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.

1 comment:

  1. Folk Baroque is a new term for me.This kind of building that represents an acculturate mixing of culture and world view is fascinating. I'm going to look up the significance and meaning of Quetzalcoat.
    When was the church built? I didn't see a date.