Saturday, October 22, 2016

Taxco Part 4: Parroquia Santa Prisca, the jewel in Taxco's crown

Parroquia Santa Prisca perches on a mountain slope in the center of Taxco. The church was built in the 18th century Mexican Baroque style known as Churrigueresque. Santa Prisca is considered one of Mexico's two masterpieces of the style, the other being the Cathedral in Zacatecas. In this posting, we'll take a close look at the ornate exterior of the church. The following posting will examine the stunning retablos (altar pieces) that cover the walls of the interior. An immensely wealthy silver miner named José de la Borda financed Santa Prisca's construction. The project nearly bankrupted him. Borda built the church to thank God for his good luck in the mining business. Not coincidentally, his son Manuel was the priest who became the curate of the splendid new parroquia (parish church). To locate Parroquia Santa Prisca in Taxco, click on this Google map.

The entrance facade

The facade and steeples of Santa Prisca. The intricate sculptural decorations typical of Churrigueresque were so expensive that even a rich man like Borda couldn't afford to cover the entire exterior with them. Santa Prisca was built between 1751 and 1758, near the end of Churrigueresque's popularity in Mexico. During this period, the Neo-classic style began to gain favor, in part as a reaction to Churrigueresque's florid, over-the-top emotionality. Neo-classic, as the name implies, was modeled on the cool rationality and clean lines of ancient Greco-Roman architecture. Santa Prisca was constructed in a remarkably short time by two architects, the Frenchman Don Diego Durán and a Spaniard named Cayetano de Siguenza. A group of outstanding artists created the exquisite interior, which we'll look at in the next posting.

The facade of a church is composed of the area around and above the main entrance. Santa Prisca's facade was carved from pink sandstone, which glows warmly in the afternoon sun. As you can see, nearly every square inch is covered. In the oval center is a scene of the baptism of Jesus. On either side, framed by spiral columns, are the statues of Santa Prisca (L) and San Sebastian (R), two early Christian martyrs. At the top, the Virgin of the Assumption stands over a clock. Viewed as a whole, the effect is a overwhelming. There is so much detail that it can be difficult to focus. It is only when you zero in on particular elements of the design that you begin to appreciate it. That is the approach I will take, beginning with the clock topped by the Virgin.

The Virgin Mary stands on top of the clock, surrounded by cherubs and saints. This ensemble represents the Assumption which, according to Catholic dogma, occurred at the end of Mary's earthly life when both her body and soul were borne up to heaven. This dogma is relatively new, having been officially adopted only in 1950. There is no mention of the Assumption in the New Testament. However, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, people began to ask "what happened to Mary after she died?" After all, if Jesus was the Son of God, surely his mother wouldn't have died as an ordinary mortal. In all cultures, when in doubt, people make up legends. According to one early story, the Apostle Thomas heard Mary was dying and came to visit but arrived too late. Her tomb was opened so he could pay his last respects, but it was empty except for her grave clothes. Over the centuries, the stories became more and more elaborate. Great disputes broke out among theologians about the details. In 1950, almost 2000 years after the supposed fact, Pope Pius XII settled the issue. Exercising his power of "papal infallibility" he declared a particular version the Assumption to be Catholic dogma.

Cherubs frolic all over the facade. To the left of the choir window, two cherubs kneel on either side of a coat-of-arms containing an eagle standing on a nopal cactus with a crown on top. Interestingly, the eagle on the nopal is an Aztec symbol. In the corner above, two others hold a shield with a face looking our of the sun. A cherub figures like this are called  putti (putto is the singular). A putto is a male child, usually naked and often with wings. They appear in both religious and secular art, especially during the Baroque period. In religious art, putti symbolize the omnipresence of God. The origins of putti go back to classical Greek and Roman times. They were believed to be half-human, half-divine companions of Aphrodite (Venus) the goddess of love. Putti fell out of favor during the Middle Ages but reappeared during the Renaissance. The 15th century Florentine artist Donatello is credited with the revival of putti and they remained popular into the 19th century.

The center piece of the facade is the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. The oval panel is surrounded by putti. Inside the oval, John baptizes Jesus while God and several angels look on. Grouped around the figure of God are the heads of more putti. Parroquia Santa Prisca is unusual for its unified artistic conception. The architects, masons, sculptors, and artists all worked together throughout the seven year building process and the overall project was financed and supervised by one man, José de la Borda. Most other large, distinctive churches were built over many decades, or even centuries.  Sometimes there were long periods when the work halted, due to lack of funding or political unrest. Over these long construction periods, successive architects and artists were employed. Each used different styles according to what was popular during the times in which they worked. For example, the Zacatecas Cathedral has a gorgeous Churrigueresque exterior, but its interior combines 19th century Neo-classical with 20th century modern, a jarring amalgamation in my opinion. By contrast, the style of Santa Prisca is the same throughout, resulting in a jewel-like quality that has been widely acclaimed since the 18th century.

