Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Santa Maria Tonanzintla: A Cutural-Religous Bridge

Santa Maria Tonanzintla, Puebla, MX
Santa Maria Tonanzintla, built in the early 1600's and located in  the municipality of Cholula, is a short distance from the city of Puebla, Mexico. The talavera (tile) and brick facade of this church is magnificent, but through its doors lies another world.  Santa Maria Tonanzintla is one of the Folk Baroque  churches of Mexico, where indigenous and Christian elements are mixed.  It is unique among these churches in the extent and clarity of the pre-hispance elements.   Some churches have symbols here and there that are pre-hispanic, but here every argamasa  ( a technique in which a mortar-like substance was sculpted and then painted and gilded) surface of the church is suffused with the pre-hispanic.  This was an area that was populated by Nahua-speaking peoples,  the group to which the Aztecs belonged.  Tonanzin, in this culture, was a goddess associated with the earth and fertility and the word Tonanzintla means" the place of our little mother".  Of course, Maria refers to the Virgin Mary and the name of the church encapsulates the two religious systems.

Make no mistake, it is evident that Santa Maria Tonanzintla is Christian house of worship, but the indigenous identity with its beliefs, sentiments and symbols has found a home here as well. More than any other Mexican church, Santa Maria Tonanzintla, was the place where the Franciscans gave their indigenous flock free artistic reign. In doing this they wisely made a peace between the faiths, letting them co-exist in a way which permitted the indigenous identity to survive and made  Christianity more palatable.  The sort of negotiated accommodation that Santa Maria Tonanzintla represents is explored more fully in my March 24th post "Converting Christianity".  

Technically, no photography is allowed in Santa Maria Tonanzintla although post-cards with images of the church are sold outside.  However, no one seemed to object to the few photos of the interior I took standing outside of the church.  At first glance, Santa Maria Tonanzintla is overwhelming- so many images and so much vibrant color; walking into this church is like walking into a jewelry box.  Every square inch of the walls and ceilings are covered with sculpted figures.   It is hard to know where to focus; the best way to see churches like this is just to sit there and keep looking.  All photos below can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Santa Maria Tonanzintla, Cholula, Puebla

Santa Maria Tonanzintla
Santa Maria Tonanzintla, ceiling detail

To step into Santa Maria Tonanzintla, from the indigenous perspective, was to step into a kind of paradise. The domed ceiling of the chapel represents the sky of Tlaloc, the god of rain and what seem to be angels are actually people who have died drowning or being struck by lightning and have been reincarnated in Tlaloc's heaven.  These figures are mixed in with figures from the Christian tradition. 

Dome Detail, Santa Maria Tonanzintla

Cristo Resucitado (Resurrected Christ)

St. John of the Cross

Throughout the church are figures shown wearing a feathered headdress.  This is highly significant, as the feathers were symbols of the central Meso-American deity Quetzalcoatl.

Figure with Feather Headdress

To the modern visitor, Santa Maria Tonanzintla is a marvel rife with color and form, a place both exotic and visually enticing.  For the indigenous whose hands built this church it must have had a very different significance.  My guess is that it was a place where they felt comforted by the presence of what was familiar and meaningful and learned to be comfortable with the new faith that had become a part of their lives. 

Some scholars believe that Santa Maria Tonanzintla is a folk reinterpretation of the Rosary Chapel in the Dominican church/convent in nearby Puebla.  We will be exploring this chapel and another like it in Oaxaca in the next post, and the proposed connection between Santa Maria Tonanzintla and these will become clearer.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Yanhuitlan, Oaxaca: Colonial Culture Overlooked

Santo Domingo de Yanhuitlan, Oaxaca- 2 views

Typical travel guide-books to Mexico have a lot to say about the beaches, pyramids and ruins, festivals, foods and handicrafts and to be fair, there is some information about the old churches.  But very often there is just a blind-spot, as far a visitors to Mexico go, about the whole Colonial era and its significance.  This certainly was evident when I visited the incredible convento of Santo Domingo de Yanhuitlan in Oaxaca state. 

 Many tourists to Oaxaca go to shop at the fascinating indigenous markets,  sample the unique cuisine and go to view the treasures of Monte Alban, the famed pre-Columbian site, never knowing that this 16th century Dominican convent, and others like it exist.  It is usually mentioned in the guide-books but is not a chosen destination by visitors because they do not realize its significance in the history of Mexico.  My own  guide told me that he often offers Yanhuitlan as an option to his clients but that very few are interested in going to see it.  That is a loss.  

The friars of the Dominican order arrived in the new world ten years after the Spanish conquest.  They built a string of convents between Puebla and Oaxaca that has come to be known as the Ruta Domenica or the Dominican Route;  Yanuitlan is one of these magnificent convents and the most famous one in Oaxaca.  

