Monday, February 27, 2017

Jalapa del Marqués, the rescued murals

Jalapa del Marqués, February 2017: dry lake and Dominican mission of Asunción.
A recent post on our sister blog reported on the sudden re-emergence, after half a century, of this early Dominican mission from man made Lake Presa Juárez in southern Oaxaca. Because of prolonged, severe drought in the region, lake water levels have recently lowered dramatically to the point of being almost dry.
   When the Presa dam was planned in the early 1960s, there was a laudable attempt to preserve as much as possible of the interior decoration of the church and adjacent convento in advance of the rising waters.  Aside from full documentation, several mural fragments were physically removed for safe storage, conservation and later, display in museums and other locales.

While most of the rescued mural pieces came from ornamental friezes, dadoes and frames around openings, the larger preserved frescoes were those saved from the once lavishly painted Sala de Profundis in the convento, notably a painted wall retablo at one end. 
The Sala de Profundis mural in situ before removal

The mural consisted mainly of two large portraits of saints on either side of a large center niche, with a surmounting lunette extending into the vault. 
   Framed by wide foliated borders, the two surviving frescoes portray, on the left, the martyr St. Lawrence, posing with his grill beneath a painted curtain. Although not a Dominican, the fleur de lis cross of the Order hangs in front of him.

Composed in the same style, the better preserved second panel shows John the Baptist in his sheepskin skirt standing in a wilderness landscape. The saint’s customary lamb rests on the hillside behind him. The choice of these two saints for a major mural, neither of them Dominican, seems unusual.
However, the outlines of two kneeling, now headless, Dominicans flanking the lunette above are more conventional. These figures probably represent St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Siena adoring the Virgin of the Rosary, who may have been portrayed in the center panel of the retablo.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
 images adapted from and text based on the thesis by Martha Lis Garrido Cardona, Los Fragmentos de pintura mural del convento de Jalapa del Marqués, Oaxaca

Friday, February 24, 2017

Metztitlan: The Thebaida mural

Finally, one of the most intriguing, if poorly preserved murals at Metztitlan is its depiction of the so called "Thebaida," or Allegory of the Eremitical Life—a favored theme of the Order found in other Augustinian monasteries like Actopan and Culhuacan. The underlying theme of Augustine origins in the hermitages of the Egyptian desert, has here been visually transferred to the New World and to the Metztitlan region in particular.

Located in the lunette above the entry to the refectory on the east side of the cloister, this remarkable mural has a powerful penitential flavor. Six friars, some barefoot and carrying scourges and open books, kneel before a partially erased Crucifixion flanked by the sun and moon. 

This ritual scene is clearly located in the Metztitlan region, as evidence local landmarks like mountains, caves, hermitages and woodland, as well as portrayals of colonial structures including the priory of Los Santos Reyes itself, its predecessor, the convento of La Comunidad, as well as the native tecpan, the building known as La Tercena.
In addition, a strong indigenous influence is seen in the portrayal by a different hand * of native flora and fauna, including birds, rabbits, deer, a jaguar and, most prominently, a cross shaped cactus from which water flows into rows of orange balls, thought to represent chalchihuites—prehispanic motifs associated with water and blood sacrifice—thus echoing the symbolism of the Crucifixion using native imagery. 
   (Although turquoise is the color usually associated with the chalchihuite, the use of reddish/orange here is probably intended to highlight the sacred nature of the object, as with other elements in the mural.)

* quite possibly the native illustrator(s) of the well known 1579 Relación geograficá map of Metztitlan (detail). 
text & selected images © 2017 Richard D. Perry
analysis & pictorial details adapted from MARTÍN OLMEDO MUÑOZ, 
"La visión del mundo agustino en Meztitlán" (Anales de I.I.E. UNAM 2009) 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Metztitlan: The Cloister Murals

The Cloisters 
Like the portería, the cloister is a model of Roman sobriety. Paneled piers support plain molded arches and cornices of austere refinement. 
Although the cloister is relatively small, the walks are broad, roofed by high barrel vaults painted with artesonado designs and fringed by grotesque friezes. Complex ribbed vaults cover the corner compartments, colorfully decorated with angels and foliage. 
A painted balustrade of convoluted Mannerist design—a riot of wild bearded heads, waterfowl, swags and strapwork—runs along the cloister walks. 
Huge beribboned Augustinian emblems, some with bulls' heads, have been added at eye level around the lower cloister, possibly obscuring earlier 16th century wall paintings.
St. Luke the Evangelist
The only visible narrative murals in t
he lower cloister are the portraits of the Four Evangelists and the Four Doctors of the Church in the lunettes of the corner bays. 
   Based on prints by the Flemish engraver Hieronimus Cock (c.1505-1570) the Evangelists are painted in an almost impressionistic style and are shown with the Tetramorph—the four creatures who traditionally symbolize the Evangelists. St. Luke, mounted on his muscular ox among celestial clouds, is especially virile.
St. Jerome
Like the newly uncovered apsidal murals of the church, the richly appareled Doctors, Saints Gregory, Jerome, Ambrose and naturally, Augustine, sit in splendor on elaborate thrones against a classical backdrop.
The Upper Cloister
As on the lower level, the only surviving narrative murals are in the lunettes of the corner bays. Stylistically, they are similar to the portrayals of the Evangelists in the lower cloister, and are probably by the same artist.
Figures and landscapes alike are boldly sketched in broad strokes with scant attention to detail. The sepia graphic outlines are complemented by ocher and burnt orange accents and washes.
The Taking of Jesus (detail)
This sequence of murals links scenes of the Passion story with episodes from the Old Testament, to illustrate the triumph of faith through sacrifice. 

Only two of the six identifiable murals are complete: the Sacrifice of Isaac and the Road to Calvary—both in the southwest corner. 
In the first, a rarely shown biblical scene that prefigures the sacrifice of Christ, Abraham raises his sword while a blindfolded Isaac kneels, awaiting the fatal blow.
Another scene, in the southeast corner, represents the Bronze Serpent—also a rarely portrayed Old Testament episode. Here the muscular King Hezekiah spears the serpent set up by Moses to protect the Israelites from poisonous stings (here puzzlingly shown as dismembered) This is a unique portrayal in early Mexican mural art.
The Resurrection of Jesus (detail)
Vestiges of the Crucifixion itself, the outline of a Resurrection (Christ in Triumph), an Agony in the Garden and the Taking of Jesus in the Garden occupy the other lunettes.
Triumph of the Christian Virtues
Finally, two other extraordinary if partial murals adorn the lunettes in the stairwell between the cloisters. O
n the south wall another beautifully drawn bull, festooned with garlands, here represents the Triumph of Chastity. 
   By tradition, this portrayal signifies sacrifice, both of the bull—decked with sacrificial garlands—and of the rider, here effaced—customarily St. Joseph who symbolizes chastity. 
Derived from an engraving by the 16th century Flemish artist Martin van Heemskerck, this is the best preserved of a pair of allegorical frescoes illustrating the Triumph of the Christian Virtues. Also effaced from the mural are Zephirus, a female figure tugging at Joseph's cloak, and Invidia—Envy, gnawing on a heart.

In a second, fragmentary lunette, on the opposite wall at the top of the staircase. 
Patience (partly effaced) is shown seated on a carriage drawn by Desire and Fortune (also based on a Heemskerck print)
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author and Niccolò Brooker

Friday, February 17, 2017

Metztitlan: The Portería murals

The Convento and Its Murals
The varied and unusual subject matter of the Metztitlan murals and their placement in the monastery tell us much about the function of 16th century religious art. 
   Location was important. The murals in the entry portería and, to some extent, the lower cloister were directed primarily at lay viewers—mostly Indian neophytes—and emphasized the principal pillars of the Church and the Augustinian Order. 

The Portería murals 
Supported on robust, paneled piers and set atop a flight of steps, the portería arcade frames a broad vista of the surrounding canyon with moon-shaped Lake Metztitlan beyond. 
The round lake, or perhaps the reflection of the full moon upon its calm waters, gave Metztitlan its aboriginal name, and the man-in-the-moon motif that appears throughout the monastery is a visible reminder of this poetic origin.
Ornamental lettered borders and grotesque friezes line the portería walls beneath painted ribbed vaulting with rosettes. 
   Two important early murals are found in the eastern end of the portería:
Virgin of the Immaculate Conception
The smaller of the two frescoes, framed by an ornamental painted niche on the north wall, depicts the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (La Purísima). 
The elongated figure of the Virgin stands on a crescent moon, elegantly robed in blue and surrounded by several objects mentioned in her litany, including the Tower of David, the Gate of Heaven, the Morning Star and the Mirror of Justice, each identified by a lettered banner. 
A fearsome demon writhes defiantly beneath her feet. 
Although the print is monochrome. the native artist has deployed an unusually broad palette of colors: blue, green, purple and a range of reds, browns and ochers.
While there many sources for images of La Purísima, the Metztitlan  mural is fairly close to an almost contemporary version by the 16th century Flemish artist/engraver Hieronymus Wierix.
The Tree of Redemption
A complex fresco of the Tree of Redemption fills the entire east wall of the porteria arcade. Although partially erased, the central image of the Crucifixion is intact along with other essential pictorial elements.  

The blood of the Redeemer flows into the Fountain of Grace below, where an elite baptism is witnessed by an assembly of well-dressed worshippers. Inscribed with the specific date of November 6 1577, this mural may commemorate a particular baptism.
Branches spread out from the foot of the cross, heavy with grapevines linked to medallions picturing the Seven Sacraments. The entire scene is placed in a stylized landscape with houses, hillsides and rocky outcroppings, laced with Latin inscriptions.
courtesy of Pessca
Dated November 6, 1577, this allegorical mural is faithfully based on an engraving by the 16th century Italian artist Bartolomeo da Brescia.  Although Christ's streaming blood is omitted from the mural, the Latin biblical quotation remains. (This is the blood that Our Lord shed for you...) 
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
photography by the author and Niccolò Brooker

Monday, February 13, 2017

Metztitlan: The Church murals

This is the first of four posts on the murals of the great Augustinian priory at Metztitlan, in the state of Hidalgo.
Santos Reyes Metztitlan
Soon after his arrival here in 1538, the pioneering Augustinian missionary Fray Juan de Sevilla founded the first mission on low ground close to Lake Metztitlan, then much larger than it is today. 
   Part of this early mission still stands—an arcaded building known as La Comunidad. Frequent flooding, however, forced a change of location, and in the 1540s, construction of the new priory of Los Santos Reyes began on its present site above the town. The entire monastery is built on a leveled ridge—part of the rugged canyon wall—and faces south across the vast, raised terrace in front. 
    Although the convento was occupied by 1550, the huge fortress church, with its rugged black and tan stonework and battlemented parapets, rose more slowly and was not finished until the1560s or later. The only firm date is 1577, inscribed on one of the portería murals. 
In addition to its impressive architectural features, Metztitlan is host to a broad range of exceptional and varied early murals. We start our survey with the church murals.
©Eleanor Wake
© Diana Roberts
The Church
The first mural we encounter on entering the church adorns the ribbed ceiling of the under choir—an exotic painted garden alive with butterfly like angels above a riot of swirling red, yellow and blue foliage. 
Along the nave a broad, painted dado at eye level depicts the Augustinian insignia flanked by heraldic youths grasping giant acanthus fronds which sprout fantastic bird and animal heads, while long-tailed birds strut fastidiously along the foliated borders.
images © J B Artigas
The lofty barrel vault draws the eye towards the sanctuary capped by an elegant Gothic wheel vault.  Recent work in this area has revealed hitherto unknown murals on the flared walls of the apse: large scale, richly colored and detailed portraits of the Fathers of the Latin  Church.  Even more frescoes may await discovery here.

text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author except where noted