A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about museum

Is this where the Spaniards hid their gold?

Inside the Iglesia de San Francisco Javier

Part 2 - Tepotzotlán

So where was all the gold Marc had raved about? It was time to visit the church... Now let me warn you. Baroque is a flamboyant, exuberant style which the Catholic Church encouraged in the 17th and 18th Century to counter the effect of the Reformation. With its masses of sculptures and details, it would appeal to the emotions and leave an impression on all contemplating it. Mexican Baroque, or the churrigueresco style, can be totally overwhelming, there's no doubt about it. We were about to be overwhelmed.

We walked down a narrow staircase leading to the Church of San Francisco Javier, getting closer to Tepotzotlán's treasure trove, its Aladdin's cave of colonial gold. The group of schoolchildren one step ahead of us left the building, their eyes bright, chattering excitedly. I asked them what they had thought of the church. They all answered noisily at once and I could see their excitement. It was my turn to go in now. Imagine stepping through a low side door and finding yourself surrounded by dazzling gold altarpieces, soaring high up to the ceiling, covered in a bewildering array of gilt figures and statues. It really was like emerging into a cave full of gold and treasure. Nor did it take long to realise that the Jesuits scored high on missionary zeal and weren't exactly short of cash.

Many churches have more than one retablo or altarpiece, but this one has what you could call a collection. No fewer than...FIVE... floor-to-ceiling gilt altarpieces taking up half the church, with hundreds of saints, angels, cherubs, flowers, hearts, and other symbols. They dazzled and dazed me. I began to go cross-eyed trying to count all the angels and cherubs, and searching for a particular saint was somewhat akin to looking for Sammy the Sheep or Oor Wullie in those comics teeming with detail. This is Mexican churrigueresco art at its finest, its most extravagant. The retablos are made of white cedarwood, finely covered with gold leaf and painted in some cases. Apparently there isn't a single nail holding them together. Soft light filtered down through the alabaster windows high up in the church and the hallowed hush was only broken by Lynda's whispered commentary. It was mind-boggling to imagine all the work that went into the details and carving. I settled down to the almost impossible task of capturing on my camera what we were looking at. There was too much of it. Lynda was right, photos couldn't do it justice.

We stepped through the doorway to see a dazzling scene inside the church

The church has no fewer than five enormous gilt altarpieces. The central one is dedicated to St Francis Xavier and apparently has 79 heads of angels and saints, 52 complete angels and other images, adding up to 138 sculptures in total. (One Hundred and One Beautiful Small Towns in Mexico, by Guillermo García Oropeza)

Detail on one of the altarpieces

Even the ceiling was beautifully painted

Some of the angels and figures on the altarpiece dedicated to the Virgen de Guadalupe

The altarpieces have remained intact over the centuries and were recently restored.

However, that wasn't the only treasure causing us to hyperventilate. Built off the side of the main nave was another curiosity, the Capilla de la Virgen de Loreto, a chapel containing a brick house representing the home of the Virgin in Nazareth. According to legend, when the original house in Nazareth was threatened to be destroyed, it was miraculously transported, first to Croatia and then to a hill in Loreto, Italy. The Jesuits had had a replica of the portal built here.

But this church still had one more secret. Behind the Capilla was perhaps the most impressive, unexpected room of all... the Camarin de la Virgen or Alcove of the Virgin. It was a small octagonal-shaped room with a dome above it and EVERY SINGLE square millimetre was lavishly and luxuriously decorated. Looking up, we could see the inside of the small nest of domes where rows of saints looked down on us until at the very top was a white dove symbolising the Holy Spirit. "Do you remember I pointed out the domes when we were outside?" Lynda reminded us. "Now you're standing inside right underneath them!" So what was this beautifully decorated room used for, I wondered? I later read somewhere that this was the Virgin's dressing room, literally. This is where she was dressed before her statue was taken out in processions.

Paintings at the entrance to the Capilla de la Virgen de Loreto

The doorway into the Alcove

Angels and shells and other symbols can be seen

Looking directly up inside the dome

View towards the original entrance to the church

We emerged from the Jesuits' cave of treasure reeling from the sight of so much glittering gold, ornamentation and masses of detail and took in deep breaths of fresh air. What impression would this have made on the Indians back in the days of the Colonial era? I'm sure it would have caused them to believe on the spot. And where did all that gold come from? Is this where the gold handed over to Hernán Cortés by the Aztec ruler Moctezuma eventually ended up? And perhaps even more mysteriously, how did it all remain intact in this church without disappearing over the centuries? In fact, the complex is one of the few in Mexico that has been preserved completely intact, including its altarpieces and works of art. That is truly a miracle.

