Monday, November 27, 2017

Tlaxcala Part 4 of 11: Palacio Gobierno's murals of Tlaxcala's conflict with the Aztecs and alliance with the Spanish

Tlaxcalteca warriors engage in a "pep rally" before going into battle. The one on the right wears the heron emblem of Tizatlán, one of the four key cities of what the Spanish called the Tlaxcala Republic. All of the warriors brandish spears tipped by razor-sharp obsidian (volcanic glass). Throughout their history, Tlaxcaltecas maintained the fierce warrior traditions of their forebears. They were one of the tribes of Chichimec nomads from the north who had invaded and conquered the area in the 13th century AD. See my previous posting for a description of Tlaxcala's early history. In this posting, we'll look at the later stages of Tlaxcala's history, up through the Spanish Conquest. I will illustrate my posting with more photos of the wonderful murals covering the walls of the Palacio Gobierno.

Tlaxcaltecas versus the Mexica

Tlaxcaltecas celebrate a victory over the Mexica (Aztecs). Two men retrieve the body of the slain Mexica general from among the corpses of his elite bodyguard of Eagle Warriors. Around them, Tlaxcalteca warriors exultantly raise their obsidian-edged maquahuitls, a hand-weapon that was widely employed in this period. Notice the heron emblem strapped on the back of the warrior on the left, using rope and a wooden frame. The apparatus must have been light or it would have inhibited his movement in combat. The Tlaxcalteca and the Mexica warred with one another more or less continuously for almost 300 years. This conflict extended from the time they both arrived in the Valley of Mexico right up to the Spanish Conquest. While the scene above shows a Tlaxcalteca victory, they seem to have lost more often than not. Over the centuries, the Mexica empire continued to expand until it completely surrounded Tlaxcala, cutting all of Tlaxcala's trade routes. This deprived its people of many important and desirable goods such as cotton and cacao from the Gulf and metal objects from the Tarascan Empire in western Mexico. The trade blockade was enough to ensure enmity, but there was an even greater cause for the Tlaxcaltecas' intense hatred toward the Mexica.

The Mexica launched regular "Flowery Wars" against Tlaxcala. While the Mexica surrounded Tlaxcala, they never conquered it. Certainly the bravery and ferocity of the Tlaxcaltecas helped them keep their independence. However, the Mexica seem to have viewed Tlaxcala as a kind of wild game preserve in which to conduct conflicts they called "Flowery Wars". The main purpose of these wars was to capture Tlaxcalteca warriors for human sacrifice. In most pre-hispanic societies, human blood was considered to be an essential element of the universe. The ritual shedding of blood through human sacrifice was a common practice. However, the Mexica were different from both their predecessors and their contemporaries. The number of their victims was exponentially greater. The chief Mexica deity was Huitzilopochtli, god of war and of the sun. In order to keep the sun moving across the sky each day, the Mexica believed that Huitszilopochtli needed regular offerings of human blood. To fail in this was to risk a halt in the sun's daily course, thus jeopardizing the very existence of the world. Mass human sacrifices were, in this view, a kind of public service. The Mexicas' great Templo Mayor pyramid. located in their capital city of Tenochtitlan, was built to worship Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, a rain god who also required human sacrifice. In 1487, as part of the the pyramid's re-dedication ceremony, more than 10,000 people were sacrificed over four days. The Mexica are estimated to have ritually sacrificed as many as 250,000 people each year during various festivals for their many gods. It is no wonder that their contemporaries feared and hated them.

A captive warrior takes on all comers in a Mexica gladiatorial sacrifice. Of all sacrifices, those of warriors were considered the most important and sacred. In the scene above, the captive is tethered to a large, circular, stone disk which is covered with ritual carvings and dripping with blood. Archeologists have unearthed a number of similar disks, the most famous of which is the so-called "Aztec Calendar". It is not actually a calendar at all, but a platform for gladiatorial sacrifices. The captive in the scene above has just dealt a savage blow to one of the Mexica's elite Eagle Warriors. Another Mexica dances with excitement as he brandishes his obsidian-edged maquahuitl. This ritual was about blood sacrifice, not a fair fight, so the captive warrior's weapon is edged with feathers, rather than obsidian. At the bottom you can see the soles of a row of sandals worn by other captives. It is not clear whether they are dead already or simply lying trussed, waiting their turn. A famous story tells of a great Tlaxcalteca warrior who was captured during a Flowery War. He was promptly marched back to Tenochitlán and tethered to the gladiatorial disk. However, even armed with an un-edged weapon, he defeated all his opponents. The Mexica were so awed by his skill and courage that they offered him his freedom. The Tlaxcalteca warrior refused, since he considered death in this manner to be too a great honor to pass up.

