Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Saints as Teachers: Teotitlán del Vallee

The 17th century church of Teotitlán del Valle, a small town about 20 miles outside of Oaxaca City, is known as Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (Precious Bloof of Christ).  As can be seen in the photos below, the church is built in the sturdy Oaxacan baroque style (see April 16, 2013 post of this blog) with flying buttresses.

Preciosa Sangre, Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca

Preciosa Sangre, Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca

This church has a long barrel-vaulted nave lined with gold altars dedicated to various saints; the church has 23 different saints. Here and throughout the Latin American world the saints, santos in Spanish,  are not only objects of religious devotion, but  were central in the religious history of the area. 

Interior, Preciosa Sangre, Teotitlán, Oaxaca

Think of these saints (and many others like them) as the real "teachers" of Christianity to the Indians in early colonial Mexico.  The cult of saints, the system of beliefs and rituals using saints and their images, was a core part of the evangelization of Mexico. The early friars, whose job it was to convert the indigenous to Christianity, felt that they would not understand the ideas of Christianity in the abstract. In their view, the new converts needed visual aids and festivals to become involved in the new religion and these were the saints and their feast days.

Saints lined up for procession, Preciosa Sangre, Teotitlán, Oaxaca 

In the photo above, taken during the Easter season, are some of the saints of the church seen in line for a procession. The first in the line is Santo Entierro, Christ in a coffin (see 3/28/13 post of this blog for an explanation of this figure) , followed by St. Peter, Our Lady of Sorrows (Soledad), and Mary Magadalene ( yellow cape with long hair).  Each of the saints most likely has its own confraternity, cofradia in Spanish, a European institution brought to the Americas by the friars that involves the care of the saints and their festivals. 

Saints ready for procession, Preciosa Sangre, Oaxaca
Saint Peter
Our Lady of Sorrows (Soledad),

The friars viewed the confraternity as the best way of reinforcing the Christianity of the newly converted:  a way to acquaint them with the sacraments, devotions, rituals and obligations of Roman Catholicism and make sure that they followed this path.  The confraternity was responsible for maintaining the saint's image, celebrating its feast day  and offering masses in its honor. Additionally, it distributed charity and participated in the rituals of death and dying of its members, offering masses for them that cared for their souls in the afterlife.  

The activities of the confraternity were paid for by its members, with the wealthiest among them contributing the most and having the highest rank, that of mayordomo.  This occupier of this position changes from year to year and being a mayordomo is a position of respect and leadership in the community.  Confraternities are still a major part of life in Mexico and the rest of the Latin American world and it is in religious processions that they can be seen in action.  Those with the highest positions, the mayordomos and other officials lead the procession with the general membership following.  

 To view videos about Colonial Mexico, please refer to my Youtube channel  Among the videos,  
you will find one about the beautiful church in Tlacochahuaya, Oaxaca which is located close to Teotitlán del Valle:



Friday, October 11, 2013

Painted Churches of Oaxaca: Santa Ana Zegache

The town of Zegache is a short distance away from Ocotlán de Morelos, which itself is about a half-hour outside of Oaxaca City.  Along with the church of Santo Domingo in Ocotlán, discussed in my September 20 post, Santa Ana Zegache is a project of the Fundación Rodolfo Morales, which was begun by this internationally-known Oaxacan artist who dedicated himself to the renovation of Colonial era Oaxacan churches.

 Santa Ana was originally built in the 17th century by friars of the Dominican order, as was Santo Domingo, Ocotlan and the majority of churches in the area of Oaxaca.  Like most churches in Oaxaca it is built in the sturdy "earthquake baroque" style typical of the region (see April 16 post of this blog), as can be seen in the photo directly below. In this style of construction, the bell-towers are a part of the building, not a separate element, which adds structural stability.

