Monday, December 5, 2016

Taxco Part 7: Churches and chapels along Calle Hidalgo

View through the entrance gate of Capilla de la Santisima Trinidad. While strolling down Calle Hidalgo, Carole and I visited several neighborhood chapels, some dating back to the 16th century. Capilla de la Santisima Trinidad (Chapel of the Holy Trinity) is situated several blocks from Plaza Borda, at the confluence of three streets: Calles Hidalgo, Cenaobscuras, and Morelos. In this posting we'll examine the architecture and furnishings of three of these old chapels: La Santisima Trinidad, San Nicolas Tolentino, and San Miguel Arcangel.

Capilla de la Santisima Trinidad

Street view of La Santisima Trinidad. Notice the rough stone work of the peripheral wall and of the church's exterior walls. These features date from the 16th century. Every colonial city was built according to a standard plan devised by King Phillip II, of Spanish Armada fame. A town would be laid out around a central plaza, with the most important church on one side. In Taxco's case these are Plaza Borda and Parroquia Santa Prisca (see Parts 2, 4 & 5 of this series) The wealthiest Spaniards built homes on, or adjacent to, the plaza. People of lesser wealth and social status lived in concentric circles radiating out from the center. The indigenous population was the poorest and so lived in the outlying barrios (neighborhoods). La Santisima Trinidad serviced one of these barrios.


View of the church from inside the peripheral walls. La Santisima Trinidad has a single bell tower and is surrounded by a flagstone patio. After visiting quite a large number colonial structures during my nine years in Mexico, I have learned to recognize the era in which they were built. The earliest churches were constructed of adobe with thatched roofs. Few of these survived into modern times. Most were replaced within a few decades by structures built with rough, uncut stones, like those you see above. If there were pre-hispanic structures in the area, particularly temples, these were sometimes cannibalized for building materials. However, no such structures existed in the immediate area around Taxco. Although the interior of La Santisima Trinidad was remodeled in later centuries, the exterior retains its 16th century appearance.


The church interior is simple, with a single nave and no side-chapels. The stark white walls are decorated with various statues and religious paintings. The altar, seen at the far end of the nave, is of the Neo-Classic design. This style became popular in the late 18th century and remained so through most of the 19th century, Notice the robed statue on the wall at the extreme right center of the photo. This is Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (Our Lady of the Sorrows), one of the many manifestations of the Virgin Mary.


The altar is topped with a triangle enclosing the Eye of Providence, surrounded by a sunburst. I was curious about its association with La Santisima Trinidad. The Eye of Providence, also known as the All-Seeing Eye of God, has been an important symbol for centuries. In fact, it appears on the back side of the Great Seal of the United States and on the $1.00 bill. During the Renaissance, the image was used to symbolize the concept of the Trinity. Therein lies, its connection with La Santisima Trinidad. The All-Seeing Eye was not an original part of the 16th century church, since the use of a sunburst in the symbol didn't come into practice until the 17th century. It was probably added when the church was remodeled in the 18th century.


Our Lady of Sorrows. Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows) is one of several statues in La Santisima Trinidad that are taken out and paraded through the streets during religious festivals. The "sorrows" refer to seven sorrowful moments Mary had during Jesus' life, including his crucifixion. She is sometimes depicted with seven arrows puncturing her heart.


Capilla de San Nicolas Tolentino

Capilla de San Nicolas Tolentino stands on Calle Hidalgo, facing Parque Vicente Guerrero. This 16th century Augustinian chapel was constructed using the same kind of rough stones as La Santisima Trinidad. However, some cut stones were used on the corners as you can see above.


The Capilla's facade and steeple. The single steeple has openings for four bells, which are rung by hand. The Neo-Classical facade, with its four pilasters supporting a triangular pediment, was probably added in the 18th century. When we visited, the church had an antique feel about it. Even so, it is one of the most active of the neighborhood chapels.


Carole walks up the aisle of the single nave. The wood ceiling was fairly unusual. That and the stained white walls added to the sense of antiquity. Aside from the altar area, the interior of the church contained few decorations. These included small paintings marking the Stations of the Cross, two depictions of a crucified Jesus, a scene of souls in purgatory, and a small altar to San Charbel Maklouf. Except for the electric lights, it would be easy to feel that one had stepped back into the 16th century.


The main altar contains five statues. The central figure is San Nicolas Tolentino, for whom the Capilla is named. On the lower left is San Rafael Arcangel and to the right is San Gabriel Arcangel. Above are two figures, a woman on the left and a man to the right. These I haven't been able to identify, but they appear to be of 16th or 17th century origin.

San Nicolas was an Italian saint who lived in the town of Tolentino during the Middle Ages. San Nicolas Tolentino (1245 - 1305) was a mystic who gained a great reputation by ministering to the poor. Nicolas joined the Augustinian Order at the age of 16 and was ordained at 25. He acted as a peacemaker during the civil strife in Tolentino between supporters of the Pope and those of the Holy Roman Emperor. According to legend, he cured the sick by feeding them bread over which he had prayed. This was the origin of the Augustinian custom of blessing and distributing St. Nicholas bread. It is a practice continued at the Capilla to this day. Nicolas also fasted, but those around him felt he went too far, sometimes endangering his own health. However, the fasting provided him with visions, particularly of Purgatory. In Catholic belief, this is where souls are purified before being allowed to enter Heaven. As a result, Nicolas spent much time praying for the souls in Purgatory and he is considered their Patron. Notice the small whip held in his right hand.


San Nicolas used a whip like this for self-flagellation. The barbed tip has been painted red to simulate fresh blood. The practice of beating oneself with a whip to drive out sin began in the 13th century during Nicolas' lifetime. As a mystic, he was attracted to this extraordinary ritual because it helped produce his sublime visions. I find it intriguing that the pre-hispanic Aztecs produced similar results using manta ray spines to self-pierce the tongue or the genitals. In both cases, the practitioners sought a mystical connection with higher forces through the infliction of intense pain on their own bodies. Although the Church condemned self-flagellation in the 14th century, it remains common in a few Catholic countries, including Mexico.


Souls in Purgatory. I had envisioned Purgatory as a crowded, uncomfortable and thoroughly boring place of interminable waiting, kind of like the boarding gate at an airport. However, apparently Purgatory is a lot more Hellish than that. Flames shoot up around the nude figures of a man and a woman. Between them stands a third figure  also nude except for his bishop's mitre (hat). Apparently, even high church officials had plenty of sins to expiate. This vignette was created to celebrate San Nicolas' role as Patron of Souls in Purgatory.

Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel

View from the inside of Parroquia San Miguel's main gate, looking out. The street outside is Calle Morelos, which branches off Hidalgo near Capilla San Nicolas. I had wanted to shoot from the street, using this beautiful gate to frame the church. However, as usual in Mexico, some bright soul decided to string multiple power/telephone lines in front of the church,. This prevented any clean, unobstructed shots until you are well inside the gate.. Mexican power, telephone, and cable lines are the bane of my photographic life here.


View from the steps of the church back toward central Taxco and the mountain slopes. This area sits above the street and is known as Plazuela San Miguel. It contains both a broad patio and a lush garden, altogether a great spot to rest yourself in the shade of its trees. Although we experienced some rain in the late evenings, most of our days in Taxco were like this one, brilliantly sunny with blue skies.


Parroquia San Miguel Arcangel is one of the oldest churches in Taxco. When it was built in the 16th century, it was originally dedicated to San Sebastian. However, in the 18th century the church was re-dedicated to the Archangel St. Michael, the warrior angel who is believed to be the commander of God's armies ranged against Satan's forces. A weather-worn and partially damaged statue of San Miguel stands in a niche above the choir window. Like San Nicolas Tolentino, this church exudes antiquity, at least on the exterior.


An brass bell, greenish with age, hangs from a wooden cross-piece in the belfry. This is the lower of the the belfry's two levels. Each contains space for four bells. Notice the two worn figures on either side of the opening. I have no information to identify them, but they may be angels or putti (cupids). There is evidence of brickwork underneath the chipped plaster. This may indicate a later date for the steeple than for the church itself. Bricks didn't come into widespread use in New Spain until the 18th century. It was not uncommon for steeples to be added well after the main structure was completed.


The interior of Parroquia San Miguel shows a strong Neo-Classic influence.  This includes stark, relatively undecorated walls and ceiling, with Greco-Roman columns around the altar. Carole can be seen in the lower right of the photo, sitting in a pew.


San Miguel Arcangel, wielding his customary sword with one hand and a cross with the other. The two columns of pink cantera that frame the statue are topped with Ionic capitals, a definite Neo-Classic touch. St. Michael the Archangel is revered by multiple religious, including Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Within Christianity, he is part of Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran religious traditions.


Santiago Matamoros, the Patron of Spain and of conquistadors in the New World.  Another warrior figure prominent in the church is Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor Slayer). He is St James the Elder, one of the Twelve Apostles. His association with Spain is probably mythical, according to biblical scholars. Nevertheless, he became a great symbol for Christians during the Reconquista (Re-conquest) of Spain from the Muslim Moors. The New World was discovered the same year as the final defeat of Spain's Moors. As a result, the Moor Slayer was reassigned the job of sponsoring the conquest and slaughter of indigenous people of New Spain and Peru.


A remarkably realistic portrayal of Christ on the cross. Although I have not been able to verify it, this may be one of the famous cornstalk statues that were created by Purépecha craftmen in Michoacan in the 16th century. They were made from the core of dried and ground up corn stalks, mixed with the boiled bulbs of begonia and orchidea. The result was a very light and malleable substance, ideal for sculpting. The pre-hispanic Purépecha invented the process in order to create statues of their various deities. Since they took their gods into battle with them, and it was sacrilege to leave them behind if they had to flee, a very light, cornstalk statue had a distinct advantage over one of stone or wood. The Spanish adopted the technique for Christian statues, particularly those of the crucified Christ.


A moment of veneration. As I turned to leave, I saw this man standing at the cornstalk statue and instinctively took a photo. It wasn't until after I enlarged the photo in my computer that I realized what he was doing. After he had prayed for some time, he extended his arm up to touch the feet of the statue, as a final act of devotion.

This completes Part 7 of my Taxco series. If you have enjoyed it and would like to leave a question or a comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim



Monday, November 28, 2016

Taxco Part 6- Walking the old colonial streets


Parroquia Santa Prisca from the entance of Calle Cuauhtemoc. Above, one of the ubiquitous white VW taxis enters Calle Cuauhtemoc from Plaza Borda. As a pleasant change of pace, I decided to take you on a stroll through the narrow, winding, colonial-era streets. Even in the face of the intense pressures of modernity, Taxco has managed to maintain its ancient ambiance. The streets were originally designed for pedestrians, horses and the occasional carriage. Automobiles were unimagined when these narrow passages were mapped out. The calles (streets) twist and turn in unexpected ways as they follow the contours of the terrain. In this posting, we'll proceed along Calle Cuautemoc to Plazuela de San Juan and then turn downhill on Calle Hidalgo, finally ending at Parque Vicente Guerrero, dedicated to a hero of the War of Independence.

Calle Cuauhtemoc

The cobbles in the streets were laid out in abstract designs. Notice the lack of sidewalks. None can be found anywhere except along the carretera (highway) that passes through the lower part of town. Calle Cuauhtemoc is named after the last Aztec Emperor who surrendered to Hernán Cortéz. He was tortured in an attempt to uncover the sources of Aztec gold and later executed by Cortéz on trumped up charges. Today, Cuauhtemoc is considered an heroic figure. The street is one-way, but walking can be tricky. Sometimes, pedestrians must step into doorways to get out of the way. As with most of Taxco, the structures along this street are primarily two-story, although some have roof terraces.


Beautiful hand-made jewelry was laid out on a simple cloth placed on the cobbles. Street vendors are everywhere in Mexico, usually selling the same sort of mass-produced nicknacks. Sometimes, however, the vendors are talented artists selling unique items.


Another vendor set up her wares on a local fountain. The natural world of Mexico is full of vivid colors. These are often reflected in the handicrafts and artwork you encounter here. In another cultural context, the color schemes might seem garish and clashing. In Mexico, with its wild profusion of plants whose multi-colored flowers blossom year-round, the hues of the handicrafts seem completely natural.


I have no idea what this was about. The VW above passed by as we waited to cross the street. My first thought was a wedding, but there was no procession in front or behind. The famous Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dali once visited Mexico, intending to do some painting here. After a relatively short time, he left the country in disgust. Dali said it was impossible to do Surrealist art here because Mexico was completely Surreal already. I tend to agree.


Plazuela de San Juan

Plazuela de San Juan is centered on a fountain from which a star radiates. A plazuela is a small plaza. In the background are various restaurants and small tiendas (stores). Most of these structures, as well as those surrounding the rest of the plazuela, were built during colonial times. The construction is of adobe covered with white plaster and roofed with red clay tiles.


Restaurante El Adobe sits above a shop selling t-shirts and handicrafts. Many of Taxco's restaurants and bars are on the 2nd floor and have balconies in their windows. These are great places to have a leisurely meal while casually watching the activities in the plazuela below. While we never ate at El Adobe ourselves, our Fodor guidebook listed it as a good restaurant.


A little mariachi music, anyone? My eye was caught by this full-size statue of a mariachi guitarist. It stands outside the entrance of a small t-shirt shop. Mariachi music originated in the pueblo of Cocula in the state of Jalisco, where I live. The music became popular throughout the country and is one of the most recognized symbols of Mexico.


Restaurante La Hamburguesa was our favorite breakfast spot during our visit. The restaurant is upstairs and serves not only hamburgers but a variety of other dishes. The owners had to get special permission to build the little terrace into the sloping roof because local rules restrict any changes to historic structures. The friendly woman who owns and operates the restaurant told us that the building has belonged to her family for 200 years.


View of Plazuela de San Juan from La Hamburguesa's roof terrace. In the upper right, the steeples of Parroquia Santa Prisco rise to the heavens. The plazuela is a traffic circle, or glorieta as the Mexicans would call it. Nearly all the other vehicles in the photo are either VW taxis or colectivos (a sort of miniature bus). There is no lack of public transportation in Taxco, if you don't care to walk.


Another view from our favorite breakfast spot. I was intrigued by the building in the background. It appears to be a hotel. It may have always been that, or perhaps it was someone's mansion back in the old silver mining days.


Restaurant El Adobe sits directly across a narrow lane from La Hamburguesa. El Adobe must have just opened for breakfast, because all my other photos show the balcony tables filled with diners. The street below is very narrow and one morning some workmen dug a huge hole in one side of it. Almost immediately, traffic backed up for blocks. Drivers tried, one at a time, to negotiate the passage without plunging into the hole. Only the most minimal barriers protected the workers. As we ate our breakfast, I fully expected to see a car topple onto them. The whole episode was quite entertaining, in a macabre sort of way. It was kind of like a dinner show featuring a live a train wreck.

Calle Hidalgo

Calle Hidalgo drops down from Plazuela de San Juan in front of Hotel Santa Prisca. A pedestrian walkway heads up to the hotel's entrance while Calle Hidalgo heads down. There are several other hotels situated around Plazuela de San Juan as well. In the photo, it is mid-morning and people are just heading to work. I have noticed that most Mexican towns and villages don't really get going until after 10:00 AM. On the other hand, they stay active until fairly late in the evening. My kind of hours!


An elderly violinist played his heart out as we walked down Hidalgo. Mexico is full of street musicians, many of them quite good. They play for whatever tips that passersby are willing to offer. I nearly always give generously because they add real value to my life. Also, it's a hard way to make a living and I like to help out where I can.


Several blocks down Hidalgo, I focused my camera back up the street toward the mountains. This is a one-way street, fortunately, and the vehicles usually stayed on their side of the center line. However, it's always wise to keep a wary eye on the folks riding motor scooters. The street was so narrow that people can easily stand on the balconies on either side and converse in a normal tone of voice.


Mexican whimsy in a local pharmacy. I happened to peek in the door and spotted this prancing, mechanical hobby horse. I was particularly charmed by his sombrero. Mexicans have a wonderful sense of humor that is often expressed in unexpected ways. I also checked out the prices for some of the drugs on the purple list. Prednisone is a common drug used for inflammation associated with conditions like arthritis. In the US, 10 tablets go for $4.84 at Walmart. In this farmacia, the same number of tablets cost $22.00 pesos ($1.06 USD), a savings of 78%. And, yes, they work just the same. For prescription drugs, the cost savings can be even greater.



Young Mexicans hang out at the local fountain. They eyed us curiously as we strolled by. Although Taxco gets a lot of Mexican tourists, we saw few foreigners during our visit. From colonial times until the early 20th century, fountains like this functioned as the primary water source for pueblo neighborhoods. The fountains were fed by aqueducts, sometimes of considerable length. In addition to their basic function, such fountains have always been social gathering places, even into the 21st century.


Older Mexicans chat in the shade of Parque Vicente Guerrero. Such parks, with their shady trees and lush gardens, are popular refuges from the heat of the mid-day sun. At the end of the walkway, you can see a small fountain and behind it a statue of the Independence War hero Vicente Guerrero. 


Erect and defiant, Vicente Guerrero stands in the middle of the park that bears his name. Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña (1782 - 1831) was born in the town of Tixtla in what later became the state of Guerrero. His mother was of African descent and his father was mestizo (mixed Spanish and indigenous). Guerrero was an ardent supporter of independence from Spain and quickly joined the forces of José Maria Morelos when the insurgency broke out in 1810. He famously told his father, a supporter of Spanish rule, that the will of a father is sacred, but the Fatherland comes first. During the war, most of the independence movement's leaders either died in battle or were captured and executed. Guerrero was the last major leader left and he kept the movement alive through guerrilla warfare. Ultimately, the Spanish royalist commander realized that the war was a stalemate and cut a deal with Guerrero to support independence. Guerrero became President in 1829 and was a liberal folk hero who supported Mexico's downtrodden classes. Among other reforms, he abolished slavery and promoted equal civil rights for all Mexicans. As a mixed race reformer, he was disliked and distrusted by the conservative elite of Mexico. They organized a coup and this set off a short civil war. In February of 1831, Guerrero was betrayed, captured, and faced a firing squad a month later. His execution was widely denounced as "judicial murder" and viewed as racially motivated. 

This completes Part 6 of my Taxco series. In the next posting we'll take a look at three small neighborhood churches along Calle Hidalgo and an adjoining street. They date back as far as the 16th century. If you enjoyed this posting and would like to ask a question or leave a comment, please either use the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


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