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

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