Santa Ana Zegache, front façade

Santa Ana Zegache, bell-tower

The façade of Santa Ana is typical of the churches of Oaxaca in that it is divided into sections with decorative elements in each.  This style of construction is known as a retablo façade and was a Roman Catholic Counter Reformation element meant to mirror the retablo (altarpiece) within the church and remind viewers of the authority of the Church and its orthodox doctrine.

Santa Ana Zegache, façade

In the façade of Santa Ana Zegache there is only one statue, that of the church's patron saint, Santa Ana (Saint Anne) which is located in a niche toward the top.  Santa Ana was the mother of the Virgin Mary and is shown in her typical stance of reading a book and wearing her characteristic green cloak.

Santa Ana,  patron saint of Santa Ana Zegache

The vases of flowers seen on the façade below are typical Oaxacan decorative elements found in many churches.

Façade detail, Santa Ana Zegache


Santa Ana Zegache is chock full of both altars and saints.  There are nine gilded baroque altarpieces in addition to the main altar.  As is customary, the main altar is dedicated to the patron saint, here Santa Ana, shown in the center of the second layer.  God the Father can be seen at the very top in the center. (the photos should enlarge when clicked)

Main Altar: Santa Ana Zegache church

Altar dedicated to Jesus (shown both as an adult and the Divine Child),  Santa Ana Zegache Church

Altar dedicated to St. Mary and St. Elizabeth, Santa Ana Zegache church


As in all Mexican churches, there are many statues and images of saints in Santa Ana Zegache. Some of them have a special connection to the Dominican order whose church it had been, reinforcing  Dominican significance and identity in the eyes of the indigenous worshippers.   

Santa Ana  (St. Anne), the mother of the Virgin Mary, is shown in her standard iconography, in a green cape holding a book as she was depicted in the church façade.

Santa Ana, Santa Ana Zegache

Many of the saints in the church have some specific relationship to the Dominican order.
St. Peter of Verona (St. Peter Martyr), a 14th century Dominican martyr, was killed by an assassin hired by the Cathars, a heretical Christian group, through a blow to the head with a hatchet. If you look closely, you can see the hatchet lodged in the statue's head.

St. Peter of Verona, Santa Ana Zegache church

St. Catherine of Alexandria, an early Christian martyr (4th century C.E.) was a scholar who was tortured to death on a spiked breaking wheel.

St. Catherine of Alexandria, Santa Ana Zegache church

John the Baptist is shown both as a figure and as a severed head, as was his fate in
Biblical lore.

St. John the Baptist, Santa Ana Zegache
Head of St. John the Baptist, Santa Ana Zegache

The following photos are a few close-ups of figures seen on the altars shown above. This seated "reflective Jesus" was seen in front of the altar dedicated to Jesus and the Divine Child. This pose is one of the standard ways in which the Jesus of the Passion is depicted throughout Mexico. He is dressed in the purple robe placed on him in mockery by the Romans.

"Pensive Jesus", Santa Ana Zegache

Saints Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist and St. Mary, mother of Jesus, are shown standing side-by-side above in front of an altar. 

Saint Elizabeth holding infant John the Baptist, Santa Ana Zegache

 The young Virgin Mary (St. Mary) holds the infant Jesus, whose identity is indicated by the cross that he holds in his right hand.  Both of these figures are somewhat unusual representations of these saints.

St. Mary with infant Jesus, Santa Ana Zegache church

San Judas Tadeo is a beloved throughout Mexico. He is the patron saint of desperate causes and is usually shown carrying an image of Jesus close to his chest.

San Judas Tadeo, Santa Ana Zegache church 

San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of farmers, is always shown with oxen to symbolize his work as a laborer.  He is popular in the rural agricultural areas of Oaxaca such as Zegache. 

San Isidro Labrador, Santa Ana Zegache church

The many saints in Santa Ana, Zegache are not there for ornamental purposes.  These figures played an important role in the early transmission of Christianity to the newly converted peoples of Colonial Mexico.  Over the years they became the center of the devotional and even economic lives of the people, sometimes in unexpected ways. This interesting piece of religious history will be discussed in-depth in my next post.