Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Chiapas: Victims of the Plague

The 1770s were a time of great trials in colonial Chiapas. Repeated infestations of locusts decimated crops and threatened famine. In 1773 a major earthquake caused widespread damage, and a series of epidemics, including smallpox, took a heavy toll.
   A striking commemorative painting, located in the church of San Francisco in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, refers to and is believed to date from this troubled period.

It portrays San Roque, the patron saint of protection against the plague, standing with arms crossed in the mode of blessing and wearing the brown habit of the Franciscan order. His pilgrim's hat and staff lean against the wall behind him. An angel tends to his wounded leg while the saint’s faithful dog, bread in mouth, looks up to him.
   A poignant inscription below reads, “The victims of the plague, entreat 
with faith their patron San Roque that they retain their health.” 
   A second dedication indicates that the signed but undated work was commissioned by the lay brothers of the Franciscan Third Order, of which San Roque was a prominent early member.
text and color image © 2017 Richard D. Perry.  All rights reserved 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Chiapas. El Calvario: The Mystic Vintage

We follow our posts on the altarpieces of Chiapas with a look at two unusual and historical paintings in other churches of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. First, at El Calvario chapel, and then in the church of San Francisco.
Hidden away in a shady courtyard behind the church of La Merced stands the little 18th century chapel of El Calvario. Like other barrio chapels in the city, its plain, brick and stucco facade is surmounted by an attractive espadaña belfry ornamented with volutes and pyramidal merlons. 
A relief of the Calvary cross with the instruments of the Passion is emblazoned at its apex.
The Mystic Vintage painting before and after restoration
Inside the chapel, the most intriguing colonial artifact is a recently restored painting of the Mystic Vintage, locally known as the Christ of Redemption. 
Christ bows under the weight of the cross in a stormy landscape with the hill of Calvary in the background, bleeding profusely into a winepress, while God the Father at right tightens the screw.
© Niccolo Brooker
The figures of St. Joseph and the Virgin of Sorrows kneel on either side while below, angels collect the precious blood in a chalice.
This remarkable and rare portrayal is a fairly faithful reproduction, in vibrant reds and blues, of a famous print by the Flemish artist and engraver Hieronymus Wierix. 
   Although no inscription appears on the El Calvario painting, a Latin caption on the Wierix print reads: Torcular calcavi solus 
et de gentibus non est vir mecum, a partial quote from Isaiah 63: 
" I have trodden the winepress alone, and of the people there was none with me... for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment."
    This stern Old Testament prophesy was further popularized in the Book of Revelation, (14:19) " So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God." The theme was recycled again in the old apocalyptic favorite, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: "... He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.." 

text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author and Niccolò Brooker

