Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Tlaxcala Part 11 of 11: The Basilica of the Virgin of Ocotlán

The Virgin of Ocotlán is the centerpiece of the Basilica's main altar. In this last posting of my Tlaxcala series, we'll take a look at the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Ocotlán, located on a hill to the northeast of the Centro Historico. This church is famous for its extravagant Churregueresque-Baroque style and is a major attraction for religious pilgrims, as well as for people like ourselves who are primarily interested in colonial architecture. More than one million people have visited since the Basilica was constructed. Three times each year, once in December and twice in May, the small statue of the Virgin is removed from its glass case, dressed in finery, and taken in a procession  through the streets of      Tlaxcala. The most important of these processions occurs during the Feast of Subida, on the third Sunday in May, one of the major events each year.  Several stops are made along the flower-lined path, before the statue is returned to the Basilica for a High Mass. In this posting, I will recount some of the legends associated with the Virgin of Ocotlán, as well as the history of the Basilica itself.

Exterior of the Basilica

Our first view of the Basilica was through the ornate entrance to its atrium. According to legend, the adoration of the Virgin of Ocotlán began with a miraculous event in 1541, about twenty years after the fall of the Aztec Empire. This event occurred at a time of great trouble for the indigenous people of Tlaxcala. After their initial alliance with the Spanish against the Aztecs, many Tlaxcaltecas became disillusioned with their new overlords. This was exacerbated when Spanish priests attempted to eradicate the old religions and, in the process, turned children against their parents. Revolts were followed by savage repression by the Spanish. In addition, a series of disastrous plagues began to ravage the indigenous people, who had no resistance to Spanish diseases. Between the beginning of the Conquest in 1519 and approximately 1650, the Tlaxcalteca population plummeted by 90%.

The atrium is the large, open, paved area in front of the church. For centuries, this area functioned as a cemetery. Then, in 1956, it was paved and enclosed by an elaborate wall with several gateways, including the one in the previous photo. The miraculous event was an apparition of the Virgin, which occurred during an epidemic of smallpox. As the story goes, on February 27, 1541, an indigenous man named Juan Diego Bernardino was seeking water from a local stream that was reputed to have healing powers. On his way, he encountered a beautiful lady. After inquiring about his purpose, she directed him to a spring surrounded by ocotes (pines). In the Nahuatl language,  the name Ocotlán means "place of the ocotes". The mysterious woman told Juan Diego that anyone who drank water from this place would be cured and restored to health. The spring still exists today and the faithful still believe in its curative powers.

The massive facade is framed by two tall steeples faced with brick. The white stucco facade was built between 1760 and 1790. The estipite columns are part of the Churrigueresque style found throughout the Basilica. The facade teems with sculptures, including the Twelve Apostles, the four theological Doctors of the Church, the seven Archangels, and San José (Jesus' father) and San Francisco de Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order. Before Juan Diego left the spring, the woman told him that her image would be found within the grove of ocotes. She directed that it should be taken to the chapel of San Lorenzo, atop the hill above the spring. The chapel had been built over the ruins of a pre-hispanic temple. When he hurried home to his sick relatives, Juan Diego discovered that the spring water worked as advertised. The next day, he went to the nearby Convento Franciscano (monastery) where he worked and served as an altar boy. Juan Diego told the friars of his miraculous encounter, the positive effects of the spring water, and the mysterious woman's directions about the image in the grove. They believed him, possibly because of his service at the Convento, but they may also have had other motives (more on this later).

Campanario (bell tower) atop the left steeple. Each of the steeples is 33 m (108.3 ft) tall and each contains twenty stucco columns decorated with vines and grapes. Atop each is a wrought iron cross. There are spaces for eight bells, but it does not appear that all of them are filled. After hearing Juan Diego's story, the friars at the Convento decided to investigate and went with him to the ocote grove that evening. Upon their arrival, the grove appeared to be on fire, either through an actual conflagration or from the glow of the sunset. There are various versions of the story. In any case, they noticed that one tree was fatter than the others and ordered it cut open. Inside the tree, a wooden statue of the Virgin was revealed, providing the friars with convincing evidence that Juan Diego's story was true. They followed the apparition's directions and took the statue up the hill to the chapel. The central place of honor at the altar was, at that time, occupied by a statue of San Lorenzo. The friars moved him out of his niche and replaced him with the wooden statue of the Virgin. Legend has it that the chapel's sacristan (an official in charge of a sacred items in a church) waited until the friars had left and then set aside the Virgin's statue and moved San Lorenzo back to his niche. Angels then switched the statues again. This happened three times before the sacristan gave up and left the Virgin in the central place of honor. Reports of all this spread and the chapel and its statue soon became a shrine which attracted many visitors.

