Thursday, December 8, 2016

Mérida: La Casa de Montejo

For our next Yucatán post we remain in Mérida to take a closer look at its celebrated colonial mansion of La Casa de Montejo.
This intriguing building, facing the zócalo in Mérida, is acknowledged to be the finest civil example of Spanish Plateresque architecture in Mexico.  Dated 1549 by an inscription,* the palace was built by Francisco de Montejo the Younger (El Mozo) son of the Adelantado Montejo, conqueror of Yucatán.

© 2016 Tribuna de Campeche
Its 16th century limestone front is currently undergoing much needed cleaning, repair and restoration.
   The profusely sculpted facade, all that now remains of the original structure, is divided into two tiers which together illustrate the eclectic characteristics of the Plateresque. 
   As developed in 14th and 15th century Spain, this movement drew on late Gothic, Moorish and early Renaissance sources to create an original and highly decorative style of architectural design and ornament.   
reliefs on doorway paneling; putative portrait of El Mozo
The lower facade, surrounding the doorway, is outlined in Roman Renaissance fashion, with elegant fluted columns and pilasters, classical entablatures and coffered paneling. The inner panels are neatly carved with grotesques and enlivened with relief medallions enclosing sculpted heads (thought to represent Montejo's children)
Two larger, flanking busts above the doorway are traditionally believed to be portraits of the Adelantado Montejo himself and his wife, Beatriz Álvarez de Herrera.
Atop this decorous scheme, however, a frieze of horned cherubs and grotesque animal heads strikes a jarring note, while above the doorway a bowed figure wearing sheepskins, possibly representing Hercules, holds up the corbeled second floor balcony, which sets the tone for the upper tier. 
While contemporary with or even later than the lower facade, the more sculptural upper tier nevertheless harks back to the medieval and Moorish antecedents of the earlier Isabelline Plateresque manner, and although the stonecarving is less sophisticated, it holds great sculptural and historic interest.
Montejo coat of arms (©Jim Cook)
A prominent escutcheon of the Montejo coat of arms, carved in shallow tequitqui relief, stands above the window, surmounted by an armorial helmet signifying the heroic nobility of the owner.      
Granted to Montejo by the Emperor Charles V of Spain, the shield is traditionally quartered and features the Montejo crest as well as the those of both sides of the more highly ranked Herrera family of Seville to which his wife belonged. 
   Set against a stone tapestry of stylized vines hung with rattle-like fruits—an indigenous touch—the escutcheon includes the traditional lions and castles, as well as the Herrera family insignia of gold cauldrons and an olive tree. 

halberdier, wild man and heads of heretics (Wolfgang Lauber)
Giant figures of helmeted Spanish halberdiers flank the entire upper level, their feet resting upon the heads of the vanquished, popularly thought to be Mayan Indians but more likely the heads of heretics in the European tradition.
   Beside the halberdiers, "wild men" clad in rough sheepskins brandish rustic clubs. These familiar denizens of medieval European myth are often found in Spanish facades (notably the doorway of Avila cathedral and the front of the College of St. Gregory in Valladolid, Spain. 
An eroded, inexpertly carved inscription, mounted in the crowning pediment and flanked by rampant, heraldic lions, proclaims: "Esta obra mando hacer el adelantado don Francisco de Montejo año de MDXLIX" (1549)  (alternative date: MDLIV. 1554)
  While much has been made of Maya influence on La Casa de Montejo—by one account more than 300 Mayan stonemasons, artisans and laborers worked to build the mansion and carve the front—the imagery is clearly European in origin and political in intent, designed to emphasize the military prowess and noble antecedents of the Montejo family at a time when the authority of the conquistadors was threatened by the Spanish crown and its officials.
text © 2016 Richard D. Perry.  images by Niccolò Brooker except where noted.
for a more extensive recent analysis of the Casa de Montejo facade see Cody Barteet (2007)
Planning to visit Yucatán?  Take our guidebooks along

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Yucatán Then and Now: the lost monastery of Mérida