Arrival of the Spanish

The native people experienced consternation, fear, and awe upon the arrival of the Spanish. Not only did these new people represent an unknown race and culture, but they possessed awesome tools and weapons. To native people, an encounter with a fully armored Spaniard would have been much like a modern person coming face to face with an alien in an outlandish space suit. Some Spaniards were mounted on a horses, an animal that had become extinct in the New World tens of thousands of years earlier. At first, many natives thought the man and horse were a single animal. In addition to all this, the timing of the Spanish arrival seemed to fit centuries-old legends about the return of the god-king Quetzalcoatl. Native people, from simple farmers to sophisticated rulers, had a hard time deciding whether the Spanish were terrifying new enemies or divinities who should be welcomed and appeased. The mural above shows this mix of emotions.

When the Spanish arrived, Tlaxcaltecas fought them fiercely at first. Above, Tlaxcalteca warriors staunchly hold the line against the invaders. The people of Tlaxcala resented any attempt to intrude into their territory or impinge upon their freedom. The centuries-long struggle against the Mexica had honed their ability to mount a fierce resistance against this strange new enemy. Hernán Cortéz, the Conquistadores' leader, was a gifted military commander, but he was  also a shrewd politician and diplomat. He knew that he would need allies for his plan to conquer the Mexica. In several hard-fought battles, Cortez' forces defeated the Tlaxcaltecas, in spite of being heavily outnumbered. He then made them an offer they couldn't refuse.

The lords of Tlaxcala welcome Cortéz and his men into their city. The fighting ability of the Spanish, plus their fearsome new weapons, convinced Tlaxcala's leaders to seek peace. Cortez had learned from other native groups that the Tlaxcaltecas were not only great warriors, but also the bitter enemies of the Mexica. Wisely, the Spanish commander treated the Tlaxcaltecas with courtesy, generosity, and respect. Thus, he persuaded them to consider an alliance against their ancestral enemy.

La Malinche played a key role in the Conquest. She is the richly-dressed woman on the right of the mural. Born into a noble Nahuatl-speaking family, La Malinche had been enslaved as a girl by the Gulf Coast Maya. During her enslavement, she became fluent in several Maya dialects. When the Spanish landed on the Gulf Coast and defeated the local Maya chieftain, La Malinche was given to them as a slave. Cortéz desperately needed an interpreter to assist in his search for native allies. La Malinche excelled at this and added Spanish to her linguistic repertoire. She played a key role in the negotiations with the Nahuatl-speaking Tlaxcalteca. They viewed La Malinche as Cortéz' noble consort and treated her with respect. For centuries, the people of Nueva España, and later Mexico, saw her as a heroine. However, after the Revolution, attitudes changed. Many now view La Malinche as a traitor to her native people who was instrumental in bringing about their oppression. Today, in Mexico, Malinchista is a derisive term for a person who abandons Mexican culture in favor of foreign ways.

The four lords of Tlaxcala sign a formal treaty with the Spanish. They are shown here in Spanish frilled collars and capes, but they still wear their feathered head dresses. The Tlaxcalteca were loyal allies. Even after the Spanish suffered heavy loss during their initial retreat from the Mexica capital, they were warmly welcomed back in Tlaxcala. In fact, Cortez and his men could never have conquered the Mexica on their own. Armed and armored though they were, their numbers were tiny compared to the tens of thousands of warriors the Mexica could field. While Cortez' forces never exceeded 1,500 men, they were accompanied by many thousands of Tlaxcaltecas and other native auxiliaries. The Tlaxcaltecas were shrewd bargainers on their own part. In return for their support, they demanded perpetual exemption from tribute, a share of the spoils, and control of two provinces that bordered Tlaxcala. Cortéz agreed and, in truth, how could he not? As a result, Tlaxcala was exempt from tribute until the end of the colonial period, when the tribute system was abolished.

In the final struggle, Spaniards and Tlaxcaltecas fought side by side. While the Templo Mayor burns in the background, Mexica Eagle warriors fight desperately, their backs to the wall. A mounted Spaniard hacks away as a Tlaxcalteca warrior thrusts forward with his bloodied sword. The sword is probably an anomaly, since it is unlikely the Spanish would have entrusted one of their limited supply of weapons to a native soldier. In any case, the Tlaxcalteca would have been more comfortable wielding a maquahuitl. The final battle for the Mexica capital took weeks of bloody hand-to-hand fighting, during which the stunningly beautiful city was leveled. The great Mexica Empire was destroyed in its prime, but what would be Tlaxcala's fate in the post-Conquest world?

Post-conquest autonomy

The Lienzo de Tlaxcala displays the political structure of the Republic of Tlaxcala. The Lienzo, a large, cotton-cloth document, was created in the mid-16th century by indigenous scribes under the supervision of a Spaniard. It records the political structure of Tlaxcala, as well as the history of the Conquest, as seen through the eyes of the Tlaxcaltecas. The green "water mountain" in the center represents Tlaxcala. It contains a coat-of-arms, granted by the Spanish king in 1535. This was awarded because of the Tlaxcaltecas' great support during the Conquest and because the four lords had allowed themselves to be baptised. The coat-of-arms symbolized Tlaxcala's status as an autonomous unit within the Spanish Empire, accountable directly to the King, without intermediaries. Above it is the emblem of the Spanish Hapsburg Dynasty, signifying the ultimate power. The four altepetls (chief cities) of Tlaxcala are also shown, along with their rulers and chief retainers. Among the Spanish figures are the first two viceroys of Nueva España, a Spanish bishop, and Hernán Cortéz. The Lienzo is, in some ways, like a Tlaxcala Magna Carta.

Tlaxcala's autonomy was reinforced by later amendments, called cedulas. Three of the lords of Tlaxcala are shown above, holding some of these documents. The yellow-framed portrait of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, is in the upper right, over another of the cedulas. Charles was the ruler who granted Tlaxcala's coat-of-arms.

Tlaxcala's Niños Martires were killed by evangelization opponents. The three young boys standing in the center holding green feathers and crucifixes are known as Los Trés Niños Martires (Three Martyred Children). Although the four lords of Tlaxcala, along with many others, were baptised and adopted Spanish customs, there were dissenters to the New Order. In fact, when the Spanish arrived, Tlaxcala's army commander, Xicoténcatl, had opposed the alliance. He was eventually executed by Cortés for treason. The Spanish were accompanied by Franciscan missionaries, who immediately embarked on wholesale evangelization. Many Tlacaltecas held to the old beliefs and were angered when their children were placed in Franciscan schools and indoctrinated in the new faith. The three young boys were killed, one in 1527 and two more in 1529, after they followed the Franciscans' teachings and desecrated pagan idols. One of the boys was the eldest grandson and heir to Xicoténcatl. The Spanish, and some Tlaxcaltecas, viewed the three boys as martyrs for the faith. In 2017, almost 500 years later, they were finally canonized, the last step to becoming Catholic saints. On the other hand, the warrior Xicoténcatl has also been honored. Several large statues of him were erected in Tlaxcala and a city plaza was given his name. Apparently, Tlaxcaltecas continue to have ambiguous feelings have about the Conquest.

This completes Part 4 of my Tlaxcala series. Next we'll take a look at the Ex-Convento de San Francisco, the oldest religious structure in Tlaxcala and one of the oldest in all of Mexico. I hope you have enjoyed this look at the wonderful murals of Palacio Gobierno. If you would like to leave a message or ask a question, please do so 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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Tlaxcala Part 3 of 11: Palacio Gobierno's gorgeous murals showing the city's prehispanic origins and economy

Mural showing two of Tlaxcala's most important gods. On the right is Camaxtli, the god of war and hunting. He was the chief deity of Tlaxcala and always appears with black paint across his upper face, vertical "candy-stripes" on his body, and carrying a bow and arrows. In the center, dressed in white, is the mother goddess known as Xochiquetzalli. According to some versions of Tlaxcalteca mythology, they were married. In the next two postings, I'll show you the extraordinary murals inside the Palacio Gobierno (Government Palace). These include scenes from archaic times all the way to the colonial period. The artist was Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin, a native of Tlaxcala. He worked on them from 1957 until his death in 1997, incorporating all the newest archeological discoveries to ensure accuracy. The Palacio is located along the north side of Plaza Constitución. To find it, click here.

Palacio Gobierno

Balcony of the Governor's office, above the front entrance of the Palacio. The beautifully carved white plaster nicely compliments the warm reddish glow of the brick facing. The style is very similar to the facade of Parroquia San Jose, (see my last posting). At the time I did that posting, I erroneously identified it as Churrigueresque. Richard Perry is a friend who publishes a blog called the Arts of Colonial Mexico. He tells me that this is Neostyle, a transition between late Baroque and Neo-Classic. The bell above the balcony is a replica of the one at the town of Dolores Hidalgo that Father Miguel Hidalgo rang to summon the people to begin the War of Independence (1810 - 1821). Every September 15, as part of the Fiesta de Independencia, the Governor stands on the balcony, rings the bell, and delivers Hidalgo's speech to the crowd below.

Below the balcony is the Mudéjar-style entrance of the Palacio. The fall of the Emirate of Granada in 1491 ended 700 years of Moorish domination in Spain. Practicing Muslims who remained in Spain were called Mudéjares, in contrast to Moriscos, who converted to Christianity. Eventually Spanish Catholic fanaticism forced both groups to leave the country. Although the Spanish Christians despised Islam, they did admire Muslim architectural styles. Mudéjar-style architecture was eventually brought to the New World. The Palacio was originally constructed  as a home for Hernán Cortez. From the colonial period through modern times, the building has been used for government offices. The Palacio has been destroyed and rebuilt several times due to floods, earthquakes, and fires.

Tlaxcala's origins

Youthful hunters take aim. The first inhabitants of what is now the State of Tlaxcala arrived some 11,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic Era (Old Stone Age). They were nomads who were hunting big game, including camels, mastodons, and horses. All of these animals became extinct in the New World many thousands of years ago. The oldest traces of the hunters' presence include a Clovis point spearhead and the remains of plants and animals that they consumed in the caves where they took shelter. The environment at that time was cold and humid.

Normads discover teocintle, the wild plant from which maiz originated. When the climate became warmer and dryer, the big game began to disappear. Archeologists believe this may have been accelerated by over-hunting. Increasingly, the nomads had to rely on smaller game and plants for their subsistence. Eventually, they discovered how to grow some of these plants themselves. Through experimentation over millennia, maiz (corn) was developed from teocintle. The oldest cobs of maiz yet found were discovered in a cave in Oaxaca. They have been carbon-dated to 5,400 years ago. However, DNA tests indicate that maiz probably originated much earlier in Puebla, south of Tlaxcala. Cultivation of maiz created a surplus of storable food, but it also necessitated significant cultural changes, since agriculture requires a sedentary lifestyle.

Over time, Maiz became central to the pre-hispanic economy and culture. Above, a man examines a newly sprouted maiz plant, while groups of men plant and cultivate their fields. They are using a long-handled tool called a coa, a Neolithic (New Stone Age) invention. I have observed it in use by small farmers in Mexico, as they plant and cultivate maiz in exactly the same way their archaic ancestors did. Over the millennia, the Tlaxcala area experienced waves of migration, and sometimes outright invasions, by new groups moving down from the northern deserts. Some of them built the ancient city of Xochitécatl (800 BC - 300 BC) in southwest Tlaxcala. A couple of centuries later, Teotihuacán (100 BC - 650 AD) arose. Tecoaque was a Teotihuacán military and trading outpost located just inside modern Tlaxcala's western border on an ancient trade route from the Gulf Coast to the Valley of Mexico. After Teotihuacán's demise, a period of turmoil ensued during which a Maya-related group called the Olmeca-Xicalanca arrived from the Gulf Coast. They took over the area and established Cacaxtla (700 AD - 900 AD), as their capital. It was within sight of the ruins of Xochitécatl, already ancient at that time. Cacaxtla fell, in turn, to the expanding empire of the Toltecs (900 AD - 1150 AD). When the Toltec era ended in the 12th century, it was followed by yet another period of instability. Military conflicts flared among rising city states and Chichimec invaders arrived. The name is generic for various northern-desert tribes of fierce nomadic warriors who had been kept in check by the Toltecs and, before them, Teotihuacán. After the Toltec empire collapsed, waves of these invaders swept down, taking advantage of the turmoil.

The Tlaxcaltecas arrived on the scene in the mid-14th century. Above, the Tlaxcalteca war god Camaxtli points the way for the migrants, They were part of the last great wave of Chichimec invaders. Included in this mass migration was another tribe known as the Mexica, commonly called the Aztecs. The two tribes not only arrived in their new homelands at about the same time, but they shared many cultural traits, including Nahuatl, their common language. They worshipped many of the same gods and shared a taste for warfare, conquest, and human sacrifice.

The Tlaxcaltecas conquer the Teo-Chichimecas, part of an earlier wave of migrants to Tlaxcala. The mural above gives a taste of pre-hispanic warfare, a savage and bloody affair. The scene is quite accurate. Not only could the artist draw from the first hand accounts of the Conquistadors, but the great murals of Cacaxtla display just such a titanic battle between the Eagle and Jaguar warrior cults. The combatants above are brandishing a fearsome hand weapon called a maquahuitl. It was a wooden club, the edges of which were lined with razor-sharp obsidian. Other weapons included the bow and arrow, the atlatl (a dart thrower), long spears, and slings that propelled stones with such force that they could endanger even a Spaniard in steel armor. For defense they used quilted armor and round wooden shields decorated with feathers. Warriors often clothed themselves in the skins of jaguars or other totem animals. Strapped to their backs were wood stakes adorned with bright feathers. In the heat of battle, these helped sort out friend from foe. In addition, the emblems enabled commanders to identify the battle lines so they could direct their forces.

Tlaxcalteca chiefs meet to formalize an on-going alliance. Following their successful conquest, the tribe divided up the lands they had captured. Four towns named Tepetícpac, Ocotelulco, Tiztlán, and Quiahuitzlán emerged as the centers of the Tlaxcalteca civilization. Each had its own lord and ruling elite. Over time, the leaders of these independent towns formed an on-going alliance to avoid internal conflict, to assist one another in conquering more territory, and to deal with external threats such as the rising Mexica empire to the west.

Pre-hispanic economy

A Tlaxcalteca noble oversees the harvesting of maiz. He wears a tilma, or cotton cape, knotted at his throat. It is hard to overstate the importance of maiz to pre-hispanic cultures. It was the staff of life and was used to prepare a wide variety of foods. Some of these, including tortillas, tamales, and the drink called atole are still widely consumed today. Abundant crops meant prosperity and security, while crop failures could be disastrous. Thus, maiz figured prominently in myths surrounding gods like Quetzalcoatl, who delivered the secret of maiz cultivation to humankind. Regular human sacrifices to gods like Tlaloc, the rain deity, were thought necessary to ensure adequate precipitation and good harvests.

Methods for processing maiz are unchanged from pre-hispanic times. On the left, a man uses a tumpline across his forehead to carry a basket full of freshly-harvested maiz. It is a very ancient method of transport that is still in use today. In the center, women sit around a pile of cobs, removing the husks. I have observed this same scene near my home. After husking, the maiz kernels are removed, soaked in lime, and boiled in a process called nixtamalization. This process dissolves the hulls around the kernels. Using a stone platter called a metate, the maiz is then ground with a roller called a mano, also made of stone. The resulting masa (dough) is flattened by hand into thin, round cakes called tortillas. These are cooked on a clay griddle called a comal. All these processes and tools are still in use throughout Mexico today, just as they were a thousand or more years ago. In fact, manos and metates are among the most common artifacts unearthed by archeologists in even the most ancient pre-hispanic sites. Today, virtually identical versions are sold in Mexican hardware stores for use as basic kitchen equipment.

Other Tlaxcalteca artisans at work. On the left, merchants examine a folded codex, which was the pre-hispanic version of a book. The paper for the codex was made by pounding the bark from an amate tree with a special stone to separate and flatten the fibres. Because of work necessary to create it, paper was a very valuable commodity. Because it was light and easy for traders to transport, paper became an important trade good. It was used primarily by rulers, priests, and the nobility for records and religious tracts. On the right, workers gather and bundle agave leaves. These were used to produce fibre for sandals and ropes, among other things. The spines from the tips of agave leaves could be used as needles. The agave heart could be cooked and eaten and the juice from the heart could be processed into pulque, a mildly alcoholic drink still consumed in rural Mexico. Today, agave is most famous for the tequila which is made from it.

Weaving and dyeing cloth were other important crafts. In the center, three women weave cotton cloth using backstrap looms. The cotton was imported through the trade networks from the hot coastal areas. Backstrap looms are another very ancient technology that is still in use. Local women in my town can be found under the shade of a lakeside tree, using looms like these to make blankets and shawls for sale to tourists. On the  right, men dye the cloth in a large pot. One of the most favored dyes used crushed cochineal insects gathered from the nopal cactus. It was produced exclusively in Oaxaca and was expensive because a large number of the tiny insects were needed to produce a small amount of dye. Aztec emperors demanded quotas of cochineal dye as tribute from the Zapotecs of Oaxaca. Today, cochineal is still used as a dye in food and lipstick.

A merchant sets out on a trading mission. Men fold and bundle cotton cloth into packets for tlamemeque (porters) to carry. Notice the weary man in the center wiping the sweat from his brow and the two men assisting a tlamemeque who wears a tumpline. The merchant-traders, called pochteca, were not part of the nobility but were still of high status. They had their own powerful organizations and even their own gods. Pochteca sometimes acted as intelligence agents for their rulers when they visited city-states ripe for conquest.

An injured tlamemeque receives medical attention as the pochteca looks on. In the background, the others take a much-needed break. Pre-hispanic people were sophisticated in the use of plants and other natural materials for their medical needs. Pochteca knew that the injuries of a porter must be attended to because, given the absence of any large domesticated animals, human transport was the only kind available. Trade routes in pre-hispanic Mesoamerica were extensive, reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coasts and from Honduras to modern New Mexico. There is even evidence of trade between Peru and Western Mexico. Tlaxcala was well-positioned for trade since it lay on a route between the Gulf Coast and the Central Valley of Mexico.

Traders brought their wares to great city markets like this one. The scene above is part of a large mural showing Tlaxcala's tianguis (market). It captures the bustle, the variety of goods, and the myriad transactions that took place. My own pueblo of Ajijic holds what is still called a tianguis every Wednesday. Except for the clothing, and the temple in the background, ours looks pretty much the same as the one in this scene.

Nobles from Tlaxcala's four city-states confer. Commerce wasn't the only function of a tianguis. It was also a great social occasion for all classes. The elites of Tlaxcala could talk politics, make marriage alliances and conduct all sorts of business on these occasions.

Tlaxcala's pantheon of gods

Three priests conduct a key ritual of the Fire Ceremony. Tlaxcala's chief god Camaxtli was said to have invented the fire drill, seen above. To do it, he revolved the heavens around their axes. He was also the first to strike sparks from flint. The worship of the hunter-god Camaxtli, and his relationship to the invention of tools to create fire, harks back to archaic hunter-gatherer times. Fire was extremely important to archaic people. It provided warmth, lit the night, enabled the cooking of food, and could offer protection against predators. The ability to make fire was the first great invention in the long road to civilization. It thus became an important feature in most religious rituals and, in this case, had its own great ceremony, conducted at eight-year intervals.

The Festival of Xochiquetzalli was held each May. Above, a priest chants as the musicians behind him rap out a rhythm on a teponaztli. This was an elaborately carved hollow log drum with slits through the top in the form of an elongated capital H. Often the instrument had a human face on one end, as well as other carvings on its sides. The teponaztli was considered an especially sacred drum. Xochiquetzalli was believed to be the mother of gods and, according to some tales, was the spouse of Camaxtli. She was associated with goodness and flowers and could intercede with more powerful gods to grant the wishes of those who appealed to her.

Quetzalcoatl delivers the great gift of maiz to humankind. Quetzalcoatl, also known as the Plumed Serpent, had been worshipped throughout civilized Mesoamerica as far back as the Olmec times (1500 BC - 400 BC). It is likely that Chichimecs tribes like the Tlaxcalteca adopted Quetzalcoatl as they came into contact with civilized people and began to settle down. In fact, the myth of the Plumed Serpent asserted that he not only delivered maiz to humans, but taught them the arts of civilization, including writing.

Male and female deities dance together. The Tlaxcalteca pantheon was large, with many gods similar to those worshiped by the Mexica, while others were different. Every aspect of life was governed by greater or lesser gods and their festivals were often linked to the sacred 260-day calendar.

This completes my first posting on the murals of the Palacio Gobierno. Next time, we'll look at murals showing the Tlaxcalteca's great rivalry with the Aztec empire and their eventual alliance with the Spanish during the Conquest. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. Please 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.

Saludos, Jim

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Tlaxcala Part 2 of 11: Parroquia San José, a splendid mix of Neo-Classic and Baroque

A king dances on a massive retablo in the main nave. He was one of a row of four royal figures, all in similar poses. Close examination has convinced me that he is San Luis, also known as King Louis IX of France. He was a monarch of the Middle Ages who was known for justice, compassion and piety. Louis IX was one of the few rulers ever elevated to sainthood. I have been unable to discover the identities of the other royals, or why all of them appear to be dancing. Parroquia San José is located in the northwest corner of Plaza de la Constitution. The puzzle of the dancing kings is not the only thing that has baffled me about this church. There is a dearth of information about its history, construction and decor. In this posting, I'll provide you with the bits and pieces I have managed to unearth.


The church exterior glows warmly in the afternoon sun. Beginning in the 16th century, a religious hermitage dedicated to San Juan and San José occupied this site. Either in the late 17th or early 18th centuries (depending upon your source) the hermitage was demolished and replaced by the Parroquia (parish church). The new church was dedicated solely to San José (Jesus' father). Construction on various parts of the structure continued into the 19th century, particularly after an earthquake destroyed the roof and one of the domes in 1864.

More recently, on September 20, 2017, Parroquia San José was severely damaged when another earthquake shook central Mexico. This 7.1 temblor left cracks in the facade, tower, and domes, raising fears that the whole structure might collapse. The photo above was taken prior to this disaster. To see a video of the quake rocking the church, click here. In the audio a voice keeps saying "tranquilo, tranquilo" (calm down, calm down) to pedestrians who were weeping as they viewed the destruction.

The domes of the Parroquia are beautifully decorated with talavera tile. This was added during reconstruction after the 1864 quake. Talavera tile originated during the Moorish occupation of Spain (711 AD - 1492 AD). Like many other Moorish styles, the tin-glazed, earthenware was copied by the Christian Spaniards. Production of the earthenware gradually became centered in the town of Talavera de la Reina, hence the name. After the discovery of the New World, Spain exported both the tiles themselves and their method of manufacture. In Nueva España (colonial Mexico) the city of Puebla became the center of talavera production. Since Puebla is located a relatively short distance south of Tlaxcala, it is not surprising that the tiles would be used in rebuilding the Parroquia.

The facade is in the Late Baroque style known as Churrigueresque. This can be seen in the windows, the eight columns, and the statuary, all made of white plaster. The top four columns display the spiraling style called Solomonic, which is a characteristic element of Churrigueresque. Between those columns, in front of the choir window, stands a statue of San José, the Parroquia's namesake.

Main nave

The style of the main nave is Neo-Classic, with elements of Baroque. A number of Baroque retablos line the walls. They are intricately carved, covered with gold leaf, and have niches for statues and paintings. 19th century Chilean artist Manuel Antonio Caro painted several of the large works that hang on the walls. One of those paintings shows the baptism of the four indigenous lords of Tlaxcala in 1520, an event that occurred early in the Conquest, even before the final defeat of the Aztecs.

Greco-Roman columns frame the main altar, which is entirely Neo-Classic. A statue of San José stands in the center niche, with the boy Jesus by his side. What distinguishes Neo-Classic from Baroque is its straight lines and clean appearance with some spaces left without decoration. Baroque (and particularly Churrigueresque) tends to fill up every inch. Typical Neo-Classic features include Greco-Roman columns, usually with Corinthian capitals on their tops, as seen above. The main altar contains twelve of these columns, with eight on the lower level and four on the top.

The dome over the main altar is beautifully crafted, but in need of repair. Salitre is a mineral which leaches into plaster and cement, causing bubbling and flaking. This problem has afflicted Mexican structures from colonial times to the present. The arches surrounding the base of the dome show the intricate floral decorations that are typically Baroque.

The choir loft is on a raised platform over the entrance to the main nave. The ceiling here shows more salitre damage. A choir loft usually contains the church organ, but none is visible in this photo. Typical of most Catholic churches, this choir loft is placed behind and above the congregation, which is seated in the pews below. This is done to avoid distraction from the Mass, which is conducted at the main altar at the other end of the church.

A holy water font near the church entrance contains a startling image. The face carved into the pedestal is that of Camaxtli, war god of the Tlaxcalans. Although it is not unusual to find pre-hispanic religious symbols in colonial churches, they are rarely placed in such a prominent spot. However, as the most important of the Conquistadors' early allies, the Tlaxcalans held a special position. Tlaxcala maintained some degree of political autonomy until the end of the colonial period. The font on the opposite side of the entrance area contains the coat-of-arms of the Spanish Hapsburg Dynasty, a reminder to Tlaxcalans that they were still subject to Nueva España's ultimate authority.

Capilla de la Virgen de Guadalupe

The most important side-chapel is devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe. The chapel's style is wholly Churrigueresque, which I call "Baroque on steroids". It is staggeringly ornate and contains many entertaining features. Churrigueresque mirrored the ornate and tradition-encrusted Spanish Hapsburg Dynasty that ruled Nueva España (Mexico) from the time of the Conquest to the very end of the 17th century. The Neo-Classic style was encouraged by the new, reformist, Bourbon Dynasty that took over Spain and its colonial possessions in 1700. The Bourbons viewed themselves as part of the Enlightenment and pushed for an end to many traditional styles and practices. The Neo-Classic style expresses sober, austere power. Frankly, I find Churrigueresque to be a lot more fun.

