Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Zultépec-Tecoaque Part 2: The main plaza and its temples

The Temple of Ehecatl, God of the Wind, overlooks the Plaza Prinicpal. In Part 1 of this series, I showed you some of the fascinating artifacts recovered from the period when this site was a Teotihuacan trading outpost (300 AD-650 AD). All of the structures you will see in Part 2 were built by native people called the Acolhua. They re-populated the ruins of the Teotihuacán town around 1250 AD, after it had been abandoned for 600 years. In this and succeeding postings, I'll walk you through Acolhua era ruins, beginning with a tour of the Plaza Principal. The Plaza is bordered on the west by the Temple of Ehecatl and on the south by the Temple of Tezcatlipoca. These were two of the most important gods during the Post-Classic Era (900 AD-1521 AD).

I should also comment on the town's two names. Both Zultépec and Tecoaque are Nahuatl, the language of the AcolhuaThey, along with the Méxica (Aztecs) and the Tlaxcalteca, were part of the great Chichimec invasion which followed the collapse of the Toltec EmpireZultépec, which means "Hill of the Quails", was the name the Acolhua chose for their city. Tecoaque means "Place where they ate the lords or the gods". It was only after the Acolhua town was destroyed by the Spanish that its ruins were given that name. For the sake of simplicity, from here on I will just use the name Zultépec,


Site map of Zultépec-Tecoaque. The map is oriented with north at the top. Just right of center is the large circular structure called the Temple of Ehecatl. To the east of the temple, in the middle of the Plaza, is a small square structure known as the Tzompantli. There are also two small altars to the north and east of the Tzompantli. South of the Tzompantli is a large, square structure with a small, circular enclosure attached to its south side. That is the Temple of Tezcatlipoca. There are also two other plazas which we will look at in future postings. South of the Plaza Principal is the Plaza Superior Sur, which contains temples to Tlaloc, the Rain God, and Mictlantecuhtli, the God of Death. To the north of the Plaza Principal is the Plaza Inferior Norte, containing the Temple of Xiuhtecuhtli, the Fire God, and the elite council-house known as the Salón de los Nobles. Finally, in the map's northwest quadrant are two large residential complexes where most of the population once lived.

Temple of Ehecatl, the God of the Wind

Temple of Ehecatl, viewed from the left, or southeast side. The temple is circular with four concentric levels. The flat top once contained another circular structure with a thatched, conical roof. In front of the circular structure is a broad, rectangular porch containing the stumps of pillars that once supported a roof. The temples to Mesoamerica's numerous other gods are square or rectangular. Because the wind can come from any direction, Ehecatl's temples are always circular. Other examples of this can be seen at pre-hispanic sites such as Calixtlahuaca and  Xochitécatl.


How the Wind God's temple once appeared. The temple faces east, the direction from which both the sun and the star Venus rise. The position of the temple in the west end of the plaza also symbolizes the setting of these astronomical bodies. They are both extremely important in pre-hispanic cosmology because the cyclical nature of their disappearances and reappearances represent renewal, regeneration, and fertility.


Small stone statues of Ehecatl and his temple, found at Zultépec. The Wind God is usually portrayed wearing a mask resembling a bird's beak, through which he blew the wind that cleared the way for rain. This wind also symbolized human breath which, along with blood, was one of the two essences of life. The God of Wind was associated with several other gods, most importantly with Quetzalcoatl, the famed Plumed Serpent. The relationship was so close that he is often called Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl. The Wind God played a key role in the creation of the 5th World (our current universe), when the sun refused to move. Ehecatl stepped in and blew strongly to set the sun on its course. Because the rain is preceded by, and moves with, the wind, the God of the Wind was also partnered with Tlaloc, the Rain God. Finally, as Ehuecatl-Quetzalcoatl, he was the lover of Mayahuel, the Goddess of Maguey.


Almena recovered when the Temple of Ehecatl was excavated. Almenas are decorative elements placed in a line along the cornices of pre-hispanic buildings. They were usually covered in stucco and painted in bright colors.


Skeleton and maguey-shaped pulque cups recovered at Ehecatl's Temple. There was no sign in the museum indicating whether the person had been sacrificed, but the large, splintered hole in the side of the skull suggests a fatal blow. Mayahuel was a beautiful goddess who was hidden away in the clouds by her jealous grandmother, Tzitzímitl. Eventually, Mayahuel became very lonely and began to sing. Her alluring song attracted Ehecatl-Quezalcoatl, who helped her to escape. They made love in the sky and, in their passion, they fell to earth and became a maguey plant. Tzitzímitl discovered the plant when, angered by her granddaughter's escape, she followed the lovers. In her rage, she hacked the maguey to pieces, missing only one part, which Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl protected. His tears over the death of Mayahuel caused the maguey fragment to grow. The magnificent plant was found by the Acolhua people during their great migration from the north and it provided them with many useful products. The spines on the ends of its leaves became needles; the fibers were used for rope and sandals; and much of the plant was edible. Most importantly, they found that they could make pulque, an alcoholic drink, from the juice of the plant. Pulque was declared sacred and came to be used in many important ceremonies.

Temple of Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror God

The Temple of Tezcatlipoca shares the Plaza Principal with Ehecatl's Temple. It is situated on the south side of the Plaza and faces north, a direction with which Tezcatlipoca was closely associated. The proximity of his temple with that of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl is also significant. The relationship between the two gods is complex. In some creation myths, they are portrayed as great rivals, who each destroy one of the worlds created by the other. All of these worlds pre-date the creation of the 5th World, in which we currently live. However, in one of the many creation stories, the two gods cooperate to capture the Earth Monster, a giant crocodile who bites off Tezcatlipoca's foot in the struggle. The two gods use the body of the Earth Monster to create land, where before there was only sea. Because his foot ended up in the Earth Monster's stomach, Tezcatlipoca is usually portrayed with an obsidian mirror in place of the missing appendage. Often, smoke emanates from this mirror, giving him the name by which he is often known: "Smoking Mirror".


Tezcatlipoca, in full regalia, including his obsidian-mirror foot. Here, he actually wears several such mirrors. One is on his right foot and another, larger version, is suspended from his neck. A third is part of his head dress. His body is covered in black and his face is painted with two black stripes. The various mirrors that he wears are made from black obsidian. This color scheme refers to Tezcatlipoca's association with night and darkness. His totem animal is the jaguar, a powerful night hunter believed to be capable of moving freely between the world of the living and the dark underworld of the dead. Jaguars were also totems of royalty, power, and warfare, thus making Smoking Mirror a favorite of rulers. Thus those who worshipped Tezcatlipoca, by extension, worshipped their rulers.


How Tezcatlipoca's temple once appeared. The temple has a broad, 4-step staircase in front, leading up to a patio. On either side of the staircase is a balustrade with a sloping surface leading up to a vertical, rectangular surface. This architectural style is called talud y tablero and dates back at least to Teotihuacán, if not earlier. At the patio's far (south) end is a fire pit, which is situated directly in front of the narrow entrance to a circular stone room. The circular room was once topped by a thatched, conical roof. This was the inner sanctum, restricted to the priests of Tezcatlipoca.


The fire pit and the entrance to the circular inner sanctum. Like most of the important pre-hispanic gods, Tezcatlipoca was connected to the cycle of regeneration and fertility. As such, he was sometimes referred to as the "Giver of Life". Toxcatl, a ceremony held during the month of May, was the most important festival devoted to Smoking Mirror. During the previous May's ceremony, a handsome young man would be selected to impersonate Tezcatlipoca for the coming year. Usually, but not always, this was a captured enemy warrior. Over the following 12 months, he appeared as the god, dressed in finery and jade jewelry. People meeting him in the streets would worship him as if he really were Tezcatlipoca.


The inner sanctum contains two fire pits. During the last 20 days before the climax of the Toxcatl ceremony, the young "god" would be wed to four beautiful young girls who were themselves treated as goddesses. These last three weeks were filled with feasting, singing, and dancing. On the last day, the young man would climb the stairs of Tezcatlipoca's temple, to be greeted by the priests who led him into the inner sanctum.


Toxcatl sacrifice. In the inner sanctum, the young man would be seized and his beating heart carved out of his chest. After the sacrifice, the victim's body would be cooked and ritually consumed. Did he know what would happen to him at the end? Absolutely! The whole affair was considered by all, including the sacrifice victim, to be a great honor. I have not been able to determine the fate of the four young brides, but it is likely that they too were sacrificed.


The inner sanctum, seen from the rear, with Ehecatl's temple in the distance. The timing of the Toxcatl ceremony was significant. May is the end of dry season, and is followed by the seasonal rains which nourish the crops. The Toxcatl ceremony was therefore a celebration of the cycle of regeneration, upon which Mesoamerican civilization depended. The whole affair was intended to encourage Tezcatlipoca to fulfill his role as the "Giver of Life."