When I arrived at Yanhuitlan and realized that I was the only tourist there that day, I was so stunned that I handed my iphone to my guide (who fortunately knew how to work a camera)  and shot an impromptu video taking viewers around the interior of the church. It is definitely not Oscar material, but it is a chance to take a peek at an incredible place.
Here is the clickable link: .

Yanhuitlan has a number of unique features many of which I described in the video.
One is the incredible height of the Gothic-style ceilings, a real feat in an area that has had a lot of seismic activity.  My guide told me that they are the highest ceilings in Mexico, a fact which I have not been able to verify, but they were impressively high.  

Santo Domingo de Yanhuitlan

The main altar is concave and unlike any other I have seen in Mexico. The Altar of the Kings is also concave but in a very different way than this one which is very angular.  Like all church altarpieces, through the artwork it teaches and tells a story about Christianity and, here because it is a Dominican church, the Dominican Order.  These altars functioned as books for the newly converted indigenous, who for the most part did not read.  If you are a stickler for detail and can read some Spanish, I have included a guide to the paintings in the altar.

Main Altar, Yanhuitlan

Plan of Yanhuitlan Altarpiece

In all Dominican churches, and others as well, you will find an altar dedicated to the Virgin of the Rosary; according to the legend, it was St. Dominic who received the Rosary from the hands of  Virgin Mary, herself.  When the main Dominican church in Oaxaca City was rebuilt after a long period of neglect, the altar in its Rosary Chapel was modeled upon this altar at Yanhuitlan.  For comparison, I have included a photo of this very beautiful altar below that of Yanhuitlan;  note the resemblance.

Altar of the Virgin of the Rosary, Yanhuitlan
Rosary Chapel Altar, Santo Domingo, Oaxaca City

As in many Oaxacan churches, a striking feature was the restored colonial-period organ which is used in concerts, as well as being a church instrument.  

Organ, Santo Domingo de Yanhuitlan

Originally, Yanhuitlan was also a convent and visitors can tour the restored building, in addition to the church.

Convent courtyard, Santo Domingo de Yanhuitlan

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Folk Baroque: San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya

San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya, Oaxaca
When I walked in the doors of this church in a small town some thirty minutes outside of Oaxaca City, I had some idea of what I would see, but was totally unprepared for what I found.  Unequivocally, I can say that it was the best thing I have ever seen in my life; on a scale of one to ten, I would give it a fourteen.( Note the solidity of the architecture, which I have already discussed at length in my April 16 post "Oaxacan Baroque: Environment and Architecture".)  

Entering, I heard an organ playing and it dawned on me that I was being treated to a rehearsal of the recital that I had been told would take place in this church later that day.
The impact of the music and art together was surreal and I am including a video that I shot of this event in my stunned state, forgetting all the rules I knew about how to shoot videos.  You can view this video at

Interior of San Jeronimo

Tlacochahuaya means "watering place" in the Zapotec language and was founded in 1558 as a retreat hermitage not reaching its current size until the 18th century.  The interior is a mix of colonial altarpieces and Oaxacan folk art and painting, which itself is a composite 
of indigenous and Spanish styles. It is to this blending of Spanish Christian and indigenous elements that the term Folk Baroque refers. 

Main altar
The main altar of San Jeronimo, seen in the photo above, is a Oaxacan baroque masterpiece with spiraling Solomonic columns and a painting of "The Descent from the Cross" believed to be by Juan de Arrue, a well-known Oaxacan painter of the time (late 17th-early 18th centuries).  Zoom in on the photo for a better look.  The statue of Christ on the altar is that of Cristo Resucitado, the resurrected Christ, as the photo was taken during the church season of Easter when this particular image of Christ is central.  

Close-up of Cristo Resucitado

There was one image of Christ in the church that is very specific to rural Oaxaca:
that of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey;  you will see this image in
many of the churches there.  I have not read any theories about why this particular image is so popular in Oaxaca, but visiting the rural animal markets in the small towns, you get an sense of the connection people have to animals.

Jesus riding to Jerusalem on donkey

There was another beautiful statue of Jesus Nazareno, (again please refer to the post I just referenced for more information), in the church, seen below.

Jesus Nazareno
Close-up of above photo

La Virgen de la Soledad is the patron saint of Oaxaca and her church, the Basilica de la Soledad is located in Oaxaca City.  Her statue is found in many rural Oaxacan churches and San Jeronimo was no exception.  There will be more about this iconic image in a future blog post.

Virgen de la Soledad.

For the most part in Western Europe and North American, the Trinity is an abstract concept, but in Latin American Colonial art it is represented in a more graphic way, as can be seen in the Padre Eterno below.  In this statue and others like it, all persons of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are represented.  In other places, Jesus is not shown crucified, but rather as another person.  The Holy Spirit is seen in the gold bird that sits on the top of the crucifix.  The orb and crown, both royal attributes, emphasize the kingship of God the Father over all.  Notice the elaborate brocade of the robe.

Padre Eterno

Everywhere you turned in this church, there was another engrossing treasure. In addition to the main retablo (altarpiece) there were a number of beautiful side altars. 

Calvary Altar  with portrait of St. Catherine of Siena

Guadalupe Altar

 The decorative painting that covered the church walls was outstanding and present to an extent I have not seen in most other places.  Below are just a few instances:

There is a tradition of Colonial-era organ restoration in Oaxaca and much emphasis is placed upon these beautiful instruments.  The organ in San Jeronimo is a masterpiece among them  with its exquisite detail and painting and I was lucky enough to be able to go up into the organ loft which is rarely permitted.  The organist at the organ is the one  playing on the video,  the noted Mexican organist Gustavo Delgado Parra.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Christ After Easter: Cristo Resucitado video

Although Easter, which was on March 31st this year, seems far away and the last of the jelly beans are gone, for the Church it is still the season of Easter until May 19, the feast of Pentecost.  Christ has been resurrected and has not yet given the gift of the Holy Spirit and ascended.  During this time on the altars of all Mexican churches, you will see the figure of Cristo Resucitado, literally Christ resuscitated, the resurrected Jesus. 

Las Monjas, Merida, Yucatan

Itizimina Church, Merida, Yucatan
San Jeronimo, Tlacachohuaya, Oaxaca

There is a very specific and special liturgy throughout Mexico in which the entombed Christ is resurrected.  You can view this liturgy as performed in a church in Merida, Yucatan at . (clickable link).  As you will see in the video, at one point in the ceremony the figure of Cristo Resucitado is rushed to the front of the church in a burst of light, symbolizing the Resurrection.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Guelaguetza of Oaxaca: Pre-hispanic-Christian Continuity

Dancers at a Guelaguetza

For two consecutive Mondays each July, Oaxaca City is host to the Guelaguetza for which it is famous.  A guelaguetza is a festival of folkloric dances but has a history that reaches far back in time. The word Guelaguetza means "offering" in the Zapotec language and In pre-hispanic times it was it was a celebration held each year to propitiate the rain and corn gods for a good crop.   Some accounts claim that a virgin slave girl was sacrificed in this festival.

The feast of Xiolnen, a goddess of corn, falls on July 16 and the celebrations last for two weeks.   The Spanish christianized the event  by redirecting it toward the Virgen del Carmen, which is not unlike the early Church's designation of the Roman feast of Saturnalia as  Christmas.   In modern times, the main Guelaguetza takes place on two consecutive Mondays in July. Even though the tendency has been towards secularization and the Guelaguetza as performance, the event begins at the Church of Carmen Alto, itself on a hill in the city, and processes to the dance area on Fortin Hill which overlooks the city, where an open-air auditorium has been built for the Guelaguetza and other events.

Carmen Alto Church, Oaxaca
Carmen Alto, Oaxaca

Open-air auditorium (white arc) seen from Oaxaca City

While I was in Oaxaca this April I was lucky enough to see a "citizen's" Guelaguetza, not the world-famous July event, but a collection of folkloric groups from different areas of the state of Oaxaca getting together in a show of civic pride.  The gathering and parade before the actual dance event, to me, was as interesting as the show itself.  I shot a short video of the on-goings which you can view at   Just click on the link and the video should come on. 

Here are a few photos from the parade and event, as well.  Included in the parade were a groups of masqueraders that added levity to the event.  These people also performed a parody of a dance on stage at the outset of the performance. 

Band before start of parade

Dance group in parade

Large paper mache figures carried in parade

Group of masqueraders

This Guelaguetza was held on a stage that had been set up in front of a very important church in the city, Basilica de la Soledad; the Virgen de la Soledad is the patron saint of Oaxaca.  Initially, the dancers had lined-up in front of another major church in Oaxaca, Santo Domingo and then paraded to the event site.

Basilica de la Soledad, Oaxaca

The church itself could be seen from the site of the dances as the following photo shows.

Basilica de la Soledad seen from the dance plaza

The actual performance began with a scene that was a parody of the church with a "priest" giving last rites to a woman who was in a dance costume.  I do not know if anything like this is involved in the July event or whether it was unique to the one I viewed.  

Religious parody at start of Guelaguetza

Before the July festival one young woman is chosen to represent the goddess Centeotl, a pre-hispanic corn goddess and she presides over all Guelaguetza events for that year. This kind of proximity between the indigenous and Christian is so ubiquitous in Mexico that after you have been there for a while, it starts to seem natural.  The high point of Christian religious celebrations in Mexico, in many cases, are the pre-hispanic dances, frequently  performed in front of a church. This is one reflection of the continuity that exists between the two religious systems in Mexico.  For more on this continuity, please refer to a previous post (March 2013) in this blog entitled  "Converting Christianity: the Christian-Indigenous Dialogue".