The ornate arch over the central image of the Virgin. Every inch is covered with intricate decorations. Churrigueresque developed very late in the Baroque era and was its logical extreme.

The Virgin of Guadalupe and an unidentified Church official occupy prominent niches. The painting shows one of the famous scenes of her legend. According to the story, an Aztec convert to Christianity named Juan Diego accepted a bouquet of Castilian roses from the Virgin. As proof of this extraordinary encounter, Juan Diego presented the roses to Bishop Zumárraga. Part of the miracle was that the roses were out of season and, in any case, were not native to the New World. However, the real proof came when he opened his tilma (Aztec-style cloak) to display the flowers and a clear image of the Virgin appeared on the cloth. The statue on the right is unidentified, but may represent Bishop Zumárraga.

Another painting shows more of the Virgin's legend. The Virgin of Guadalupe was a dark-skinned, Nahuatl-speaking apparition. Juan Diego's encounter with the Virgin was her very first appearance in Mexico. Because of these attributes, and because she first appeared to an indigenous man, she was adopted by the poor and the indigenous people as their patron. The Virgin of Guadalupe is still revered throughout Mexico.

Other chapels within the Parroquia

Another side-chapel, this time in the Neo-Classic style. This one is devoted to another version of the Virgin. Side-chapels like this seem to be popular with those seeking a few moments of quiet contemplation and often contain one or more people even when the main nave is empty.

A shadowy figure stands in a glass case in yet another side-chapel. As near as I can determine, the figure is Jesus. Other statues, including one of the Virgin, stand behind him on the altar. Like the previous chapel, this one is also Neo-Classic.

Retablo de Virgen de Guadalupe

The Parroquia contains several Churrigueresque retablos. A retablo is a carved, wooden altar set against a wall. These structures are often quite large and are another characteristic of the Baroque style. Sometimes a church's main altar will contain a retablo but, in addition, they are often found along the side walls of the main nave. The central figure is the Virgin of Guadalupe, seen in the bottom painting. She is surrounded by nine statues in niches and one standing in front, draped in satin. I have been unable to identify any of these figures. Eight of them appear to be from the 17th or early 18th centuries. The ninth statue, in the lower right, wears vestments that appear to be of a more modern cut.

Three male figures are seated in the top niche of the retablo. The positions of their hands indicate that they are giving a blessing, which suggests that they are religious officials. There is a group of disembodied heads at the feet of the seated figures, another typical Baroque touch. In addition to full-figure statues, retablos tend to be thickly populated with bodiless faces, cherubs, animals, and flowery vegetation.

The headgear of this figure indicates a rank of bishop, cardinal, or even pope. The hat is called a mitre and is generally worn only by church officials of those high ranks. Although the name of the figure is unknown to me, mitres were first worn in Rome approximately 950 AD. Therefore, he is probably not a Church official from an era earlier than that.

Another of the lively dancing kings. I was intrigued by this series of royal figures. I don't believe I've ever seen kings displaying such frivolity in a religious setting. Generally, royalty are depicted as very stiff and regal, or they are shown in heroic, military poses. It is possible that all four of the dancing kings are depictions of San Luis at various stages of his life, but this is only my conjecture.

Other retablos

Six statues fill the niches of a somewhat smaller retablo. The niches are framed by pilasters (false columns) in the shape of long, inverted cones. The style is called estipite, which became a popular element of Spanish Churrigueresque during the period between 1720 and 1760.

This retablo is almost identical to the previous one. Only the statues are different. It is probable that the same artist created both retablos. The central figure here is a nun, while the main statue in the previous retablo is a priest.

Retablo paintings

At the rear of the main nave are still more retablos. In this one, the central element is a painting of a man and woman looking reverently up at the Virgin. The painting is framed by two pilasters containing a total of four statues. At the top is a large figure of a bearded man, possibly a depiction of God.

This retablo stands across the aisle from the one seen previously. The overall structure of the two retablos is almost identical. Only the statues and the central paintings differ. The painting above shows the Virgin Mary carrying the infant Jesus, surrounded by angels. Notice the spiral Solomonic column on the left.

This completes Part 2 of my Tlaxcala series. I hope you have enjoyed visiting this old colonial church with its interesting mixture of Churrigueresque and Neo-Classic styles. If you'd like to comment or ask a question, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim