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