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

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