We begin our year end posts on Yucatán with a glance back at a lost colonial monument. 
   Every visitor to Mérida knows the iconic Cathedral and the sculpted facade of the Casa de Montejo—both early colonial monuments dating from the 1500s—but few know about another 16th century building, the first major Franciscan foundation in Yucatán.
San Francisco de Mérida
Although today nothing remains of this great monastery, it was for 300 years the hub of Franciscan mission activity in Yucatán. It was founded in 1547 atop of the largest pyramid of the ancient Maya ceremonial center of Tihó, which underlies Mérida, a temple known as Pocobtok (Shining Flint Knife). 
   The conquistador Francisco de Montejo the Younger had at first planned to build a fortress here, but instead decided to grant it to the Franciscans as a token of his esteem. The flagship monastery was designed and built by the Franciscan architect, Fray Juan de Mérida, using the standard mission plan of a two-story cloister adjoining a substantial stone church. However, sections of the ancient temple structure were incorporated into the new monastery, and early visitors often remarked on the corbeled Mayan arches that spanned some of the long corridors of the convento. 
monastery sketch from Diego de Landa: Relación de las cosas de Yucatán (1566)
Bishop Diego de Landa described the early appearance of the monastery atop the pyramid: 
" The first building, with the four apartments, was given to us by the Adelantado Montejo.  Since it was much overgrown we cleared it and using the stone built a fair monastery of masonry and a fine church that we named for the Mother of God. There was so much stone there that the buildings on the south side and opposite were still whole..."
plan of San Francisco de Mérida in 1751. 
Other buildings in the elevated precinct included a large infirmary, as well as a monastery school in which the sons of Maya nobles were instructed in Spanish ways and Christian doctrine.  
San Francisco de Mérida, the ruined church front around 1900

In the 17th century, a lofty retablo-facade was added to the church, complete with spiral columns and rows of stone statuary. One side chapel was expanded into a second church dedicated to San Cristóbal (St. Christopher), to serve a local parish.   

   Fearing pirate raids and Maya uprisings, in 1667 the governor insisted on fortifying the mission in spite of the vehement protests of the friars, and thereafter it was known as La Ciudadela (The Citadel). 
   The tenure of the Franciscans came to a sudden and violent end in February 1821, when the friars—who never hesitated to get involved in politics—fiercely opposed the new Spanish liberal constitution, which mandated closure of the monasteries. The monastery was sacked by an angry mob and in a few hours the treasures accumulated over 300 years, including the historic archives, were destroyed. The friars fled for their lives to the smaller convento of La Mejorada, and the Franciscans lost forever the enormous power that they had wielded in Yucatan since the conquest. 
the convento arcades before demolition
San Francisco began to deteriorate, serving first as a military barracks and then as an infamous prison, called La Ciudadela de San Benito. When the American traveler, John Lloyd Stephens, climbed up to view the monastery in 1843, it was already in a deplorable state. He was dismayed to find the interior ruined, with “altars thrown down and walls defaced. It was mournful to behold the destruction and desecration of this noble building.” 
   The ruins of the former monastery and the underlying Mayan pyramid were eventually taken apart piece by piece to provide building stone, and later to accommodate the municipal market, the post office and in recent years a new city museum
   After the Revolution, what remained of the massive ancient pyramid was finally razed and its stone ground into gravel to pave the city streets. 
   Today no visible trace survives of this historic monument that uniquely fused Spanish and Maya elements and played a central role in the evolution of colonial Yucatán.
please review our earlier posts on Yucatán, Then and Now: Umán; Yaxcabá; Ticuch; Nohcacab;
text © 2016 Richard D. Perry
Planning to visit Yucatán?  Take our guidebooks along

