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" .  


  1. Very informative piece. I am fascinated by all of the monasteries surrounding Popocatepetl. The one thing I am most curious about however, is that while there seems to be a lot of information available concerning their foundings, I can't seem to find any details regarding their closures. Do you happen to know when the monastery at Huejotzingo was shut down and converted into a museum?

  2. That is a very interesting and complicated question. I am not near a research library so I can't give you a precise date, but will give you some information that lead to its closing and maybe this will give you some idea. All the monasteries in Mexico are called ex-conventos because they are not actual monasteries any more.

    The closure of the monasteries has to do with the anti-clericalism of Mexico since its independence. In 1857, a Constitution was adopted that attacked property rights and possessions of the Church. The successive governments in Mexico tended to be anticlerical and in 1917 a new constitution, very hostile toward the Church and religion that put all church property at the disposal of the state.

    Another factor to consider is the waning power of the Franciscans and other religious orders in Mexico towards the end of the 16th century. These orders were very important in the early evangelization of Mexico but as time and their usefulness to the Spanish King diminished, the Spanish crown began to favor secular clergy over the religous orders.

    Given all of this, the de-commissioning of Huejotzingo probably happened sometime between the mid-19th century and 1917, although with decreasing Franciscan influence in Mexico, it may have fallen into disuse as a monastery earlier. If I find a more exact date, I will post it on the blog. Hope all this helps.