Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Tizatlan: the open chapel frescoes

from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala
Tizatlan was the hilltop capital of Xicoténcatl, "Man with a Bee at his Lips," one of the Four Lords of Tlaxcala. It was here, in 1519, that Cortés had his fateful encounter with the lords, who later allied with the Spaniards in the defeat of the Aztecs. The Lienzo de Tlaxcala, a famous 16th century painted document, portrays them all gathered in front of a wooden cross. 
Tizatlan was the site of Xicotencatl's palace, an extensive compound adorned with statuary and painted altars depicting Tlaxcalan and other deities.
Tizatlan is also noted for its early open chapel with a projecting, arcaded front, modeled on other Franciscan structures like those at Cuernavaca or the nearby Rosary Chapel at San Francisco de Tlaxcala. Although tucked behind the later church of San Esteban, for which it served for many years as a sacristy, the chapel remains a separate structure. 
Its striking but functional design features a projecting, arcaded west front, beyond which stretches a lofty transverse nave, high enough to accommodate a pair of raised wooden choirs. The chapel is covered by a substantial beamed roof set on a supporting arrocabe of carved brackets inset with painted angels' heads. 
arrocabe with painted angels (Robert Cox)
A variety of colorful murals glows on the chapel walls, executed in a still vivid palette of reds, yellows, indigo and earth colors. They fall into three groups: the early apsidal murals, the later painted archway, and the large narrative frescoes in the nave.
                   Apsidal murals: north wall;       south wall; (courtesy Robert Cox)
The Apsidal Murals
The oldest frescoes, possibly dating as early as the 1540s, fill the two high side walls of the polygonal apse. The murals on the east wall are now largely erased.
   Although rendered in a style similar to the murals of Actopan and Xoxoteco, the focus here is on events following the Crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The three panels on the south wall depict, at the top, a hybrid scene shows Adam and Eve, on the left, witnessing the Risen Christ, red victory banner in hand, reaching into the flaming Jaws of Hell on the right 
In the center panel, the stern figure of Christ is seated in Judgment, flanked by angels and figures of the Elect, apparently directing the legions of the Condemned towards the gaping mouth of Leviathan. St. Francis appears above Christ, apparently with a tail?. Below, the partial figure of an archangel intercedes for the damned—or perhaps hastens them on their way.
On the north wall opposite, a tiered sequence in the same manner represents the Ascension at the top with the company of the Apostles, the Risen Christ in Glory with the red banner of victory in the center, and an uncertain scene below with Christ again brandishing the crimson banner.
The Sanctuary Arch
Painted later than the apse, possibly as late as the 1700s, this crowded fresco strikes a more festive note. God the Father sits at the apex like an oriental potentate, surrounded by a host of angels, some swinging censers, others singing or playing a variety of colonial era musical instruments.
God the Father

 musical angels over the archway (images courtesy of Robert Starner) 

Incense burners, music stands, the sun, moon and clouds fill the intervening spaces; a profusion of flowers, medallions and cherubs' heads frame the archway and flow between the beam ends.
The Nave Murals
Remnants of large narrative murals along the lateral nave walls, also in color and probably of intermediate date, explore further themes from the life of Christ including his Baptism, with John the Baptist, and a partial Adoration of the Magi. 
Adoration of the Magi, detail

text and images © 2017 Richard D. Perry, except where noted.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Xoxoteco: the Last Judgment

In previous posts we have described some of the spectacular 16th century murals that adorn the chapel of Santa Maria Xoxoteco in northern Hidalgo state.We have also looked at various depictions of the Last Judgment, in paintings and murals elsewhere in Mexico. *
   The Last Judgment was often graphically portrayed, primarily as a means of impressing the native converts with the consequences of sin and the horrors of Hell—themes fully developed in the nave murals at Xoxoteco.

At Xoxoteco the panoramic Last Judgment scene itself dominates the rounded upper section of the apse. The outline of Christ in Judgment is discernible at the top, seated on a globe like throne, with a rainbow above and the books of judgment below.
He is flanked on the left by a rising, mostly naked group of saved souls, and on the right by a line of the Elect. 
The Elect
Below left, souls rise to Heaven accompanied by angels on the left, and on the right, the damned are flung by demons into the open Jaws of Leviathan, whose sharp teeth, upturned snout and wide eyes add to the drama.
In medieval times the entrance to Hell was often envisaged as the gaping mouth of a huge monster, and remained common in depictions of the Last Judgment and Harrowing of Hell until the Renaissance. The sea monster Leviathan, a monstrous animal whose mouth swallows the damned during the Last Judgment, was also conflated with this imagery.

text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author and  courtesy of Niccolo Brooker and adapted from JB Artigas
*Please review other posts on the Last Judgment: El LlanitoTotimehuacanSuchixtlahuacaHuaquechulaYanhuitlan; Ixmiquilpan

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Ixmiquilpan murals: The Last Judgment

Ixmiquilpan, the church front
San Miguel Ixmiquilpan is a simplified, scaled-down version of nearby Actopan, a substantial Augustinian monastery whose severe military lines are softened by the large shade trees of the park-like atrium.  Like Actopan too, the church and its adjacent convento are noted for their exceptional mural cycles, in particular the famous and much discussed “battle” frescoes along the nave. 
In this series we consider the murals of the convento: in the cloister and the sacristy—formerly part of the friars' chapel.
Ixmiquilpan, the cloister
We look first at the fine but poorly preserved Last Judgment in the handsome lower cloister.  Framed by a painted archway, only the upper part of the composition remains readable today. The lower section, which included scenes of the Saved and presumably Hell and Damnation, is highly fragmentary.
Above, Christ sits in Glory on a rainbow arc, his feet planted on a globe. He is flanked by the companies of the Elect and the Religious, which include the customary figures of the crowned Virgin and John the Baptist. 
Angels sound trumpets and reach down to the Saved and the Condemned who would have appeared below. 
One vestige portrays a small group of the Saved being escorted Heavenward by an angel. The figures are carefully if naively outlined throughout in a warm grisaille, the only color apart from a golden brown reserved for the heads.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
photography courtesy of Niccolò Brooker
*Please review other posts on the Last Judgment: El LlanitoTotimehuacanSuchixtlahuacaHuaquechulaYanhuitlan; Actopan; Cuitzeo;

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Cuitzeo, The Last Judgment

Raised on a bluff overlooking the shimmering shallow waters of Lake Cuitzeo, Santa Maria Magdalena Cuitzeo is the most sumptuous Augustinian priory in Michoacán. In 1550, the foundations for the monastery were laid on the site, using stone from the demolished temple of Curicaueri, the Tarascan sun god.
Set at the top of a series of rising enclosed forecourts, the church front is distinguished by its elegantly sculpted facade and a spacious convento on the south side.  
   The convento is fronted by a grand, arcaded portería atop a stepped terrace. Believed to have been added when the convento was remodeled in the early 1600s, the arcade is designed in a sumptuous Roman Renaissance manner quite distinct from the earlier, Plateresque church facade.
portería view with Last Judgment mural
The Murals
The convento at Cuitzeo is adorned throughout with murals, the majority of which are early in date and of great artistic interest and variety.

The principal narrative fresco in the porteria is a graphic Last Judgment covering the wall at the north end. Although the central figure of Christ is drawn in Renaissance style, the conventions of scale and iconography in the composition—the massed ranks of the Elect and the Religious above contrasted with the Purgatory and Damned descending into the yawning mouth of Hell below—hark back to medieval Christianity and bear comparison with portrayals of the Last Judgment at Acolman, Actopan and Xoxoteco.
Christ in Judgment with God the Father, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist
Angel blowing horn
The assembly of the Elect
The Ranks of the Saved transported by angels to Heaven
The Condemned in flames with a horned beast and the Mouth of Hell
Like most of the murals at Cuitzeo it is painted in warm black and white, with red accents—notably the flames of Hell.

*Please review other posts on the Last Judgment: El LlanitoTotimehuacanSuchixtlahuacaHuaquechulaYanhuitlan; Actopan
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry.  images by the author and Niccolò Brooker

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Actopan: The Last Judgment

This is another post in an occasional series on depictions of the Last Judgment in the arts of colonial Mexico.*
Everything is on a grand scale at St. Nicholas Actopan, a palatial priory that was the foremost Augustinian priory in Hidalgo. Its monumental architecture and visionary frescoes earn it a place among the greatest buildings of Mexico.
   The murals at Actopan are among the most varied and extensive of any in Mexico. They fall into at least two different categories: first the brightly colored, apocalyptic murals of the open chapel, which probably date from the 1560s, and then an assemblage of convento murals, which are a little later—mostly from the mid 1570s.

The Vault of Actopan
This local name for the great open chapel at Actopan succinctly captures one of its most striking features, the soaring barrel vault painted with a coffered pattern of crosses and octagons, based on the designs of the Renaissance architect Sebastiano Serlio. 

But the true glory of the Actopan chapel is its spectacular frescoes, on the end wall and along the sides. Only discovered in the 1970s, hidden beneath layers of whitewash and erased in places, they are executed on a huge scale in vivid reds, blues, browns and ochers. 
   Together with the closely related frescoes at the smaller chapel of Xoxoteco, they display the most vivid apocalyptic imagery of any Mexican murals of the 16th century. 

Our focus in this post is on the surviving frescoes of the apse or east wall of the chapel, in particular the panoramic Last Judgment scene.

The Last Judgment
As at Xoxoteco, the centerpiece of the cycle is a panoramic Last Judgment spread across the upper tympanum of the east wall.
Over sixty varied figures populate this rich and varied composition. In the center, above a multi-hued rainbow, a partly effaced Christ stands in judgment on a globe, flanked by the Company of the Elect. 
Underneath, an angel and a demon contest over a kneeling soul, pointing to a book of sins. On the right, the Damned tumble into the fires of Hell assisted by ferocious horned and taloned demons. (Note the feet of Christ on the globe at the top)
Below, angels blow trumpets to awaken the dead, who rise from their graves—aided by angels and menaced by demons.  
The Mouth of Hell
Although this motif, customarily a vital element in Last Judgment scenes, does not appear in the central lunette, it is depicted in two other apsidal panels, as well as on the side walls of the chapel, where the image introduces the galleries of murals depicting the torments of Hell.
Flaming Mouth of Hell with Demons and Angels (apsidal fresco #3)  
Mouth of Hell with horsemen of the Apocalypse (apsidal fresco #6)
Mouth of Hell.  south wall;                                   north wall
For good measure, a second, partial Last Judgment scene fills another lunette beside the upper cloister of the convento. Closely related in composition and vivid coloration to the open chapel version, it is less sweeping but better preserved in some of the details. The figure of Christ here is fully displayed, while the souls emerging from their graves are again vividly portrayed.
*Please review our other posts on the Last Judgment: El Llanito; Totimehuacan; Suchixtlahuaca; Huaquechula; Yanhuitlan
text and graphic © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author and courtesy of Niccolò Brooker