Monday, March 13, 2017

Chiapas: The Saints of Teopisca

For our third post on the colonial retablos of Chiapas, we look at the magnificent main altarpiece at Teopisca.
The striking church of San Agustín Teopisca stands conspicuously beside the Panamerican Highway south of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the colonial capital. 
Built on the site of an ancient Maya shrine and necropolis, the spacious nave was even used for Christian burials in colonial times. The colorful festival of San Sebastián, held here in January, draws crowds of worshippers and celebrants from the surrounding area.
© Robert Guess
The Main Retablo
The principal altarpiece is one of the largest, most refined and most lavishly ornamented colonial works of art in Chiapas, as well among the earliest, p
robably completed in the first decade of the 1700sDuring a 1993 re-roofing of the church, the retablo was disassembled and removed for cleaning and restoration. Today it occupies a place of honor in the sanctuary of the church. 
   It has an interesting history. Originally created for the former Jesuit church of San Agustín in the city of San Cristóbal, it was moved here in the 1880s apparently to replace retablos destroyed during an earthquake. (two other retablos from San Agustín are preserved in the city Cathedral)
This opulent retablo is a triumph of the Central American "Solomonic" style, similar examples of which can be seen throughout Guatemala and Oaxaca. 
   Its four main tiers are framed by encrusted spiral columns, intricately carved with twisting grapevines and sharply projecting cornices many hung with spindles—a distinctive feature of this southern style. Numerous carved angels and atlantes as well as a dizzying overlay of filigree ornament further enrich its gilded surfaces.
St Peter                                                            St Francis
Handsome statues of saints with sumptuous estofado draperies occupy the ornamental shell niches in the center sections.
The Virgin of the Rosary                                                      St Augustine
In addition to traditional icons like the Virgin of the Rosary,* St. Peter and St. Paul, there are portraits of the founders of the religious Orders: St. Francis, St. Dominic and naturally, St. Augustine—the patron saint of the church. 
   Jesuit notables such as Ignatius Loyola, Francis de Borgia and Francis Xavier are also represented on the third tier, reflecting the original sponsorship of the altarpiece.
  * Although dressed in modern costume, the statue of the Virgin of the Rosary and Child is unusual and appears quite old. It may be an import from Guatemala or even Spain.
The Nativity (courtesy of Robert Guess)
In the outer compartments, large, rectangular paintings of individual saints occupy the upper tiers. On the lower tier are two quite distinctive narrative paintings. They portray on the right, a Nativity, or Adoration of the Shepherds, and on the left, the Resurrection.
The Resurrection (courtesy of Robert Guess)
In this unusual representation Mary Magdalene, accompanied by the mother of St. James, confront in amazement the empty tomb of Christ. An angel pronounces the Latin words, Surrexit, non est hic:
"He is not here, he is risen."
   Although we have no secure documentation, it seems likely that these two panels, may be the remnants of a cycle by the celebrated Mexican baroque artist Juan Correa the Younger, who created the paintings for the related retablo of El Perdón in the cathedral.
   In our view, this magnificent altarpiece is the finest in Chiapas and ranks among the outstanding examples of its kind in Mexico.
text & graphics © 2006 & 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author and courtesy of Robert Guess. All rights reserved.

SourcesFrans Blom,  El retablo de Teopisca. Unam-IIE Anales (1955)  
              Andrés Aubry,  El Templo de Teopisca. INAREMAC (1993)
              Virginia Guess (personal communication) 

for more on colonial Chiapas consult our guidebook

Friday, March 10, 2017

Chiapas. San Cristobal de Las Casas Cathedral retablos: El Perdón

In our previous post we looked at the exquisite altarpiece of San José, situated in the apse to the right (south) of the main altarpiece in the cathedral of San Cristóbal.
Here we describe its counterpart, known popularly as the retablo of El Perdón, now located on the north side of the apse, which was also moved here from the the former Jesuit city church of San Agustín. 
Like the San José altarpiece, this handsome retablo has been recently restored and features notable works of colonial art set in a gilded tapestry of spiral columns and filigree ornament. 
   It showcases a venerable, scarred statue of Christ Crucified and traditionally functioned as a stopping place for pilgrims and penitents visiting the cathedral. 
Officially the altarpiece is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows—the subject of the large painting at its center. With its accompanying panels, this painting is known to be by Juan Correa the Younger, the scion of a dynasty of celebrated Mexican baroque artists. 
   In an unusual portrayal, it depicts the Virgin of Sorrows surrounded by angels holding various objects associated with Christ's Passion.
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry
color images by Niccolò Brooker

for more on colonial Chiapas consult our guidebook

Monday, March 6, 2017

Chiapas. San Cristobal de Las Casas Cathedral: An English King in Chiapas

Over the centuries colonial artifacts and art works have been subject to more or less violent changes, often with dire consequences. This is especially true of altarpieces, which have been moved, mutilated and reassembled, often from disparate sources and varying time periods. 
   One example is the superb 18th century altarpiece of San José in the Cathedral of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, in Chiapas.
(This post is expanded from a page that appeared on our web site, and is the first in a series exploring colonial Chiapas.)
The Cathedral,  San Cristóbal de Las Casas 
Among its many treasures, the cathedral of San Cristóbal is the possessor of several fine colonial altarpieces. In addition to the elegant Churrigueresque main altarpiece, two especially beautiful gilded retablos stand beside it, facing the two side aisles.
   Believed to have been originally crafted in the early 1700s by a team of Guatemalan artists and artisans for the former Jesuit church, now the church of St. Augustine, in San Cristóbal, the retablos were probably moved to the Cathedral following the expulsion of the Jesuits after 1767. (A third altarpiece, the retablo mayor, is to be found in the church of San Sebastián in nearby Teopisca.)

The retablo of San José, facing the south aisle, is the finer of the two, designed in a highly ornate style typical of 18th century southern Mexico and Oaxaca.  
   Partitioned by spiral Corinthian columns, wreathed with gilded vines, and thin, projecting cornices hung with spindles, the paintings and sculpture niches are densely ornamented with gilded strapwork and scrolled arabesques, representing one of the most beautiful examples of the genre extant.

Statues of saints, notably the crowned figure of St. Joseph in the lower niche, crafted in the Guatemalan style and enfolded in an exquisite estofado robe, are surrounded by paintings portraying richly costumed saints and bishops.

King Edward
The Royal Portraits
But our main interest here is the two smaller portraits of saints along the base of the retablo. These show respectively, King Wenceslas of Bohemia on the right, and on the left Edward the Confessor, the 11th century English king (see note below)
King Wenceslas
Together with two other inscribed companion portraits, of the more commonly portrayed royal saints Ferdinand lll of Castile and Louis lX of France, which are now mounted in the base of the adjacent main retablo, the four paintings are similiar in size and style, and appear to be from the same workshop.
Ferdinand III  &  Louis IX
While none are signed or dated, because of their style and details of the period dress there is reason to believe that they were painted before the mid-1600s. 
   In fact one, or more likely, all of the portraits may have been commissioned by the English Dominican Thomas Gage,* who is known to have visited San Cristóbal in 1626 and sojourned in other parts of Chiapas and Guatemala during his controversial career as a priest in central America. 
   Although their original provenance is unknown, they might have hung in the Dominican monastery of Santo Domingo here in San Cristóbal—possibly as part of a now lost earlier altarpiece—and thus may predate the altarpieces in which they are now placed.
King Edward
It should be pointed out that the portrait in question is actually a conflation, or better said, confusion of two kings, by the artist.
 St. Edward the Confessor is labeled as Edward lll, the Plantagenet king, hero of Crécy and father of the Black Prince. It was this Edward (1327-1377) who won fame as a warrior, not as a saint, and instituted the Order of the Garter, which is shown in the portrait on the right, with St. George slaying the dragon.
   However, another attribute depicted, the Host with Crucifixion on the left, clearly refers to the Miracle of the Mass, which is associated with St. Edward, who was known as King Edward lll under the Saxons—the renumeration of English kings after the Norman conquest may have led to the confusion. 

   Yet another anomaly is the depiction of the lion and unicorn flanking the Garter (not too clear in the picture), insignia that only appear together (the lion of England and the unicorn of Scotland) after the United Kingdom of Great Britain was established in 1607.
   As the English Mayanist Eric Thompson* has pointed out in his commentary, Edward the Confessor, the patron saint of persecuted English Catholics in exile and thus dear to Thomas Gage, would have been virtually unknown in the Americas at that time, and certainly one of the least likely royal saints to be portrayed. 
   While Wenceslas is also rarely shown in Mexico or Guatemala, to our knowledge this colonial portrait of an English King is, apart from a statue in the main altarpiece of Puebla Cathedral, unique in the Americas.
Text © 2006 & 2017 Richard D. Perry.

Color pictures © 2006 by Robert Guess. All rights reserved.

Many thanks to Bob and Ginny Guess for their painstaking work and persistence in obtaining the color images on this page.

