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How to read a Mexican church

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PLATERESQUE facade of the church of San Agustin de Acolman

The Metropolitan Museum in New York put up an exhibit many years ago called “Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries.”

I never got to see the show, but I found a way to buy the catalogue. Since this was before the time of the Internet and of Amazon, it definitely took a lot of resourcefulness on my part to get what I wanted.

I remember writing a letter to my aunt who lived in Queens, begging her to buy and bring back my dear tome the next time she came to Manila. For some reason, she took pity on her poor tropically bound nephew and decided that she would grant my wish.

This moment of generosity towards a denizen of the Third World was something that my aunt would later regret. For the catalogue—all 24 chapters and 700 plus pages of it—weighed a ton. When I went to see my aunt upon her arrival, she almost hit me on the head with her pasalubong!

Despite the threat of violence, I was ecstatic. I had my book.

AZTEC pictogram

Interestingly, quite a number of people I knew also took the trouble to acquire this compilation of beautifully illustrated essays. Scanning my friends’ libraries, I would be amused to find the same fat volume burdening the shelves.  I suppose my friends are as romantic as I, believing that rich insights could arise from understanding the art history of our sister nation on the other side of the Pacific.

The catalogue certainly repaid my efforts with many hours of reading pleasure. It was in its pages that I came upon images of the San Agustin de Acolman church complex which was described as an important, well-preserved example of the 16th century religious architecture of New Spain.

I would also learn subsequently that the site had a significant connection with our country. The church’s head priest is supposed to have been given permission in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V to hold dawn masses in December. This may be the origin of the Misa de Gallo, a practice much loved by many Filipinos.

Dry countryside

CRUCIFIXION mural

So, while driving through the dry countryside on a recent trip to Mexico, when I spotted a roadside sign for Acolman, I knew I had to visit the site. I begged my hosts to stop the car and they gamely agreed. Acolman had originally been set up by the Franciscan fathers. It was soon turned over to the Augustinians. They constructed a church which they finished in 1560.

Some repair work had been undertaken in the 18th century, but things are pretty much as they were during its earliest days. There would be much to learn from this place.

Entering the walled compound, I was immediately struck by the intense heat of the sun bouncing off the white stonework of the buildings. I could hardly keep my eyes open to admire the fascinating façade which has been characterized as Plateresque. In a way, one could read buildings—churches among them—like a book.

If the Acolman complex were indeed a book, its first chapter would deal with how the friars deliberately incorporated local symbols into the structures they built. It was hoped that the natives would accept the new religious teachings more readily, if cloaked in the raiment of the familiar.

This strategy of employing local imagery would be called tequitqui.   A famous example from Acolman’s façade would be a strange carving of what appeared to be a severed arm. It had streams of blood emanating from one end like flower petals. This was a pictogram referring to Aztec legends of how the gods had plucked the first human being from a lake and carried him by the arm to this place.

COURTYARD with orange trees

Another artifact which would belong to this first chapter of our book on Acolman, with its theme of appropriating the local, is a massive stone cross which stands in an exterior enclosure. I have seen it featured in many volumes on Mexican art.

Scholars have suggested that the local population may have seen in such crosses their own concept of a World Tree from which mankind arose. It is to stress the arboreal connection that the body of Christ was not usually depicted.

The Acolman example features only Jesus’ face. It also bore symbols of the passion that reminded me of the cross which stands at the mouth of the cave, in the huge painting of St. Mary Magdalene by Juan Arzeo in the University of Santo Tomas Museum in Manila.

This one is depicted covered with such symbols as the chalice, the ladder, and the column to which Jesus was tied—all carved on its counterpart in Acolman as well.

A PAINTED retablo

In contrast to the teeming surroundings, the inside of the convent was refreshingly cool. I soon found myself wandering around one of the lovely courtyards. It was not too difficult to imagine monks walking to and fro. Perhaps there would even be one who would be running, having woken up late that morning.

Transplantations

This courtyard with its splendid orange trees represents a second chapter of Acolman’s book. This would deal with introductions from the Old World of Eurasia and Africa to the New.  Indeed, the oranges and the Isabelline frieze of balls decorating the massive columns represented transplantations by the Spanish conquistadors in the rich soil of Mexico.

Still another transplantation could be seen in the murals which decorated the cloisters’ second level. My favorite was a Crucifixion scene with two of the figures sporting bright red hair.

THE FAMOUS atrium cross

It has been suggested that the many Mexican wall paintings from the 16th century were done only in black to differentiate them from the works of pagan artists who used a multihued palette. But what was most noticeable in the Crucifixion mural were classical touches such as the contrapposto stance of St. John as well as the elaborate rendering of the draperies. These were evidence of the success of the schools of art which the friars had established in Mexico to train local students in European techniques.

I spied a line of letters in florid fonts on the upper part of the wall. Finding my initials, I quickly took pictures. I made a mental note that I could use these letters for personal stationery which I would have printed back home!

I kept the exploration of the main church for last. Stepping into the dim interior, I was amazed by the stark difference in temperature. It was so cold inside that one would think that the church was air-conditioned! Evidently, the soaring vaulted spaces and the thick stone walls had an extensive cooling effect.

To the right of the entrance was an incredible golden retablo or altar screen with a statue of the Virgin in mourning and two paintings of Nativity scenes. I thought these quite impressive, but I would later learn that these were probably rather ordinary for Mexicans. I have never found this retablo mentioned by art historians.

One feature of Acolman that has been commented upon is the enormous mural behind the main altar. A discussion of its images could easily form a third chapter of our book—one that could discuss just how artworks were used to elucidate an elaborate program of meaning.

The first level of figures on the wall is Augustinian friars. On top of these are cardinals as well as bishops and above these, popes. The last, highest layer features saints and sibyls. Analyzing the four rows of figures, Prof. Rebecca Holzworth does a good job of decoding what they represent.

She suggests that this assemblage stands for the Roman Catholic church as an institution. But she also points to the many similarities between the Acolman mural and the Sistine Chapel. Like the paintings in Mexico, the Roman examples had four levels of figures with the top one inhabited by prophets and sibyls.

By copying the Chapel, the Augustinian friars were showing that they had an intimate connection with the Vatican and that they had the Pope’s blessings. Given the rivalries between the friar orders, the Jesuits and the seculars, that were raging in Mexico at the time of the Acolman murals’ creation, this was, according to Holzworth, a very important point to make.

So indeed, there is so much a church or any building can share with us if only we find the time to open its pages and read it like a book!


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