The Tzompantli and Other Plaza Features

The base of the Tzompantli is located in the middle of the Plaza. The Temple of Ehecatl stands in the background. If you were to draw a line from the center of Ehecatl's Temple toward the east, and another from the Temple of Tezcatlipoca toward the north, the point at which they would meet is this platform. Tzompantlis date back to the Toltecs (900 AD-1150 AD). They were a highly militarized civilization that dominated most of Mesoamerica, until they too declined and fell. The end of the Toltec Empire opened the way for invasion by the Acolhua and other fierce Chichimec tribes. These newcomers viewed the remains of the Toltec civilization with awe. They readily adopted key aspects of the its culture, including militarism and public displays of the results of human sacrifice.


Tzompantlis were racks used to publicly display the skulls of sacrifice victims. The skull racks had both religious and political purposes. Pre-hispanic people believed that many of their gods required human sacrifice and tzompantlis played a role in these rituals. However, they were also intended to overawe anyone--whether inhabitant or foreigner--who might consider challenging the ruling elite. The heads displayed were usually those of captured warriors, but not always. Sometimes they included women and even children, as was the case with some of the skulls at Zultépec.


This skull was at one time mounted on a tzompantli. Notice the large hole in the skull's left temple, through which the pole extended. During the Post-Classic Era, the use of tzompantlis became widespread in Mesoamerica. The Méxica (Aztecs) arrived in Central Mexico about the same time as the Acolhua, and later became their close allies. In their capital of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), the Méxica constructed an immense tzompantli platform and decorated it with carved stone skulls. Recently, archeologists digging around Tenochtitlán's Templo Mayor  uncovered a huge "skull tower" made up of more than 650 actual human skulls mortared together in circles. Another tzompantli can be found at Chichen Itza, a great Maya city in Yucatan with a strong but mysterious connection with the Toltecs.


View of Plaza Principal from atop the Temple of Ehecatl. In the foreground, you can see the stumps of some of the columns that supported the terrace in front of the temple. The tzompantli is in the center of the photo, with two altars to the north and east of it.


View of the Plaza Principal and the altar near its east end. Beyond the altar is the Plaza Inferior Norte with its Temple to the Fire God and Salon of the Nobles. We will visit this plaza and the one to the south of the Plaza Principal in my next posting.

This completes Part 2 of my Zultépec-Tecoaque series. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim






Thursday, June 7, 2018

Zultépec-Tecoaque Part 1: Outpost of the Teotihuacán Empire

Teotihuacán "theatre" censer found at Zultépec-Tecoaque. The incense was burned in the lower, hour-glass shaped part of the theatre censer. The upper part is an elaborately decorated lid shaped to resemble a temple. The surfaces of the lid were originally covered with brilliant paint and sprinkled with iron pyrite so they would sparkle. Theatre censers were manufactured almost exclusively in Teotihuacán (100 BC-650 AD), capital of a great trading empire. Zultépec-Tecoaque was founded in 300 AD as one of the Empire's trading outposts and was occupied until 650 AD, when Teotihucán fell. The name "Zultépec-Tecoaque" comes from the Nahuatl language of the Acolhua people. They did not arrive until about 1250 AD, when they reoccupied the site after it had been abandoned for nearly 600 years. No one knows the original name by which the Teotihuacano inhabitants called their settlement, so I have chosen to refer to it in this posting by the only name available: Zultépec-Tecoaque. The the ruins and their museum are located in the northwestern part the state of Tlaxcala, near its border with the state of Mexico. To find them on a Google map, click here.


Detail of the theatre censer. The face within the theatre/temple represents a god, probably associated with fertility. The large plaque hanging from his nose represents a butterfly, variously associated with renewal, transformation, fire, death and the military. The four circles on the headband above the face are chalchihuites ("precious things"), which were often used to represent drops of water, always precious in agricultural societies. The four square pieces hanging below the stage represent cloths used in a temple. Censers like this were manufactured at Teotihuacan in a State-owned factory in the North Palace of the Citadel next to the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent. Clay molds were used to make the individual parts. These were then assembled in one of the very first uses of identical, interchangeable parts in a manufacturing process. To help fund Teotihuacán's theocratic government, the censers were sold both for domestic use and as trade items. This explains their presence in Zultépec-Tecoaque, an outpost established at the intersection of key routes to the Gulf Coast and southern Mexico. Theater censers are generally associated with the private altars of palaces and residential compounds, rather than with the altars found in temples and public plazas. They may have doubled as an altar in households of modest means which lacked one. The incense burned was usually copal, a sacred substance derived from the sap, or "blood", of the Torchwood tree. Smoke from copal was used for divinatory purposes, for preventive and therapeutic health care, and as an offering to the gods.