Friday, December 2, 2016

Atlixco: La Merced

In previous pages we have looked at churches of historic and artistic interest in Atlixco, Puebla, notably the monastery church of San Francisco and the Third Order chapel. 
In our final post we visit another ornate baroque church there, that of La Merced.
Carolyn Brown
La Merced
Of the 17th century Mercedarian convent in Atlixco, only the church remains intact. While most of the fabric of the church, including the decorative side door, dates from the 1600s, the spectacular front is 18th century. 
    Although conventional in its retablo format, the facade decoration is an extravaganza, its dazzling, painted stucco work rendered in colorful, popular baroque style—the most exuberant example of the style in Atlixco.
San Roque statue
Paired columns, boldly carved with spiraling vines in high relief, enclose ornamental sculpture niches with popular statuary on both the lower and upper levels. Below, the columns flank a decorative doorway with a lobed Moorish arch. A richly carved frieze separates the two levels, replete with curling vines, foliage and cavorting cherubs. 
Between the columns above, an elaborate sculpture niche is set in a floral tapestry of carved stucco replete with hovering angels in foliage. The niche houses the figure of the Virgin of Mercy, who shelters Mercedarian saints, including San Pedro Nolasco the founder of the Order, beneath her spreading cloak.
Carolyn Brown
A stone statue of St. Joseph and the Christ Child stands atop the facade, set between the cusps of a baroque pediment. A lofty tower of several tiers anchors the south side of the church front.
Despite an 19th century makeover, the interior retains a large colonial portrait of Our Lady of Mercy by the noted regional baroque painter José Joaquín Magón, as well as an exquisite octagonal pulpit of inlaid wood dating from the 1700s.
Note: The facade has recently been re-restored and its earlier hues of blue, white and gold repainted, to our eyes, in an unfortunate mix of bright red, green and pink.
text © 2016 Richard D. Perry
original images by the author  and Carolyn Brown with thanks.
church video

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Atlixco: The Third Order Chapel of St. Francis. 2. The Altarpieces

In our previous post we described the eclectic architectural detailing of this church. Here we look at the altarpieces and their associated paintings and sculptures.
The Main Altarpiece
The richness of the chapel front is only exceeded by the more sophisticated, screen-like altarpiece inside.  This gilded "Retablo de Los Reyes" dates from the mid 1700s and is framed by slender spiral columns banded with carved floral decoration and headed by sharply projecting slab capitals. 
   In keeping with the dedication of the church to the Franciscan Third Order, three tiers of statuary, housed in variously shaped niches, showcase a host of prominent Franciscan saints, primarily Tertiaries*, including those of royal blood like San Fernando Rey and San Luis Rey, from whom the retablo takes its name. 
   Although the altarpiece only contains sculptures, four large paintings, illustrating key scenes from the life of St. Francis by the prolific 18th century Pueblan artist Lorenzo Zendejas, are mounted on the walls to either side. 

    1. Baptism of St Francis   2. Death of St Francis
3. Birth of St Francis; Francis before the bishop   
4. Stigmatization of St Francis
Pictures of the Zendejas paintings by Tacho Juárez Herrera (click images to enlarge)

The single tier side retablo, dedicated to the Virgin of Carmen, is crafted in a later baroque style, framed by complex estípite pilasters heavily encrusted with gilded rococo ornament.  
image by Niccolò Brooker
Florid paintings of lesser known archangels including Reginel and Esriel, reputedly by Cristóbal de Villalpando, hang in the transepts, possibly part of another dismantled altarpiece.
*Statues of saints in the altarpiece:
Lower Tier: Elizabeth of Hungary; San Fernando Rey; Isabel of Portugal; San Luis Rey
Middle Tier: St Clare; Blessed Delphine; St Urban of Langres;  St John Nepomuc
Top Tier:  St Bernardino of Siena; St Dominic of Soriano?

text © 2016 by Richard D. Perry
See some of our earlier posts featuring important Mexican altarpieces:

Monday, November 28, 2016

Atlixco: The Third Order Chapel of St. Francis. 1. The Architecture

Atlixco.  The Third Order Chapel of St. Francis
Set at the foot of the hill leading up to the mother monastery of San Francisco, the Franciscan Third Order Chapel is dedicated to the Tertiaries, or lay members of the Franciscan Order.
   In its architecture and church furnishings the chapel incorporates an eclectic variety of colonial artistic styles. The classic retablo design of the west front, reminiscent of the main altarpiece at San Francisco, has been amped up to create a delightful baroque confection.  
St Paul
Paired spiral columns, luxuriantly carved with twisting, painted vines and fruits, enclose two tiers of ornamental shell niches on either side of the lofty entry that house statues of Apostles and Franciscan saints—Peter and Paul below and St Francis and Anthony of Padua above. 
   A mask-like cornucopia projects above the arched doorway and the choir window overhead is also covered by a shell arch and framed by bands of geometric filigree relief and decorative "basketweave" columns. Moorish style medallions on either side frame reliefs of two Fathers of the Church.  Cherubs and angels romp throughout the facade.
The narrow top tier below the triple belfry capping the façade holds a smaller statue of San Luis Rey de Francia—a prominent Franciscan Tertiary.  A carved basalt cross stands atop the belfry.
The Moorish theme is echoed in the decorative side entry, whose octagonal doorframe and Isabelline window vie with geometrical and foliated stuccowork, acanthus scrolls and cherubs in a complex composition, again with paired spiral columns.
The exterior sacristy doorway, although retaining the octagonal doorframe is styled in a more classical manner with fluted pilasters and an overarching triangular pediment. An ornately framed relief of the Franciscan Crossed Arms fills the pediment. 
Text © 2016 Richard D. Perry
Photography by Carolyn Brown, Jeffrey BecomTacho Juárez Herrera & Niccolò Brooker

Friday, November 25, 2016

Atlixco: the altarpiece of the Assumption

In this first post of a series on the colonial arts and architecture of Atlixco, in Puebla—one of our favorite places in Mexico—we look at the 16th century monastery church of San Francisco and its handsome 18th century altarpiece of the Assumption.
The hilltop monastery of San Francisco in Atlixco, a charming town situated on the lower slopes of the volcano Popocatepetl, was founded in 1538 by the pioneering Franciscan missionary Toribio de Benavente, known as Motolinia.
   The elevated location, perched on the rocky Cerro de San Miguel, was chosen partly to avoid the mosquitos of the humid valley below, but also to keep the Indian converts apart from the baleful influence of the Spanish colonists. The fortress-like aspect of the monastery only helped to reinforce this separateness. 
   The Moorish-Gothic facade of the church was altered in the 1700s with the addition of spiral columns on each side of the doorway and the ocular window overhead.
The Main Retablo
But the chief addition to the church was its magnificent, early 18th century, gilded main retablo, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin. Recently cleaned and restored under the auspices of Adopte una Obra de Arte, it rests in the apse beneath the original Gothic style rib vault. 
   Although the designer is not known, he seems likely to have been a Spaniard, or at least a leading Pueblan architect.  The altarpiece is unusual in that it is markedly Spanish in format, with an Italianate influence. Whether by design or influence, it is also related to other baroque church fronts in Atlixco, notably that of the Third Order of St. Francis.  
   The essentially simple format consists of a single main tier, set above a high predella and crowned by a semicircular pediment.The principal tier is divided vertically by pairs of giant spiral columns, deftly carved with vines and foliage and headed by complex composite capitals, all richly painted and gilded. 
A coffered, semicircular frieze borders the pediment, which also features gilded pilasters carved with fruit and floral motifs.
The Paintings
The other main attraction of the retablo is its nine canvases of the Life of the Virgin, painted in warm, glowing colors by the well known Mexican baroque artist Francisco Martínez (active 1718 - 1757), and dated 1732 by an inscription.  
   A prolific painter, gilder and theatrical designer, Martínez is best known for gilding the retablo de Los Reyes in the Mexico City cathedral (1743). Although several of his numerous paintings have survived—some are also in the Mexico City cathedral and in the Davenport collection (Iowa)—the Atlixco retablo contains his only known complete and intact cycle of retablo paintings in situ. It is also quite likely that Martínez decorated and gilded the retablo.
   Considered a competent if uninspiring artist, and noted painter of women, Martínez’ strengths are his draftmanship and assertive compositions in the late 17th century Mannerist tradition. However, his figures here seem rather static and lack the sensuous lines and facial expressiveness associated with the more facile artist Miguel Cabrera who followed him.
The principal canvases are of different sizes and shapes, and have been newly cleaned and restored (2000). 
   The iconography glorifies the life of the Virgin, proceeding from the base panels to the pediment, although the intended original order may have differed. The small base panels, as restored, portray the Virgin as a girl, praying (on the right) and reading under the gaze of her father Joachim (at left.) 
The four main canvases, between the columns, represent, on the lower left, the Presentation at the Temple, and the Marriage of Mary above, all lit in a Zurbaranesque chiaroscuro. 
At right are the Nativity of the Virgin, and the Annunciation. 
The square painting at the center of the upper pediment portrays the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin by the Holy Trinity. This composition is more dynamic than the other panels, a swirl of robes, clouds and putti in the style of Rubens. 
The center canvas is flanked by two segmented panels featuring The Nativity of Jesus and The Visitation.  An exceptional altarpiece now in prime condition.

text and graphic ©1992 & 2016 Richard D. Perry.   color images courtesy of E L T B
See some of our earlier posts featuring important Mexican altarpieces: