Saturday, May 27, 2017

Oaxaca. Cuilapan: the Refectory murals

For the last of our three posts on the murals at Santiago Cuilapan we look at the ill preserved but important frescoes located in the former refectory of the convento (#10 on the map).
The Refectory (Sala de Profundis)
The murals in this room fall into two categories. Along the side walls, framed by colorful floral friezes and dadoes, outsize ornamental cartouches portray a variety of Dominican saints, bishops and dignitaries, famous and obscure. 
   Rendered in reds, blues and shades of brown, most of the bust style portraits are individually identified by inscriptions, although not all legible. All are in poor condition and in urgent need of careful restoration:
Bishop ?;    St. Antonine Lara  (©Marina Heyman)
St. Raymond of Penyafort;  St. Augustine ?
The Last Supper
At the far end of the room two even more damaged murals, with later superimpositions, flank an empty center niche. On the left is a partial Last Supper scene, with Christ at top center flanked by the Apostles around a table—clearly indicating the original use of this room as the convento refectory.
   On the other side, an even more fragmentary scene in the same style apparently shows Christ washing the feet of his disciples.
Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, partial
In both these frescoes, the figures are elegantly outlined in warm gray and accented with reddish brown robes. They appear to predate the more ornamental wall portraits, suggesting a later use of the chamber as the Sala de Profundis or friars' chapel of the convento.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images courtesy of Niccolò Brooker except where noted

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Oaxaca. Cuilapan: three cloister niches

For the second of our posts on the murals at Cuilapan, we look at the handsome painted niches in the cloister.
Cuilapan, the cloister
The Cloister murals
At one time, narrative murals may have filled the walls of the elegant cloister at Cuilapan. These have been erased or perhaps may even remain to be uncovered beneath the whitewash. 
  In any event, the only mural fragments now on view here are the elaborate painted borders surrounding three of the four corner testera niches. Partially restored to fair or good condition, they are designed in a broadly classical Flemish manner with ornamental baroque touches, and in common with most early monastic murals, outlined in warm gray or sepia and accented with subdued reds, blues and a variety of earth colors.
   Three of the four niches have retained their painted frames:
Niche 1.
Niche 1 pediment
Derived from early 16th century Spanish book frontispieces * two of the niches feature caryatid like figures emerging from plant swathed pilasters. Portraits of individual saints with other figures occupy the painted pediments.
Niche 2
Niche 2 pediment
Niche 3
Niche 3 pediment
*Graphic Sources: Jean de Vingles (1498 - ca. 1552) Title pages of Arte Subtilissima por la qual se enseña a escrevir perfectamente.  Published by Juan de Yciar Vizcayno (ca. 1522 - after 1572). First published under that title by Pedro Bernuz in Zaragoza in 1550. (1553 Edition. woodcut).
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry. images by the author, Niccolò Brooker, and PESSCA

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Oaxaca. Cuilapan: two martyr murals

We follow our post on the murals of Santo Domingo with a three part series on the murals at Santiago Cuilapan(m), another major Dominican priory in the region.
The Basilica at Santiago Cuilapan © Felipe Falcón
On July 25th 1550, Fray Domingo de Aguinaga, the prior of Santo Domingo de Oaxaca, founded a new priory just outside of Cuilapan, an ancient village west of the city—named to celebrate the feast day of St James (Santiago)  A major complex was planned, with a seminary, to prepare the Dominicans for missionary work in the Mixteca region of northern Oaxaca. 
This ambitious project was never fully completed, and the priory today consists of three main structures: the monumental, unfinished church (3), the attached roofless “Basilica,” formerly an arcaded open chapel (1), and the convento (9)—the only part of the monastery to be finished.  
   Despite this incomplete state, a number of early murals, some fragmentary, have survived in all three parts of the complex. In this post we focus on two related murals of interest.

The Church 
In the present sacristy (4), formerly an adjunct to the open chapel, we find the only complete fresco at Cuilapan, a large, monochrome Crucifixion with the two Marys. Restored and in good condition, it is bordered by broad grotesque friezes featuring giant urns, and alive with birds, fruits, flowers and vines.
On the right of the cross, in the place usually taken by St. John the Evangelist, is the kneeling figure of the Dominican saint St. Peter Martyr (San Pedro de Verona), his head cloven by an axe and breast transfixed by a large sword. The turreted building behind him is thought to represent the mission at Cuilapan.
The Convento
Dating from the early 17th century, this spectacular Tree of Dominican Martyrs mural rests in a hallway adjacent to the old refectory (10). Its trunk sprouts from the standing figure of St. Dominic as Protector, sheltering kneeling friars beneath his spreading cloak.
                                 St Dominic;                   St. Peter Martyr;  Virgin Mary;
St. Peter Martyr is prominently featured again, in the fork above Dominic, a dagger in his back and an axe in his head, while the crowned Virgin Mary occupies the top spot. The saint also appears on one of the branches.
St. Peter Martyr (left)
Rows of diminutive black robed saints and martyrs cluster on the horizontal branches like starlings, each bearing the martyr’s palm. Like the Crucifixion mural, the fresco is framed by ornate, foliated borders. 
   Although the priory is dedicated to St. James (Santiago) it is interesting that both major murals prominently show St. Peter Martyr, a popular saint throughout Dominican Oaxaca.
The tree scheme is closely based on a highly detailed engraving, Triumphus Martyrum Ordinis Praedicatorum, (The Triumph of the Martyrs of the Order of Preachers) by the Flemish artist Adrian Collaert (1555-1623) published in Antwerp in 1610.
text & graphics © 2017 Richard D. Perry
images by the author, Niccolò Brooker, Felipe Falcón and courtesy of PESSCA

