Monday, October 26, 2009

Zacatecas Part 4: Fantastic masks of the Rafael Coronel Museum

The Rafael Coronel Museum contains a huge collection of extraordinary masks. Carole has become an aficionado of indigenous Mexican masks, about a dozen of which adorn the walls of our Ajijic home. When she read about the thousands of masks contained in the Zacatecas' Rafael Coronel Museum, she put that on the top of her "must-see" list. The mask above is one of many which depict the natural world. Actual antlers and animal hair were used to heighten the realism of the mask, although I have never seen a deer with such as sinister grin. Since I am publishing this blog post on the eve of both Halloween (Oct. 31) and the Dias de los Muertos (Nov. 1-2), I decided to dedicate it to those two fiestas, closely linked on the calendar, but entirely different in tone, focus, and history. What they share is a delight in scary masks and haunted houses. For days/hours of operation, and fees of the Rafael Coronel Museum, click here.

An ideal location for a haunted house. The Rafael Coronel Museum occupies the ruins of the Convento de San Francisco, built in 1567, the first Franciscan convent in the province of Zacatecas. The construction was authorized by Pedro de Ayala, Bishop of Nueva Galicia (Guadalajara). I shot the photo above from a Teleferico car dangling high in the air on the ride down from La Bufa. The Templo, or church part of the convent, burned down 80 years after the convent was built but was quickly rebuilt in 1648. The Templo is the tall rectangular building on the left side with the white-topped dome. The Ex-Convento is the lower building on the right with the five portales (archways) facing the green lawn.

The Ex-Convento was extremely important to early Franciscan evangelization. The earliest missionary here was Fray Geronimo de Mendoza, who took up residence shortly after the convent was completed. The Convento de San Francisco de Zacatecas was one of the twelve most important of such complexes in the Americas. From here, missionaries fanned out through Northern Mexico and what is now the Southwestern United States. Above, a series of arched passageways seems to lure a visitor into mysterious regions beyond.

Gorgeously lush gardens suddenly appear when ruined corners are turned. Purple bougainevilla flowered in a quiet corner of the ruins. In the mid-1850's Benito Juarez became Mexico's first full-blooded Indian president and instituted the Reform Laws, aimed in part at curbing the overwhelming and pervasive power of the Catholic Church in Mexican society. For centuries, the Church had acted as an ally and apologist for the rich, and Juarez saw it as a major obstacle to social and economic change. In 1856, the Franciscan Convento was closed, along with many other religious facilities around the country. Naturally enough, when local people observed the departure of the Franciscans, they moved right in and created their own neighborhood on the property. Gradually walls and roofs were removed to sell the materials, and the property fell more and more into ruin.

A "flying buttress" supports a wall in an inner courtyard. The arched support above is an architectural innovation of the Middle Ages. Medieval architects realized that they couldn't construct the graceful walls of their churches above a limited height without making the walls so thick that the structure would become impractical. The solution was the flying buttress, which allowed huge stained-glass windows and soaring walls. The walls could remain relatively thin, giving the structure an open, airy feel. When the Ex-Convento was constructed, Spain had only recently emerged from the Middle Ages, and the old architectural styles were imported to Nueva Espana.

The Ex-Convento deteriorated for almost a century. In 1953, an effort began to restore the old structure before it completely fell apart. However, it wasn't until the 1980s that reconstruction began in earnest. As a great admirer of ruins, I was glad the restorationists chose to maintain the "ruined" aspect of much of the structures, even as they built their museum. The Ex-Convento is a quiet, dreamy place, worth an afternoon's ramble even without visiting its spectacular museum. I could almost hear the haunting footsteps of colonial friars as they rushed about preparing for another risky mission among the savage tribes of the North.

A great collapse. While the area of the Convento was abandoned, the Templo continued in use until a few years after the Revolution. In 1924, the vault of the main nave of the church (see above) collapsed. It took another three decades before the architectural value of the property was fully recognized and restoration finally began in 1987. One of Zacatecas' famous artists, Rafael Coronel, offered his collection of masks and other objects which became the major focus of the museum.

Empty passageways, ruined walls, with the sky as the only roof. This whole site is very evocative, and I lost track of Carole and our European friends as I wandered from room to passage to courtyard, the walls all overflowing with flowering vines. I lost myself in the feel of the place and the joy of photographing it. Finally, I broke away from my haunted old convent, and decided to venture into the scary precincts of its Museo de Mascaras.

The Rafael Coronel Museum contains a vast mask collection. In my research for this post, I found various estimates of the number of masks in the collection. The highest was 10,000. One article stated that, whatever the number, those on display were only 30% of the total, the remainder being kept in storage. The skull masks above were probably meant for a Dia del Muerto fiesta.

Some masks reflect the wild animals found in the indigenous makers' environment. Above you can see representations of various members of the cat family, including jaguars. In some indigenous communities, the animals were considered protectors. When the masks were worn during ceremonies, the wearer would dance in imitation of the movements of the animal represented.

Close view of cat mask reveals a successful hunt. The jaguar shown above appears to have caught a snake, which writhes in its mouth. The mast is carved from wood, with actual fur attached as cat whiskers. The earliest mask found in Mexico may have been made between 12,000 and 10,000 BCE, and represents the head of a coyote.

Hungry caiman appears ready to leap on its prey. Crocodiles, alligators, and caiman are found in the swamps and lagoons along Mexico's coastal areas. The mask above is worn on the shoulders with the person's head through the hole in the middle. About 1200 BC, masks in clay and stone began to appear. Later, the Mayas built the Palace of Masks about 10 AD, in Uxmal, a major site near Merida in Yucatan. The rain god Chac appears in hundreds of masks at the site.

Not one you'd want to meet in a dark alley. The mask museum was eery. It wasn't just the masks, but the dim lighting of the seemingly endless series of rooms, empty of people but full of masks. Intent on photographing a mask, I would feel the hairs on my neck rise up. Turning quickly, I would find something like this staring me in the face.

Some of the masks reflected the native view of the arriving Spanish. This creation was more than a mask. The wearer also donned a set of armor, based upon the costume of the ruthless and grim-faced Spanish conquistadors. Many of the other masks representing Spanish figures were big-nosed and pink-skinned. Appropriately, ghostly images are reflected in the glass of the case containing this armored figure.

Domesticated animals introduced by the Spanish also began to appear in masks. One of the aspects I found fascinating was the depiction of more than one animal in a mask. In this case, a lizard climbs down the snout of a rather startled-looking cow.

Another cow, this time with a toothy grin. Indigenous masks are a way of integrating the secular and the religious. Aztec priests wore masks at human sacrifices, but so did their sacrificial victims. Warriors in the indigenous military orders wore masks representing animals, such as jaguars, that were the symbol of their order.

A mask to make Mick Jagger proud. This one reminded me of the famous Rolling Stones poster with the meaty lips and protruding tongue. Jagger, who wrote a song about the Devil, would probably identify with this mask. Often, masks like these would be worn in conjunction with masks representing Catholic saints in dramas where they would vanquish the Devil figures.

And speaking of devils... The mask maker pulled out all the stops on this one. Three sets of horns, a nose like a coiled snake, and a tiny mask on the end of the tongue are only a few of the details the maker included. Guaranteed to scare!

A magnificent set of mountain sheep horns adorns this mask. Once again, the maker has included real features of the actual animal depicted, but added his own touches including squinting eyes and a rather creepy smile.

Warthog peers out from dark, hooded eyes. Another critter obviously up to no good, and one that gave me a start in a shadowy room.

A wooden mask with actual teeth. Although more primitive than some, and unpainted, I found this mask particularly striking because of the teeth, which may or may not be human. There was no sign to explain. Unlike the conception of self in European societies, the indigenous people believed that the person was not separate from his environment, with distinct boundaries. Instead, they believed there was a direct relationship, almost a continuum, between the person and the natural life around him or her. Often they believed that each person had an animal counterpart with supernatural powers which could be called upon through rituals including masks.

Boo! Happy Halloween and Feliz Dia del Muertos! Hasta luego. Jim


  1. the mask looks interesting and scary, nice set of pics thanks for sharing. check out philippines travel destinations

  2. Thank you for sharing! I'm from Chihuahua, Mexico and I never had the opportunity to visit Zacatecas my father was born there. You took good pictures.

  3. That's a really fascinating and descriptive post. I'll be visiting in about ten days. Thanks for further whetting my curiosity!


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