Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Ruta Dominica (Dominican Route) of Oaxaca: San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Church West Façade
The work of colonial-era Mixtec stone-carvers and artisans lives untouched in this old monastery in the Mixteca Alta.  This mountainous area, the Mixteca Alta, lying to the northwest of Oaxaca City is home to a group of great 16th century Dominican monasteries built long ago to further the evangelization of Oaxaca. One of them, the magnificent Santo Domingo de Yanhuitlan, has already been explored in this blog (May 20, 2013). The  long (1/12-2 hours) car ride to this rugged area is worthwhile and can be done as a day trip.  San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca is the earliest and least changed of the great Dominican monasteries of the Mixteca Alta.  The Dominicans arrived here in the 1540's and by 1570 the buildings were completed. (note: please click on photos and they will enlarge).


All the monasteries were built in a similar pattern. The open chapel was the first structure to rise up, built to further the evangelization of a people who did not have a concept of indoor worship,  then the church and the cloister (convento) to house the monks. Looking head on at the Coixtlahuaca complex, the hexagonal open chapel is seen at the very left, separated by a small distance from the church, which is next to it, viewer-right, and next to and attached to the church is the monastery's convento or cloister, the monks' residence. At a distance from the church/convento complex was what was called the casa de la cacica or in the Mixtec language, tecpan, something not seen in other areas of Oaxaca.  In the Mixtec- controlled areas, the local indigenous nobility still played a significant role in the early colonial community and this tecpan was built to house the local chief. In general, this person was the first to convert to Christianity and his presence on the monastery grounds was a symbolic encouragement for his people to follow suit and accept the new religion.

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Open Chapel

San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca,  North façade of church

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Convento entrance

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Church seen from interior courtyard of convento

Open Chapel:

This chapel, built in 1546, was the earliest part of the monastery.  The polygonal vault which once covered it has collapsed and it is now open to the sky.

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Open Chapel

The chapel is characterized by bands of tequitqui carving, a syncretic style that included both indigenous and Christian symbols. Tequitqui carving tended to have a flattened appearance resembling that of pre-Hispanic carving styles.  

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Open Chapel rib detail

In the following photo eagle-like pelicans intertwine with plumed rattlesnakes.

San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca, Open Chapel rib carving

The presence of the indigenous symbols in this new house of worship was powerful for the new converts forming a bridge to their old religion and its temples.

The Church:


The church building is not ornamented apart from its two doors.  The north door was the one  used in processions in the early Colonial period.

San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca, West Façade of Church
Three large statues are carved above the door in a style that clearly reflects the work of the indigenous carvers. St. John the Baptist, the monastery's patron saint, is in the center flanked by Saints Peter and Paul. Above these is a Gothic rose window with intricate carving on either side. 

San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca, North Façade of  Church

On both sides of the upper façade are intricate carvings of the elements of Christ's Passion, as seen in the photo below.                                        
San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, North Façade - Elements of the Passions
The west door and facade are more classical in style, but contain tequitqui elements.
In particular, the triangular element above the door consists of the Spanish coat of arms 
surrounded by the two-headed Hapsburg eagle, an animal that had strong indigenous resonance. The church has a single tower.

San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca, West Façade

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, North Door of Church


San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Church Interior seen from Choir

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Main Retablo

This main retablo has fourteen painted panels many of which are attributed to Andres de Concha a Spanish master from Seville.  Simon Peyrens, the Flemish sculptor, may have done some of the carving on the altarpiece.  Here is the arrangement of the paintings in this retablo, from the top down, in rows: (photo will enlarge when clicked).

                                                              God the Father
                                                    St. Anne, Trinity, St. Joachim
                                                    Ascension, Crucifixion, Resurrection
                                                    Presentation in the Temple, Three Kings
                                                    Adoration of the Shepherds, Annunciation

Church Ceiling:

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Church Ceiling

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Church ceiling ribbing

San Juan Bautista, Coixlahuaca, Church ceiling Roof Boss

The church's ribbed ceiling is unique with the molded, painted ribs and the tequitqui carved roof bosses. Each contains miniature portraits of saints and their symbols.  

The Convento:

The convento is located alongside the church building of the Coixtlahuaca monastery.
Only the lower is intact, although it is possible to visit parts of the upper level which over the years has been damaged by earthquakes.  Some reconstruction is on-going on this second level.

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Convento entrance

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Convento Door and Façade
The convento is located directly next to the church and the two buildings share a wall.
San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Church-Convento shared wall
San Juan Bautista, Coixlahuaca, Convento Courtyard

As many early colonial Mexican buildings, Coixtlahuaca's convento shows mudejar  (derived from Islamic architecture ) details in features of the building such as the door and window below.

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Convento Corridor

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Convento Mudejar-style Door

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Mudejar Window

In parts of the Coixtlahuaca convento, remnants of the original wall frescos remain.
San Juan Bautista, Coixlahuaca, original fresco 

The Tecpan:

The building in the old photograph below, the tecpan or casa de la cacica, was the home of the indigenous noble who led the community and encouraged the conversion effort.  This building, which no longer exists, was torn down and the bricks used to build another building for the modern community. It was built with considerable ornamental detail, as can be seen in the second photo.

San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca, Tecpan (no longer in existence)

San Juan Coixtlahuaca, Tecpan architectural detail
Although the neighboring monastery at Yanhuitlan has been elegantly restored and the one at Teposcolula is undergoing extensive restoration, San Juan Bautista, Coixtlahuaca retains an aura of authenticity because it has not been restored.   I visited both Coixtlahuaca and Teposcolula in the same day and the former, by far, was my favorite.  INAH, the Mexican government bureau which oversees archaeological and historical sites, has a representative in all major monasteries.  Here, at Coixtlahuaca, this representative was extremely gracious and helpful and unlocked the choir loft of the church giving me the chance to access an incredible perspective on the old church as well as offering information and photos of the no longer existant tecpan                                                                                      

1 comment:

  1. Good morning Marina, Just found this article from your blog. I enjoyed reading it. I have been doing research in Coixtlahuaca. What is your email address, so I can send you a couple of my essay pdfs?