Thursday, June 20, 2013

Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, Nuestra Señora de la Soledad: Beloved Statues, Beloved Ladies

Although both of these figures are statues,  "statue" is not really the appropriate word to describe Nuestra Señora de los Remedios and La Virgen de la Soledad.  In so many ways both of them are alive for the people who love and worship them and their legends claim a kind of life and history for both.

Nuestra Señora de los Remedios
Virgen de la Soledad 

It is difficult for outsiders to understand the depth of relationship that believers have with these statues.  They dress them, physically care for them and the relationships they have with them are transactional ones in which they ask for and seem to receive answers for their requests.  In the past,  figures similar to these have been almost family members and could be legally inherited  as a part of an estate.  They are less statues than living beings and as French anthropologist Serge Gruzinski has pointed out, in many ways, they are like the original indigenous "idols"  that the Catholic Spanish tried so hard to destroy in the early years of the Conquest.  With the Catholic counter-reformation in Europe which began in the mid-16th century, the Church began to promote the use of images including statues and the situation changed. 

Both of these Virgins have, as is almost always the case with miraculous images,  a very interesting pre-history.  Each appeared without human intervention and although the details differ, there is this basic theme.  Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Remedies) arrived in the Americas undetected within the habit of a friar.  This friar had been assigned to come to Mexico and when he boarded his ship he felt a weight within his habit, exploring which turned out to be the statue (Remedios is a small figure).  Fearing he would be accused of stealing the statue, he got off the ship and replaced the Virgin in her sanctuary.  When he once again sailed at a later date, he again felt a weight within his habit and, again, it was Remedios; this time he went ahead and sailed, bringing the statue to the New World.  Virgen de la Soledad (Solitude because after Jesus and Joseph died, Mary was alone) appeared one day in 1543 in a box of shoes on the back of a mule; a church was built on this site.

Church of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios, Cholula, Puebla, MX
This church, built 1574-75 and consecrated in 1629, sits on top of a huge pyramid dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. The site was initially chosen because it was customary in the early post-conquest days to put churches on top of pre-Columbian holy sites and the presence of one within the hill was suspected.  There was no confirmation of this until the 1930's when excavation began. This church and the pyramid on which it sits have subsequently become quite famous.   In terms of tourism, much more attention has been focused on this enormous pyramid than the church-sanctuary of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios.  No photography is allowed in the church, but I managed to shoot a few images from the outside.
Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, facade of church

Interior of Church
View of Altar showing Nuestra Señora de los Remedios

View of Statue 
View showing elevation of church

The view from the Remedios Church is spectacular because of the elevation of the 

place.The pyramid on which it sits is huge and considered to be the largest in Latin 
America. Tours focus on the pyramid and the entire excavated area which is extensive 
with further excavations planned.

Basilica of  Virgen de la Soledad, Oaxaca
 In contrast with the Church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, which is historically significant, but tucked away on the top of a hill/pyramid,  the Basilica of the Nuestra Señora  de la Soledad, built in-between 1682 and 1717,  is one of the two major churches in the city of Oaxaca. This stunning example of Oaxacan Baroque architecture (see April 16, 2013 post of this blog) is central in the religious and communal life of the city and its status as a Basilica designates it as a pilgrimage site and accords it a special status.  

Basilica de la Virgen de la Soledad, interior

Nuestra Señora de la Soledad is, in many ways,  the emblem of Oaxaca   She is not just revered in the city of Oaxaca, but throughout the state and has importance regionally.  The figure below is found in the beautiful church of San Jeronimo Tlacochuaya in a village about a half-hour outside of Oaxaca city.

Soledad in San Jeronimo Talcochuaya

Soldedad was my introduction to Oaxaca.  On my very first night  in the city I saw a young girl dancing in the main square  holding a figure above her head.  This figure, as I was to discover, was Nuestra Señora de la Soledad who apparently has found a niche in the commercial as well as the religious life of the city. 