One of the Archangels is framed by two of the estipete columns. Two of the four Doctors of the Church can be seen above and below the angel. The opposite side of the main entrance is similarly decorated. Everything I have recounted, so far, about the Virgin of Ocotlán is part of her legend. However, the first written mention of the shrine did not occur until 1588, forty-seven years after the event. That account was given by Diego Muñoz Camargo, a local Tlaxcalan historian. The next mention was in 1644, by Archbishop of Puebla, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, who visited the shrine, but didn't write about a statue. The first mention of the statue comes in 1689, in a history written by Don Juan Buenaventura Zapata y Mendoza. The official version of the apparition, and the various miracles associated with the Virgin of Ocotlán, was not written until 1750, more than two hundred years after the event. The man who wrote it was Manuel Loayzaga, one of the chief architects of the Basilica. Between 1735 and the 1960s, six different Popes took actions relating to the Basilica and its statue. These included approving the apparition story, granting indulgences, approving the coronation of the statue, elevating the church to the status of Basilica, and establishing a special Feast Day to honor the Virgin of Ocotlán.

The choir window is in the shape of a star and contains two statues. Choir windows are typically placed above the main entrance of a church. The window lights a balcony area overlooking the main nave, which usually contains the organ and seating for the choir. The lower statue is San Francisco. He holds three globes representing the three branches of the Franciscan Order. Above him is the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. Interest in the chapel of San Lorenzo continued to grow, after it gained its miraculous statue. In 1670, another Puebla Archbishop, Diego de Osoria de Escobar visited the site and decided to replace the chapel with a temple appropriate for such an important shrine. To carry this out, he appointed Juan de Escobar (possibly a relative) as the shrine's caretaker. However, major construction didn't begin until 1687. Such delays were not uncommon in colonial times, since funds sometimes dried up for long periods. Juan de Escobar directed the work, once it got under way, and is responsible for the overall floor plan of the Basilica.

The Main Nave

The main nave, looking toward the altar with its statue of the Virgin of Ocotlán.  Large paintings of biblical scenes decorate the side walls. A later caretaker, Manuel de Loayzaga (1716-1758) is responsible for the major decorations of the nave, the retablo containing the statue of the Virgin, and the Camarín or Dressing Room of the Virgin. He was assisted by Miguel José de Santa María and an indigenous man named Francisco Miguel Tlayoltehuanitzin. 

The choir loft and a magnificent 18th century organ are located over the main entrance. The ceiling is richly decorated and hung with four glass chandeliers. Although I am no longer religious, I grew up as a Presbyterian. In the churches of my experience, the choir was typically located to the side and behind the pulpit. In the Catholic churches I have visited, the choir loft is nearly always like the one above, in the rear of the nave, above the seating area for the congregation. The intention of this placement is to keep the worshippers focused on the Mass being conducted at the far end of the nave by removing the choir as a visual distraction. 

The apse of the Basilica is overwhelming. The apse of a church is the semi-circular area containing the altar, located at the far end of the nave from the entrance. Every square inch of the Basilica's apse is covered with decoration, including an amazing collection of saints, angels, cupids and other figures that surround the central niche containing Virgin of Ocotlán. The Virgin's niche is in the form of an ancient lamp and is carved from silver. It has been said that "there is no rest for the mind" when viewing this apse. I would have to agree. As the Mass of the Feast of Subida concludes, "a shower of flowers flows from the top of the Basilica...on to the altar as the statue is replaced for another year."

The ceiling of the apse is under the main dome of the Basilica. Once again, nothing is left undecorated. Surrounding the dome are four rectangular paintings of the Doctors of the Church including St. Augustine, Pope Gregory I, St Jerome, and St. Ambrose. They were all saints from the early Middle Ages, revered by Catholics for their great learning, sanctity, and contributions to Church doctrine. Hanging from the octagonal dome is another of the chandeliers. 

The left side of the apse contains a retablo dedicated to the Virgin of Mercy. She is seen with the body of Jesus in her lap, above a niche containing a crucifix. Surrounding these are ten additional niches with more saints and other religious figures. A small window above the figure of the Virgin helps light the apse.

A statue of San José cradling Jesus stands in a niche to the left of the Virgin of Ocotlán. His statue is one of seventeen full-length sculptures, eighteen angels and thirty-three medium and small size figures that surround the Virgin. Filling the spaces between are shells, flower chains, and garlands of pomegranates. Truly, no rest for the mind. 