Figurillas with articulated limbs are another artistic feature associated with Teotihuacan. Although there was no sign in the museum indicating where in the settlement they were found, articulated figurillas often turn up in grave sites. They enable us see how Teotihuacanos adorned themselves, in this case with mult-strand necklaces, ear spools, and an elaborate head dress. In real life, the necklaces and ear spools would have been made from jade. While the figurillas are otherwise nude, their articulated limbs would  have allowed them to be dressed in various costumes, according to the ceremony in which they were employed. Teotihuacán depictions of the human face typically show it with long, narrow eyes set horizontally in a heart-shaped face with a slightly parted mouth. Archeologists believe that this uniformity of appearance was a strategy by the State to establish a sense of unity and common identity among a very diverse and cosmopolitan population.


Small sculptures of Teotihuacán women. Like the figurillas, these little pieces give us an idea of the appearance and styles of elite women of the Empire. While the exact status of women in Teotihuacán is unclear, the Empire's most important deity was the Great Goddess, also known as the Jade Goddess. The supremacy of the Great/Jade Goddess sets Teotihuacán apart, because the goddesses of other Mesoamerican civilizations are all subordinate to male deities.


Two Teotihuacán death masks and a small statue. Masks like this were used during funerals, when they were placed over the faces of the deceased. Like the figurillas, the masks bear the classic Teotihuacán facial appearance. Wherever Teotihuacán set up a military or commercial outpost, culture followed. This included styles of art, architecture, clothing, etc. The local people in areas around Teotihuacán settlements were often much less sophisticated. They readily adopted the new, "superior" culture and thus became assimilated into the Empire. Although Teotihuacan possessed a strong military establishment to protect its interests, the  expansion of the Empire seems to have been accomplished more through trade and commerce than through conquest. Zultépec-Tecoaque was established in 200 AD at an early stage of this economic and cultural imperialism.

The role of trade


Classic Era trade routes to the east of Lago de Texcoco. The towns shown on the map are modern, but many originated as pre-hispanic settlements. Zultépec-Tecoaque is slightly to the west of Calpulalpan, in the upper left quadrant of the map. Modern Mexico City now covers most of what used to be Lago de Texcoco (blue area marked "Estado de México"). It is hard to overstate the role of trade in ancient Mesoamerica. Cities and civilizations rose or declined based upon their ability to control important trade routes. Wars were fought over resources, such as obsidian, which could be crafted into valuable trade goods. Materials readily available in some areas, such as cotton and cacao in the Gulf Coast and jade in Guatemala, were profitably shipped to destinations where they were lacking, such as the Valley of Mexico. Teotihuacán's power came from its central position on multiple trade routes, its control over obsidian mines near Pachuca, and its vast capacity for manufacturing finished trade items from both local and imported raw materials. Another source its of strength was the willingness of the city's leadership to welcome immigrants from all over Mesoamerica to live and trade at the center of a great Empire. Whole neighborhoods were set aside for these people and they became one of the keys to Teotihuacán's success. There were Zapotecs from Oaxaca, Maya from Guatemala, people from Western Mexico's Teuchitlán Culture, and many from elsewhere. Zultépec-Tecoaque functioned as a last stop, before reaching the great metropolis. Heavily loaded caravans arrived from the Gulf Coast and southern Mexico bringing goods, immigrants, and new ideas, while other groups stopped on the way from Teotihuacán to points east and south. Zultépec-Tecoaque served as a place to rest, sort out goods, trade information about conditions on the route ahead and, no doubt, to socialize with other traders.


 A textile trader sets out with his porters. This mural, from Tlaxcala's Palacio Gobierno, depicts Tlaxcaltecas from the Post-Classic period. Although that was several hundred years after Zultépec-Tecoaque was abandoned by the Teotihuacanos, the traders and their goods from earlier times would probably have looked pretty much the same. Since large animals capable of carrying burdens or pulling wheeled vehicles didn't arrive until the Spanish Conquest, all transport throughout ancient Mesoamerica was by humans, on foot. Even so, these expeditions were highly organized and those who led them held high status in their societies. Traders from Cacaxtla, of the Epi-Classic Era (650 AD-900 AD), had their own god. Those of the Post-Classic Aztec Empire (1250 AD-1521 AD) were called pochteca and had powerful guilds and special laws that protected them.


Jade and shell jewelry found at Zultépec-Tecoaque. These items, worn by the elite, were especially valuable because they had to be imported from distant locations. Shells, packed either as finished jewelry or raw materials, would have passed through Zultépec-Tecoaque from the Gulf Coast. The distance from the Gulf to Teotihuacán is about 300 km (approx. 200 mi).  Jade was as highly valued by Mesoamericans as gold or diamonds were by Europeans. The main sources of jade were even farther than the Gulf. The jade mines along the Rio Motagua, in central Guatemala, lay more than 1000 km (650 mi) from Teotihuacán. Long distance traders favored these items not just because their scarcity made them valuable. Jade and shell jewelry are both light and compact, important considerations, given the long distances that had to be covered. The jade disks at the top, with the holes in their centers, are parts of ear spools. They were a form of personal decoration that was very popular among the elites of both sexes.



How an ear spool was worn. A hollow stone rod passes through both the disk and the ear. It is held in place by two beads, connected by a cord. Since all of these (except for the cord) were jade, a fairly heavy stone, this must have put a strain on the wearer's earlobe. I suppose modern people also wear uncomfortable items of personal decoration. What price beauty?


Two Teotihuacán-style pots. The style of the top pot is "Teotihuacán Thin-Orange". It sits on a tri-pod base that is also typical of Teotihuacán. Ceramics were a valuable trade item, in spite of their weight and fragility. Ceramics from Teotihuacán have been found throughout Mesoamerica, even as far away as the Pacific Coast of Guatemala. The great Empire's cultural influence was ubiquitous. The bottom pot is painted in an abstract style that is also characteristic of Teotihuacán.

More ceramics with a red, abstract design. The red paint may be specular hematite, an iron oxide flecked with mica that was highly favored by Teotihuacano artists. Notice the similarity in the color and painted design with the small pot in the previous photo. The larger pot is also decorated with a head wearing a typical Teotihuacán head dress.


Temples and Gods


Model of a temple, another typical Teotihucán feature. Very little of Zultépec-Tecoaque's original Teotihuacán architecture survived its 600-year abandonment. What may have been there when the Acolhuas arrived in 1250 was probably destroyed when they they built their city, sometimes using the materials from the older structures. One interesting item that archeologists did find is this model of a temple. It is very similar to others that have been recovered in Teotihuacán itself. Archeologists speculate that the models may have been used by ancient architects in the process of designing a full-scale building. Another possibility is that the models were used as altars. In fact, they may have been used for the second purpose after their original architectural function was done. In any case, this model does give us an idea of what the temples of this trading outpost may have looked like in the Classic Era.


Huehueteotl, the "Old, Old God". Control of fire was the first great step in the evolution of human civilization, long pre-dating the development of agriculture. Huehueteotl may be the oldest of the whole pantheon of Mesoamerican gods. If so, he well-deserves his name. He is always portrayed as a wrinkled old man, bent under the weight of the brazier (fire tray) on his head. His cult may have arrived at Teotihuacán with refugees from Cuicuilco, who were fleeing the volcanic eruption of 150 AD that destroyed their city. The arrival of the refugees coincided with the cultural explosion that resulted in the building of the huge Pyramid of the Sun and other great monuments. Interestingly, in 2013, the remains of a temple to Huehueteotl was discovered at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun. Given all this, his appearance at this Teotihuacán trading outpost should be no surprise.


Ceramic pot bearing the face of Tlaloc, the Rain God. He is identifiable by his "goggle" eyes and the two fangs hanging down from his mouth. Tlaloc is probably second only to Huehueteotl in the antiquity of his worship. This probably dates back to the beginnings of agriculture and the need for consistent rainfall. Tlaloc is a Nahuatl word, and we don't know what the Teotihuacanos called him. Archeologists have decided to call his pre-Nahautl manifestation the "Storm God". Interestingly, in the Classic Era this deity was not just associated with agriculture, but also with long-distance traders.


The Fire Serpent was yet another deity of great antiquity. The Fire Serpent was associated with warfare, fire, and time (or the calendar). He was also connected with Venus, a symbol of renewal and rebirth, possibly because a snake "renews" itself when it sheds its skin. His Nahuatl name was Xiuhcoatl (literally "Fire Serpent") but, once again, no one knows what Teotihuacanos called him. The Fire Serpent was a different deity than the famous Plumed Serpent. He can be readily distinguished from his feathered cousin by his curled snout. Both serpent gods appear on the facade of the famous Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent in Teotihuacan's Citadel. This particular sculpture is a solid stone block, carved on all sides except the base. On its top is a rectangular cavity that was apparently used as a receptacle for human hearts cut from living sacrificial victims.

The Teotihuacán outpost of Zultépec-Tecoaque helped spread the Empire's trade, culture, and influence for 450 years, In 650 AD, the ruling elite of Teotihucán was overthrown and driven out during an internal uprising. This political decapitation of the Empire resulted in chaos. Warfare broke out between city-states such as Xochicalco, Cacaxtla, Cantona, and others. They were all scrambling to dominate the trade routes, now that the great Empire no longer controlled them. Along with this came a series of invasions from the north by fierce Chichimec nomads, long kept in check by Teotihuacán's military power. Since the Empire could no longer protect them, Zultépec-Tecoaque's population  drifted away. Gradually, the dust and vegetation of the high desert overcame the ruins of their once bustling community. It would be 600 years before the site was again occupied, this time by the Acolhua, a hardy new people who founded their own trading outpost.

This completes Part 1 of my Zultépec-Tecoaque series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim









Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Tlaxcala Part 11 of 11: The Basilica of the Virgin of Ocotlán

The Virgin of Ocotlán is the centerpiece of the Basilica's main altar. In this last posting of my Tlaxcala series, we'll take a look at the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Ocotlán, located on a hill to the northeast of the Centro Historico. This church is famous for its extravagant Churregueresque-Baroque style and is a major attraction for religious pilgrims, as well as for people like ourselves who are primarily interested in colonial architecture. More than one million people have visited since the Basilica was constructed. Three times each year, once in December and twice in May, the small statue of the Virgin is removed from its glass case, dressed in finery, and taken in a procession  through the streets of      Tlaxcala. The most important of these processions occurs during the Feast of Subida, on the third Sunday in May, one of the major events each year.  Several stops are made along the flower-lined path, before the statue is returned to the Basilica for a High Mass. In this posting, I will recount some of the legends associated with the Virgin of Ocotlán, as well as the history of the Basilica itself.

Exterior of the Basilica

Our first view of the Basilica was through the ornate entrance to its atrium. According to legend, the adoration of the Virgin of Ocotlán began with a miraculous event in 1541, about twenty years after the fall of the Aztec Empire. This event occurred at a time of great trouble for the indigenous people of Tlaxcala. After their initial alliance with the Spanish against the Aztecs, many Tlaxcaltecas became disillusioned with their new overlords. This was exacerbated when Spanish priests attempted to eradicate the old religions and, in the process, turned children against their parents. Revolts were followed by savage repression by the Spanish. In addition, a series of disastrous plagues began to ravage the indigenous people, who had no resistance to Spanish diseases. Between the beginning of the Conquest in 1519 and approximately 1650, the Tlaxcalteca population plummeted by 90%.


The atrium is the large, open, paved area in front of the church. For centuries, this area functioned as a cemetery. Then, in 1956, it was paved and enclosed by an elaborate wall with several gateways, including the one in the previous photo. The miraculous event was an apparition of the Virgin, which occurred during an epidemic of smallpox. As the story goes, on February 27, 1541, an indigenous man named Juan Diego Bernardino was seeking water from a local stream that was reputed to have healing powers. On his way, he encountered a beautiful lady. After inquiring about his purpose, she directed him to a spring surrounded by ocotes (pines). In the Nahuatl language,  the name Ocotlán means "place of the ocotes". The mysterious woman told Juan Diego that anyone who drank water from this place would be cured and restored to health. The spring still exists today and the faithful still believe in its curative powers.


The massive facade is framed by two tall steeples faced with brick. The white stucco facade was built between 1760 and 1790. The estipite columns are part of the Churrigueresque style found throughout the Basilica. The facade teems with sculptures, including the Twelve Apostles, the four theological Doctors of the Church, the seven Archangels, and San José (Jesus' father) and San Francisco de Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order. Before Juan Diego left the spring, the woman told him that her image would be found within the grove of ocotes. She directed that it should be taken to the chapel of San Lorenzo, atop the hill above the spring. The chapel had been built over the ruins of a pre-hispanic temple. When he hurried home to his sick relatives, Juan Diego discovered that the spring water worked as advertised. The next day, he went to the nearby Convento Franciscano (monastery) where he worked and served as an altar boy. Juan Diego told the friars of his miraculous encounter, the positive effects of the spring water, and the mysterious woman's directions about the image in the grove. They believed him, possibly because of his service at the Convento, but they may also have had other motives (more on this later).


