Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Fortress Monasteries: San Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan MX

Along with the physical conquest of the New World came the "spiritual conquest".  The Spanish king had been given permission by the Pope in 1492 to carry-out the conversion of  the newly-conquered peoples to Catholicism and gave this task to friars, Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and, later, other orders.  The early monasteries built by these friars resembled fortresses, such as the ex-convento of San Nicolas de Tolentino located in Hidalgo state in the town of Actopan and completed in 1560.  Actopan is approximately 60 miles/ 95 km north of Mexico City. 

                                                                             Actopan, Hidalgo,MX

                                                          Actopan, Hidalgo, MX
Were these building meant to be fortresses?  The scholarly consensus is no, that there was no on-going warfare in the area these monasteries were built and there would have been no need for fortification.  These buildings were meant to impress the Indian converts, to be a symbol of the might of Christianity, the new religion. These buildings had to compete for grandeur with the temples and pyramids that had for centuries been a part of the meso-american landscape. In short, the friars needed to demonstrate the power of the new Christian God and these fortress-churches were a part of that. 

All of the new world monasteries had a similar structure that was dictated by the needs of converting a huge indigenous population not used to indoor worship.  All had an atrium, an outdoor space surrounded by walls, in which religious services were held in the initial stages of the conversion. The atrium at Actopan is now bricked-in and landscaped as can be seen in the photos below. A cross always stood in the middle of the atrium, the atrial cross

Front façade and atrium, San Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX

Atrial Cross, San Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX

Indian Chapel:
Another feature of early monasteries was the open chapel, or Indian Chapel as it was called.  This chapel was the focus of religious activities and friars preached and celebrated the Mass from it.

Indian Chapel, San Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX

The walls of Actopan's open chapel taught, in images, the basic lessons the friars were trying to convey to their Indian converts.  As they and the Catholic Church saw it, the Indians needed to become Christians to save their souls from the horrors of Hell, which were clearly spelled out on the chapel's walls. The walls of this chapel are a visual Bible including images of the Flood, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, with the focus is on the idea of Hell and damnation for souls that are not saved by the Church.

Expulsion from Garden of Eden, San Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX

The Flood and Noah's Ark with sinners drowning, San Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX

"Hellmouth": the Jaws of Hell awaiting sinners, San Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX

Devils and torments awaiting the damned, San Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX
Devils and torments of damned, San Nicolas de Tolention, Actopan, MX

The convent, convento in Spanish, was the part of the monastery where the friars lived.
In colonial times these were not totally private spaces, but were also used in instructing the Indian converts.  These basic design of the convent with its central courtyard and colonnades, was based upon Roman architecture.  

View of convent courtyard against side of church, San Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX

Central courtyard of Convento, San Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX

Corridor, Convento of San Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX

In the monastery's dining room, there was a pulpit which can be seen on the right side of the room;  there were scriptural readings and sermons during mealtimes. 

Friars' dining room, San Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX

The stairway murals in the Actopan convento are phenomenal and, simply as an art, the 
black and white murals are striking.  They commemorate the friars of the Augustinian order from the most prominent such as St. Augustine and St. Jerome down to the most humble  and were, in part, meant to establish the authority and power of the Augustinian order in the eyes of the prospective Indian converts.  

Stairway murals, Actopan, MX

Stairway murals, Actopan, MX

Stairway murals, Actopan, MX

Bishop of Augustinian Order, Actopan, MX

The Church:
In earliest colonial times, the church would have been used primarily for the worship of the friars and Spanish settlers in the area, as the outdoor spaces were the ones used with the Indian converts.  Later on and to the present day, the church itself became the primary worship space and San Nicolas de Tolentino is still an active Catholic parish.  

Church Façade of San Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX

San Nicolas de Tolentino Church and Convent, Actopan, MX

Interior, San Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX

Woman praying before statue of Jesus, San Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX

Adoration of Holy Sacrament, SanNicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX

1 comment: