Saturday, March 12, 2016

Ex-Convento of Santiago Apóstol Cuilapan: A Unique Monastery in Oaxaca

Ex-Convento of Santiago Apóstol, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX

History is vibrant in this 16th monastery located near the town of Zaachila in Oaxaca. The ex-convento of Santiago Apóstol is described by Richard Perry, the Mexican architecture specialist, as "one of the most original churches in the Americas". This is because of its open-air basilica, which in colonial times was covered with a thatched roof and used as an open-air church;  the same function was performed by the atriums of other monasteries. A basilica is a very old church architectural form featuring a single hall, double rows of columns and a semi-circular apse (domed vault) at its end.  

The "basilica", Santiago Apóstol, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX
View from within basilica looking outward, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX
The pre-conquest inhabitants of this area were Mixtec Indians living in an area that was largely Zapotec;  Cuilapan participated in the cultural heritage of both of these groups.   During colonial times each year the victory of Mixtecs over Zapotecs in Cuilapan was celebrated in the basilica and the church contains the grave of a Zapotec princess, as well.   Connection to cultural heritage continues to this day.   Every July 25th during the celebration of the church's patron saint Santiago (James) there is a ceremonial dance, the Dance of the Conquest, to mark the Aztecs' defeat by Cortés.  The Aztecs had been an enemy of the local Zapotecs and Mixtecs, by 1450 crossing over into the Valley of Oaxaca to control their trade routes and collect tribute from them.  Cortes' defeat of the Aztecs put an end to their subjugation.

Friars of the Dominican order arrived in Oaxaca in 1528 and over the years built a network of impressive monasteries in the area as a part of their effort of converting the indigenous peoples.  (see May 20, 2013 post about another one of these, Yanhuitlan-  Cuilapan was begun in 1550 and work was continued until the 1570's and stopped in 1580, remaining unfinished until the present. In the 18th century, the religious orders became increasingly less important as the secular clergy began to be in charge of religious life in Mexico.  The Dominicans left Cuilapan in 1753, at which point Santiago Apóstol ceased to be a monastery, becoming an ex-convento.

Portrait of Cuilapan Convent Complex with roof intact, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX

Historical Portrait of Cuilapan Convent complex, Cuilapan,  Oaxaca MX

In order of construction, the open-air basilica was built first and used as a worship space while the main church was built.  At one point, a wood roof covered the open church and the far arch in the arcade of the basilica was blocked to further enclose it;  although the side arches are now open again, the back arch remains blocked. The two portraits, which hang in the monastery's cloister, show Cuilapan as it looked in colonial times with the basilica enclosed,  although in one of them the roof is partly gone which could have referred to the later collapse, but this is unclear.

Blocked back arch, Santiago Apóstol, Cuilapan, MX

The Church:
Although the church, still in use as a house of worship, is built on a grand scale, its interior is rather stark, bare and lacking in the elaborate altarpieces and statuary seen in other Oaxacan churches. The entrance to the church, tucked-away, in a courtyard is completely plain, lacking the elaborately-carved façade that is typically present.

Church Entrance, Santiago Apóstol, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX

The church interior is plain with none of the elaborately-carved and guilded side altars that would normally be seen in a building of this stature.

Santiago Apóstol church, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX

The church is entered through the rear, which is where its door is located. The photo shows the  starkness and lack ornamentation of this area.  

Door  and rear of Santiago Aspóstol Church, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX

Main Altar, Santiago Apóstal, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX

The side chapel used for adoration of the Holy Sacrament is the most decorative space with the church; notice the colorful wall murals that remain.

Side chapel, Santiago Apóstol, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX

In comparison with many Oaxacan churches, Santiago Apóstol has sparse statuary; its most impressive image is a folk sculpture of Santiago on horseback, that is a very typical image in Oaxaca.

Santiago Apóstol,  Church of Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX

Princess Donaji:

Tomb of Princess Donaji, Santiago Apóstol Church, Cuilapan Oaxaca MX
The tombstone of Princess Donaji, a 16th century Zapotec convert to Christianity who was the daughter of the last king of the Zapotecs.   Recalling Oaxacan history, there had been endless battles between the Mixtecs and Zapotecs and Donaji was taken by the Mixtecs as a pledge of peace, to be killed if the Zapotecs did not keep their word.  Zapotec warriors burst into Mixtec territory after the peace had been reached and Donaji was killed. The legend says that her head and face were found perfectly preserved in a field; her body was buried in the church, presumably, to attract new Zapotec converts.

The Cloister:
The Cuilapan convent contained sixteen cells for friars as well as the common living and working areas.

View of Cuilapan Cloister, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX

Courtyard of Cuilapan cloister, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX

Exterior corridor of Cuilapan cloister, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX

Interior Corridor of Cuilapan cloister, Cuilapan, Oaxaca  MX

Cloister Murals:
The Cuilapan cloister interior was once a rich visual environment with many walls covered with murals; some of these still remain,  although in varying degrees of deterioration.  The most important of the murals is the "Tree of Martyrs", seen below. Each individual monk portrayed holds a palm, symbol of their martyr status.

                       Tree of Martyrs,  Cuilapan cloister, Cuilapan, MX
This kind of a tree is a device that various groups have used to define their long genealogy to establish an identity of deep-rootedness, significance and authority. In the colonial world it was, more or less, a marketing device used by various religious orders to establish their legitimacy  among the indigenous peoples they were aiming to convert.  The idea of tree resonated deeply with the Mesoamerican psyche, as world trees were a motif in many Mesoamerican cosmologies, embodying the four cardinal directions and the tree as an axis mundi connecting underworld with the sky and earthly planes.

Other murals reflecting Renaissance motifs, as seen below, were common in colonial Mexico.  This is explored in the March 11, 2014 post of this blog:

Niche formerly containing devotional image, Cuilapan cloister, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX

Wall mural, Cuilapan cloister, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX

This arch below reveals the remnant of the kind of Renaissance floriate decoration typical of these monasteries. Symbolically this type of decoration reflected the idea of Paradise and often contained images of local flora.

Floriate arch decoration in Cuilapan cloister, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX

As was the practice in monasteries, various luminaries of their order such as the bishops below, were shown in the wall murals.

Wall mural, Cuilapan cloister, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX
Wall mural, Cuilapan cloister, Cuilapan, Oaxaca MX

Although Santiago Apóstol may not be Oaxaca's most ornate worship space, it is certainly  an interesting one.  Cuilapan's open-air "basilica" is unique in Mexico and it is the only church to house the tomb of a legendary Zapotec princess.  The stark interior and exterior of the church is so unexpected that it contributes to Cuilapan's unique identity. 


  1. Hi Marina
    Nice post and pictures. Do you have a shot of the Last Supper mural on the end wall of the refectory?

    1. Yes, I do have a photo- the mural was in a partly deteriorated condition, but I would be glad to share what I have.