When thinking of what we'd just seen, all my mind could think of were "f" words, a series of adjectives which kept going round and round in my head... flamboyant, fussy, florid, fancy, full, flashy, fantastic, fine, fabulous, frenetic... And then I got caught up with some "e" words too... exquisite, exhuberant, excessive, exaggerated, extravagant, elaborate, extraordinary... which led me on to a load of "g" words...golden, glittering, garish, grand, glorious, gaudy, garnished, glamorous, grandiose... That's what Mexican Baroque does to you. It overwhelms you and leaves you searching for words to describe it and you end up finding that it's impossible to use just a couple of ordinary adjectives. You need a whole dictionary of them.

We left the museum and it was almost refreshing to look at the nearby buildings, with their simple style, devoid of ornamentation, painted in bold plain colours of yellow, orange, and red and appreciate the solid blue dome above us, that wonderful open sky. Feeling a bit peckish, a group of us made a bee-line for a cafeteria to have something simple to eat under a shady arcade. Sincronizadas and agua de guayaba. There was nothing remotely Baroque or churrigueresco about our snack or our setting. Back to modern-day reality.

We wandered around the square in search of a place for lunch

Los Molcajetes, where we had sincronizadas

Detail of lamp

A tricycle parked nearby

The library

A VW Beetle parked in the street

Having lunch

Plant in the window

Walking back past the church

One of the many wrought-iron workshops we saw in Tepotzotlán

Posted by margaretm 04:57 Archived in Mexico Tagged museum excursion colonial tepotzotlán pueblo_mágico Comments (2)

Tepotzotlán, glittering witness to Mexico's colonial past

TEPOTZOTLÁN may have a name sounding like some kind of pharmaceutical product and be a mouthful to pronounce but don't let that put you off. I've spent days muttering it under my breath (at least 273 times) and it still gets stuck in my throat, like an overly large pill refusing to go down smoothly. But it's also managed to get stuck firmly in my mind as it's probably the closest I'll ever get to being inside an Aladdin's cave stashed full of Spanish gold. Now I see why so many people have crossed it off their list of Things-To-Do-Before-I-Leave-Mexico.

This pueblo mágico, 40 kms north of Mexico City but in reality almost joined to it, is located just where the chaotic urban sprawl in the Valle de México peters out at last and runs into open skies and humpback mountains, which is what its name supposedly means in the Nahuatl language. Fortunately, despite being on the brink of being swallowed up in the city's growth, it remains a quiet town of 40,000 people, with lumpy cobblestones and a centre rich in colonial vestiges. Its claim to fame is the Museo del Virreinato and the Iglesia de San Francisco Javier, a complex which houses some of the finest art and artifacts from the Colonial era. If that sounds a somewhat stuffy idea to you, let me assure you it isn't. I first heard about Tepotzotlán when Marc went there with his school. When your 13-year-old son comes back raving about an amazing church bulging with gold inside and has even taken photos of it, you know it's worth seeing.


So when I heard that the Newcomers' Club was organising a trip to Tepotzotlán (not to be confused with another pueblo mágico called Tepoztlán to the south on the way to Cuernavaca) and Lynda Martinez del Campo was going to be our guide, I made sure my name was on the list. Lynda assured me I would want to take masses of photos, although photos could not entirely do justice to what we were going to see.

Surprisingly, it only took us half an hour to drive there from Polanco. I say" surprisingly" because some days it takes me that time just to advance one kilometer up Paseo de la Reforma. When we arrived, I could smell the countryside and see the nearby rounded mountains clearly in the fresh morning air. I love that sensation. And there was the church, standing tall in an extremely quiet plaza or square, still not fully awake. 'Good', I thought to myself. 'As it's mid-week, we'll have it to ourselves'. And I was right. Weekends see a larger influx of people coming to visit this Colonial wonder and a lively market in this very square but today it was all ours.

While waiting for everyone to arrive, I skipped off to take some photos... my camera was already itching to capture scenes of Tepotzotlán, inside and outside the complex.

The church and museum complex

The church with its tower seen from the road

View of the main square with the Jorobado (Humpback) Mountains behind

The sign for Tepotzotlán is the shape of the church

Some of the locals outside the town hall

Giant chair decorated with bright colours and designs

View of the square, the mountains and clear blue skies from the church

A novel place to stack chairs!

There are a lot of artistic wrought-iron workshops around producing works of art like this bull or fancy gates and chairs

Colourful flags decorate an eating area

A lone vendor sits in the square waiting for some custom

One of the stalls in the square

When we had all gathered together in the shadow of the very ornate church which can't fail to catch your eye and dominates the Plaza de Hidalgo, Lynda started off by reminding us of the historical background of this area. It was in 1521 that the Spanish conquered Mexico and this land became known as New Spain or the Virreinato de Nueva España. Some fifty years after the Conquest, the Jesuits arrived a little late on the scene to set up their missions and to evangelise and found that the other Catholic orders had already more or less divided up Mexico City amongst themselves. So they came to Tepotzotlán and established a series of schools out here to teach their missionaries the indigenous languages, provide an education for the Indians and train up novice priests. In 1767, the Jesuits were expelled from the land by the King of Spain, Carlos III, and didn't return until 1885. Once again, during the Mexican Revolution, they were forced to leave in 1914. The complex was nationalised in 1933 and declared a historic monument and later restored and opened as a museum in 1964.

The adjoining church, the Iglesia de San Francisco Javier, built by the Jesuits between 1670 and 1682, was the one we were now sitting in front of. One look at the extremely ornate façade, without so much as a square inch of plain stone in the central part, tells you they either had a lot of time on their hands or were trying to make a point. Or both. If the façade of a church can be "read" like a book, giving a summary of what's inside and what's important to them, then this one has made sure visitors know what it was all about. There was a large figure of St Francis Xavier (co-founder of the Society of Jesus and one of the seven original Jesuits) in the middle, over the door, showing the church was dedicated to him. All the other saints and symbols were also part of the story and it would probably take you a good few weeks to investigate and fully absorb. But apparently, that was just the appetizer for what was to come. We could hardly wait to go inside. Before we actually went into the museum, Lynda pointed out the smaller "nest of domes" to one side of the church. "Remember this. You'll see what it is when you get inside," she said tantalisingly.

Lynda explaining some history to the group

A general view of the Iglesia de San Francisco Javier

Tile explaining the different figures on the façade

The very ornate façade covered in saints and other figures

Detail of the façade

Series of domes which Lynda pointed out to us and told us to keep in mind

Today the whole complex comprising the College, the former monastery and the Church of St Francis Xavier houses the Museo Nacional de Virreinato (Museum of the Viceregal or Colonial Period), one of the most impressive in Mexico, not only for what is on show there but because the buildings themselves are a fitting historical setting for the exhibits. Add to that the fact that the Church is one of the three most important buildings of churrigueresco (Spanish Baroque) art in Mexico and you can be sure you're going to need more than a few hours to take it all in. As Lynda took us around the museum and fed us entertaining snippets of information as well as the heavier stuff, we began our journey back in time. The stone floors, red and white walls and vaulted cloisters bulged with valuable paintings, works of art and sculptures from Mexico's colonial era. We visited the private chapel, the library, the pharmacy, the kitchen, and an exhibition on nuns and their way of life, and were transported back several centuries.

Scale model of the museum complex, seen from the front

Beautiful corridors, painted red and white, with stone flooring

Windows with heavy wooden shutters

The private chapel, "Capilla Domestica", with a towering altarpiece full of mirrors, portraits of saints, statues and reliquaries, where the novice priests used to come and pray

Interesting windows in the chapel

Lavishly painted ceilings and walls of the chapel

The only other visitors were a party of schoolchildren who seemed to be enjoying themselves

Vaulted roof and paintings

The Spanish arrived in galleons like these to conquer the New World

Suit of armour and paintings from the Colonial Period which stretched from the Spanish Conquest in 1521 to the beginning of the 19th Century.

A rather gory statue of Jesus on his way to being crucified. It would surely have left an impression on the Indians.

Another rather gruesome sight - relics of one of the saints

Scale model re-creating life in those days

Corridor in the ex-monastery

Exhibition about the life of nuns in a convent

View through the window of the bell tower and dome outside

The breezy terrace at the top gives all-round views

Looking down towards the Church building from the monastery

The Jesuits' library

Ivory figures

Detail of the door and corridor

Patio de los Naranjos, one of the interior courtyards with orange trees

Looking into the courtyard

Mural depicting the enormous aqueduct built near Tepotzotlán and well worth a visit too.

The gardens of the complex, leading to the vegetable plots

Scene from the kitchen

Shelves in the kitchen

Whitewashed kitchen patio with cisterns for collecting rainwater

The store room

The Pharmacy where they prepared the medicines

With many of the exhibits coming from the Cathedral in Mexico City as well as elsewhere, this complex must be the most well-stocked colonial museum in Mexico. Even if you aren't particularly keen on religious or sacred art, there is more than enough here to keep you interested. The buildings themselves are impregnated with the unmistakeable colonial style and you can't help but wonder what these walls have seen over the last 400 years or so. But there was still more to come. Lynda promised us that we'd be amazed by what we were going to see inside the church which was when I suddenly began to wonder if my camera battery would last out.

.../To be continued in Part 2.

Posted by margaretm 06:52 Archived in Mexico Tagged museum excursion colonial tepotzotlán pueblo_mágico Comments (1)

(Entries 1 - 2 of 2) Page [1]