Campanario (bell tower) atop the left steeple. Each of the steeples is 33 m (108.3 ft) tall and each contains twenty stucco columns decorated with vines and grapes. Atop each is a wrought iron cross. There are spaces for eight bells, but it does not appear that all of them are filled. After hearing Juan Diego's story, the friars at the Convento decided to investigate and went with him to the ocote grove that evening. Upon their arrival, the grove appeared to be on fire, either through an actual conflagration or from the glow of the sunset. There are various versions of the story. In any case, they noticed that one tree was fatter than the others and ordered it cut open. Inside the tree, a wooden statue of the Virgin was revealed, providing the friars with convincing evidence that Juan Diego's story was true. They followed the apparition's directions and took the statue up the hill to the chapel. The central place of honor at the altar was, at that time, occupied by a statue of San Lorenzo. The friars moved him out of his niche and replaced him with the wooden statue of the Virgin. Legend has it that the chapel's sacristan (an official in charge of a sacred items in a church) waited until the friars had left and then set aside the Virgin's statue and moved San Lorenzo back to his niche. Angels then switched the statues again. This happened three times before the sacristan gave up and left the Virgin in the central place of honor. Reports of all this spread and the chapel and its statue soon became a shrine which attracted many visitors.


One of the Archangels is framed by two of the estipete columns. Two of the four Doctors of the Church can be seen above and below the angel. The opposite side of the main entrance is similarly decorated. Everything I have recounted, so far, about the Virgin of Ocotlán is part of her legend. However, the first written mention of the shrine did not occur until 1588, forty-seven years after the event. That account was given by Diego Muñoz Camargo, a local Tlaxcalan historian. The next mention was in 1644, by Archbishop of Puebla, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, who visited the shrine, but didn't write about a statue. The first mention of the statue comes in 1689, in a history written by Don Juan Buenaventura Zapata y Mendoza. The official version of the apparition, and the various miracles associated with the Virgin of Ocotlán, was not written until 1750, more than two hundred years after the event. The man who wrote it was Manuel Loayzaga, one of the chief architects of the Basilica. Between 1735 and the 1960s, six different Popes took actions relating to the Basilica and its statue. These included approving the apparition story, granting indulgences, approving the coronation of the statue, elevating the church to the status of Basilica, and establishing a special Feast Day to honor the Virgin of Ocotlán.


The choir window is in the shape of a star and contains two statues. Choir windows are typically placed above the main entrance of a church. The window lights a balcony area overlooking the main nave, which usually contains the organ and seating for the choir. The lower statue is San Francisco. He holds three globes representing the three branches of the Franciscan Order. Above him is the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. Interest in the chapel of San Lorenzo continued to grow, after it gained its miraculous statue. In 1670, another Puebla Archbishop, Diego de Osoria de Escobar visited the site and decided to replace the chapel with a temple appropriate for such an important shrine. To carry this out, he appointed Juan de Escobar (possibly a relative) as the shrine's caretaker. However, major construction didn't begin until 1687. Such delays were not uncommon in colonial times, since funds sometimes dried up for long periods. Juan de Escobar directed the work, once it got under way, and is responsible for the overall floor plan of the Basilica.

The Main Nave

The main nave, looking toward the altar with its statue of the Virgin of Ocotlán.  Large paintings of biblical scenes decorate the side walls. A later caretaker, Manuel de Loayzaga (1716-1758) is responsible for the major decorations of the nave, the retablo containing the statue of the Virgin, and the Camarín or Dressing Room of the Virgin. He was assisted by Miguel José de Santa María and an indigenous man named Francisco Miguel Tlayoltehuanitzin. 


The choir loft and a magnificent 18th century organ are located over the main entrance. The ceiling is richly decorated and hung with four glass chandeliers. Although I am no longer religious, I grew up as a Presbyterian. In the churches of my experience, the choir was typically located to the side and behind the pulpit. In the Catholic churches I have visited, the choir loft is nearly always like the one above, in the rear of the nave, above the seating area for the congregation. The intention of this placement is to keep the worshippers focused on the Mass being conducted at the far end of the nave by removing the choir as a visual distraction. 


The apse of the Basilica is overwhelming. The apse of a church is the semi-circular area containing the altar, located at the far end of the nave from the entrance. Every square inch of the Basilica's apse is covered with decoration, including an amazing collection of saints, angels, cupids and other figures that surround the central niche containing Virgin of Ocotlán. The Virgin's niche is in the form of an ancient lamp and is carved from silver. It has been said that "there is no rest for the mind" when viewing this apse. I would have to agree. As the Mass of the Feast of Subida concludes, "a shower of flowers flows from the top of the Basilica...on to the altar as the statue is replaced for another year."


The ceiling of the apse is under the main dome of the Basilica. Once again, nothing is left undecorated. Surrounding the dome are four rectangular paintings of the Doctors of the Church including St. Augustine, Pope Gregory I, St Jerome, and St. Ambrose. They were all saints from the early Middle Ages, revered by Catholics for their great learning, sanctity, and contributions to Church doctrine. Hanging from the octagonal dome is another of the chandeliers. 


The left side of the apse contains a retablo dedicated to the Virgin of Mercy. She is seen with the body of Jesus in her lap, above a niche containing a crucifix. Surrounding these are ten additional niches with more saints and other religious figures. A small window above the figure of the Virgin helps light the apse.


A statue of San José cradling Jesus stands in a niche to the left of the Virgin of Ocotlán. His statue is one of seventeen full-length sculptures, eighteen angels and thirty-three medium and small size figures that surround the Virgin. Filling the spaces between are shells, flower chains, and garlands of pomegranates. Truly, no rest for the mind. 


The retablo on the right side of the apse contains yet another version of the Virgin. This retablo is devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron of Mexico, who is especially revered by the poor and indigenous people. The man who installed it was Francisco Fernández, the second caretaker of the shrine, whose term of office was from 1691 to 1716. Like the retablo containing the Virgin of Ocotlán, this one has numerous niches filled with statues arranged around the carved wooden figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe.


The Virgin of Guadalupe, in her classic pose. She appeared outside Mexico City in 1531, the first encounter with the Virgin in the New World. Because she was dark-skinned, spoke Nahuatl, and was first encountered by an indigenous person, the Virgin of Guadalupe was enormously attractive to native people. They flocked by the thousands to venerate her. Conversions to Christianity, slow up to that point, began to soar. Perhaps this lesson was not lost on the Franciscan friars of Tlaxcala because, only ten years later, they suddenly had their own apparition. The stories of the Virgins of Guadalupe and Ocotlán contain striking similarities. Both of the people who reported the encounters were indigenous men named Juan Diego, who had been attending sick relatives during an epidemic. The relatives in both cases recovered as a result of the Virgin's intervention. Both apparitions occurred near the sites of pre-hispanic temples. In both instances, the Virgins gave directions that a shrine should be created nearby, and both shrines later became Basilicas. In fact, for nearly a century, the Franciscans refused to accept the Virgin of Guadalupe, believing that the natives who venerated her were just worshipping one of their old goddesses. By contrast, the Dominican and Augustinian friars readily adopted the new, indigenous Virgin, in good part because of the upsurge in conversions. Perhaps Tlaxcala's Franciscans felt they needed their own story, one that was more traditional in nature, i.e. an apparition that was not dark-skinned and Nahuatl-speaking. By creating (or at least encouraging) such a story, they could take advantage of her appeal while maintaining control over the legend. In any case, by the time this retablo was created in the 18th century, the Virgin of Guadalupe was fully accepted, even in Europe, where this statue was created before it was brought to New Spain to be installed in the Basilica.


The Camarín or Dressing Room of the Virgin

The Virgin of Ocotlán's dressing room, where she is prepared for her processions. The Camarín de la Virgen has an octagonal shape and is located behind the apse. Eight panels containing paintings of religious scenes are separated by eight Solomonic columns, another Churregueresque feature. A large, round table stands in the center of the room. The Camerín was created by Manuel Loayzaga, the same caretaker who designed the retablo showcasing the Virgin of Ocotlán. The room is considered to be the epitome of Mexican Churrigueresque art, and is Loayzaga's greatest work. 


The table is supported by eight intricately carved legs. The table is made of ahuehuete (a species of cedar) and is where the statue of the Virgin is placed when being dressed. A selection of beautiful capes are kept for use in the various processions.


Painting by Juan de Villalobos showing a scene from the life of the Virgin. The 18th century oil painting was created by Juan Villalobos, along with the seven other paintings around the room. 


One of eight angels who stand atop the Solomonic columns. They are not identified, but there are seven Archangels, so I imagine that some, if not all, of them are represented. I don't know who the eighth angel might be.


The ceiling of the Camarín is truly overwhelming. The Churrigueresque style has been said to represent "a horror of emptiness." Eight saints are arranged like the spokes of a wheel, each corresponding to one of the eight sides of the room. In the center is a circle with another set of thirteen figures, also arranged like wheel spokes. These appear to be the Twelve Apostles and Jesus. While the Camarín was designed by Loayzaga, the actual work was accomplished by an indigenous man named Francisco Miguel. He labored for twenty-five years, beginning in 1715, to complete this small, but staggeringly complex room. 


The walls of the ante room outside the Camarín are covered with more paintings. In this one, Jesus is shown, bound by the wrists. He is surrounded by Roman soldiers who appear to be taunting him.

This completes Part 11 of my Tlaxcala series, and also the series itself. I hope you have enjoyed these postings and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE provide your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim