Thursday, April 4, 2013

Mestizo Baroque: the Mexican Church's Magnet

 It was the Baroque style that initially drew me to the art and architecture of the Colonial Latin American World.  I loved the elaborate paintings of the Cusco School in Peru at first sight
(I will have more to say about these paintings in a future post)

"Andean Virgin"
and the incredible gilded altarpieces like the one below that are found throughout Mexico and the rest of the Colonial Latin American world:

Altar of Pardon, Metropolitan Cathedral, Mexico City
 What I did not know then was that my fascination with the Baroque was proof that it "worked", that it was doing what the Church had originally intended for it to do.  Let me explain what I mean.  To do this we have to take a quick look at the history of the Church in Mexico.

By the late 1500's Mexico was no longer Mexico of the Conquest.  The idealistic friars who had spear-headed the evangelization of Mexico were dying-off and with a growing population, the era of cities and cathedrals was starting.  There had also been a significant change in the Church in Europe - a schism in the Catholic Church in Europe that was brought to a head by the 1517 posting of Martin Luther's 95 Theses.   As a result,  the Catholic church was under attack by  Protestants and in danger of losing its sovereignty.  It summoned a council, the Council of Trent, which met from 1545-63 in Trento, Italy and it was from the changes initiated by this council, that the Catholic Counter-Reformation emerged;  Baroque style was one off-shoot of this. 

Faced by the Protestant threat, the Church was under pressure to sell itself and the Baroque style in architecture, music and liturgy was what it needed.  The Church knew how inspirational art could be and spared no costs in building churches that would overwhelm the viewer with complexity and extravagance. The  visually beautiful  spaces, in conjunction with elaborate music and ceremony, kept people coming back for more. The Baroque visual style with its intricate design and curving lines was meant to evoke emotion and to keep people within the church; it worked.   As time went on the Baroque style, as with all artistic styles, became detached from its original purpose and became the standard aesthetic of that time and place.

Let's take a quick tour of the baroque in Mexico and it's antecedents.  The Plateresque is the direct antecedent of the Baroque.  It means in the style of the silversmith and is ornate, but does not have the curving surfaces and movement seen in the Baroque.  This altar is a wonderful example of the Plateresque style in Mexico:

Main Altar, San Bernardino de Siena, Xochimilco, MX 

There were two types of columns seen in Baroque architecture that define its style. 
The first and older of the two is the Solomonic Baroque, whose characteristic are the curving, sinuous columns first seen in Italy in the work the sculptor and architect Bernini and shown in photo below in the magnificent ex-convento of San Juan Bautista in Coyoacan, MX.                       .

San Juan Bautista church, Coyoacan,  MX 

The second and later type of Baroque is defined by the estipite column which is narrower at the base than at the top and is associated with the later, even more elaborate Ultra-Baroque style. 

Side altar, San Bernardino de Siena, Xochimilco, MX 

The Altar of the Kings in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City seen below is probably the pinnacle of the baroque or ultra-baroque in Mexico.  It needs to be seen in person, because photos can never completely  capture it.

Altar of the Kings, Mexico City

In the title of this post, I used the term "Mestizo-Baroque", which is the way  the Baroque in Mexico is usually referenced.   "Mestizo" refers to the admixture of European and indigenous elements present in these buildings as a result of the fact that they were largely built by indigenous workers whose imprint is unmistakeable in various details.  I will be writing about the Baroque in Mexico at greater length in future posts.

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