Saturday, January 27, 2018

Tlaxcala Part 6: Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption

Detail from the main retablo in the Chapel of the Third Order. The figure above, although only identified as "Caballero" (Gentleman), may be San Luis Rey, the sainted 13th Century French King. The 18th century Capilla del Orden Tercero is one of the most extravagant I have yet encountered. The chapel extends out from the right side of the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, near the altar of the main nave. The church, which is part of a former Franciscan Convento, is also known as Catedral de Tlaxcala. It is one of the oldest cathedrals in Mexico. When the church was originally built it was called Templo de San Francisco de Assisi, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the founder and patron saint of the Franciscan Order. Martín de Valencia was one of the twelve original Franciscan friars who arrived in Nueva España (colonial Mexico) in 1524, only two years after the fall of the Aztec Empire. As the only one of the twelve with building experience, he oversaw the construction of the Franciscan Convento and its Templo. Later, when the Christianized population grew sizable enough, the church was given the status of Cathedral--the administrative seat of a Catholic diocese. It now shares that status with the Puebla Cathedral. In this posting, I will walk you through Catedral de Tlaxcala to examine its early colonial artifacts, architectural details, and sumptuous decoration. If you visit Tlaxcala this place is definitely a "must-see". To locate the Catedral on a Google map of Tlaxcala, click here.


Cathedral exterior

Externally, the cathedral is rather simple. It is the long rectangular building with the olive-colored roof, seen in the center above. To its left is the orange-roofed Franciscan cloister (living area). The four chapels extending from the church's right side were added a century or more later. The chapel with the dome is the Capilla de la Orden Tercero. The exterior of the main building is quite austere, which fits the style of the early Franciscan evangelists. There are two unusual architectural features: the lack of a dome over the altar of the main nave and a bell tower that is separated from the church by an expansive wide atrium. The austere exterior masks the opulence of the interior.


The Renaissance-style facade is characteristic of Franciscan simplicity. At least in the early years, the Franciscans of Nueva España took their vows of poverty seriously, both in their architecture and in their lifestyles generally. They saw themselves as a 16th century version of the biblical Twelve Apostles, with a mission of saving the benighted souls of the "devil-worshiping" indigenous people. They were utopians who worked to set up ideal Christian communities, free from European materialism and corruption. This led to some contradictory results. On the one hand, they often acted as protectors of the native people. The conquistadors, and the hordes of greedy Spaniards who followed them into Nueva España, sought fame and fortune. They considered the natives to be subhuman and felt no compunction about brutalizing them through rape, torture, murder, and--most profitably--enslavement. The Franciscans and other religious orders provided the native people with their only protection against this onslaught. While the Franciscans viewed indigenous people as genuine human beings, they saw them as unformed children, pure in nature but needing a firm hand to keep them from backsliding into idolatry. Those who failed to attend religious services, or showed reluctance to adopt acceptable religious practices, were whipped until they saw the light of Christianity.


A carved stone rope is part of the facade's decoration. The rope represents the rough cord the Franciscans used as a belt for their robes. It symbolizes both the rope that bound Jesus on his way to the cross and the binding nature of the Franciscan vows, most particularly that of poverty. This facade is one of the oldest parts of the overall structure. Construction of the main nave of Templo de San Francisco de Assisi began in 1530 and continued until 1536. The side chapels were added later and their decorations date to the 17th and 18th centuries.


The Main Nave

While the overall structure of the main nave is simple, its decorations are spectacular. There is one long rectangular space with one central aisle leading to the altar. One writer described it as a big barn. At least in the early years, the interior decoration probably followed Franciscan asceticism. Over the centuries, however, the wealth of the Order grew. The sumptuous decorations, including retablos (altar pieces) and paintings, reflected the prosperity of the Franciscans and their patrons. As Spaniards grew rich through their ownership of mines, haciendas, or merchant establishments, they made donations or bequests, as a way to expiate the sins they had accumulated while amassing their wealth. Simply put, it was a way to get their tickets into heaven punched. All of this wealth purchased the intricately carved and gold-leaf covered retablos, as well as large oil paintings of biblical scenes. Most of these works of art were the products of the 17th and 18th centuries, long after the ascetic early utopians were long dead and gone.


The Mudejar-style ceiling is one of the few still in existence in the Americas. This Spanish-Arabic style emerged in 12th century Spain. The Muslim Moors had invaded in the early 8th century AD and, during the 12th century, a large part of Spain was still occupied by them. Christians and Muslims lived side-by-side for centuries and an architectural symbiosis naturally developed. One result was Mudejar, in which Muslim-inspired geometric shapes were used to decorate Christian structures such as churches, palaces, and public buildings.


Retablos of the Main Nave

The main altar at the end of the nave. This 17th century retablo has nine statues and six paintings. One of them shows the baptism of the Tlaxcalan Lord Mixixcatzin, with Hernán Cortéz and La Malinche looking on. The paintings and statues are framed by spiral columns in a style called Solomonic. There is a legend about them concerning the Roman Emperor Constantine. He was the first Christian emperor and, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he is said to have brought back columns from the Temple of Solomon. The Solomonic style imitates that of Constantine's architectural loot. These sorts of spiral columns were popular in Baroque architecture, and particularly in its later period, when it was called Mexican Churrigueresque, or Rococo. 


The "Retablo of the Archangels" stands on the left side of the main nave. 
There was no sign but since all of its paintings are of archangels, I gave it that name. Richard Perry, my expert on colonial art, helped me with many of the details on this retablo and those that follow. The early 17th century altar piece above is in the Renaissance/Plateresque style. The central figure appears to be the Archangel Michael who, according to the Bible story, led God's forces against Satan. San Miguel stands with his left foot on Satan's head, a posture in which he is often portrayed. Arranged around San Miguel are the six other Archangels mentioned in the Bible's Book of Enoch. They are Raphael, Gabriel, Uriel, Saraqael, and Remiel. At the very top is a painting of Jesus. 


Facing the "Retablo of the Archangels" is another across the nave's aisle. The central figure in this retablo is Jesus (Man of Sorrows). He dressed in a purple robe and is surrounded by various other figures, including an archangel above him. This 17th century Renaissance/Plateresque retablo has tritostyle columns, with the upper 2/3 in classical form and the lower 1/3 decorated.


Retablos de la Capilla de la Orden Tercera  

Capilla de la Orden Tercera is the most spectacular part of the whole church. There are at least nine retablos in this relatively small chapel, all of them exquisitely decorated. On the right you can see a raised wooden pulpit. It is reputed to be the first pulpit in the mainland Americas from which the gospel was preached. The Capilla de la Orden Tercera (Chapel of the Third Order) refers to the three divisions of the overall Franciscan Order. The First Order is composed of the male Franciscans who have taken vows of poverty and celibacy. The Second, sometimes called the Poor Clares, is for women who have taken similar vows. The Third Order is for both men and women, many of whom are married and live in the secular world. They attempt to live in ways that follow the spirit of St. Francis, but do not take vows.


The main altarpiece of the Third Order Chapel is intricately decorated. It was made in the Philippines in the 18th century and is considered one of the finest of its kind in the world. The retablo is dedicated to San Francisco de Assisi and has seven niches on three levels, each containing a statue. 

The statue bracketed by angels is of San Francisco. The retablo uses the flamboyant Churrigueresque style. Every square inch is decorated. San Francisco de Assisi balances three globes over his head, each representing one the Three Orders. Out of sight on either side of him, two niches contain statues of elegantly dressed women. Although they are not clearly identified, they may represent two sainted queens, one of Hungary and the other of Portugal but both named Isabel.


Above, another statue of San Francisco stands with hands clasped, praying. This statue stands above the one with three globes. On either side of the praying San Francisco are niches containing elegantly dressed men, identified only as "Caballero" but who may be San Luis Rey, King of France and San Fernando Rey, King of Castille, León, and Galicia.


Next to the main altar piece is a very complex retablo. This late Baroque altar piece wraps around the corner to the right of the main altar piece. A matching piece is molded around the left corner. The paintings depict various biblical scenes. 

Adjoining the corner retablo is yet another. This one is 18th century Solomonic and is devoted to the "Passion of Christ" (the various events leading up to the crucifixion). 


This retablo has a similar Passion of Christ theme. The robed figure of Jesus is bracketed by two religious figures, possibly representing important people from the First and Second Orders. Directly above are paintings of the crucifixion and other related scenes. All the niches are framed with Solomonic columns.


18th century retablo devoted to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. This one is located on the left side of the chapel. Above the Virgin is another painting, depicting her marriage to Joseph. At the top left is San Luis Rey, the 13th century French king who was one of the few monarchs to achieve sainthood. The top right painting is of Santa Rosalia, a devout hermit who lived and died in a cave in Sicily. The 1624 plague that devastated Palermo is believed to have been stopped when her bones were paraded through the streets. The painting on the middle right is of San José holding Jesus. Below that is an image of an unidentified Archangel. On the bottom left is the Virgin of Carmel and above her is an image of San Francisco embracing Jesus on the Cross.