A statue of Santa Prisca fills a niche to the left of the baptism scene. According to one version of her legend, she was martyred as a young girl by the Emperor Claudius (41 AD - 54 AD) because she refused to renounce Christianity. Santa Prisca was a 13-year-old member of a noble Roman family. She was arrested, beaten, and thrown into prison after she refused make a sacrifice to the Roman god Apollo. Released, she again refused and was flogged and burned with boiling tallow. Next, Prisca was thrown to a lion which lay down beside her and refused to attack. After that failure, she was starved, tortured on the rack, and thrown onto a burning pyre. Again, she miraculously survived. The frustrated Claudius ordered the young teen beheaded, a method which finally succeeded. Modern Catholic theologian Johann Kirsch maintains that all this is unhistorical and the details are impossible. However, she did acquire quite a following in the early Church and today is revered by the Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox faiths. The statue above was damaged at some point and lost its hands. She is often portrayed holding a palm frond, representing martrydom, in her right hand.

A statue of San Sebastian stands in the right side niche. I believe he may be the only saint who managed to get himself martyred twice. According to legend, San Sebastian was a young captain in the Emperor's bodyguard. He was also a secret Christian who tried to save other Christians imprisoned by the Emperor Diocletian (244 AD - 312 AD). Ultimately, the young officer was exposed and the Emperor ordered him to be tied to a tree and shot full of arrows. Their work done, the archers left Sebastian for dead. Miraculously, he survived and a local woman nursed him back to health. After recovering, Sebastian sought out the Emperor and loudly denounced him for persecuting Christians. Needless to say, Diocletian was both surprised and annoyed. He ordered Sebastian seized, beaten to death, and his body thrown into a sewer. This time, the martyrdom succeeded. The statue above shows Sebastian's body--contorted but still living--tied to a tree stump. The distinctive spiral columns framing the niches of both Santa Prisca and San Sebastian are carved in a Baroque style called Solomonic. According to legend, similar spiral columns were recovered from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem by Constantine, the first Christian Emperor. It's a good story, but archaeologists have established that the original Solomonic columns actually came from Greece.

The heavy wooden entrance door is beautifully carved and embossed with brass fittings. According to local legend, a miracle occurred during the construction of the church. One evening in 1751, masons and sculptors were busy at their work. They swarmed over scaffolding that covered the facade and steeples at the time. Suddenly, the sky darkened and wind howled through the streets. Bolts of lightning lit up the scene as terrified workers scrambled down the rickety scaffolding. Townspeople feared the church was about to be destroyed by demons. Then, a vision appeared. A beautiful woman dressed in Roman robes floated over the church carrying the palm of martyrs. It was, of course, Santa Prisca. The storm died away and the vision gradually dissolved into the evening air. The new church was saved by the saint to which it was dedicated.

The steeples

Santa Prisca's twin towers are as intricately decorated as its facade. Each tower contains eight bells.  Four small bronze bells are on the top level with four larger ones on the bottom. The bells are suspended from wooden scaffolds and rung by hand. Notice the figures of saints, reaching out their right hands, on each corner of the upper level.

The bell openings at each level are framed by columns with Corinthian capitals. These show evidence of Neo-Classic influence, which was beginning to spread in Mexico at this time. Between the columns, the Churrigueresque style dominates. The sculpture contains two complete putti, one on either side. The head of another forms a triangle. Within the triangle is a highly stylized heart. Above the heart are what appear to be three crowns, stacked one atop the other. Winding through all this are vines and floral embellishments, another typical Baroque feature. The amazing thing is that all this is barely visible from the street below. Only with a telephoto lens, or a telescope, can they be viewed and appreciated. In the 18th century, of course, no one had a telephoto camera lens. Very few people possessed a telescope or any other method of optical enhancement. These are embellishments meant to be appreciated by God, not man.

The face of a satyr supports a balcony in the lower level of the bell tower. The figure has pointed ears, a goatee and what appear to be curling horns emerging from its hair. Satyrs were companions of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, women, and song. Greek pottery from the 6th century BC sometimes contained artistic representations of satyrs drinking from goblets and playing pipes. Others show them chasing nymphs. Satyrs are creatures of physical pleasure, altogether a curious feature to appear on a Catholic church otherwise dedicated to the concepts of suffering and martyrdom.

The dome and side walls

The dome sits over the main altar of the church, at the far end of the nave from the entrance. The eight windows provide natural light for the most important area of the church. The roof of the dome is covered by talavera tiles. At the very top is a cupola with a cross. The cupola appears to be a smaller version of the dome below. Along the railings and positioned around the dome just below the tiled area are finials. These architectural decorations are solid carved stone in the shape of vases. They were a very popular feature in both religious and secular architecture during colonial times and right up through the 19th century.

Red sandstone was used to accent white plaster walls. Above is a section of the right side exterior wall of the church. The facade around the larger doorway is impressive and even the small door to its right his highly decorated. Each window is framed with elaborately carved stone. Numerous finials were used to highlight the railings and balconies.

Archangel San Miguel stands on a pedestal near the main entrance. He is a winged warrior, the leader of God's armies against the forces of Satan, as depicted in the New Testament's Book of Revelations. Above, he wields a sword and shield while stepping on the neck of Satan in the form of a snake with a human face. Archangel Michael also appears in the Old Testament's Book of Daniel. This reference pre-dates Christianity by centuries. He is a powerful symbol, particularly when used to justify violent action against the supposed enemies of God, such as Spanish Muslims and the followers of various pre-hispanic New World religions.

This completes Part 4 of my Taxco series. The next part of the series will focus on the exquisite interior of Santa Prisca. I hope you have enjoyed this posting and, if so, that you leave any thoughts and questions in the Comments section below, or email them to me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

No comments:

Post a Comment

If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim