Monday, July 21, 2014

Fortress Monasteries: San Augustín, Acolman, MX

San Augustín, Acolman,  is one of the "Fortress Monasteries" of Mexico.  These monasteries, largely dating from the 16th century, resemble European-style fortresses, although none of them ever served this purpose.  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. 

 For an in-depth discussion of the history and architecture of Fortress Monasteries, please read my recent post on the monastery in Actopan, MX. Here is the link:  

The fortress-like crenellations can be seen on the roof-line of the building as well as on the outer-wall.  Acolman is located in the state of Mexico and is a 45 minute drive from Mexico City.

Ex-Convento of San Augustín, Acolman, MX

Ex-Convento of San Augustín, Acolman, MX

Crenellated outer wall, San Augustín, Acolman, MX

This monastery had a double life; in the 1520's it was a small, primitive Franciscan mission and in 1530 it was given over to the Augustinian order.  Their monastery,San Augustín, was built between 1529-60, although the older more primitive structure was left standing and the old cloister and Open Chapel were incorporated into the new, enlarged building.    The old cloister, built of rough stone, can still be seen and the elevated Open Chapel is a part of it.

Patio of Old Cloister with Cross

The open chapels, or Indian Chapels as they came to be called were where religious services for the newly-Christian indigenous peoples were held. The people would stand outside the building in the large atrium (walled-in outer grounds) of the monastery and hear sermons  preached from open chapels.  Indoor worship was unknown to the native meso-american peoples and services within churches were something that came later in the evangelization process. The Acolman open chapel contains a very old wall mural of St. Catherine of Alexandria beheading the king of Egypt.  

Open Chapel (Indian Chapel), San Augustiín, Acolman, MX
Mural of St. Catherine of Alexandria, San Augustín, Acolman, MX 
View of atrium from open chapel, San Augustín, Acolman, MX

The newer cloister was built on a much grander scale than the original more primitive one.

Patio of large cloister, San Augustín, Acolman, MX

Patio of large cloister, San Augustín,Acolman, MX
The cloisters were the part of the monastery that housed the monks and their staff and it is possible for contemporary visitors to walk through their halls.  The building contains fabulous murals on many walls and ceilings that are characteristic of Augustinian monasteries of the period.  

Monastery hall with elaborately painted ceiling, St. Augustín, Acolman, MX

Mural of Crucifixion, St. Augustín, Acolman, MX

Mural depicting Heaven and Hell,  St. Augustín, Acolman, MX

The atrial cross at Acolman is a "plumed cross" and contains much iconographic complexity that is not immediately evident.   The crosses in these early monasteries were never of the type displaying the crucified body of Jesus.  That would have been far too provocative to a people whose native religion so heavily involved human sacrifice.  As in the Acolman cross, the early crosses often showed the instruments of the Passion, the  arma christi (please click on photo to enlarge it) and not the whole body of Jesus, but his face alone.  This latter feature was typical of the Augustinian order and resembled the face of Jesus on Veronica's veil.  

Atrial Cross, St. Augustín, Acolman, MX
Crosses were a symbol shared by both the Christian and mesoamerican cosmologies and the cross at Acolman is a subtle mix of pre-Columbian and Christian symbols. It is called a plumed cross because of the feather-like endings of its horizontal arms. Some European crosses have foliate decoration on the arms, but in the hands of the indigenous stone-carvers who made the crosses like the one above, these became feathers.  To the Aztecs and other mesoamerican groups, feathers were a symbol of royalty and divinity and they were being taught that Christ was the new king and ruler of all.  The cross here stands on a small sepulcher with the grieving Virgin Mary seated outside.

Please note that at the time of the photos, San Augustín was still decorated for the Christmas season- those are symbolic stars hanging from the ceiling and part of a Nativity Scene can be seen in the second photo.

Church of San Augustín, Acolman, MX

Church Wall Murals, San Augustín, Acolman

The wall murals in the church display various personalities in the Augustinian order ranging from friars to bishops and archbishops.  Towards the top various Old Testament prophets have been included as well as Saints Peter, Paul, and Simon. 

Bishops in wall murals, San Augustín, Acolman, MX

The murals were part of the larger effort by the Christian newcomers to impress their indigenous  converts with their significance.   In the murals the Augustinians are shown along with prophets and saints,  which certainly would have enhanced their prestige in the eyes of the converts.  Recall, that these images were not just  decoration, but were a statement to on-lookers, that proclaimed the scope and power of the Augustinian order.

Remember that the new Christian religion, although it had the power of the Spanish crown behind it, still had to win over the minds of the converts.  Part of the task of the friars was to communicate to the people the idea that the Christian God  was more powerful than the old gods; art and architecture played a central role in this process.

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