Wednesday, September 13, 2017

San Gabriel Azteca, the baptistry murals

Located close to the mission town of Zempoala, whose church of Todos Santos is noted for its spectacular early murals, the community of San Gabriel Azteca is more modest.

Its colonial church front, although altered in the 1700s and again more recently, retains its original doorway of dark basalt, densely carved with bands of stylized "windmill" and eight point rosettes and vine like foliage, and the jambs framed by the Franciscan cord.
Our special interest here, however, is in the colorful murals in the church baptistry. Like other painted baptistries, the walls and ceiling are lightly covered with 18th century frescoes on the theme of baptism.
Here we see the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist, simply portrayed, beneath a heavenly, Mexican style Holy Trinity—all swathed in red robes. 
The scene is enlivened by several angels playing period instruments including a bassoon and a cello amid clouds and flowers.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry. images courtesy of Niccolò Brooker

Monday, September 4, 2017

Atlihuetzia: an exemplary mural

For another early Tlaxcalan mural, we visit the now roofless church of La Purísima Atlihuetzia, another once substantial 16th century Franciscan monastery located not far from Tizatlan.
Although naturally much degraded, vestiges of murals and friezes can still be traced along the nave walls. And with the prolonged weathering of the whitewashed surfaces, one extraordinary if only partial fresco has emerged from the south wall of the church.
Recent research has established that this “exemplary” mural, which was hastily whitewashed in the late 1600s because of its supposed emergence as the focus of an idolatrous cult among the Indian community, refers to the fate of a Spaniard, one Valentín de la Roca. 
   According to legend, because of his blasphemous disdain for the sacraments and catechism of the Catholic church, Valentín was one day seized by a large, fire breathing serpent and for his sins consumed in flames and consigned to Hell.
   This cautionary tale, with illustrations, was featured in popular religious confessionary tracts and manuals that circulated in the New World, especially among the eschatologically obsessed Franciscans.
 The Atlihuetzia mural, however, is the only known pictorial example of this theme, although there may have been others, since its portrayal was forbidden by the Inquisition in 1689. 
In the now faded but originally bright polychrome mural, the principal panel shows the rattlesnake wound around the unfortunate figure of Valentín with flames licking at his feet. 
He is surrounded by six, small scale illustrations of his sins—each with a red demon urging him on. The best preserved scene, on the lower left, depicts the richly dressed Valentín on his knees confessing before a friar. Sins in the form of toads and lizards stream from his mouth, reminiscent of the mural at Tlaquiltenango, while the red demon at his shoulder urges a false confession.
   On the lower right, Valentín appears unrepentant before his civil judges together with a partial inscription in Nahuatl, referring to the “shame of sin,” indicating that although it was a Spaniard portrayed, the mural was intended primarily as a warning for the indigenous congregation—a motif we saw at Actopan and Xoxoteco.
Few other mural fragments survive at Atlihuetzia, save for this frieze with eagles, angels and christic monograms.
The author at Atlihuetzia 1999
text © 2016 Richard D. Perry

images by the author, Robert Jackson and Juan M. Alcantara

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: 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. The Passion sequence in the sacristy, too, is of exceptional quality and interest.

Ixmiquilpan, the cloister
Less well known are the surviving murals in the convento, notably a poorly preserved Last Judgment in the handsome lower cloister.  
   Framed by a painted archway, only the upper part of the composition remains readable. 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