Thursday, April 12, 2018

Acolman 2: The Cloister Reliefs

Acolman, the "new" cloister
In addition to the facade carvings, twelve intriguing reliefs project above the arcades in the larger rear, or “new” cloister at Acolman.  These illustrate a number of motifs—mostly crosses in some form, together with Augustinian insignia and religious monograms. Although they reveal a wide variation in the quality and styles of the stone carving, all are distinguished by their boldness of execution:
1. The Tree Cross
This is a classic Mexican tree cross in the style of Huejotzingo, and a striking piece of sculpture. Prominently studded with “pruned” stubs on the arms and shaft, the cross stands on a tiered base with a spiny crown of thorns draped around the crossing. An elongated, ornamental INRI scroll slants across the neck.
2. The Shield Cross
Framed by a curved shield or medallion and expertly modeled in the round, this is the most complex and the most detailed of the cloister medallions.
   A variant of the Mass of St Gregory, the cross features many of the Arma Christi. A slender cross emerges from a tomb or altar accompanied by a compendium of classic Passion symbols, although no wounds are shown. 
   One of the inclined heads of the Witnesses on either side resembles Judas with his penitential cap and stylized speech scroll. The bearded Head opposite may represent Caiphas.
3. The “Wounds” Cross
Rising from an elegant Christic monogram at the foot—a reworking of the IHS motif at the foot of cross in the old cloister except that the S is here reversed—this classic wall cross features a spiky crown of thorns around the neck.
    However, its most striking element is the three outsize wounds on the arms and lower shaft, all oozing extended gouts of blood with bulging tips. An elongated, scrolled INRI plaque, almost as long as the arms, heads the cross.
4. The Calvary Cross
In contrast to the others, this stark composition shows a plain Calvary style cross sprouting from an Aztec inspired skull and flanked by large, realistically carved bones.
5. The Pierced Heart #1
This simple, unframed relief shows the Augustinian heart transfixed by three large arrows. The aorta protrudes from its top while blood streams from the entry of the arrows.
6. The Pierced Heart #2
In this more ornate version, the heart at center is also pierced by three arrows oozing blood but is framed by a foliated ring overlain by twisting tassels—another Augustinian motif.
7. The Pierced Heart #3
Here the rounded heart is placed in a circular recess with the three feathered arrow fletches on the perimeter. The small, foliated cross above is again festooned with hanging tassels.
8.  IHS #1
Not easy to read, the ornamental, foliated monogram of Christ in this relief is enveloped in a complex floral wreath.
9.   IHS #2
By contrast, in this version the letters are easily distinguishable, neatly incorporating a cross like relief #3. The stylized wreath is almost geometrically angular.
10.  IHS #3
A solid wreath with protruding fleurs-de-lis on the corners enfold the monogram in low relief which, like the others, incorporates a cross.
11.  Cross with Stigmata
In this relief, featuring a Franciscan rather than an Augustinian emblem, the five copiously bleeding wounds surround a plain cross, which pierces the center wound. A woven crown of thorns frames the entire motif.
12.  Monogram of the Virgin Mary
Sinuous vines and foliage frame the letter M which is surmounted by an open crown.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry images by the author and ELTB
See our other posts on Acolman: The Facade; The Crosses; The Murals;

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Acolman 1: The Church Facade

Acolman in 1966
San Agustín Acolman is one of our favorite places in Mexico. It was the first great monastery we encountered on our initial trip to Mexico in 1966, to which we have returned several times since over the years.
   So, in a new series of posts, both on this site and on our sister blog on the murals, we revisit Acolman to draw attention to its many architectural and artistic treasures, using photographs taken on different occasions in the past. 

Acolman today © ELTB
The Augustinian priory of Acolman is distinguished by its innovative architecture, murals and ornamental sculpture. In this and forthcoming posts we review its varied aspects, including the facade—the subject of this post—as well the numerous carved stone reliefs and its famous atrium cross. 
The Church Front
The towering church front at Acolman is braced by formidable buttresses and capped by a plain belfry, framing a sculpted facade of unexpected sophistication.
   Called the "The Queen of the Plateresque” it is probably the earliest and certainly the most ambitious example in Mexico of the elegant late Renaissance /Plateresque style of 16th century Spain—as well as one of the most written about.
   Startlingly innovative at the time, it exerted a powerful influence on many later Augustinian churches, notably at Atotonilco and Metztitlan in Hidalgo.