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Oaxaca. Santo Domingo de Oaxaca: the murals

Santo Domingo de Oaxaca
As the mother house of the Dominicans in the region, the grand priory of Santo Domingo exerted a major influence on everyday life and society in colonial Oaxaca, both religious and secular as well as on its art and architecture.  Today Santo Domingo’s baroque west front is an impressive sight, the golden glow of its stonework contrasting with the blue mountains behind.
   Most of the original wall and ceiling ornamentation inside the church as well as the adjacent convento and Rosary chapel dates from the 17th and 18th centuries, much of it created by artisans and stucco workers from Puebla. Several elaborate ceilings featuring painted stucco relief have recently been restored.
©Macduff Everton
The Genealogy of St. Dominic
The earliest and best known work in this manner is the painted relief of the Spiritual Genealogy of St. Dominic adorning the under choir inside the west entry to the church.  Although a painted relief rather than a mural, it is one of the most spectacular examples of the genre in colonial Mexico.
   Based on the medieval Tree of Jesse motif, it spreads out across the vault in the form of a multi armed vine. Springing from the inconspicuous reclining figure of the patriarch, Don Felix de Guzmán, it traces the earthly lineage of St. Dominic. Members of his noble family, real and imaginary, emerge like blossoms from buds set among the tendrils and bunches of grapes, culminating in the figure of the Virgin Mary placed like an ornament at the top of the tree.
The Convento
The former convento has been lavishly refurbished, taking on new life as the Oaxaca State Museum.  While the opulent vaults have been painstakingly restored, with some exceptions few of the original frescoes have been so well preserved.
The Portería
The plain double archway beside the church marks the monastery entry or portería. The elegantly classical inner doorway to the cloister is emblazoned with the Dominican insignia—the fleur-de-lis cross and dogs with torches—together with the founding date of 1575. 
The entry is flanked on either side by newly restored, life size mural portraits of Saints Peter and Paul.
Saints Peter and Paul
The Cloister
The portal opens to the beautiful and spacious cloister, whose two soaring tiers, faced with brilliant white limestone, have been restored to prime condition.
   Projecting panels on the inner faces of the arcade piers display full length portraits of Dominican saints and martyrs—male and female—with their attributes and, in some cases, their identifying scrolls—some well known, and others quite obscure. 
Blessed Albert of Bergamo;               St. Brigida of Holland.
Large scale, 17th century murals once filled the walls of the cloister walks. Although once whitewashed or even erased, fragments remain and are currently under conservation, their outlines and some details now visible.
Possibly dating from the early 1600s, they indicate subtle graphic skills and deploy a range of colors. Local landscapes and Native plants appear in the landscape scenes; one passage shows the Dominican dogs. 
However, a few complete, or near complete narrative murals do survive in the lunettes adjacent to the corner vaults of the upper cloister. 
   Traditionally attributed, although without documentary evidence, to the eminent Oaxacan painter Miguel de Cabrera, these 18th century frescoes appear to illustrate incidents in the life of St. Dominic. 

The only other surviving mural segments in the cloister are a few decorative blue pilasters framing some of the doorways and niches, with some lunettes and pediments repainted with arabesques, strapwork and foliage.
text © 2017 by Richard D. Perry
images by the author, Niccolo Brooker, Macduff Everton, and Ramón Moreno Rodríguez

Thursday, May 4, 2017

St Paul the Apostle: Three Murals

As one of two principal pillars of the Catholic Church, together with St. Peter, the Apostle Paul occupies an outsize presence in Christian art. In Mexico, he features prominently in colonial architecture and altarpieces, in statuary, reliefs and paintings—including many early monastic murals.
   Apart from his customary stance as a single figure, a handful of 16th century murals portray him in the context of key episodes from his life, usually in the forms of miniature accompanying scenes.
   In this post we look at three such frescoes, found in the conventos of Tepeapulco (Hidalgo) Huaquechula (Puebla) and Charo (Michoacán)
Tepeapulco (Franciscan)
Located in the upper cloister, this mural portrays a magisterial St Paul in his robe standing in the center and holding his epistles and sword (the instrument of his execution.)  
   The figures and landscape are heavily outlined against a sepia background, with important details, like the saint's robe and blood strongly accented in reddish brown. Three large scenes unfold on either side:
On the right is his famous conversion on the road to Damascus. The saint, dressed as a Roman soldier, falls from his bucking horse. The ribbon is inscribed with an inverted, abbreviated version of Jesus' question, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me." ?
On the lower left we see the beheading of Paul. Blood spews from the neck of the kneeling saint as well as his severed head while the armored executioner sheathes his enormous sword. 
The third scene on the upper left is ambiguous. It portrays Paul meeting with a group of dignitaries—a possible reference to his meeting with the Church Council in Jerusalem.
Huaquechula (Franciscan)
Located in a cell off the upper cloister, the Huaquechula mural also portrays the robed St Paul with his traditional book and sword. Two accompanying scenes behind him again illustrate the saint's conversion and execution. Here, although the outlining is lighter than at Tepeapulco with fewer incidental details, the colors are brighter and more varied, including red and turquoise washes.
The Charo portrait is accompanied by two scenes. The first, on the left, is a dramatic depiction of the saint's conversion. While his horse rears, Paul, dressed as a soldier, sprawls on the ground, his hand raised to his now blinded eyes.

On the right is outlined the scene of Paul's beheading. His head rolls on the ground as his executioner stands above him axe in hand.
Charo (Augustinian)
Adorning the far wall in the former Refectory or Sala at Charo, this mural only portrays the episode of Paul's conversion. As at Tepeapulco, the saint sprawls on the ground below his rearing mount while a long phylactery, with a faded inscription, winds heavenward to the small figure of Jesus sitting in a cloud.

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