* Thompson, J. Eric S., ed. and introduction. Thomas Gage's Travels in the New World. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958. Appendix 2. pp. 363-5.

for more on colonial Chiapas consult our guidebook

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

San Pablo Apetatitlan

Malinche volcano
San Pablo Apetatitlan
Noble seat above the water
San Pablo Apetatitlan is one of a group of communities located on the slopes of the volcano Malinche in the middle of the state of Tlaxcala. The parish church of San Pablo is home to several colonial artifacts of interest.
The church complex consists of the parish church, which dates from 1767, abutting the Temple of Jesus at right angles. 
   The San Pablo facade is sober Baroque, almost Mannerist in style—surprisingly plain for so late in the 18th century.
The whitewashed interior is cruciform in plan with prominent running cornices and a handsome octagonal dome. Several neoclassical retablos line the nave and transepts—some with earlier Baroque paintings of archangels and the Virgin Mary.
The gilded main altarpiece is conventionally Baroque in style with encrusted spiral columns and variously framed sculpture niches.  A statue of the patron St. Paul occupies the central vitrine, while St Francis, resplendent in a floral green robe, occupies one of the upper shell niches.

But the principal item of interest here is the painted panel at the extreme top of the retablo. Popularly thought to portray the Last Supper, it in fact represents the Shroud of Turin (La Santa Sindone) held up by a trio of bearded bishops amid a host of Spanish dignitaries in period costume. This may commemorate an actual public exhibit event in the 1700s.
A partly obscured Latin inscription lauds the Shroud. An extremely rare and historic work of viceregal art.

A magnificent Baroque pipe organ still stands in the choir loft beside an array of hand bellows used to power the instrument. The pipes are decorated in traditional fashion with mask like faces around the openings.
One other colonial monument of note at Apetatitlan is the old atrium cross, set in a former doorway to the right of the church facade. 
   Like many others in the Puebla/Tlaxcala region, the cross features slender, elongated arms and shaft. Bas reliefs of Passion symbols are carefully spaced within its narrow outlines: an eroded Face of Christ occupies the axis while various Instruments of the Crucifixion, such as the Hammer, Pincers, Arrow, Nails and Spear heads line up along the arms. 
   More detailed objects, such as the Column, Rooster and Chalice are carved on the shaft, including an odd, doll like figurine, possibly representing an archangel. 
text © 2017 Richard D. Perry.  
images courtesy of Niccolò Brooker, Fernando Algarra & Diana M.B. Roberts
gracias a todos

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Jalapa del Marqués: above the waves

Jalapa del Marqués in 2017
Some years ago, for one of our posts on the “drowned “ churches of Mexico, we ran a story on Jalapa del Marqués, in Oaxaca, whose 16th century Dominican mission of La Asunción was inundated by the dammed lake of Presa Juarez.
Jalapa del Marqués in 2013
Quechula in 2015
As with the related church at Santiago Quechula, another drowned Dominican mission in adjacent Chiapas, during periods of extreme drought, lake levels fall dramatically and the buildings re emerge from the waters.
Such is currently (February 2017) the case with the Jalapa monastery, which has been re exposed for the first time since the 1960s. This allows a closer view of its architectural and ornamental details, long obscured beneath the lake.
Much of the convento remains, most of it still roofed including the open chapel in front, although mud and silt levels remain high.
  The sturdy buttresses supporting the nave also still stand, although sections of the church fabric including the domes and facade are badly cracked.
The formidable church front is also largely intact, its recessed facade still protective of the entry architecture—the classically inspired doorway elegantly framed by layered brick pilasters.
Before the inundation in the 1960s, attempts were made to document and preserve some of the murals in the convento. We review these on our sister blog.
   The present situation offers the opportunity for closer study of the newly emerged church and convento by the appropriate authorities before the waters rise again.
text © 2017 by Richard D. Perry.  selected internet images