Girl dancing with figure of Virgen de la Soledad in Zocalo of Oaxaca

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Huejotzingo: Stone That Taught

Huejotzingo street-view against slopes of volcano Popocatépetl
The monastery of San Miguel Arcangel or St. Michael the Archangel is located in Huejotzingo, a municipality some 40 minutes away from the city of Puebla.  The drive
 there offers spectacular views of two volcanoes, the famous and active Popocatépetl and  Iztaccihuatl.  From this point on, I will use the term "Huejotzingo" to refer to the monastery.


Huejotzingo is the oldest  church-convent complex outside of the Valley of Mexico, having been started  in 1529.  Its founding friars were among the  "Twelve", the first wave of Franciscans sent to the New World to begin the evangelization of the indigenous population.  This number twelve was symbolic and meant to evoke the twelve apostles of Jesus;  these friars were no less serious about spreading the faith than the initial twelve apostles had been.  As they understood it, It was their bounden spiritual duty to save the souls of the untaught indigenous, keeping them from eternal damnation  and readying the world for the Second Coming of Christ which required that all the peoples of the world be converted.   

The Huejotizingo complex that now stands is not the original structure, but rather the
 third. The first stood from 1524-1529,  the current complex was begun in 1544 and completed in 1570 under the supervision of Fray Juan de Alameda who initiated the entire project. It consists of a crenellated wall that encloses the complex, the church, the convent and four posa chapels, which will be discussed at more length later.

Interior view of convent wall showing crenellation and Posa  chapel

Huejotzingo, along with the other early monasteries was one of what have been called "fortress monasteries" because of their resemblance to European citadels.  There has been debate about whether they were ever actually intended for protection or whether the fortress-like appearance had other purposes. One interpretation is that they symbolized the Franciscan's self-concept a soldiers of God and another researcher demonstrates that the crenellations had been embedded with acoustical devices that amplified the sound and added a chime-like background sound as well.  

San Miguel Arcangel Church, Huejotzingo

Same church behind cross in atrium (not the original atrial cross, which is in town square)

The posa chapels of Huejotzingo (coming from the Spanish verb posar, to pause) are one of two sets in Mexico that still exist in their entirety.  There are four posa chapels, one in each corner of the wall that surrounds the atrium.  In other monasteries, there may be one or two posas still standing, but in Huejotzingo all four remain.  These posa chapels are a distinct feature of Colonial Mexican architecture and served a  purpose in the evangelization. 

Posa  Chapel

The indigenous peoples already had a tradition of religious processions and the Franciscans built upon this with processions on feast days.  These posa chapels were used during these processions as places for pausing for prayers and may have been used at other times as places for teaching.  Each chapel is covered with symbols of the Franciscan order designed to communicate the Christian faith to on-lookers through these symbols. Each of the four posas was dedicated to a different saint: St. John the Baptist, St. Peter and St. Paul, the Ascension of Mary, and St. James the Apostle.  

Posa Chapel

The facade of each posa contained symbols which provided information about the Franciscans and the faith to the newly Christian indigenous.  On the facade of each chapel were the Franciscan cord with tassel, an emblem of either Christ or the Virgin Mary, two angels carrying instruments of the Passion, and symbols of the five wounds of Christ.
The wounds of Christ had a particular resonance with the Franciscan order because St. Francis had received the stigmata of Christ.

Monogram of the Virgin Mary

Angel carrying instrument of Christ's Passion: scourges

Angel carrying instrument of the Passion: Crown of Thorns

Five Wounds of Christ (from church facade)
In the early days of the Conquest and evangelization of Mexico much of the initial worship took place outdoors.  The indigenous converts were accustomed to outdoor worship and the large numbers of them would have made indoor church worship logistically difficult.  The monasteries all had walled atriums which was where the preaching and ceremonies took place and for this reason, the religious symbols on the exterior of the buildings in the monastery complex were important teaching tools.  

Entrances- doors and gates- are important in the symbolism of places and this is very much the case in Huejotzingo.  

Huejotzingo, West Door
 This west door, as seen above, is the main entrance to the church, decorated for a wedding in the above photo.  It's style is mudejar, an architectural style deriving from Andalusia that reflects the Moorish influences in the culture.  

North Door, Portiuncula, Huejotzingo
This north door, the portiuncula, contains much symbolism and to understand it some relevant history needs to be explored.  The "Twelve" original Franciscans who came to Mexico were utopians and understood their mission as re-creating a New Jerusalem among the New World indigenous whom some at that time believed to be a lost tribe of Jews.  The idea of a New Jerusalem is found in the Old Testament and in the book of Revelation and is tied-in with eschatological notions, the ideas about the end of times when all things will be restored.  

The two pillars surrounding this door were very consciously intended to represent the two columns in the ancient Jerusalem temple and the indigenous were aware of this
 symbolism. To enter these doors was to enter into the temple, to enter into the paradise of the New Jerusalem.  Originally there were no hinges on these doors and the doors were not intended to be an entrance, but for processional use.  Now the doors are opened one day a year, August 1 from 12 noon to midnight entering them is used to gain plenary indulgences.

Huejotzingo is known for the murals within its convent.  These represent various saints and members of the Franciscan order.

The "Twelve" Franciscans

Franciscans: six of the original "Twelve Apostles"

Franciscans : six of the original "Twelve Apostles"

Jesus Washing Disciple's Feet

Mythical Creature


As the founder of the Franciscan order, St. Francis, his symbols and episodes in his life 
were important in the convent.  Below, we have a mural that shows a legendary episode in St. Francis' life in which he appeared to the monks at a chapter meeting flying around the room in a fiery chariot, an episode based in the Old Testament story of Elijah and the chariot of fire. (My thanks to Prof. Jaime Lara for this explanation). 

St. Francis of Assisi in Fiery Chariot

At Huejotzingo the cloister, the portion where the friars lived, is open for viewing. 


Friar's Room


Monastery Kitchen

The Pereyns Altar

The altarpiece in the church at Huejotzingo is one of only two 16th century altarpieces to survive in Mexico.  It is also unique because it was signed by the Flemish artist Simon Pereyns who executed its paintings. Pereyns, a Mannerist painter, came to Mexico in the 1560's after some time in Peru was a seminal figure in the history of  Latin American painting,  influencing all who came after him. The paintings in the altarpiece shows various saints and scenes from the life of Christ, with Padre Eterno, God the Father, at the very top as is typically the case with altarpieces. This and other altarpieces served as visual Bibles for the newly converted indigenous, telling the written stories through the language of art. 

Huejotzingo gives us an appreciation for the importance of the visual in the evangelization of Mexico and the rest of the Latin American world.  In the absence of a common written language, the early friars drew upon their creativity in finding ways to communicate the essentials of the new Christian faith.

If you want to read further on Huejotzingo, I refer you to: "Mexico's Fortress Monasteries" by Richard Perry and Dr. Jaime Lara's excellent book "City, Temple, Stage" .  

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Rosary Chapels of Mexico: Golden Houses

When it was finished in 1690, the Rosary Chapel or Capilla del Rosario in Puebla, Mexico was proclaimed as the eighth wonder of the world and ten days of celebration accompanied its opening. It is still considered a preeminent example of  Mexican Baroque architecture.  The chapel was the inspiration of Friar Juan de Cuenca and was meant to promote the Dominican order's cult of the rosary, and to be a tool of conversion for the indigenous. 

The Domincan order was begun by Domingo de Guzman (St. Dominic) in 1216 as part of the Church's ongoing struggle, at that time, with a heretical group known as the Cathars.The legend goes that at a point when he felt he was losing the struggle to convert this group  he went to pray alone in the forest and fell into a coma in which the Virgin Mary came to him and presented him with the rosary as the device to convert the unbelievers. The Dominicans have since had a special connection with the rosary. The devotion of the rosary was begun in the 15th century combining the prayer to Mary, the Ave Maria, with meditation on the Passion of Christ. The rosary is a series of Ave Marias divided into groups of ten interspersed with other prayers (including Apostles Creed, Our Father, Glory Be) focusing on the Passion.  The rosary is seen to be like a chain or garland of roses, hence rosary.     

The Rosary Chapels are dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the rosary and the mysteries that are evoked through praying the rosary.   In Latin American countries, there is a specific Virgin figure that is shown with a rosary and has come to be know as the Virgin of the Rosary. The Rosary Chapel in Puebla, (Puebla is about 2 1/2 hours south-east of  Mexico City)  is located within Santo Domingo, the Dominican Church and former convent there.  This church was built between the years of 1571 and 1659 and the Rosary Chapel, located within the complex, was completed later in 1690. 

Santo Domingo, church and convent, Puebla, MX

Below are photos of the "Golden House" as the Rosary Chapel of Puebla has been called.  The entire interior of the chapel is white with textured stucco covered with gold leaf and around 8 am the light streams in at such an angle that the whole place seems suffused with gold light.  To be present at this time is an amazing experience. All photos will enlarge if you click on them.

Rosary Chapel,  Puebla

Virgin,  Rosary Chapel, Puebla

Dome of Rosary Chapel, Puebla

Dome detail

Wall detail

Ceiling detail

Puebla chapel looking toward rear 

Amid the guilding sculpted stucco of the walls and ceilings are many figures, each of which has a relationship to the Virgin, the life of Jesus or the Dominican order.  The incredible profusion and complexity of the decoration is difficult to take in at one sitting.

The idea has been set forth that Santa Maria Tonanzintla (built in the early 1600's) in nearby Cholula and  the topic of my May 28th post, was an indigenous interpretation of Puebla's Rosary chapel.  The resemblances are unmistakeable- take a look for yourself.  

Santa Maria Tonanzintla, Cholula, Puebla

The Rosary Chapel of Santo Domingo, Oaxaca, (Oaxaca City is about five hours south-east of Mexico City) built in the 1720's, was modeled on the one in Puebla which had been built some thirty years earlier.  It is housed within the magnificent church-convent of Santo Domingo.

Santo Domingo, Oaxaca, MX

The Rosary Chapel of this church, along with the rest of the interior, has been refurbished within modern times because of previous damage due to earthquakes and general neglect. The altar of the chapel is not the original one, which was destroyed, but actually is modeled on an altar of the Virgin of the Rosary in Santo Domingo,  Yanhuitlan, Oaxaca, another Dominican church/convent complex. 

Rosary Chapel, Oaxaca, Altar

The ceiling and walls of this chapel are ornate and resemble those in the Puebla Chapel, but the overall effect is different.  There is more color used in Oaxaca and the chapel is beautiful, but is less of a "gold house" than Puebla.

Rosary Chapel, Oaxaca, altar seen from doorway


Facing back of chapel and choir loft

Choir loft 

Choir loft ceiling detail showing Virgin 

Chapel wall 

I was fortunate to attend a morning mass at the Rosary Chapel in Puebla, because It is during worship that these spaces really come alive. The Baroque style of architecture with its opulence was intended by the Church to draw people in by the sheer beauty and extravagance of the surroundings. In Europe this was important because of the threat of the developing Protestant movements and the competition for worshippers that they posed.  In Latin America the Baroque also served as a magnet  for new indigenous converts helping to keep them within the fold of the Church.  In places like the Rosary Chapels or Santa Maria Tonanzintla, literally ever square inch of the walls and ceilings are encrusted with symbols of the faith that draw the viewer in.  As I looked at these places for the first time, feeling overwhelmed by the profusion of color and forms surrounding me, I felt compelled to return for yet another look; perhaps this was the reaction of the new converts centuries ago.  I can only imagine the stories that must have circulated in the indigenous communities about these golden houses that were filled with images of the new gods and goddesses.