Modified Solomonic retablo on the left side of the Third Order Chapel. The key figure here is the statue of San Francisco in the center of the bottom row of niches. To his left is Santa Isabel, the Queen of Portugal, another holy ruler who was devoted to the poor and sick and was renowned as a peacemaker. After the death of her husband, Portugal's king, she joined the Franciscan Third Order and continued her work. Above Santa Isabel is San Lucrecio, an obscure 5th century monk and bishop. I was unable to identify the other paintings and statues.


Also on the left side, this ornate retablo is entirely devoted to women. The women in the center all appear to be versions of the Virgin Mary. The two large statues on either side may also be the Virgin, but I am not certain of this. The columns framing the figures are not Solomonic. Instead, they were created in a style called estipite, a feature of Churrigueresque style


The Third Order Chapel also contains one of the earliest baptismal fonts in the Americas. It was used to baptize the Four Lords of Tlaxcala. These included Mixixcatzin who received the Christian name Lorenzo and Xicoténcatl (the Elder) who became Vicente. Tlahuexolotzin, was dubbed Gonzalo, and Zitlalpopocatl was given the name Bartolome. The new names were probably a lot easier for the Spanish to pronounce. The ceremony, conducted in 1520, occurred two years before the fall of the Aztecs. Officiating was Juan Diaz, the Chaplain of the Army of Conquest. Observers at the ceremony included Hernán Cortéz and his interpreter / mistress, La Malinche. Also present were Cortéz' key sub-commanders: Pedro de Alvarado, Andres de Tapia, Gonzalo de Sandoval, and Cristóbal de Olid. After the fall of the Aztecs, each of these men led forces that marched off in different directions to explore and conquer much of the rest of ancient Mexico and Central America. The baptism of the Four Lords was a very important step in the spiritual conquest of Tlaxcala. However, there were many hold-outs and this later resulted in the deaths of Los Trés Niños Martires (The Three Martyred Boys--see below).

Other Chapels 

The retablo of this chapel was done in a modified Solomonic style. The statue at the center of the bottom is of San Antonio. The paintings surrounding the statue appear to relate to events of his life.


Beautifully crafted 19th century organ. It was presented to the Franciscan Convento by the Descalced Carmelite Order, (Barefoot Carmelites). The Carmelites had a special relationship with the Franciscans, dating back to the 16th century.


Capilla de la Virgen de Guadalupe


This chapel and its retablo is devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Patron of Mexico. This Solomonic-style retablo dates to 1664. Los Trés Niños Martires stand at the base of the retablo. The early Franciscans particularly concentrated on the young and these three boys were among their converts. One of the boys was the grandson of Xicoténcatl the Elder, one of the Four Lords baptized in the presence of Cortéz in 1520. The Franciscans preached fiercely against pagan idols and urged their destruction. Taking the friars at their word, the three boys smashed images of the old gods. This infuriated many older Tlaxcalans, who had not abandoned their ancestral beliefs. They clubbed the boys to death and, in turn, their killers were executed by the Spanish. This sort of intergenerational conflict was common during the early days of evangelism in Nueva España. It was a direct result of the Franciscan focus on the young, which caused them to lose respect for the ancient gods and, by extension, for the elder members of their community. Los Trés Niños Martires were canonized in October 15, 2017, more than 500 years after their deaths. Interestingly, the man who canonized them had previously taken the name Francis when he became Pope.

Capilla de Christo de Centli


A large corn-paste statue of the crucifixion stands in a glass case in the fourth chapel. The paste used to make the statue is from the pith of cornstalks. In the 16th century, Bishop Vasco de Quiroga began encouraging the native craftsmen of Michoacán to create corn-paste crucifixion statues. In fact, corn had been considered sacred by pre-hispanic people for thousands of years. There had been a tradition of crafting corn-paste gods since long before the Conquest. The Catholic concept of consuming the body of Christ during the Eucharist ceremony fit nicely with the ancient reverence for corn, the staple food of pre-hispanic Mesoamerica. Because the statues were very light, they could easily be carried in religious processions. Soon, they were eagerly sought by churches all over Nueva España, which is how the one above ended up in Catedral de Tlaxcala

This completes Part 6 of my Tlaxcala series. I hope you have enjoyed my tour of one of the oldest cathedrals in Mexico. If you have any comments or questions, please leave them in the Comments section or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

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