Saturday, November 11, 2017

Ixmiquilpan. The Sacristy murals: Noli me Tangere

In a previous post we examined the Last Judgment mural in the cloister at Ixmiquilpan. Among the highest quality frescoes in the convento are the largely monochrome murals that line the church sacristy, formerly part of the friar's chapel and adjacent chambers. 
Devoted to murals depicting Christ’s Passion, they are generally conventional in iconography and style, based on Renaissance prints and similar to many other 16th century murals in the region. 
The actors portrayed in the various scenes in this long cycle are exceptionally expressive, with much background incident and landscape detail. 
In this post we focus on one of the most unusual of the frescoes, that of the Noli Me Tangere scene, one of four post Resurrection scenes portrayed—a rare conjunction in early monastic murals. 
   This episode, recounted only in St. John’s Gospel, concerns the first appearance of the resurrected Christ, to St. Mary Magdalene:
"But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, 'Woman, why are you weeping?' She said to them, 'They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.' 
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, 'Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?' Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, 'Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.' Jesus said to her, 'Mary!' She turned and said to him in Hebrew, 'Rabbouni!' Jesus said to her, 'Do not touch me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, 'I have seen the Lord'."
This biblical subject was popular among prominent European painters, from Giotto and Fra Angelico to Titian and Michelangelo, and there were numerous graphic versions, notably from northern European printmakers.
While clearly based on a graphic model, the precise source of this fresco is so far unidentified. The best known example and closest to the Ixmiquilpan fresco in composition is the 1510 engraving by Albrecht Dürer, part of his Small Passion series.
   The most intriguing aspects of this mural, apart from its uncommon subject matter, are first of all the central figures, and second, the background details.

There are significant differences from the Dürer version, notably in the figure of Christ, who instead of holding out one hand in warning towards Mary Magdalene—the traditional and almost universal pictorial pose—here holds two garden implements, one in each hand, with no "warning off" gesture. Neither hand shows the stigmata. 
    In addition, while kneeling, as was customary, Mary holds her hands in prayer instead of extending them towards Jesus. Both of these elements tend to deemphasize the critical moment of recognition and attempted personal contact, instead of dramatizing it as might be expected. And Mary is shown without her usual jar of ointment, further depersonalizing her and downplaying the emotional power of the scene. A curiously detached portrayal.
The landscape surrounding the encounter is especially varied and detailed. Carefully drawn native plants dot the foreground and rabbits nibble contentedly on the left below the hill of Golgotha with three crosses and browsing animals. 
   A gridded field occupies the middle ground along with an unusual, structurally detailed tower, mounted on a high, square base and prominently accented in turquoise and rusty hues—probably a specific monument. A church, a turreted city—presumably Jerusalem—and an aqueduct or bridge rise beyond.
   As in other sacristy murals at Ixmiquilpan, rocky hills and outcroppings appear in the landscape, some clearly of local significance and possibly referring to Los Frailes, a distinctive topographical feature near neighboring Actopan.

text and color images © 2015/2017 Richard D. Perry

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Totolapan: The Miraculous Draft of Fishes

In our previous post we described a unique but puzzling mural in the entry vestibule of the convento at San Guillermo Totolapan. For this post we look at another unique but poorly preserved mural.
The Cloister murals
Once painted wall to wall—and ceiling too—with 16th century murals, much of this early cloister mural art has been lost and what remains is in fair to terrible condition. While some of the arcade portraits have been partially restored, the larger frescoes along the walks has been lost.
   A few now fragmentary and in some cases barely identifiable murals subsist in the lunettes above the end walls, which is unfortunate, since they reveal both skilled draftsmanship and unusual subject matter. Painted for the most part in charcoal tones  they include a Crucifixion and a portrait of St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine. Two others are of special interest:
The Miraculous Draft of Fishes  
This damaged, polychrome fresco illustrates a miracle as recorded in the Gospel of St. John, in which Jesus appears on the shore of the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection.
   Several of the disciples are fishing but catch nothing. Then Jesus, unrecognized, tells them to cast their net on the other side of the boat, after which they haul in a large quantity of fish.  At this point the apostles then recognize Jesus and, by tradition, St. Peter leaps into the water to greet his risen Lord—a detail that is either obscured or missing in this fresco.
Jesus by the water
Otherwise, the details follow most classic portrayals of the scene: Jesus stands on the shore to one side, while the apostles sit in their (red) fishing boat on the other. Buildings flank the far shore of the lake while waterfowl strut along in the foreground. No net is clearly shown here, although wear and tear of the mural and the later? cutting in of a doorway may obscure this element. 
   To our knowledge, this portrayal of a celebrated scene in the life of Christ is unique in early Mexican mural art.

Illustrated on another lunette is what appears to be a related, post Resurrection scene, that of Peter meeting Jesus on the Appian Way (aka Quo Vadis)—if so, also a portrayal of this apocryphal episode  in early Mexican mural art.
Note: the church was badly damaged during the 9/19 Mexican earthquake. No word yet on the fate of the many valuable murals there. Stay tuned.
text ©2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by Niccolo Brooker and Robert Jackson

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Totolapan: El Cristo Aparecido mural?

This is the first of two posts on the early murals of San Guillermo Totolapan,* the second Augustinian house to be established in Mexico, founded in 1534 by Fr. Jorge de Avila, the “Apostle of Hidalgo.” 
   The church and the community are probably best known for their venerable 16th century crucifix, El Cristo Aparecido de Totolapan, brought here, according to legend, by an angel during the priorate of Fray Antonio de Roa, another celebrated Augustinian missionary.
The plain 16th century church front was replaced in the 1700s when its severity was softened by the more elegant lines of a lofty west porch, rose window and undulating espadaña. The portería, long bricked up, has been reopened giving access to the cloister.
The Murals
As at Tlayacapan, 16th century frescoes once covered virtually every surface inside the convento. They 
combine biblical scenes with ecclesiastical portraits, drawn in warm grisaille with a variety of subdued color washes and accents.
 Although they are now much deteriorated, the surviving fragments still manage to convey some of the original sweep of the mural program and its excellent draftsmanship.
The Vestibule (anteportería)
One ambiguous fresco in this area, currently in poor condition, presents a complex scene with trees, buildings, crucifixes and figures, including friars and Indians, rendered in a dark monochrome leavened by ocher and orange details.

While the subject is unclear, intriguingly, it may refer to the miraculous origin of the famous local crucifix, possibly depicting Fray Antonio de Roa, on the left, facing a white robed, aquarian figure lit by a heavenly beam. 
the mural inscription (detail)
The remnant inscription in the upper left of the scene, which refers in part to Augustinian martyrs, may better clarify the subject of this distinctive fresco when restored.
Comments welcome!
* Note: the church was badly damaged during the 9/19 Mexican earthquake. No word yet on the fate of the many valuable murals there. Stay tuned.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
images courtesy of Robert Jackson and Niccolo Brooker

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Tlayacapan: Three more early murals

In a previous post on the extensive Tlayacapan murals, we looked at an unusual triptych in the former anteporteria of the convento.
   In this follow up post on other murals there we start with another unusual mural on the north wall in this same area, also conceived in the form of a triptych.
In the center panel the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven holds the Christ Child, who gestures towards the mitered St. Augustine beside him. Augustine holds his traditional bishop's crozier and a (flaming?) heart. Mary is flanked by her parents, Saints Joachim and Anne, portrayed life size in painted niches on either side. 
   Although in poor condition, this monochrome mural skillfully  accentuates the detailed contours of the costumes and draperies of the figures, based on a northern European print source.
Two Crucifixion scenes
The first mural is set in the lunette above the entry to the Sala de Profundis inside the convento. Christ on the cross is accompanied by the two thieves, Dismas and Gestas, tied to crosses on either side. Devils and angels hover over the pair.  
   A local landscape of trees and distinctive outcroppings is spread out behind, while the sun and moon shine in darkened sky above.  Saints Peter and Paul appear in painted shell niches on the inner archway of the entry.
   In contrast to the boldly drawn outlines of the earlier triptych, the figures here are more softly molded, and shaded in a warmer tones, with the crosses accented in a now faded red.
A second Crucifixion also appears in a lunette on the end wall of the convento museum, the former refectory. Here, the crucified Christ is alone, although curiously observed by kneeling saints on either side partially hidden behind trees—possibly Peter and Paul again. Birds and animals cavort in the heavily wooded background. 
   And the treatment of the figures is closer to the earlier triptych in style, with an emphasis on sharper outlines and realistic details of foliage, etc.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
images by the author and ©Robert Jackson

Please visit our sister site for details on the barrio chapels of Tlayacapan, and earthquake damage there.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Tlayacapan: a triptych

Fray Diego Durán, an early Augustinian chronicler, described Tlayacapan as a "veritable Garden of Eden." A wild and romantic place, located in northern Morelos state just below Mexico City, it is surrounded by the scenic, basalt bluffs of the Sierra Tepozteca.  
   The mission here started out modestly in 1534 as a visita of nearby Totolapan, but within twenty years the little stone chapel had grown into a major priory in its own right. 
An impressive structure, the church and adjacent convento are enclosed by a spacious walled atrium. Together with the wealth of early murals in the church and throughout the convento, Tlayacapan is artistically one of the most rewarding of the Morelos monasteries to visit. *
On the north side of the church, a long arcade stretches in front of the convento. Behind the largest archway lies the former open chapel, the oldest section of the monastery.
The Open Chapel
Two, large side rooms open beside the chapel’s vaulted sanctuary. Large fragments of 16th century murals adhere to the walls of this area, or anteporteria—the first group in a series of remarkable frescoes at Tlayacapan. 
In this post we focus on one of the better preserved of the murals, an unusual triptych on the east wall. Executed in the style of the Renaissance engravings from which they were freely adapted, the monochrome frescoes illustrate three key biblical episodes relating to the birth and early life of Christ.
On the right, the smallest panel depicts the Visitation (Luke 1:39-56). Mary greets Elizabeth, the aging mother-to-be of John the Baptist, beneath a portrait of her husband the prophet Zacharias—to our knowledge a unique portrayal in early mural art. 
   An outcropping of the distinctive regional Sierra Tepozteca is seen in the landscape behind.
Above the center doorway is another rare portrayal: the Dream of Joseph after he discovers Mary's pregnancy (Matthew 1:19/20.) 
   An angel hovers in a cloud above the sleeping man, saying "Arise Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife." 
In the background is a building complex, presumably the monastery of Tlayacapan.
The largest panel depicts The Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2: 23-24) on the left, showing the infant Jesus in the arms of a sumptuously attired rabbi. To his right, Mary and Joseph pray, accompanied by a group of draped figures who crowd through the doors of the Temple—all drawn in precise detail. Again, a hilltop church appears though the archway behind.
Grotesque style borders magnify the impact of the murals. Mythical creatures—part man, part lion, part fish and part plant—cavort along the walls, symbolizing life in all its aspects. 
Stylistically, the murals and friezes are similar to those at Oaxtepec, just down the road and may be the work of the same itinerant group of artists. 
Tlayacapan was one of the worst hit communities by the September 19 earthquake—see our main blog. There is no word yet on how the extensive convento murals have fared.
Look for details on the many barrio chapels at Tlayacapan in forthcoming posts on our main site.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
images by the author except where noted

Sunday, October 1, 2017

San Pedro Etla: the cloister murals

As an addendum to our series on the murals of Oaxaca * we now look at the unusual cloister murals of San Pedro Etla.
The grand mission of San Pedro Etla dominates the Etla Valley, north of the state capital. Its vast church, twice the size of neighboring Huitzo and notable for its imposing front and massively buttressed nave, was only completed in the early 1600s.
The convento boasts a long, arcaded porteria and a handsome cloister in classic Dominican style with tall, vaulted arcades faced with projecting "prow" buttresses. While the lower cloister may once have borne frescoes along the walks, no traces now remain. 
However, the cloister is noted for its four spectacular corner vaults, which offer a brilliant display of intricate baroque stucco work in the Pueblan style, similar to those at Santo Domingo in the capital, encrusted with Dominican fleur-de-lis crosses set in ornate cartouches.

Below the vaults, painted portraits of apostles and Dominican saints & martyrs appear in the eight supporting lunettes. These include eminent saints like St. Peter and St. Andrew, together with lesser figures like St. Ambrose of Siena, Blessed Henry Suso, Blessed Ceslaus of Poland, and even St. Elmo holding a ship.
   Here we illustrate six of these portraits, all dressed in Dominican habits and wearing rosaries:
St. Elmo;                                                            St. Ambrose of Siena;
Blessed Henry Suso;                                                   Blessed (Wen)Ceslaus of Poland; 
St. Vincent Ferrer?                                                          Blessed Jacobo Salomoni
text & images © 2016 Richard D. Perry, except where noted.
closeups of individual saints © Niccolo Brooker

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