Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Very Small Monastery: Ex-Convento of San Nicolas de Bari, Oxtotipac MX

San Nicolas de Bari, Oxtotipac, MX

In the world of Mexican Colonial convento (monastery) architecture, the general rule was "bigger is better". The monasteries were built to be as large, lavish and impressive as possible to communicate the power of the church to the indigenous peoples they hoped to convert and keep within the fold of the church.  This psychology of monastery-building has already been discussed at-length in this blog. Please see the posts of June 3, 2014 and July 21, 2014.  

This Franciscan monastery in Oxtotipac (located 53.3 km from Mexico City) which dates from about 1570 was an exception to this rule.  It is known for being small, sometimes being called a "miniature" and my tour guide told me that it is the smallest monastery in Mexico, although I can find no documentation for this fact.   However when viewed against the usual scale of Mexican monasteries, it is small as can be see from the photo of a man walking through one of its doors. However, when words like "miniature" are used to describe San Nicolas Oxtotipac the comparison is only against the usual grand scale of Mexican monasteries- we are not talking about a doll-house.

Painting of San Nicolas de Bari, Oxtotipac, MX
San Nicolas de Bari, the patron saint of this monastery was a 4th century bishop of Myra (Turkey) know for his miracle-working. Through the centuries he has come down to us as San Nicholas, or Santa Claus. San Nicolas among other things is the patron saint of miners and Oxtotipac was an area where tezontle, a porous volcanic rock used in Mexican architecture was mined.  Oxtotipac is a Nahuatl word meaning "over the cave"  referring to these mines. In the painting, San Nicolas is shown with three young women, referring to the legend in which he freed them from a life of forced prostitution.

This photo of a man entering a cloister door gives some idea of why so much is made of the small dimensions of San Nicolas, Oxtotipac.  The doors and ceilings of the cloister (area where monks lived) are very low compared to other Mexican monasteries which have a feeling of spaciousness.

San Nicolas de Bari, Oxtotipac

Why was this monastery built on such a small scale?  No one knows, but a few ideas have been set forth:
1. It was built to be a visita, a place that was used only occasionally for religious  celebrations, not as a permanent residence for friars. 
2. The Franciscans who built it were committed to their vows of poverty did not want an opulent building.
3. There was inadequate supervision of the local indigenous builders and the small scale was not noticed until too late. 

Some of the iconography in the monastery has a distinctively indigenous style, such as this holy water container at the entrance of the church.  

Holy Water Font: San Nicolas de Bari, Oxtotipac

In monasteries of this time, the wall murals were done by groups of trained indigenous painters some of whom who traveled around doing this work.  The work of the mural painters in the cloister of San Nicolas is not very sophisticated by the standards of the western art of the time and the cloister murals in San Nicolas de Bari have a real folk-art quality, clearly showing the local hand in their creation. Ornamental eagles, a very important Aztec symbol, are seen in the ornamental borders of the murals,  most clearly in the last photo; one of these eagles is portrayed eating a cacomixtl, a local rodent. The wooden cross on the wall itself is very rustic.

Crucifix, San Nicolas de Bari, Oxtotipac, MX

Angel, San Nicolas de Bari, Oxtotipac, MX

San Cristobal (St Christopher) with Angels carrying Symbols of Christ's Passion

San Nicolas de Bari with Three Young Women He Freed from Prostitution,
Oxtotipac, MX

San Sebastian and San Francisco with Ornamental Eagles, Oxtotipac, MX

The church itself is of a small scale and not designed to hold a large number of people. It has a single nave and in terms of structure is not different from many monastery churches of its time. However the church is less strikingly small that some rooms of the cloister.

Main Altar, San Nicolas de Bari, Oxtotipac, MX

San Nicolas de Bari, Oxtotipac, MX

Altar of Guadalupe, San Nicolas de Bari, Oxtotipac, MX

Altar dedicated to Virgin Mary/Guadalupe, San Nicolas de Bari, Oxtotipac, MX

View of Choir Loft and Front Door with statues of San Nicolas and Virgin Mary
 San Nicolas de Bari, Oxtotipac

Pulpit and Crucifix, San Nicolas de Bari, Oxtotipac, MX


Cloister Courtyard, San Nicolas de Bari, Oxtotipac, MX
Cloister Courtyard, San Nicolas, Oxtotipac, MX

San Nicolas, Oxtotipac follows the typical Mexican monastery format with an open chapel, an "Indian Chapel" named such because it was used for outdoor preaching with the new converts before they became accustomed to the idea of indoor worship in a church.

Open Chapel, San Nicolas de Bari, Oxtotipac

View from within Open Chapel, San Nicolas, Oxtotipac

Each monastery has its own personality or key feature. Although the few who have written about San Nicolas Oxtotipac focus on its smallness, it is also interesting for other reasons.   The murals with their folk-art quality are fascinating reflections of the local indigenous artists who created them and the structure as a whole shows the mark of the local artisans who were the builders of the monastery, as well.


  1. This looks like such a peaceful place and sometimes the peacefulness comes not so much from the scale of the building but rather from its relationship with the surrounding landscape. The font will go down as one of my favorites. When I go to Mexico City - this would definitely be a detour I will take. One thing I will take issue with however is the "Indian Chapel" and outdoor preaching. As far as I know, they were kept outside because they were considered unclean and savage.... Hence - outdoor chapels.

  2. You bring up a point and maybe the two go hand in hand- but what the books say is that indoor worship was foreign to the peoples of Latin America and it was not until they were further evangelized that church worship was instituted.