Monday, June 26, 2017

San Francisco Atlixco: the convento frescoes

In previous posts on this early Franciscan monastery in Puebla, we looked at the splendid main altarpiece of La Asunción in the churchas well as some old stone fontsIn this post we look at some of the few surviving colonial murals in the convento.
Passion mural fragment
In the cloister, a once fine cycle of Passion scenes is, sadly, now largely obliterated.  Finely drafted on a large scale in classic 16th century Flemish style, they were outlined in warm gray, with burnt orange and blue accents, and framed by grotesque borders and the Franciscan cord. The remaining fragmentary episodes include a Christ at the Column and a melancholy Agony in the Garden. 
As we have seen with other early murals, background landscapes include local topographical features, while the friezes include a veritable compendium of local flora and fruits. 
St Francis and St Anthony of Padua
Two frescoes in the former refectory are better preserved. Drafted and colored in the same style as the cloister murals, they portray pairs of Franciscan saints kneeling in prayer before a crucifix.
St. Bonaventure and St. Louis, Bishop of Toulouse?
In the corners of the upper cloister are large, attractive urban scenes in a wider range of color—blue, burgundy and ocher. One portrays a medieval townscape with bridges and fortified buildings, and another is a classical architectural study with a decorated doorway and arcades, with views of distant landscapes (possibly intended as views of Assisi?) 
   The significance of these architectural frescoes is unclear although they are of a later date than the other murals and may have served as backdrops to statuary.
Doorway and arcades with landscape views
A third corner fresco shows a rose colored Jerusalem style cross against a blue landscape, framed by decorative panels of similar crosses—a motif which is also emblazoned along the exterior parapets of the church.

text © 2017 by Richard D. Perry
color images by the author and courtesy of INAH and Robert Jackson

See our other pages on Atlixco churches: Third Order chapel; La Merced;

Monday, June 19, 2017

San Miguel Huejotzingo: the Sala murals

In the third and last of our posts on the Huejotzingo murals, we describe the most complete and best preserved sequence in the convento.
The Sala de Profundis 
This friars' chapel was at the heart of religious life in the convento. As such, it was the most profusely decorated, its walls filled with large, inspirational murals illustrating the history and luminaries of the Franciscan Order and its mission in the New World.
The Franciscan knotted cord frames the outer doorway to the chamber, flanked by ornate escutcheons of the Stigmata accented in red. St. Michael, the warrior patron saint of Huejotzingo, reappears above the entry, here shown with fearsome spiked wings and posed in a landscape with hills, trees and buildings. He is flanked by two barefoot archangels, St. Raphael on the left, who gestures to Tobias standing in the river holding a large fish, and on the right, the archangel Gabriel with a banderole of the Annunciation message wound around his staff.
Inside the room, an extraordinary series of 16th century murals flows around the walls and over the doorways, framed by complex, foliated friezes and grotesque panels. 
   Remarkably complete and in excellent condition following restoration, like the other convento murals they are painted entirely in warm gray tones with no added color.
The most celebrated fresco, stretched above the inner doorway, portrays the first Franciscans to arrive in New Spain, the Apostolic Twelve. The friars kneel humbly before the cross, with their names inscribed in Spanish above their heads. The details and date of their historic arrival are recounted overhead:
"Estos muy dichosos y bienaventurados doce religiosos fueron los primeros fundadores de la fe en esta Nueva Iglesia. Salieron de España año de 1524 día de la conversión de S. Pablo y llegaron a esta tierra viernes de vigilia vigiliæ de Pentecostés del mismo año 4."
Like the related Arrival frescoes at Ozumba, this impressive mural is a unique historical as well as artistic document. 
Along the west wall, prominent Franciscan saints are enshrined in painted, architectural niches. St. Francis is prominently portrayed along with four key events from his life: his Conversion; the Stigmatization; the Flaming Chariot and Preaching to the birds and fishes.
St. Bonaventure;                             St Anthony of Padua
Francis is accompanied by two eminent, richly robed Franciscans, St. Bonaventure and St. Anthony of Padua.
St Clare;   St. Helen
Also present on the side walls are full length portraits of female saints: St. Clare and St. Helen, and the martyrs St. Barbara with St. Catherine of Alexandria, all prominently shown with their classic attributes.
St. Catherine of Alexandria;                              St. Barbara

In another pairing, St. Peter (partly obliterated) and St. Paul uphold the Church, of which they are traditional founders.
Above a canopied water stoup on the east wall, Christ washes the feet of the Apostles, one of the few depictions of this pre Passion event in mural art (other partial murals of this scene are found at Cuilapan and Malinalco)
This concludes our series on the murals of Huejotzingo. Enjoy!
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
photography by the author and courtesy of Robert Jackson.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

San Miguel Huejotzingo: the Convento murals

This is the second of three posts on the 16th century murals of Huejotzingo
The Convento
Numbers of murals in varying styles and stages of conservation are found within the convento; these range from the mostly fragmentary polychrome frescoes in the portería and cloister, to the amply restored monochrome frescoes in the Sala de Profundis.
The Portería murals
Beyond its exquisitely carved double archway, little of the once rich portería mural program now survives. Entering, we encounter vestiges of two large narrative murals. 
The first, on the north wall and framed by the Franciscan knotted cord, displays a rectangular Calvary or Descent scene with friars.  
   Like that in the church it appears highly detailed in black outline, and although partially erased and over painted, it is accented with red, blue and green washes.
An even more enigmatic fresco can be made out above the ogival entry to the convento itself. This mural seems to show a prominent central person—perhaps a Protector like figure—in a landscape with groups of praying figures. The partly decipherable Latin inscription below appears to refer to this personage (Lawgiver… Father of All), a possible reference to St. Bonaventure or  Bernardino of Siena.
In the vestibule beyond the entry (anteporteria) a spectacular Annunciation scene is boldly drawn over the cloister doorway in sepia toned monochrome. 
Above the archway, the praying Virgin is ensconced in an elaborately colonnaded throne, flanked by the Archangel Gabriel on the left and a militant St. Michael on the right.

The Cloister murals
Above an archway in the northwest corner of the cloister, a pair of angels holds up a medallion containing the Arms of Christ—the cross surrounded by the Instruments of the Passion. 
   While most of the other cloister murals have been erased, traces of polychrome scenes and friezes remain in niches at the end of the walks, including a red painted, draped cross with the sudarium or verónica, imprinted with the face of Christ.
cloister niche mural with Sts Peter & Paul
draped cross with verónica
But the mural of greatest interest in the cloister, and the best preserved, is the complex, monochrome triptych of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception with her proponents/opponents painted above a doorway in the northeast corner. 
   At center, the black-and-white portrait of La Purísima is densely surrounded by her traditional biblical attributes, each one carefully captioned in Latin. 
   She is flanked by two saints, identified as St. Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican schoolman, and the Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus, wearing his ecclesiastical biretta. These medieval scholars were seen as the principals in a dispute concerning the doctrine of her Immaculate Conception—a belief long championed by the Franciscan Order.
Our third post will look at the murals in the Sala de Profundis.  
text and graphics © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author, Niccolo Brooker and Robert Jackson

Thursday, June 8, 2017

San Miguel Huejotzingo: the Church murals

San Miguel Huejotzingo, the church front and cross
After the Spanish Conquest, the Franciscans picked friendly Huejotzingo as the site for their first major monastery outside the Valley of Mexico.  In 1529 a primitive church and convento were built, dedicated to the Archangel Michael (San Miguel), traditionally the messenger of Christ to far-flung pagan lands. 
   In the late 1540s, work began under the celebrated Franciscan architect Fray Juan de Alameda on a much grander monastery, the "Queen of the Missions" as it became known—a project not finally completed until the 1570s. Contemporary witnesses were amazed at the scale of the monastery; the entire complex—church, convento and posa chapels—is remarkable for its rich, varied carving and the wealth of religious art, especially the early murals, displayed within its walls. 

In this three part series we look at murals in each part of the complex, starting with those in the church.

San Miguel Huejotzingo, the north doorway 

The Church
San Miguel Huejotzingo is a true fortress church. Parapets studded with merlons stand atop its sheer walls and swallow tail battlements crown the stepped buttresses. Inside, thin golden panes of translucent tecali stone in the windows give a warm, amber glow to the lofty, rib vaulted nave.
  Several early murals have emerged from the nave walls at Huejotzingo, most notably a series of rare, processional frescoes on both side of the nave, one of only three known examples, the others being at nearby Huaquechula and at Teitipac in Oaxaca.
The south wall of the nave - partial
The Processional Murals
Long obscured by overpainting and side altarpieces, a compelling sequence of murals came to light  in the 1980s along the nave walls. Although some have faded, are incomplete or remain obscured by later altarpieces, enough have survived to allow a broad interpretation. Although outlined in warm grisaille, red, green and ocher accents and washes indicate that the murals were originally in color.
The north wall processional sequence as reconstructed (INAH)
Thought to date from the late 16th century, between 1570 and 1590, at a time when plagues and famine ravaged the region, the frescoes carry a somber, penitential message.  The cycle is believed to have been sponsored by a powerful local religious fraternity (cofradía) either of the Santo Entierro (Holy Sepulcher) or more likely, that of La Vera Cruz (Holy Cross) *
   It is now thought that the entire mural sequence mirrors the actual Easter ceremony as it took place in the early colonial period here at Huejotzingo, as reenacted by the cofradía members.  
processional route inside church
The procession began outside the church and then moved inside through the north doorway and on towards the altar, where the body of Christ was placed. 
The Descent from the Cross
The mural sequence is thought to begin with the scene of the Deposition, or Descent from the cross, located above the richly carved north doorway—the traditional entry point for Easter ceremonies. 
   On the rocky hill of Calvary, four Franciscan friars with tonsures and knotted cords lower the body of Christ from the Cross. The sorrowing figures of the Virgin Mary, John the Evangelist, and Mary Magdalene are discernible at the base of the cross. 
   The procession then likely continued towards the main altar and then resumed along the south wall towards the main west entry. The south wall mural starts with the dead Christ borne on a raised bier with a baldequin, again accompanied by St. John and the Marys following on litters.
The mural is then divided into three tiers of penitents—two tiers of barefoot, hooded penitents and flagellants in white, including women and children, walk in grim procession with scourges, crosses and rosaries. 
   Between them somber lines of hooded black figures wearing the Franciscan habit and the badges of the cofradía, carry the Instruments of Christ’s Passion.
south wall, cofradia flagellants
The procession then continued out into the atrium through the main west door of the church. And after a ceremonial circuit of the atrium and its posa chapels, it most likely then reentered the church through the west door and retraced its steps back to the north doorway where it began. 
penitents and crucified thief
This would explain the line of hooded penitents shown passing the crucified thief, located just beside the north doorway, before ascending the hill of Calvary.
* The insignia worn by the hooded figures represents a green cross on a hill against a white field—an emblem associated with the confraternity of the True Cross, at that time active at Huejotzingo.

See our sister site for an unusual painting in the church.
text and graphics © 1992 & 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author, Niccolo Brooker, Carolyn Brown & Robert Jackson
For a fuller explanation of the murals and their context consult Susan V. Webster:

Art, Ritual, and Confraternities in Sixteenth-Century New Spain.
Penitential Imagery at the Monastery of San Miguel, Huejotzingo

Friday, June 2, 2017

San Juan Cuautinchán: the convento murals

The hillside Franciscan monastery of San Juan Bautista Cuautinchán, south of the city of Puebla, is among the most impressive early colonial monuments in Mexico. 
   Despite several earthquakes, the powerful stone buttresses and the massive, rounded apse of the church have sustained the structure through more than 400 years.  The church is perhaps best known for its magnificent early altarpiece, which we have discussed in our sister blog.
Cuautinchan, the arcaded porteria
The Convento Murals
Unfortunately, despite its importance, no major mural programs have survived intact at Cuauhtinchán. However, a few fragments of distinctive frescoes do survive in the convento precincts. 

Starting in the entry portería, vestiges remain of a once ambitious, polychrome mural portraying several friars and a bishop surrounding an unidentified figure on an elaborate dais—possibly St. Francis as Protector of the Order?
Three Friezes
Inside the convento we focus on three unusual murals, each of which takes the form of a pictorial frieze above a cloister doorway:

The Annunciation
The most celebrated mural at Cuautinchán presents a unique combination of Christian and Aztec imagery, believed to date from the later 1500s.
A small, largely monochrome portrayal of the Annunciation at the center, adapted from a late medieval print or engraving, is flanked by finely detailed and colored eagle and jaguar figures rendered in pre-hispanic "codex" style. Both were important symbolic creatures in Aztec life and cosmology, representing the opposing forces of light and darkness.

The portrayal of an eagle may also relate to the ancient place name of Cuauhtinchan, signifying House of the Eagles. Indeed, there is a marked resemblance between this large beaked eagle and the colonial sculpted eagle set atop the fountain in the cloister.

The second frieze shows a pair of angels with medieval style fluttering robes holding up a medallion that encloses a scrolled, floral motif painted turquoise with red blossoms.
An inscription around the medallion quotes Ecclesiasticus Ch 6: “you may be in peace with many, nevertheless have but one counselor among a thousand. “
The angels are flanked in turn by expressive but awkwardly drawn roaring or speaking lions with thick curling manes and tails. Unlike the eagle and jaguar portrayals, the indigenous artist clearly had never seen a lion!

The third mural above a doorway shows three Calvary crosses, the center one mounted above a skull and bones and adorned with the Arma Cristi—nails, a crown of thorns, a lance and hyssop/sponge. 
text © 2016 Richard D. Perry. 
images by the author, Robert Jackson and Niccolò Brooker