Although commissioned by the viceroy himself, Don Luis de Velasco, in the year 1560 according to the dedicatory plaque, the designer of this magnificent doorway is not known, although it was surely an experienced Spanish architect or skilled master mason, possibly Claudio de Arciniega, who worked on many major buildings including the cathedrals of Puebla and Mexico City.
Crisply carved from gray-gold limestone, the lush composition was once ablaze with color, as traces of pigment in the recesses reveal. Unfortunately, the sculpture is blurred in the lower section of the doorway, up to head height. Time after time during the colonial period, flood waters surged through the low-lying monastery, washing away the carved and painted details.
Ornate, fluted and garlanded baluster columns flank the triumphal arch of the doorway, although the twin cherubs on their lower sections have been melted like hot candle wax by the repeated flooding. 
Luckily, the patrician figures of St. Peter and St. Paul, looking down from the crowned niches between the columns, stood safely just above the high water mark.
The richly sculpted doorway is the centerpiece of the facade, its paneled archway featuring two tiers carved with a ceremonial banquet of fruits, breads and other offerings including the ubiquitous Augustinian pierced heart.
The spandrels above the arch tell the story of the Annunciation. The Archangel Gabriel, on the left, unfurls a banner of praise towards a startled Virgin Mary on the right.
Fanciful hippocamps or seahorses frolic along the frieze, between classical urns and grinning lions' heads. In the ornamental niche above the doorway, the headless young Christ strikes a magisterial pose, flanked by chubby cherubs playing the horn and viol.
A frieze of winged cherubs' heads frames the choir window above, supported by Plateresque columns. At its apex, playful cupids tug on the beribboned insignia of St. Augustine. A plaque between the saint's miter and the pierced heart is engraved with a well known Latin aphorism from the Confessions: sagitaveras domine cor meum charitate tua; (you have transfixed Lord my heart with your charity)

Two contrasting armorial reliefs of interest flank the choir window: the Spanish Royal arms on the left, and the Acolman place glyph on the right.

The Spanish Royal arms—the lions and castles (Leon and Castile) beneath the imperial crown. This symbol of Spanish colonialism was erased from most buildings in Mexico after Independence. This is one of the remaining few.
Acolman, the place glyph—depicting the arm of the First Man,
with a halo of water droplets from Lake Texcoco.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry
b/w photography © 1986 by the author
posts in this series: The Facade; The Reliefs; The Crosses;

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Water, Water: The great pila of Zinacantepec

In earlier posts in this series we have described a variety of early carved stone fonts, in Puebla, Tlaxcala, Michoacán, Oaxaca and Yucatan.*
   Although we have looked at a few in Mexico city and state, we have not yet mentioned the monolithic baptismal font at the former Franciscan convento of Zinacantepec, west of Mexico City near Toluca. 
Until recently this monumental sculptural work still resided in the outdoor baptistry of the Zinacantepec convento, however it is currently on display in a more secure location in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Toluca.
   The carved decoration of this enormous basin is arranged in several tiers. The Franciscan knotted cord forms the rim of the font, below which is a dedicatory inscription in native Nahuatl that translates as: 
"In the year of Our Lord 1581 this baptismal font and baptistry were completed by order of the Guardian Fray Martin de Agüirre in the town of Zinacantepec."
The main section encircling the basin consists of a band or frieze of beautifully carved foliage in a stylized pattern that includes birds and speech or song scrolls issuing from the flowers—a frequent feature of early colonial carved and painted ornament in Mexico.
Baptism of Christ;                                                    The Annunciation
St. Michael;                                                       St. Martin of Tours
Of special interest are the four relief medallions prominently set into the frieze at intervals. They are also expertly carved with detailed, miniature scenes comprising a Baptism of Christ, The Annunciation, the Archangel Michael skewering Satan (San Miguel is the patron saint of the monastery), and St. Martin of Tours dividing his cloak with a naked beggar. (San Martín was the personal patron of Fray Martín de Aguirre)
   The use of Nahuatl in such a prominent inscription seems a little surprising considering the patron and the late date, although of course all the carving is by indigenous craftsmen.
Please see our earlier posts featuring early Mexican fonts: OaxacaYucatánMichoacán eastAtlixco (Puebla); AcatzingoTlaxcalaCholulaCiudadHidalgoTepepanMolangoTecamachalcoQuecholacTecali; Cuernavaca;

