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

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Marina Hyman, thanks for this and for your Youtube video, You have the sensitivity of an art historian. I have seen pics of Sto. Domingo de Yanhuitlan in books but was not aware it was so tall and beautyful; your video has been very helpful. Congrats.