Santo Domingo de OaxacaAs 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.
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 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 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 PaulThe 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