Sunday, May 6, 2018

Tlaxcala Part 10 of 11: Franciscan chapels of the colonial era

Carole starts up the long staircase leading to the Capilla del Cristo del Buen Vecino. The Chapel of the Christ of the Good Neighbor stands at the top of a hill behind the Convento Franciscano de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (see Part 5 of this series). Much of the available information about this chapel is contradictory, including the century of its construction. I have photos of two different signs at the site, one citing the 17th century, the other the 18th. The origin of the name is another problem. Some sources state that the "Good Neighbor" reference was adopted during the Cristero War (1926-29) between the Revolutionary government and Catholic reactionaries. Others claim the name comes from the chapel's close proximity to the Franciscan Convent. There is even a story about a neighbor of the church who suffered from a tapeworm. When it was removed, the tapeworm appeared in the image of the crucified Christ. This miracle is supposed to have stopped Tlaxcala's great typhus epidemic of 1750. Whatever the truth of all this conflicting information, the chapel is worth a visit, particularly for the view from the top of the hill, assuming you are up to the climb. In this posting, we'll also take a look at the Capilla de San Nicolás de Tolentino, another of Tlaxcala's numerous Franciscan chapels.


A fountain is embedded in the wall next to an old cemetery. The fountain is at the top of the second of several flights of stairs leading up to the chapel. The chapel and its cemetery were built by Fray José Nava y Mora, a Franciscan friar. After he died, his family took responsibility for the maintenance of the property. The short stairway to the left leads to the small cemetery.


In Mexico, tombs traditionally extend above ground. The cemetery was originally intended for burials of Nava y Mora's Franciscan brethren. However, it contains the remains of at least one woman, according to the plaque on the grave on the far right.


The woman buried here was born in the 19th century and buried in the 20th. The plaque reads "Maria Ch. de Yturriaga, 1868-1935".  She may be one of Nava y Mora's descendants, and thus could claim the right to burial here. On the other hand, the interment took place after the Cristero War (which the Catholics lost), so that may have resulted in a relaxation of the rules.


Tlaxcala spreads out below the hill on which the chapel stands. Most of the city, including the Centro Historico, lies in a bowl created by the high, surrounding hills like the ones you can see in the distance. The Convento Franciscano is located among the trees in the lower right quadrant of the photo.


The Neo-Classic style of the nave became popular beginning in the 18th century. That might point to an 18th century building date, except that the interiors of 17th century Baroque churches were often redecorated in the Neo-Classic style. The nave does contain some Baroque features, including the retablos (carved wooden altar pieces) on the side walls.


Retablo and pulpit on the right side wall of the nave. The carved wood around the painting is covered with gold leaf. The subject of the painting is the Virgin Mary in one of her many incarnations. It is not clear whether this Baroque retablo is part of an original 17th century interior or, alternatively, was brought from a 17th century site and installed in an 18th century chapel. Church decorations were sometimes moved to other sites and reused.


The figure of Christ, reclining in his sepulcher, decorates the left side wall. This figure is also reputed to have a miraculous history, but I have been unable to determine any of the details. The chapel is often closed to the public, so we were fortunate to find it open when we visited.


A gargoyle wearing a "What, me worry?" expression sits on a roof cornice. The roof is part of a home next to the chapel. Could it be the original home of the man with the tapeworm? Who knows? I photographed several other gargoyles on the roof, but this one was my favorite.


Capilla de San Nicolás de Tolentino

Capilla de San Nicolás de Tolentino is only a couple of blocks from Plaza de la Constitution. Built in the 16th century, it has a single tower. The chapel's simple exterior is typical of early Franciscan buildings. Many such structures include a main entrance facing west. In front of the chapel is a small plaza where I stood while taking this photo. Every Friday, neighbors gather in the plaza for a market in which many organic products are sold.


Carole enters the main door of the chapel. The whole structure exudes a serene antiquity that I always find appealing, even though I am not at all religious. San Nicolás de Tolentino (1246-1305) is the patron saint of this colonia (neighborhood). Although this is a Franciscan chapel, Nicolás belonged to the Augustinian Order. His humble lifestyle was probably what appealed to the Franciscans when they dedicated the chapel to him. Nicolás was born in Italy, became a monk at age 18, and was ordained as a priest at 25. Noted for his quiet and gentle manner, Nicolás served  the poor and the dregs of society in the Italian town of Tolentino.


The small campanario (belfry) contains a single bell, rung by a pull cord. Again, this ancient method appeals to me. I am not much moved by chimes broadcast over a loudspeaker. Nicolás was highly respected and acted as a peacemaker during the intense civil strife between the supporters of the Pope and those of the Holy Roman Emperor. During the course of his work with the poor, Nicolás is reputed to have performed healing miracles while handing out bread. Calls to make him a saint began soon after his death and Pope Eugene IV canonized him in 1446.


The exterior of the chapel was constructed using local stone called xalnene. Xalnene is a porous volcanic sandstone quarried in the area around Tlaxcala. Since ancient times, people have used it both for construction. The porous nature of xalnene also led to its use in filtering and purifying water.


The interior is also very spare and austere. Carole and I were the only visitors to the chapel at the time. The stone walls are very thick, which is typical of buildings of this period. One result is a pleasingly cool interior, even on warm days.

This completes Part 10 of my Tlaxcala 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