Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Tlaxcala Part 5: Plaza Xicoténcatl and the Ex-Convento Franciscano de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

Plaza Xicoténcatl is named for a famous warrior-general. Xicoténcatl Axayacatzín (also known as the The Younger) was the chief military leader of the Tlaxcalteca when the Spanish arrived. The Plaza Xicoténcatl is adjacent to Plaza de la Constitution, at the larger plaza's southeast corner. In this posting, we will take a look at this lovely plaza, as well as Ex-Convento Franciscano de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción and the Jorge Aguilar Bullring.


The tree-shaded plaza contains a large fountain on one end. The plaza is surrounded by restaurants, stores, and museums. When the Spanish marched into Tlaxcalteca territory, Xicoténcatl the Younger led two weeks of bitter fighting in an attempt to stop them. After repeated defeats, the ruling council of Tlaxcala, called the Four Lords, realized that they couldn't stop Cortés. Instead, they decided to become his allies against their traditional enemies, the Mexica (Aztecs). One of the Four Lords was the young military leader's father, Xicoténcatl the Elder.

Restaurante La Tavola occupies part of the east side of the plaza. This eatery has an awning-covered area that includes a large wooden burro. It is a magnet for visiting children. Unlike his father, Xicoténcatl the Younger never trusted the Spanish. During the fight to conquer the Mexica, he resisted their domination. As a result, Cortés ordered the young general to be hanged. There is no record of his father's reaction to this drastic action. However, the alliance between Tlaxcala and the Spanish continued. After their Revolution of 1910, Mexicans took another look at their native roots. Today, Xicoténcatl's spirit of resistance is honored by this plaza and by other statues and buildings, as well as in the formal name of the city itself, Tlaxcala de Xicoténcatl.



Restaurante La Casa Azul occupies the other half of the plaza's east side. The restaurant's name means "Blue House". Originally a 19th century Neo-Classical mansion, today it specializes in coffees and traditional Mexican dishes. Until about twenty years ago, the plaza in front of the restaurant was the site of Tlaxcala's tianguis, or open-air public market. In colonial times it served as a slave market.


Pulqueria La Tia Yola projects from the south side of Casa Azul. The name means "Aunt Yola's Pulque Place". A pulqueria serves a mildly alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant. Pulque has deep historical roots and was the main alcoholic drink of the pre-hispanic people of Mesoamerica. It remained popular among working class and rural people all through the colonial and early national period. However, in the late 19th century, German immigrants set up breweries. Cerveza (beer) is now more popular than pulque, but the traditional drink is still consumed all over Mexico.


Calzada San Francisco

Restaurante Yiandro and the entrance to Calzada San Francisco. Directly across from Pulqueria La Tia Yola is Restaurante Yiandro, on the south side of the plaza. Between them is the entrance to Calzada San Francisco, the tree-lined, cobblestone walkway that leads up to the Ex-Convento. 


Carole trudges up the Calzada. Although it is wide enough for vehicles, it is normally only used by pedestrians. We always enjoy finding serene andadores like this, where we don't have to dodge busy traffic. The Calzada is paved with a double line of cut cantera stone, set in a broad pathway of cobblestones. You can feel time dissolve as you make your way up to the 16th century convent complex.


The Cazada leads up to a triple archway that is the entrance to the Ex-convento. The arched entry is known as the Paso de Ronda. It connects the main Ex-Convento buildings with the stand-alone bell tower, out of view to the right. The Paso de Ronda contains a passageway to the tower. This architectural arrangement is unique in Mexico.


The bell tower at the end of the archway overlooks the city. It was built in three sections, with spaces for six bells in the campanario (belfry). The broad open space beyond the arches, called an atrium, was used in early colonial times to perform religious plays as a means to educate Tlaxcala's indigenous population in Catholicism.


Ex-Convento Franciscano de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

Scale model of the Ex-Convento. The model is located in the Museo de Memoria, located on the west side of Plaza Xicoténcatl.

At the lower left, you can see the top of the Calzada San Francisco and the three arches of the Paso de Ronda, extending out to the bell tower. The other end of the arched passage connects to convent buildings which now house the offices of the Catedral de Tlaxcala.

Near the center of the photo is the former cloister of the convent. Its entrance is framed by another three arches leading to a small atrium. The cloister now contains the Museo Regional de Tlaxcala.

To the right of the museum is Iglesia de la Señora de la Asunción (Church of Our Lady of the Assumption). This structure is one of the oldest parts of the Ex-Convento. Three parallel chapels extend out from its right side. To the right of the church entrance is the small Capilla del Tercero Orden (Chapel of the Third Order).

Across the atrium from the museum, church, and chapel is another small set of buildings called the Capilla Abierta (Open Chapel).

In the center of the right side is a small square structure known as the Capilla Posa (Posa Chapel).

At the bottom you can see part of the José Aguilar Bullring. This area was once part of the Ex-convento.

Along the top and left sides of the photo are terraces that were once used as gardens and orchards to supply food for the friars and their indigenous servants.


The Ex-Convento's cloister is now the Museo Regional. The cloister is the area where the Franciscan friars once lived. Now, it is a museum filled with artifacts from Tlaxcala's history. These range from early pre-hispanic through the colonial and early national periods. If I had to recommend only one museum in Tlaxcala, this would be it.


To the right of the cloister are the church and the Third Order chapel. The Franciscans were dedicated to simplicity both in their lives and in their architecture. The facades of the church and adjoining chapel are examples of this. All of these structures were built very early in the Conquest era. For example, construction began on the church in 1530, only eight years after the defeat of the Mexica. The cloister was begun in 1537, shortly after the church was completed. These dates make the Ex-Convento the oldest of its kind in the continental Americas. In future posts, we'll take a look inside the museum, church and chapel.


The Capilla de Posa sits on the southern edge of the Ex-Convento's atrium. I was very puzzled by this structure, since there is no information about it at the site. After much Googling, I finally contacted my friend Richard Perry, who is an expert on Mexican religious architecture from the colonial period. Sure enough, he immediately knew the answer. The structure, called a "posa chapel", is one of four that originally existed at the Ex-Convento. The other three are now gone. According to Richard, chapels like this "were used in outdoor religious processions in colonial times - and still are in some places."


Plaque at the Capilla de Posa showing San Francisco (St. Francis of Assisi). He was the founder of the Franciscan Order of evangelical friars. St. Francis is the patron of animals and is famous for praising all creatures as brothers under God. This probably accounts for the various animals surrounding him. Notice the goose on the left, pulling on the rope around his waist. The rope/belts worn by Franciscan friars were symbolic of the ropes that bound Jesus and of their commitment. The specific event depicted on the plaque occurred during a forty-day period of prayer on a mountain, 2 years before San Francisco died. At that time, according to the legend, he miraculously received the "stigmata", which are the five wounds inflicted on Jesus when he was crucified.


Upper part of the Capilla Abierta on the west side of the Ex-Convento. Capillas abiertas (open chapels) were built in the 16th century after the military Conquest, during a period that was known as the Spiritual Conquest. The main part of the capilla is behind and below what you see here. The orange structures are used today to sell religious artifacts. Construction of capillas abiertas was uniquely widespread in Mexico, although there are some scattered examples elsewhere in Latin America.


Lower part of the Capilla Abierta. Structures like this were built specifically for the evangelization process. The Franciscans constructed this one in 1528, barely six years after the defeat of the Aztecs, making it the earliest structure in the complex. In pre-hispanic times, the public parts of ancient religious rites were practiced in large open areas, usually in front of a temple or pyramid. In an effort to make the conversion process easier, the friars associated their practices with those already familiar to the native people. Thus, the chapel and its altar are open, with a sizable area in front--also open--so that large numbers of indigenous people could be gathered for the Catholic services. Another example of a capilla abierta can be seen in my blog posting on the ancient Maya city of Dzbilchaltún, in Yucatan.

Jorge Aguilar "El Ranchero" Bullring

The bell tower on the west side of the complex overlooks the bullring. Just beyond the fence is a precipitous drop to an area once called the "low atrium" which contains the bullring. The bullring area was originally part of the Ex-Convento's property, according to a text written by Diego Muñoz Camargo in 1583. A hospital occupied the site from the 16th century until 1867. After the hospital closed, its cemetery continued to be used by the city for another ten years. Much Church property in Mexico The low atrium was seized and sold during the reforms of Benito Juarez in the 1870's, as part of his program of cutting the political and economic power of the Church


The bullring, as seen through the fence next to the bell tower. This has been described as Mexico's most perfect and beautiful bullring. The first mention of the bull ring occurred in 1886, but it was then little more than a cattle pen. Some decades later, steps and arches were added. The bullring assumed its present form when it was re-inaugurated in 1945.


Boys practicing their skills in the ring. They looked a bit young to be actual bullfighters-in-training, but who knows? That could just be my perception as an older guy. The bullring is named after Jorge Aguilar, a famous bullfighter knicknamed "El Ranchero" (The Rancher). Its capacity is 2,500 spectators. Fighting bulls are still raised on haciendas all over the state of Tlaxcala. However, Mexican public opinion about bullfighting is gradually changing. Three states, including Sonora, Coahuila, and Guerrero, have banned the sport because of its cruelty to the bull. In 2016, Baja California considered but postponed action on such a bill. There is no indication of any change in Tlaxcala, however.

This completes Part 5 of my Tlaxcala series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, please leave any comments or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim





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