Sunday, November 13, 2016

Taxco Part 5: The stunning interior of Parroquia Santa Prisca

Archangel Michael, surrounded by souls in Purgatory. In Catholic dogma, Purgatory is kind of God's waiting room. Michael's job is to weigh the souls (animas) to see if they should go to Heaven or get on the "down" escalator. Animas del Purgatorio was painted by Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768), as were all the other paintings inside the church. In his time, he was considered the finest artist of Nueva España (New Spain). The painting is part of a retablo (altarpiece) that stands in a chapel on the left side of the main nave. Of the twelve retablos that cover the walls, side chapels, and main altar of Parroquia Santa Prisca, this is the only one not dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Jesus, or a saint. The beauty and complexity of these massive Churrigueresque works of art are truly overwhelming. In this posting, you will see eight of the twelve retablos and I'll tell you a little about the statues and paintings on each. I can't show all the altar pieces because poor lighting resulted in some unsatisfactory results. However, even if all the photos had turned out well, the sheer number would have made this posting much too long. You'll just have to see these exquisite creations for yourself. For a schematic showing the exact locations of all of the retablos within Santa Prisca, click here.

The main nave and altar

The nave, facing the main altar. In Spanish, nave means ship. A nave in a church is a long narrow room with an arched roof, kind of like the hull of an upturned boat. Retablos line the walls and extend from floor to ceiling. Colonial mining magnate José de la Borda financed the church and assembled the best artists of Nueva España to decorate the interior. Santa Prisca has always been a very popular venue for weddings, funerals, and other special masses. As a result, access for photographs is limited. We had to return several times to find an occasion when we could wander about without disturbing a religious service. Even between masses, there were always a few people praying in the pews. Fortunately, photography is a very quiet activity.

The Altar Mayor's retablo resembles the facade of the church entrance. If you look closely, you can see the form of a giant cross. On either side of the cross are statues of Santa Prisca (L) and San Sebastian (R), in the same positions they occupy on the entrance facade. Massive, intricately carved pilasters frame the Altar Mayor. In Spanish, retablo means "board behind". Retablos are elaborately carved wooden structures that stand in the rear of an altar area. They are often covered with gold leaf and filled with niches containing paintings of biblical scenes or statues of religious figures. These structures originated in Europe during the period of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Churrigueresque retablos leave no space undecorated, and this is especially true at Parroquia Santa Prisca.

Altar Mayor detail showing Santa Prisca among a multitude of other figures. In the center, Santa Prisca holds a palm leaf in her right hand while clutching her Roman robes with her left. Legends about Santa Prisca can be found in Part 4 of this series. In addition to Santa Prisca, this small section of the retablo contains at least 31 other statues or faces of popes, saints, angels, and putti (cherubs). Can you find them all? Are there any that I missed? Churrigueresque truly is Baroque on steroids.

An ornate pipe organ stands in the choir loft at the rear of the church. Like the retablos, the organ is decorated with various putti and religious figures. The finials found at the top corners of the organ and on the railing mimic those found on the outside of the church. The earliest known organs were invented in Greece during the 3rd century BC. The wind supply was driven by water pressure. During the 6th and 7th centuries AD, hand-pumped bellows replaced water pressure. Organs didn't arrive in Western Europe until 757 AD, when the Byzantine Emperor Constantine V sent one to Frankish King Pepin as a gift. Emperor Charlemagne, Pepin's successor, ordered another for his personal chapel in 812 AD. The golden age of organs was the Baroque period of the 17th and 18th centuries, when this one was created. Not only did the instruments gain their full musical range, but organs became works of art

La Capilla de los Naturales

Retablo de Animas del Purgatorio is located in the Capilla de los Naturales. on the left wall. The chapel contains Retablo de Animas del Purgatorio you see above, plus two others in wings extending out from either side. The entrance is framed by two elegantly carved stone pilasters reaching to the ceiling of the nave. Capilla de los Naturales (Chapel of the Natives got its name when it was designated as the space reserved for indigenous people whom José de la Borda didn't want mixing with the aristocracy. Another large painting by Cabrera arches over the entrance of the Capilla between the pilasters. The theme of the Capilla has led to its use for services honoring the dead.

Top detail of Retablo de Animas del Purgatorio. Three small paintings highlight this section of the retablo. The Virgen del Carmen occupies the center, with Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) on the left and the Virgen de la Inmaculada on the right. In Catholic doctrine all three figures are closely associated with saving souls. I always find it interesting that the Virgin Mary, in one or another of her many incarnations, occupies so central a position in the Catholic churches I visit. Images or statues of God are generally absent. Jesus is often (but not always) represented, but he nearly always takes a secondary position to the Virgin, as he does in this retablo. This seems especially odd to me since Catholicism, as an institution, excludes women from nearly all positions of power and authority.

Retablo de Jesus Nazareno occupies a niche to the left of the Animas retablo. This is one of the few places in Santa Prisca where Jesus is the central focus. Yet even here, he is off to one side of the Capilla, which is itself a secondary area of the church. There are several statues of Jesus in front of the retablo, as well as a painting of him in its center. The retablo and its statues are dedicated to the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth, i.e. the series of events that led to Jesus' death. The central painting shows Jesus with the cross, on the way to Calvary Hill, assisted by putti.

Detail of Retablo de Jesus Nazareno showing its upper section. The painting in the center is of the crucifixion. Surrounding it are numerous putti. The statues of two richly-dressed men stand on either side of the painting. They are Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, wealthy supporters of Jesus as well as members of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of the Jewish people in Jesus' time. Both men are mentioned in the New Testament. After the crucifixion, they claimed the body from the Romans and placed it in a tomb on Nicodemas' property. This probably put them at odds with other Sanhedrin members, who had demanded Jesus' execution.

Retablo de la Virgen de la Concepción, also known as la Inmaculada. This niche in the Capilla de los Naturales is to the right of the Animas retablo. The "Immaculate Conception" of Mary doesn't refer to her conception of Jesus, but to her own immaculate conception in the womb of Santa Ana, her mother. It's all part of the rather complicated mental gymnastics developed by the Church over the millennia to explain Jesus' family relationships. If Jesus was truly the Son of God, he obviously couldn't have been born with the stain of the Original Sin passed down from Adam and Eve. By extension, neither could Mary, his mother. The Church holds that she was conceived in the normal biological way, but that God excused her from the burden of Original Sin. All this wasn't finally settled in Catholic dogma 1854, following almost 1500 years of discussion and wrangling. Apparently the holy dispensation stopped there, because Mary's parents, Joaquin and Ana, were held to be normal mortals conceived in the usual way. Not wanting to slight them, however, the Church made them saints. Statues of San Joaquin and Santa Ana stand on the retablo to the left and right of the painting of the Virgin Mary.

Statue of San Joaquin, the Virgin Mary's father, on the Retablo de la Virgin de la Concepcíon. Surrounded by cavorting putti, he sports a halo and rich robes. Joaquin and his wife Ana are not mentioned in the New Testament. Stories about them originated in the Gospel of James, one of the books that didn't make it into the New Testament. Still, Jesus' maternal grandparents have become part of Church "traditions." Following the death of Jesus, memories of actual people and events began to fade. As ordinary people struggled to make sense of the new religion, they found it necessary to fill in a lot of blanks with myths and legends. Early Church leaders were concerned that all these evolving stories would lead devotees in directions that threatened the leadership's power and authority. So, over the centuries they gathered in a series of Councils to nail down the versions of the stories that best suited the developing institutional interests of the Church. These were political decisions clad in religious garments. Those unofficial stories which the Church was unable to suppress were gradually incorporated as traditions. The parentage and family relationships of a key figure like Mary were especially important.

Top section of Retablo de Virgen de la Concepción. The painting in the center depicts the Holy Trinity and, once again, is surrounded by winged putti. On the left side of the retablo is Simeón el anciano (Simon the Elder). On the right side is Ana el profetisa (Anna the Prophetess). Neither wears a halo, indicating they are not considered saints. However, unlike many figures in Santa Prisca's retablos, both of these people are mentioned in the New Testament. The are part of the description of Jesus' first presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem as a baby. Under Jewish religious law, a woman was considered unclean for 40 days after giving birth and could not enter the Temple during that time. According to the New Testament, Simeon took the new baby in his arms and immediately recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Ana, for her part, announced to all that the child was extraordinary and thus gained fame as a prophetess. The occasion is celebrated as the Fiesta de Candelaria on February 2.

The Retablos of the Nave

Retablo de San Juan Nepomuceno stands to the left of the entrance of Capilla de los Naturales. As a child, Juan Nepomuceno (? - 1385) was cured of disease through the prayers of his parents, so they decided his future should be in the Church. He became a famous preacher in the city of Prague (modern Czech Republic) where he was invited to be the Queen's confessor. The King was cruel and jealous and demanded to know what the Queen said in confession. Juan repeatedly refused to say, even under torture. Eventually, the disgusted King ordered him drowned in Prague's Vitava River. He is known as the "martyr of the confessional" who set the example of devotion to priestly duties. For this reason his retablo is populated with the statues of many other priests.

San Juan Nepomuceno (center) stands in a glass case surrounded by other saints. On the far left is the rather sinister San Pedro Arbués (1441-1485). As a member of the Spanish Inquisition, he was assassinated (the Church would say martyred) because of his atrocities against so-called heretics and Jews. San Vicente Apaulo (St. Vincent de Paul, 1581-1660) stands to San Pedro's right. A far more benign character, San Vicente was a French priest who had humble origins and a colorful life. Enslaved by Muslim pirates in North Africa, he eventually escaped. San Vicente worked with the poor and sick and founded seminaries to educate priests. To the right of the glass case is San Felix (? - 250 AD), who was beaten and tortured during the persecutions under Roman Emperor Decius. During the persecutions, Felix saved Bishop Maximus by hiding him in a vacant building. According to legend, a spider quickly built a web across the door, fooling the searching soldiers. Because of his suffering, Felix is considered a martyr, but he actually died a natural death.  On the far right of the retablo is San Lorenzo Levita, a 3rd century AD Spanish deacon and treasurer of Pope Sixtus II. In 258 AD, Roman Emperor Valerian ordered all Church wealth confiscated and all its officials executed. Sixtus was beheaded and San Lorenzo was ordered to produce the treasure. Instead, he distributed it to the poor and sick and announced that those people were the treasures of the Church. In response, the Roman prefect roasted Lorenzo alive on a gridiron. Legend says that after a considerable time over the fire, the saint told the prefect to "turn me over, I'm done on this side!"

Top detail of Retablo de San Juan Nepomuceno shows three more priests. The three priests above are all Jesuits connected with evangelism. At the top is San Francisco Borja (1510-1572), a Spaniard whose father was a Duke and whose mother was the daughter of a Viceroy. Even as a child Francisco Borja wanted to become a monk but his parents sent him to serve Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Francisco married, but after his wife died, he joined the new Jesuit Order, soon becoming one of Ignatius Loyola's closest advisors. Francisco eventually became head of the Order and greatly expanded missionary work. San Francisco Xavier (1506-1552), on the right, was another Spanish aristocrat, whose father was president of the Royal Council of the Kings of Navarre. Francisco Xavier attended university at the Sorbonne in Paris. There he met and became a loyal follower of Ignatius Loyola a fellow student and founder the Jesuits. Francisco Xavier's Jesuit evangelism took him to Africa, India, the East Indies, and even Japan. He died while waiting for transportation to China. The third figure, on the lower left, is identified only as Santo Misonaro, a Jesuit missionary.

Retablo de San José, honoring Jesus' father.  This retablo stands to the right of the entrance to the Capilla de los Naturales. It is sometimes called the Altarpiece of the Family of Jesus because it not only contains San José holding the baby Jesus, but parents, grandparents, and cousins. The Virgin Mary's father, San Joaquin, and grandfather, Estolano stand to the left of San José. Her mother, Santa Ana, and grandmother, Emerenciana  appear to the right. Mary's grandparents, Estolano and  Emerenciana, are not saints and neither are mentioned in the New Testament. More family are above, including Jesus' cousin, San Juan Bautista (John the Baptist, at top of retablo). San Juan's father, San Zaccaria, is below and to the left. His wife, and the Virgin Mary's cousin, Santa Isabel is on the right.

Detail of Retablo de San José. San José holds the baby Jesus, with San Joaquin on the left and Santa Ana on the right. Notice the book carried in Santa Ana's left arm. According to Church tradition, Ana taught Mary to read. Even in this relatively small space, the sculptor managed to include 14 putti.

Retablo de la Virgen de Guadalupe is framed by two large white pilasters topped by an arch. The retablo stands at the left end of the transept. A transept is a section of a church that lies across the nave, near the main altar. Thus, the whole structure of the church forms a cross. This is one of the most elaborate of the twelve altarpieces, befitting the Virgin of Guadalupe's position as patroness of New Spain (and later Mexico). Nationalist sentiment was already growing in the mid-18th century. In a little over 50 years, the people of New Spain would begin their fight for independence from Spain. From the very start, the rebel army's flag displayed the Virgin of Guadalupe. In addition to numerous statues and almost innumerable putti, there are a total of eight paintings.

Detail of Retablo de Virgen de Guadalupe showing seven of the eight paintings. In the center is the Virgin herself, in the pose and attire in which she is nearly always displayed. To understand more about the origin of this version of Mary and why it became such a powerful political symbol in colonial and post-colonial Mexico, click here. The six small, oval paintings show a series of scenes detailing her legend. She first appeared in New Spain in 1531, only a decade after the fall of the Aztec Empire. The four statues below the paintings include (L to R) an unidentified saint, San Julian, San Malaquias, and San Leandro. At the very bottom, in the center, is the figure of San Simpliciano of Milan, wearing the hat of an archbishop. All these figures were bishops or archbishops during the period spanning 600 AD to 1200 AD. It was a time of great crises for the Church. It had to cope with post-Roman barbarian invasions, the chaos of the Dark Ages, the rise if Islam, and the Crusades. The two figures holding crosses, San Julian and San Leandro, were noted for their evangelical work among the pagan Visigoths and the Islamic Saracens.

Retablo de la Virgen del Pilar stands on the right side of the church near the main entrance. It is called the Altarpiece of the Choir of Archangels because it contains statues of all seven archangels, as well as the Virgin Mary and several martyred saints. The Virgen del Pilar is in the glass box in the center. According to legend, Santiago Apostol (St. James the Apostle) encountered her while he was praying. She was standing on a pillar beside the River Ebro outside the city of Zaragoza, Spain. Santiago Apostol was later renamed Santiago Matamoros (Moorslayer). In this new guise, he became the patron of Spain and Spanish conquistadors. However, biblical scholars dispute that St. James ever visited Spain and, if not, it would have been impossible for him to have encountered the Virgin Mary there. In any case, she became the patroness of the Kingdom of Aragon, of which Zaragoza was the capital. Not coincidentally, José de la Borda, Santa Prisca's financier, was born in Huesca Province, which adjoins Zaragoza.

Detail of Retablo de la Virgen del Pilar. In the glass case, a small statue of Mary, holding Jesus, stands atop a marble pillar. Around her stand four archangels, wings aflutter. They are (L to R) San Raziel (also known as Uriel), who expelled Adam and Eve from Paradise following their indiscretion with the apple; San Baraquiel, the Adjutor (assistant) to God; San Jeudiel, the rewarder and punisher who is sometimes shown carrying a whip; San Sealtiel, the intercessor who, in the Old Testament, stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac. Outside the frame of the photo, in the top section,  are San Miguel, San Gabriel, and San Rafael, the Big Three.

This completes my posting on the interior of Parroquia Santa Prisca. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. If you have my email, you can also send your comments directly. If you do place a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

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