text © 2018 Richard D. Perry.  images by the author and © Niccolo Brooker

Monday, March 26, 2018

Cuernavaca Cathedral: The Baptismal Fonts

In the mid-1950s, the new Bishop of Cuernavaca initiated drastic changes to the interior of the Cathedral. This controversial program of limpieza involved removing the many old baroque altarpieces and santos along the nave in an attempt to recover the simplicity and focus of the early Franciscan building—a process which fortuitously led to the uncovering of the whitewashed murals of the Japanese Martyrs on the walls behind.
The "new" font
One element of this liturgical "cleansing" was the placement of a new baptismal font in a sunken circle just inside the west door of the cathedral, replacing the monolithic 16th century font of the church, which was banished after 400 years to the sacristy, where it remains.
The 16th century baptismal font
Although an attempt was made to retain some colonial forms in the new font, notably in the knotted cord rim, its bland symmetrical lines have none of the character or patina of the monolithic original, carved with the Five Wounds and inscribed with the Latin words of the sacrament of baptism: in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.
   The replacement of an authentic 16th century font by a modern basin in the name of a return to the "primitive" church of the early Franciscans can be seen as an unintended irony.
text © 2018 Richard D. Perry. 
This is the last in our series on the architecture and sculptural highlights of Cuernavaca CathedralThe North DoorwayThe relief of the Assumption; The Open Chapel; The Atrium Cross;
See also our series on the murals of Cuernavaca cathedral: The Church FrescoesThe Open Chapel muralThe Spiritual Lineage; The Crucifixion;

We welcome your comments

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Cuernavaca Cathedral: The Atrium Cross

In previous posts on Cuernavaca cathedral we noted the themes of death and sacrifice that pervade the precincts of this former Franciscan monastery. These could not be better represented than in the atrium cross that stands before the magnificent open chapel.
the atrium cross, eastern face
The present reconstituted cross is set on a massive square base stepped and battlemented on all four sides. What intensifies the macabre interest of this Christian symbol of death and sacrifice, are the bold reliefs of a skull and crossed bones embedded at the foot of the cross.
© Niccolo Brooker 
Not only is the projecting skull a rare Aztec sculpture but it is attached to a square stone box called a cuauhxicalli, designed to receive the hearts torn from sacrificial victims—a remarkable prehispanic survival—and an artifact that now often holds floral and other offerings!
text and images © 2018 Richard D. Perry, except where noted

Visit our other posts in this series on Cuernavaca cathedral: 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Cuernavaca Cathedral: The Open Chapel

In a previous posts we have described various aspects of this former Franciscan monastery, including its architecture, sculpture and muralsIn this post we look at one of its most original elements, the grand open chapel, located on the west side of the cathedral church.
In the early years, before the church and even the convento were completed, the Franciscans faced the problem of how to minister to the countless new converts. Their innovative response was this great, arcaded open air chapel, described by John McAndrew, the distinguished art historian, as, “a dramatic design, strikingly ambitious and elegant, the most original work from the first half of the 16th century in Mexico.”
From the vaulted sanctuary at the rear, the friars could preach and administer the essential sacraments in full view of the masses assembled in the facing atrium.
The imposing frescoed convento entry stands to the left of the sanctuary.
In front of the sanctuary, a majestic transverse nave soars to a height of over 60 ft, creating an almost Gothic sense of lightness and openness—a space that may also have functioned as a portería for the convento beyond. 
   Tall, slender pillars capped by delicately carved oak leaf capitals support the triple arcade out front, which is braced by stepped open buttresses that also serve to direct the viewers gaze in towards the sanctuary.
Above the arcades, the crenelated parapet of the chapel is inset with Jerusalem crosses cut from coarse black basalt. Although repaired and altered over the centuries, the chapel remains in need of further cleaning and conservation.
Visit our other posts in this series on Cuernavaca: 
The North Doorway; The relief of the Assumption; The Atrium Cross; The Baptismal Fonts;
see our sister blog for posts on the murals of Cuernavaca cathedral
text and images © 2018 Richard D. Perry