The retablo on the right side of the apse contains yet another version of the Virgin. This retablo is devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron of Mexico, who is especially revered by the poor and indigenous people. The man who installed it was Francisco Fernández, the second caretaker of the shrine, whose term of office was from 1691 to 1716. Like the retablo containing the Virgin of Ocotlán, this one has numerous niches filled with statues arranged around the carved wooden figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The Virgin of Guadalupe, in her classic pose. She appeared outside Mexico City in 1531, the first encounter with the Virgin in the New World. Because she was dark-skinned, spoke Nahuatl, and was first encountered by an indigenous person, the Virgin of Guadalupe was enormously attractive to native people. They flocked by the thousands to venerate her. Conversions to Christianity, slow up to that point, began to soar. Perhaps this lesson was not lost on the Franciscan friars of Tlaxcala because, only ten years later, they suddenly had their own apparition. The stories of the Virgins of Guadalupe and Ocotlán contain striking similarities. Both of the people who reported the encounters were indigenous men named Juan Diego, who had been attending sick relatives during an epidemic. The relatives in both cases recovered as a result of the Virgin's intervention. Both apparitions occurred near the sites of pre-hispanic temples. In both instances, the Virgins gave directions that a shrine should be created nearby, and both shrines later became Basilicas. In fact, for nearly a century, the Franciscans refused to accept the Virgin of Guadalupe, believing that the natives who venerated her were just worshipping one of their old goddesses. By contrast, the Dominican and Augustinian friars readily adopted the new, indigenous Virgin, in good part because of the upsurge in conversions. Perhaps Tlaxcala's Franciscans felt they needed their own story, one that was more traditional in nature, i.e. an apparition that was not dark-skinned and Nahuatl-speaking. By creating (or at least encouraging) such a story, they could take advantage of her appeal while maintaining control over the legend. In any case, by the time this retablo was created in the 18th century, the Virgin of Guadalupe was fully accepted, even in Europe, where this statue was created before it was brought to New Spain to be installed in the Basilica.

The Camarín or Dressing Room of the Virgin

The Virgin of Ocotlán's dressing room, where she is prepared for her processions. The Camarín de la Virgen has an octagonal shape and is located behind the apse. Eight panels containing paintings of religious scenes are separated by eight Solomonic columns, another Churregueresque feature. A large, round table stands in the center of the room. The Camerín was created by Manuel Loayzaga, the same caretaker who designed the retablo showcasing the Virgin of Ocotlán. The room is considered to be the epitome of Mexican Churrigueresque art, and is Loayzaga's greatest work. 

The table is supported by eight intricately carved legs. The table is made of ahuehuete (a species of cedar) and is where the statue of the Virgin is placed when being dressed. A selection of beautiful capes are kept for use in the various processions.

Painting by Juan de Villalobos showing a scene from the life of the Virgin. The 18th century oil painting was created by Juan Villalobos, along with the seven other paintings around the room. 

One of eight angels who stand atop the Solomonic columns. They are not identified, but there are seven Archangels, so I imagine that some, if not all, of them are represented. I don't know who the eighth angel might be.

The ceiling of the Camarín is truly overwhelming. The Churrigueresque style has been said to represent "a horror of emptiness." Eight saints are arranged like the spokes of a wheel, each corresponding to one of the eight sides of the room. In the center is a circle with another set of thirteen figures, also arranged like wheel spokes. These appear to be the Twelve Apostles and Jesus. While the Camarín was designed by Loayzaga, the actual work was accomplished by an indigenous man named Francisco Miguel. He labored for twenty-five years, beginning in 1715, to complete this small, but staggeringly complex room. 

The walls of the ante room outside the Camarín are covered with more paintings. In this one, Jesus is shown, bound by the wrists. He is surrounded by Roman soldiers who appear to be taunting him.

This completes Part 11 of my Tlaxcala series, and also the series itself. I hope you have enjoyed these postings and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Tlaxcala Part 10 of 11: Franciscan chapels of the colonial era

Carole starts up the long staircase leading to the Capilla del Cristo del Buen Vecino. The Chapel of the Christ of the Good Neighbor stands at the top of a hill behind the Convento Franciscano de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (see Part 5 of this series). Much of the available information about this chapel is contradictory, including the century of its construction. I have photos of two different signs at the site, one citing the 17th century, the other the 18th. The origin of the name is another problem. Some sources state that the "Good Neighbor" reference was adopted during the Cristero War (1926-29) between the Revolutionary government and Catholic reactionaries. Others claim the name comes from the chapel's close proximity to the Franciscan Convent. There is even a story about a neighbor of the church who suffered from a tapeworm. When it was removed, the tapeworm appeared in the image of the crucified Christ. This miracle is supposed to have stopped Tlaxcala's great typhus epidemic of 1750. Whatever the truth of all this conflicting information, the chapel is worth a visit, particularly for the view from the top of the hill, assuming you are up to the climb. In this posting, we'll also take a look at the Capilla de San Nicolás de Tolentino, another of Tlaxcala's numerous Franciscan chapels.

A fountain is embedded in the wall next to an old cemetery. The fountain is at the top of the second of several flights of stairs leading up to the chapel. The chapel and its cemetery were built by Fray José Nava y Mora, a Franciscan friar. After he died, his family took responsibility for the maintenance of the property. The short stairway to the left leads to the small cemetery.

In Mexico, tombs traditionally extend above ground. The cemetery was originally intended for burials of Nava y Mora's Franciscan brethren. However, it contains the remains of at least one woman, according to the plaque on the grave on the far right.

The woman buried here was born in the 19th century and buried in the 20th. The plaque reads "Maria Ch. de Yturriaga, 1868-1935".  She may be one of Nava y Mora's descendants, and thus could claim the right to burial here. On the other hand, the interment took place after the Cristero War (which the Catholics lost), so that may have resulted in a relaxation of the rules.

Tlaxcala spreads out below the hill on which the chapel stands. Most of the city, including the Centro Historico, lies in a bowl created by the high, surrounding hills like the ones you can see in the distance. The Convento Franciscano is located among the trees in the lower right quadrant of the photo.

The Neo-Classic style of the nave became popular beginning in the 18th century. That might point to an 18th century building date, except that the interiors of 17th century Baroque churches were often redecorated in the Neo-Classic style. The nave does contain some Baroque features, including the retablos (carved wooden altar pieces) on the side walls.

Retablo and pulpit on the right side wall of the nave. The carved wood around the painting is covered with gold leaf. The subject of the painting is the Virgin Mary in one of her many incarnations. It is not clear whether this Baroque retablo is part of an original 17th century interior or, alternatively, was brought from a 17th century site and installed in an 18th century chapel. Church decorations were sometimes moved to other sites and reused.

The figure of Christ, reclining in his sepulcher, decorates the left side wall. This figure is also reputed to have a miraculous history, but I have been unable to determine any of the details. The chapel is often closed to the public, so we were fortunate to find it open when we visited.

A gargoyle wearing a "What, me worry?" expression sits on a roof cornice. The roof is part of a home next to the chapel. Could it be the original home of the man with the tapeworm? Who knows? I photographed several other gargoyles on the roof, but this one was my favorite.

Capilla de San Nicolás de Tolentino

Capilla de San Nicolás de Tolentino is only a couple of blocks from Plaza de la Constitution. Built in the 16th century, it has a single tower. The chapel's simple exterior is typical of early Franciscan buildings. Many such structures include a main entrance facing west. In front of the chapel is a small plaza where I stood while taking this photo. Every Friday, neighbors gather in the plaza for a market in which many organic products are sold.

Carole enters the main door of the chapel. The whole structure exudes a serene antiquity that I always find appealing, even though I am not at all religious. San Nicolás de Tolentino (1246-1305) is the patron saint of this colonia (neighborhood). Although this is a Franciscan chapel, Nicolás belonged to the Augustinian Order. His humble lifestyle was probably what appealed to the Franciscans when they dedicated the chapel to him. Nicolás was born in Italy, became a monk at age 18, and was ordained as a priest at 25. Noted for his quiet and gentle manner, Nicolás served  the poor and the dregs of society in the Italian town of Tolentino.

The small campanario (belfry) contains a single bell, rung by a pull cord. Again, this ancient method appeals to me. I am not much moved by chimes broadcast over a loudspeaker. Nicolás was highly respected and acted as a peacemaker during the intense civil strife between the supporters of the Pope and those of the Holy Roman Emperor. During the course of his work with the poor, Nicolás is reputed to have performed healing miracles while handing out bread. Calls to make him a saint began soon after his death and Pope Eugene IV canonized him in 1446.

The exterior of the chapel was constructed using local stone called xalnene. Xalnene is a porous volcanic sandstone quarried in the area around Tlaxcala. Since ancient times, people have used it both for construction. The porous nature of xalnene also led to its use in filtering and purifying water.

The interior is also very spare and austere. Carole and I were the only visitors to the chapel at the time. The stone walls are very thick, which is typical of buildings of this period. One result is a pleasingly cool interior, even on warm days.

This completes Part 10 of my Tlaxcala series. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will 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.

Hasta luego, Jim