist
The only visible narrative murals in t
he lower cloister are the portraits of the Four Evangelists and the Four Doctors of the Church in the lunettes of the corner bays. 
   Based on prints by the Flemish engraver Hieronimus Cock (c.1505-1570) the Evangelists are painted in an almost impressionistic style and are shown with the Tetramorph—the four creatures who traditionally symbolize the Evangelists. St. Luke, mounted on his muscular ox among celestial clouds, is especially virile.
St. Jerome
Like the newly uncovered apsidal murals of the church, the richly appareled Doctors, Saints Gregory, Jerome, Ambrose and naturally, Augustine, sit in splendor on elaborate thrones against a classical backdrop.
The Upper Cloister
As on the lower level, the only surviving narrative murals are in the lunettes of the corner bays. Stylistically, they are similar to the portrayals of the Evangelists in the lower cloister, and are probably by the same artist.
Figures and landscapes alike are boldly sketched in broad strokes with scant attention to detail. The sepia graphic outlines are complemented by ocher and burnt orange accents and washes.
The Taking of Jesus (detail)
This sequence of murals links scenes of the Passion story with episodes from the Old Testament, to illustrate the triumph of faith through sacrifice. 

Only two of the six identifiable murals are complete: the Sacrifice of Isaac and the Road to Calvary—both in the southwest corner. 
In the first, a rarely shown biblical scene that prefigures the sacrifice of Christ, Abraham raises his sword while a blindfolded Isaac kneels, awaiting the fatal blow.
Another scene, in the southeast corner, represents the Bronze Serpent—also a rarely portrayed Old Testament episode. Here the muscular King Hezekiah spears the serpent set up by Moses to protect the Israelites from poisonous stings (here puzzlingly shown as dismembered) This is a unique portrayal in early Mexican mural art.
The Resurrection of Jesus (detail)
Vestiges of the Crucifixion itself, the outline of a Resurrection (Christ in Triumph), an Agony in the Garden and the Taking of Jesus in the Garden occupy the other lunettes.
Triumph of the Christian Virtues
Finally, two other extraordinary if partial murals adorn the lunettes in the stairwell between the cloisters. O
n the south wall another beautifully drawn bull, festooned with garlands, here represents the Triumph of Chastity. 
   By tradition, this portrayal signifies sacrifice, both of the bull—decked with sacrificial garlands—and of the rider, here effaced—customarily St. Joseph who symbolizes chastity. 
Derived from an engraving by the 16th century Flemish artist Martin van Heemskerck, this is the best preserved of a pair of allegorical frescoes illustrating the Triumph of the Christian Virtues. Also effaced from the mural are Zephirus, a female figure tugging at Joseph's cloak, and Invidia—Envy, gnawing on a heart.

In a second, fragmentary lunette, on the opposite wall at the top of the staircase. 
Patience (partly effaced) is shown seated on a carriage drawn by Desire and Fortune (also based on a Heemskerck print)
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author and Niccolò Brooker


  1. Thanks for the great pictures and text!

    Given the importance of snakes in pre-conquest cosmology the Moses story IS an odd inclusion. His action also is strange. He should be erecting the brazen serpent, but it does look like he is stabbing it. The fragmentary(?) body parts add another odd element.

    1. And the Isaac story raises issues too, but we know that the story was performed in an early colonial drama, so maybe the same idea of "you used to do this, now follow the cross" applies to both.

    2. Barnaby,
      Thank you for your comments.
      This Bronze Serpent scene, unique in Mexican mural art to my knowledge, is problematic.It seems to show the second of two related events, the setting up of the bronze serpent by Moses to protect the Israelites from snakes, and then its later destruction by King Hezekiah. However, the Israelites died from poisonous stings not dismemberment as the mural portrays. I have clarified the text on this.
      There may be a print source for this mural, as yet unidentified.
      Likewise the Sacrifice of Isaac, although a famous biblical story, is also rarely portrayed in Mexican mural art. The only other example I can recall is in the under choir at Tecamachalco, painted by Juan Gerson.
      As noted, the Old Testament event was thought to prefigure the Crucifixion.

    3. Postscript

      I have found a graphic source for the Bronze Serpent mural, by the Flemish engraver Pierre Eskrich: https://colonialart.org/artworks/1212A

      Interestingly, both biblical events are portrayed in the superb choir stall reliefs originally created by the sculptor Salvador de Ocampo for the church of San Agustin in Mexico City: https://colonialart.org/artworks/516B https://colonialart.org/artworks/592B

      All are found on the invaluable PESSCA web site: https://colonialart.org

  2. However did you discover the sources for these murals? Scenes of classic mythology seem an odd choice for the early friars to have brought from Flanders and other countries of their origins.

    1. I assume you mean the the graphic sources for the two Triumph of the Virtues murals. These are also found on the PESSCA web site: https://colonialart.org/archives/subjects/pious-allegories/virtues#c1213a-1213b
      While the underlying theme and style certainly owe much to ideas and imagery from antiquity, as with much Renaissance and Baroque art, the presentation and intent is thoroughly Christian. As was the motive for dissemination of the original prints.
      The Seven Heavenly Virtues were a particular concern of St Augustine and his Order and are found commonly in Augustinian murals in Mexico, notably at Acolman.