Sunday, April 23, 2017

Izucar de Matamoros: saints and martyrs

Izucar de Matamoros
Located in the sub tropical lowlands of the state of Puebla, the busy town of Izucar may reflect in its name the dominant local industry since early colonial times of sugar production.  The priory of Santo Domingo here became an important link in the long chain of Dominican missions that stretched from Mexico City as far as Guatemala.  Founded in the 1530s, by the 1550s because of its strategic location the mission was elevated into a priory, then consisting mainly of an ample stone convento and open chapel.  
  The imposing church is later, added in the early 1600s and subsequently altered. After a disastrous fire in 1939 all the interior furnishing were lost, including many gilded colonial altarpieces (the handsome present retablos are thus modern, although close to the originals in style)  Only the broad, monolithic baptismal font, a former fountain, survived the holocaust.
The two storey cloister and its adjacent conventual rooms, however, survive little changed from the mid-16th century. Recent conservation of the original cloister walks included restoring some of the original murals, both in the cloister and the adjacent Sala de Profundis.
Architecturally, the cloister is in the classic Dominican mode, its  arcades framed by simple carved pillars and buttressed by exterior apron pilasters.  Complex ribbed vaults studded with plain, round ceiling bosses spring from drum corbels along the corridors and cluster in the corners.
Although the walls of the corridors were no doubt formerly covered with murals, today only the portraits of Dominican saints and martyrs survive, located in the lunettes above:
Blessed Johannes Torta
St Peter of Verona
Blessed Daniela of Orvieto
St Margaret of Hungary
Blessed Helen or Yolanda of Hungary
These include number of Dominican martyrs, some well known and others quite obscure, enclosed in a variety of ornamental painted frames and inscribed with their Latin names.
Sala de Profundis
Although the cloister murals represent only fragments of the original sequences, the extraordinary frescoes in the former Sala de Profundis beside the cloister have survived largely intact.
   Here, bloody scenes of martyrdom cover all four walls. Individual friars are depicted being tortured or dispatched in a variety of horrific ways—a cautionary, but inspirational, display for the Dominican brothers who came here to meditate, pray and prepare to meet the arduous and possibly threatening tasks of evangelization.
Such graphic scenes of torture and martyrdom are uncommon in Mexican churches and monasteries, the two other best known examples being those portraying the Martyrs of Japan at Cuernavaca and the African Augustinian martyrs at Charo (forthcoming features).
text © 2015 Richard D. Perry
mural photography courtesy of Diana Roberts ©2013 & 2014

Monday, April 17, 2017

San Mateo Atlatlahucan: the murals

In previous posts we looked at early murals of interest in the state of Morelos, notably at Cuernavaca, Tlaquiltenango, Oaxtepec and Tlaltizapan.
   In a recent post on our main blog, we looked at the fortress style architecture of the Augustinian monastic complex at San Mateo Atlatlahucan, in northern Morelos. But for a priory of the size and importance of Atlatlahucan, surprisingly few important murals have survived. 
However, many of the walls and ceilings are still covered with brightly painted artesonado patterns and Augustinian insignia with friezes of entwined birds, vines and fruits.
image by Eleanor Wake
The Open Chapel.
Inside the chapel the colorful ceiling is aglow with sun, moon, stars and whimsical cherubs caught in a web of red and gold mudéjar strapwork shimmering against the azure vault.
The Porteria
Inside the convento entry, sinuous arabesques, similar to those of the open chapel, weave like golden threads through the coffered ceiling
image courtesy of Robert Jackson
Only one important narrative fresco of interest remains, that of Spiritual Genealogy of St. Augustine in the portería.
   Illustrated, often mythical, genealogies of the founders of the mendicant orders were a favorite theme in many early monasteries, most commonly portrayed in the form of large murals in the conventual precincts. While there are some Franciscan and Dominican examples, Augustinian versions are more numerous. There are examples at Copándaro, and at Charo which includes those of St. Monica and St. Augustine. 
   Spread across the south wall of the Atlatlahucan porteria, this faded polychrome early fresco is detailed in a variety of muted reds, blues and earth hues against a celestial azure background.
The use of the “family tree” form derives from the medieval Tree of Jesse motif.  The recumbent saint clutches his bishops crozier and, with his left hand, supports the Church from which the tree actually springs.  
  A ribbon like Latin inscription, although largely erased, quotes the first line from Augustine’s Confessions: 
"Magnus es, domine, et laudabilis valde. Magna virtus tua et sapientiae tuae non est numerus...".  
Between the curving branches, prelates, saints and martyrs of the Order float on little clouds, resembling rubber dinghies. A more realistic Crucifixion is placed at the top.

Although no narrative murals seem to have survived in the cloister,  again, colorful friezes and artesonado ceiling decoration remain in good condition.
Sala De Profundis
The best preserved convento murals are found in the friars' chapel, where opposing lunettes with colorful figures still survive in fair condition beneath a magenta ceiling crisscrossed by blue moorish strap work. A portrayal of the resurrected Christ adorns one end.

The Church
At one time the lofty nave walls, now blank, were adorned with murals. The only surviving fragments reside in the vaulted apse, which is lined with large faux archways draped with swags and probably dating from the 19th century. A Last Supper with a seven branch menorah appears above the sanctuary arch.
Patrice Schmitz
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry.  color images by the author and Niccolò Brooker except where noted

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Oaxtepec: The Dancing Cherubs

In our previous post on the refectory murals at Oaxtepec, we mentioned the innovative, integrated design elements of the austere church interior, skillfully fashioned from locally quarried warm gray limestone.
The cruciform plan, the arcading along the nave, the running cornices with giant corbels from which spring the soaring Gothic vaults—all were unusual features for this period in Mexico (mid-1500s).
Although otherwise lacking in visible mural decoration, traces of a 17th or early 18th century painted polychrome ceiling have survived in the left transept. 
The charming main fresco shows naked, curly headed, winged cherubs with expressive faces dancing in a circle with rosaries, accompanied by angels playing lutes and violins.

A second, smaller mural by the same accomplished artist depicts the dove of the Holy Spirit ringed by realistically painted, winged angels’ heads.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry. images by Niccolò Brooker

Friday, April 7, 2017

Oaxtepec: The Feeding of the Five Thousand

The rich and powerful have always favored the foothill valleys of northern Morelos, a spring-like Eden ideally situated between the cold central highlands and the hot southern plains. The principal missionary Orders, the Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians, all established major monasteries in this idyllic region and, during the 16th century and beyond, adorned their precincts with an extraordinary variety of early murals.
   We have already reviewed selected frescoes in Morelos: at Franciscan Cuernavaca, Dominican Tlaltizapan and Tlaquiltenango, and Augustinian Atlatlahucan. Here we look at another rare fresco located in the early Dominican convento at Oaxtepec.
Santo Domingo Oaxtepec in 1987
Santo Domingo Oaxtepec

From the exterior, the monastery at Oaxtepec seems unprepossessing, especially compared to the grand Dominican priory at nearby Tepoztlán, although many elements of the church design, notably the use of Gothic ribbed vaults, served as a model for later Dominican houses in Oaxaca and beyond.
   In this post we consider the mural decoration of the convento, focusing on the lavishly painted refectory and its depiction of the Feeding of the 5000, or Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes—a portrayal virtually unique among early Mexican monastic murals.
The Refectory
Today, the convento is accessible through a small doorway on the south side. The former refectory branches off to the left, its long barrel vault adorned with a colorful artesonado ceiling and lined with long, lettered friezes
On the far wall, appropriately for the location, is a striking, two part fresco of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, a rare depiction in Mexican mural art—the only other example we know of being a smaller panel at Charo (Michoacán)
   Set in a stylized landscape of imposing trees and distant peaks painted in warm charcoal tones and flecked with faded blue, green and ocher accents, the figures of Christ and his disciples pose with leisurely dignity.
On the left, a classically robed Christ blesses the bread and then, on the right, distributes loaves from baskets to the vast crowd, indicated by phalanx of receding, rounded heads. 
The distorted figure sprawled in the right foreground seems to have migrated from a painting by Michelangelo.
The figure of God the Father gestures benevolently from above.

text © 2017 Richard D. Perry. color images by the author and courtesy of Niccolò Brooker

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Tlaquiltenango: Confession and Absolution

Floating like a black battleship in a sea of green cane fields, the formidable monastery of Tlaquiltenango in southern Morelos is visible for miles around—a landmark rivaled only by the towering smokestack of the local sugar mill. 
   Although the basic fabric of the monastery is Franciscan, as evidence its fortress like appearance and the distinctive south doorway, modeled after the north porch at Cuernavaca, in 1573, after contentious negotiations, the Dominicans wrested control of the monastery from the Friars Minor. After ten years, the Franciscans briefly regained control, only to lose it again to the Dominicans in 1590. 
This ongoing conflict, with intervals of occupation by both Orders, is reflected in the sometimes aggressive repainting of the mural decoration within the monastery, most forcefully in the grand polychrome fresco over the inner doorway to the convento (anteportería) portraying St. Dominic in the center of an illustrious company of Dominican saints and notables.
   In this post we look at two other prominent, complementary frescoes covering earlier friezes. This time painted in sepia tinged monochrome, they also depict other Dominicans in action.
The Confession mural
In the first and best preserved of the two, a friar confesses a noble Indian convert, from whose mouth sins dramatically stream forth in the form of distasteful black creepy crawlies. 
An angel and a winged demon hover in competition above the head of the penitent.  
The Absolution mural
In the same area, an almost identical but so far unrestored mural portrays the sacrament of Absolution. As before, a fluttering angel gestures in benediction above the kneeling convert, although the devil has been vanquished.
   The sacraments of Confession and Absolution were especially dear to the hearts of the Dominicans, who played a leading role in the notorious Inquisition.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry. photography by Niccolò Brooker