Thursday, June 4, 2009

Queretaro: Part 3 - Treasures of the colonial period

El Museo de Arte in Queretaro is a work of art in itself.  We were fascinated by this graceful and incredibly ornate old building. The museum did not allow photographs of the art displays, which ranged from 17th Century Flemish to modern abstract. The prohibition was acceptable to me because the building itself was so extraordinarily photogenic.

In this post I will focus on the Museo de Arte, and the Museo Regional. While they represent different eras and different architectural styles, and contain different kinds of displays, they are similar in their religious origins and in the history of their transformation into great museums. They are but a tiny slice of the architectural riches adorning Queretaro's El Centro. We only had a short time in the city, and barely scratched the surface of treasure chest that is Queretaro. This is a city deserving of many return visits.

El Museo de Arte began as an Augustinian Convento (monastery). The architect Mariano de las Casas, under the direction of Fray Luis Martinez Lucio, built this vast edifice in the Latin American baroque style. Baroque is an ornate and highly detailed style popular in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The Augustinian friars arrived in Queretaro in 1723 and dedicated their work to the Virgin of Dolores.  Work was begun on their Convento in 1731 and completed in 1748. Above you see the original entrance to the Convento. The museum entrance is out of sight to the right. Hours of the Museo are 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM Tuesday through Sunday. There is a small fee of about $2.00 (US).

View of the Convento tower from inside the interior courtyard. You can see the baroque style on the courtyard arches, or portales, and on the square tower above. If the tower looks somehow unfinished, it is. At some point during construction, work was suspended, but the Augustinian friars craftily kept hope for completion alive and thus kept up a stream of donations from their Order's supporters. The tower stands today as it was when work was suspended 250 years ago. What appear to be electrical lines against the sky are actually part of the fine wire netting stretched across the top of many old courtyards to ward off pigeons, the bane of statuary.

Two levels of archways surround the four sides of the courtyard. The design of the courtyard and its portales is typical of an 18th Century convento. The vertical lines point toward heaven and the repeating arches give the impression of both equilibrium and infinity. 

Beautifully painted and tiled walls and ceilings lie behind the archways. The effect of a quiet walk around the perimeter of the courtyard under the portales is both powerful and contemplative. One is both inside the shelter of a building and outside enjoying sunlight or gentle rain.

Figures of Caryatids are sculpted into the courtyard pillars. The 18th Century was the period known as the Enlightenment, when ancient Roman and Greek forms became very popular in European art and architecture. Caryatids were architectural features of many Greek and Roman temples, with a figure, generally a female, standing upright and taking the place of a pillar supporting a building. Caryatids can be found supporting the roofs of temples on the Acropolis in Athens, and some have been found in Phoenician ruins earlier than the 6th Century BC. I found it very interesting that figures from ancient pagan temples were built into a major Catholic religious building. All of the details of this figure have a religious meaning, from the upraised hands to the way the lower torso becomes sculpted vegetation.  The tube extending out from the mouth functions as a drain pipe, directing water from the roof to the stone patio below. 

Caryatids on the lower level pillars were much more naturalistic. I could imagine they were sculpted from the faces of real human models. Each of the faces is different, with a different expression. Sometimes they appeared severe, even angry. Others smiled or looked worried or startled. In a break with ancient tradition, all the figures on the pillars are male, with the older ones in the corners and adolescent faces in between.

Museo Regional de Queretaro

Looking through a portal into the courtyard of the Museo Regional. The Museo Regional began as a convento for the Franciscan Order, who arrived in Queretaro in the 16th Century, two hundred years before the Augustinians. The Museo was part of a vast Franciscan complex that included the Templo San Francisco (still an active church), and part of the modern Jardin Zenea and several other public plazas. 

Today the Museo Regional houses a wide array of displays from the bones of Paleolithic animals, to pre-hispanic Indian artifacts, to artifacts of colonial and Mexican history. These include the lock and keyhole through which La Corregidora whispered a warning that the 1810 insurgent's plot was discovered, an act which triggered the War of Independence from Spain (see Queretaro Part 1). Although I was allowed to photograph, I could not use a flash. Since much of the interior lighting was dim, I only took a handful of photos. Some of these I include below, and some are in Part 1 of this  series.

The Renaissance style of architecture was more austere than the later baroque. It was still lovely though, and actually a bit more to my own taste. The central fountain provides a cool and soothing sound within the echoing stone courtyard. This part of the old Convento complex is called the cloister. While work on the Franciscan Convento began as early as 1540, the work on the cloister wasn't begun until 1660, under the direction of Sebastain Bayas Delgado. The Museo Regional is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM. The entrance fee is about $2.50 (US), but the Museo is free on Sundays.

Domes of the Templo San Francisco glow in the afternoon light. The Convento performed many functions in addition to religious ones including infirmary for the Indians. During the War for Independence, it functioned as a jail for captured insurgents. After independence, a long struggle ensued between Liberals and Conservatives. The Liberals wanted to reduce the power of the church and build a secular state. This led to a fragmentation and partial destruction of some of the Convento properties. The process reached its end with the Revolution, during which some of the buildings were used as a barracks.  After the Revolution most of the Convento property was turned into public property, and the cloister became the present day Museo

Masks have been popular  in Mexico since long before the Spanish arrived. This one was part of the Otomi Indian collection. Notice the lifelike leather ears. The teeth appear to be actual human teeth, but I couldn't get close enough to be sure. Beautiful although often grotesque, masks are still hand made and used in religious ceremonies and fiestas all over Mexico. Carole has started a small collection and we add to it on our various adventures. They can range in price from a few dollars to several hundred. 

Religious statue, possibly Santiago (St. James). According to legend, Santiago appeared during a battle between the Spanish and the Indians at the site of present-day Queretaro. Suitably impressed, the Indians conceded (see Queretaro Part 1).

Old map of Queretaro and surrounding country. Even when this map was drawn, Queretaro was a cross-roads. Note the many villages in the country around the city. In colonial Mexico, the Indian name of a village was generally preceded by the name of a Christian saint who became the patron of that community. Thus, the full name of Queretaro was Santiago de Queretaro. This may have been partially because the Indian names were extremely difficult for the Spanish tongue. 

A cool, quiet hallway beside the courtyard lends itself to romance. Still another function the old Convento provides, although the Franciscans would probably not have approved. I hope you have enjoyed these wonderful old buildings as I did. They are full of history and meaning, and I could have stayed for days just to find out more, but we had to return.

In my next postings, we will visit a couple of fascinating villages in the countryside.  Shelley, our B&B hostess, guided us to these and they were definitely worth seeing.

Hasta luego!  Jim


  1. I have really enjoyed reading your blog the last few weeks. It makes me want to visit Queretaro.

    My wife, Jean, and I spent 2 weeks in Ajijic this winter, and plan to spend several more weeks starting in January.

    Please keep posting!

    Ron Mullenaux

  2. Yet another superb description of what you saw in Queretaro. Your photos are exquisite. We are lucky to be able to see Mexico through your eyes!

    Hasta luego,

    Julika y Denis


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