Monday, April 23, 2018

Acolman: The Cloister Murals 1

There are two cloisters at Acolman: the smaller front patio, attributed to the Franciscans, and the grander rear cloister—an Augustinian addition. In this post we consider the murals of the smaller patio.
Dating from the 1530s, the front cloister is the smaller, plainer and darker of the two, its heavily buttressed arcades cut from black tezontle, as is the venerable cross in the center. Only the upper parts of the frescoes along the walks have survived the periodic inundations of the lower cloister. 
   The surviving frescoes, however, are later than the cloister itself, dating from the Augustinian period, circa 1560. They are broadly contemporary with those in the rear cloister and possibly by the same hand(s)  Outlined and detailed by a master draftsman in warm, sepia tones that reveal a powerful Flemish influence, all feature architectural backgrounds.
The Annunciation, witnessed by Saints Augustine and John of Sahagun
The four most complete corner frescoes are on the west side of the cloister and, rarely for cloister mural cycles, illustrate episodes from the Life of the Virgin Mary. 
   These comprise The Annunciation, The Visitation, The Nativity and a partial Adoration of the Magi. In each scene, except for the Magi fresco, two Augustinian saints, including Augustine and St. Jerome, witness the event from the lower corners.
The Visitation, witnessed by Saints Ambrose and Jerome
The Nativity (Adoration of the Child) with two female saints
Adoration of the Magi
Two other related but largely erased murals appear on the east walk of the cloister. Both are assumed to portray Marian themes, and again, pairs of saints observe the proceedings from either corner.

singing feline? and friar (images courtesy of Jim Cook)
All the narrative frescoes are framed by broad, bold grotesque panels with human and animal visages enmeshed in stylized foliage.
St. Ambrose and St. Jerome
Along the arcades, portraits of the four Evangelists, alternating with the four Fathers of the Church, cling to the inner faces of the corner piers, while Augustinian saints are shown on the intermediate ones.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
photography by the author, Robert Jackson, Jim Cook, & ELTB

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Acolman: The Open Chapel fresco

Between the church and adjacent convento, a broad archway opens on the upper level, crowned by a plain, rectangular alfiz. This is the original open chapel, which may date from the Franciscan years at Acolman before 1540. From this raised balcony the friars would preach to the Indians assembled on the terraces below.
view from open chapel to terraces below
Restoration of this elevated chapel revealed a dramatic mural on the rear wall portraying St. Catherine of Alexandria, the patroness of preachers. Although appropriate to the Franciscans, it is not associated with any particular religious Order and seems likely to postdate 1540.
   Swathed in rippling robes, she is crowned, as a royal, and holds up an open book, a symbol of her erudition; the saint also holds an impressive sword—the instrument of her martyrdom. A fragment of her traditional wheel remains at upper right and at her feet, the severed head of her tormentor the Emperor Maxentius. 
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author and courtesy of Marina Hayman

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Acolman: The Porteria murals

In our first post we looked at the frescoes inside the church at Acolman. In the next several posts we turn to the murals inside the adjacent convento, starting with the entry portería.

Unfortunately, no complete murals have survived inside the long, arcaded porteria at Acolman. The only remnant is a sprawling, if partial polychrome fresco across the end lunette, rendered in burgundy, turquoise and varied washes of earth colors. 
Sufficient vestiges remain to identify it as representing, among other elements, the Virtues, Prudence, Faith and Charity, as well as sins like Avarice, accompanied by other figures including friars and a partial Holy Trinity with the Virgin Mary, all afloat in a swirl of celestial clouds.
The Virgin Mary;                                             God the Father
The Virtues, detail
In the adjacent entry vestibule only the monochrome frieze remains above the painted doorway, elegantly inscribed with the Latin legend from Genesis:
 “How awesome is this place. It is none other than the House of God and the Gateway to Heaven.”  
Similar ornamental lettered friezes appear throughout the convento quoting in most cases from the Psalms and other Old Testament sources.
In addition, painted doorways and niches appear throughout the convento, including this colorful baroque wall retablo, portraying Augustinian friars.
text and images © 2018 Richard D. Perry

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Acolman: The Church Murals

This is the first in a survey of the colonial murals of Acolman, in tandem with posts on its architecture and sculpture on our sister site.
On the northern heights overlooking the Valley of Mexico close to the pyramids of Teotihuacan, stands the imposing monastery of San Agustín Acolman. Founded as a Franciscan house, in 1539 the monastery was ceded to the Augustinians who built their grand new priory around the Franciscan shell. The building is a formidable presence set in green cornfields framed by cool blue hills.
   Acolman is especially rich in murals from different 
colonial periods. Important, well preserved sequences of frescoes adorn the church and continue throughout the convento. We start with those in the church.

The Church Murals 
Inside the vast cool nave, the eye is immediately drawn towards the east end. Beneath an intricate web vault, the five-sided apse blazes with striking black, white and orange murals, that scale the walls and reach into the vault itself. Long covered by whitewash, the murals were rediscovered and restored in 1895.
Probably painted around 1600, the murals depict rows of gigantic figures of Augustinians seated on thrones. Above the bottom rank of lowly friars, stern-visaged cardinals and bishops line the two middle tiers, with popes at the top, an imposing hierarchy deliberately linked to the elevated position and traditional authority of the Order in the history of the Church. 
In the lunettes at the top, venerable apostles and Old Testament prophets sit uneasily among mythological figures borrowed from classical antiquity—naked youths, grotesque beasts and even prophetic sibyls—whose only other appearance is in the 16th century frescoes of the Casa del Deán in Puebla—all intended as further legitimizing sources for Augustinian authority, under question in the New World when the murals were painted.
   Overall, the apsidal frescoes recall the stairway murals at Actopan, and even those of the Sistine Chapel.
Vestiges of early murals survive in other corners of the church—we spotted this striking frieze fragment back of the choir loft with a foliated Leviathan like dragon.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
photography by the author, and courtesy of Marina Hayman and Carolyn Brown

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Epazoyucan murals: Two Lamentations

In an earlier post we looked at the polychrome murals in the cloister at Epazoyucan.
   Partly because of its highly emotional expression of grief, the Lamentation scene, which follows the Descent or Deposition of Christ from the cross, is one of the most widely depicted episodes in the Passion sequence. 
   Portrayals of the scene and its participants in art have changed with time and place, in Europe as in the New World and even within the same locale, as the two murals we examine at Epazoyucan can attest. 
The Cloister Mural
This mural is one of several to survive in the corner niches of the lower cloister. Several figures cluster about the dead Christ. Five are identifiable as saints, as evidence their haloes. 

   From the left, these are the youthful John the Evangelist, standing, and the three Marys, plus Mary Magdalene — the latter holding Christ's head, although she may alternatively be the figure in a red robe. 
The Virgin is of course in blue, holding the emaciated body, and the other two may be Mary of Cliopas or possibly St Anne in the background. The third woman may be Mary Salome, Mary, mother of James; or Mary of Bethany. The two secular figures standing on the right are Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.
Although the colors may have been altered over time, research has shown that the original mural was executed partially in color, with the blues and reds later much enhanced.
The Sala De Profundis
The second, similar depiction of the scene appears in the friar's chapel or Sala De Profundis, although with a slightly different cast of characters, and painted in a different style and hand.
   Executed in a warm grisaille, the treatment of the figures is less stylized than 
the cloister version, and its subtlety of line and modeling is its equal if not its superior. Both murals of course were executed by native Otomí artists under the friars' supervision.
While the specific graphic sources are unclear, both versions are derived from northern European prints and appear close to the widely known Albrecht Durer print of the episode.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry.
color images by the author; details by Niccolò Brooker

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Cuernavaca: The Crucifixion

In contrast to the more exotic murals of the church and cloister, the other remaining mural of note at Cuernavaca is more conventional in theme, style and coloration.
From the cathedral, a double passageway leads into the convento past a large Crucifixion mural, all that survives of what may once have been a larger, 16th century Passion cycle on the walls of the cloister. 
   Based on a Renaissance engraving, the Crucifixion scene is outlined in the customary grisaille tones enlivened with red accents—notably in the blood of Christ. Although His body has been partly effaced, the elegantly robed, but rather static figures of Mary and John are still intact. Roiling clouds, trees, rugged outcroppings and turreted palaces serve to enliven the landscape behind.

text and photography © 2018 Richard D. Perry

This is the last of our series on the murals of Cuernavaca cathedral: The Church Frescoes; The Open Chapel mural; The Spiritual Lineage; The Crucifixion;
In our next group of posts we survey the murals in the great Augustinian priory of San Agustín Acolman.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Cuernavaca Cathedral: The Spiritual Lineage of St. Francis

In an earlier post we analyzed an important fresco in the open chapel of the former Franciscan convento of Cuernavaca, now the cathedral. 
   The principal theme of that mural, St. Francis presenting the Rule of his Order to Pope Innocent III, is also portrayed, along with other episodes in Franciscan history, in another unique and complex fresco located in the adjacent cloister. 
The Cloister 
Simple channeled arches on all four sides sit on squat pillars with plain ring moldings around this early Franciscan cloister. 

Only fragments remain of the large murals that once lined the walks. Today, the best preserved of these is the so called Spiritual Lineage of St. Francis, in fact an extraordinarily detailed Franciscan martyrology in medieval style. (A Dominican version can be seen at Santiago Cuilapan)
The mural is bordered by the Franciscan knotted cord and flanked by fluttering angels similar to those in the north doorway Rows of diminutive nuns and friars, each holding a Latin name plaque, flank a center panel illustrating key scenes from the life of St. Francis, also copiously inscribed.  
   These comprise his appearance before the Pope Innocent—a reprise of the scene in the open chapel—and before the Bishop of Assisi. Above is his Stigmatization on Mount La Verna.
St Francis receiving the Stigmata
St Francis before Bishop Guido of Assisi 
St Francis before Pope Innocent III 

Fragments of other narrative scenes, part of a Passion sequence, cling above the doorways. Painted friezes of foliage, vines and pomegranates line the convento walks, again usually bordered by the Franciscan knotted cord. Miniature narrative scenes punctuate the friezes including a rare depiction of the Mass of St Gregory with the Arma Christi (other, larger examples can be seen at Cholula and Tepeapulco)
The Mass of St Gregory
text and images © 2018 Richard D. Perry
Other posts in our series on the murals of Cuernavaca cathedral: The Church FrescoesThe Open Chapel muralThe Spiritual Lineage; The Crucifixion;