Friday, September 20, 2013

Painted Churches of Oaxaca: Santo Domingo de Ocotlan

The interiors and façades of many churches in Oaxaca are highly decorated and painted, but the term "painted church" is used to refer to a few of them, in particular.  In the 1990's Rodolfo Morales, an internationally-reknowned Oaxacan artist returned to Oaxaca and dedicated himself and his foundation, the Fundacion Rodolfo Morales, to the restoration of colonial churches in Oaxaca. His chief focus was the former Dominican church/convent in Ocotlan, but some smaller churches in the area, most notably Santa Ana Zegache a 17th century village church not far from Ocotlan, were a part of this work and will be discussed in a future post.

Ocotlan de Morelos is located about 22 miles outside of Oaxaca City and is a short taxi ride from there.  Ocotlan, is a Nahuatl word meaning "among the trees" and de Morelos, is in honor of a a Catholic priest who was a rebel leader in the Mexican War of 
Independence. The church is called Santo Domingo because it was founded by friars of the Dominican order.  

Front façade of Santo Domingo, Ocotlan, Oaxaca

Tower, Santo Domingo, Ocotlan

The construction of a church/convent was begun as early as 1555 in Ocotlan, but for various reasons construction was stopped and not begun again until the 16th century; the Dominican friars remained there until 1885. The very sturdy-looking church is built in the "Oaxacan Baroque" style, which was discussed in my post of 4/16/13. On the top niche in the façade is a statue of St. Dominic (Santo Domingo), shown with his dog and his rosary, two symbols of the Dominican Order.

Santo Domingo, Ocotlan, Oaxaca

Front Altar, Santo Domingo, Ocotlan

The church's interior has been exquisitely re-painted using a more or less monochromatic palette reminiscent of the black habit (clothing) of the Dominican Order. As you can see in this detail from the dome, the Virgin Mary, holding a small image of Jesus, is dressed in the characteristic Dominican black and white.

Santo Domingo, detail in dome showing Virgin Mary

Dome, Santo Domingo, Ocotlan

Nave interior, Santo Domingo, Ocotlan

The front altar of the church displays a number of saints,  including two Dominican saints (to the right) who wear the robes of the order.  Each religious order (Franciscan, Jesuit, Augustinian, Dominican and so on) displayed saints of their own order, in addition to the more general Christian saints, as a means of reinforcing their identity and authority.   

Dominican Saints, Santo Domingo, Ocotlan

In Santo Domingo there is an obvious contrast between the monochromatic austerity of the main sanctuary and its two intimate, smaller side chapels.  The main sanctuary is the public space, for masses and communal celebrations. The chapels, both of which seemed to be very holy places for the people praying there, appear to be where the local people go for personal prayer and devotion.  Guide-books do not offer information about them and my own guide made a point of bringing me there.  Although the decoration of the main church is what Santo Domingo is best known for, the atmosphere of the chapels was what was truly amazing.    

Side Chapel, Santo Domingo, Ocotlan

Side Chapel, Santo Domingo, Ocotlan

The object in the white-draped sanctuary is a gold monstrance, the sunburst-shape vessel used to display the consecrated host, the piece of bread that is believed within the Catholic faith to become the body of Jesus during the Mass.  Adoration of the consecrated host is a major devotion throughout Latin America (and the rest of the Roman Catholic world as well).  However, in this chapel there seems to be something of a mystery about the object in the sanctuary. My guide told me that there had been something else there- something like a tree- that had been removed, he thought perhaps for repairs. He was unsure exactly had been there, but the sole framed picture on the wall of this chapel may offer some clues.

Possibly picture of object removed from chapel

This picture, if you look closely, is also of a monstrance, but one fused with indigenous elements.  The green that is woven around gold sunburst is a maize plant, and maize (corn) was a central deity throughout pre-hispanic Mesoamerica and is still highly significant in modern times.  Additionally, we have to remember that the Sun, itself, was a major component of pre-hispanic religions. The circle of childrens' heads also had a prehispanic significance.  Although there is no proof, it seems quite possible that the object in the picture may have been the  missing object that had been the focus of adoration in the chapel.  If so, it was an object that had a depth of meaning to the worshippers of Ocotlan, the majority of whom are of Zapotec Indian origins and for whom the symbols, such as the maize plant, would have tremendous significance. 
 The second chapel in Santo Domingo Ocotlan is one dedicated to the Holy Child and it 
also has its own sense of mystery with an atmosphere quite different from the austere majesty of the main sanctuary. 

Chapel of the Holy Child, Santo Domingo, Ocotlan
Detail of altar, Chapel of the Holy Child, Santo Domingo, Ocotlan

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely wonderful coverage of this church -- thank you! I've visited it any number of times, but never knew all of the history and detail you provide here.

    This article is my introduction to your blog, which I am now eager to explore.

    Perhaps you'd enjoy viewing my photo report on the Ocotlán church: