Saturday, April 7, 2018

Monastery of San Miguel Arcangel - Huejotzingo

One of my favorite sites in Mexico is the monastery of San Miguel Arcangel, or St. Michael the Archangel, located in Huejotzingo, State of Puebla, Mexico. 

It is one of the Monasteries on the slopes of Popocatepetl, one of the 501 Must-Visit Destinations (in a book we have by Bounty Books) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994. 
This map shows the monasteries (in capital letters and the shape of a monastery next to it) on the slopes of Popo. Both Popo and Izta are shown. We visited the monastery at Cuernavaca (toward the far left above) and the monastery at Huejotzingo (to the upper right). 
Popocatepetl (or "Popo") is a 17,802 foot tall active volcano in Central Mexico, the second highest peak in Mexico and the fifth tallest peak in North America. We visited the slopes of Popo a few days before our visit to Huejotzing. 
Viewed here from the car at sunset on our way from Puebla back to Mexico City. 
Popo, also on our drive at sunset. Note that it is smoking.

Popo, from 13,000 feet, on the slopes of Izta. 
Popo and a view of its summit, from 13,000 feet. It is throwing up its own smoke, adding to the surrounding clouds. 
Popo, from about 12,000 or 12,500 feet, from the slopes of Izta. 
Popo is just a short distance from Iztaccihuatl ("Izta"), also a volcano, which is 17,159 feet in elevation, the third tallest mountain in Mexico and the 8th tallest peak in North America. 
A view of Izta at sunset on our drive from Puebla back to Mexico City. 
Popo and Izta are separated by an 11,150 foot saddle known as the Paso de Cortes (Pass of Cortes), which was used by Hernan Cortes to access Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, the home of Moctezuma and the Aztec Empire. 
Arnold Pedroza and Judy at the monument at the Paso de Cortes.
The Paso de Cortes.
The Spaniards of Hernan Cortes were appalled at the ritual practice of human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs and other indigenous cultures of Central Mexico. Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire on August 13, 1521 with the capture of Cuauhtemoc, the ruler of Tenochtitlan. Some time after that, Cortes wrote to King Charles of Spain asking him to send Franciscan and Dominican friars to Mexico to convert the indigenous people to Christianity. Mendicant friars did not normally have full priestly powers to perform all the sacraments. But Cortes felt that if the indigenous people saw the regular Spanish priests, whom he viewed as full of "vices and profanities," the indigenous people would not respond positively. He suggested that King Charles grant the mendicant orders extra priestly powers so that they could be the principal evangelists. 

The first mendicants to arrive were Franciscans, known as the Twelve Apostles of Mexico, who arrived in 1524. They were followed by Dominicans who arrived in 1526 and Augustinians who arrived in 1533. By using existing indigenous settlements, where local rulers remained in place, the mendicants created major Indian towns for their initial evangelization. They built churches on the sites of the indigenous temples, transforming the sacred space of the locals into a place for Catholic worship. 

Of the 14 monasteries on the slopes of Popo recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, four were built by the Franciscans, four were built by the Dominicans and six were built by the Augustinians. 

Some of the common elements of these early churches are as follows: 

          (1) Thick walls for defensive purposes, making them look like forts or castles. Some of the walls have merlons. The wall at Huejotzingo does not appear to have been defensive, as it has none of the height or thickness of the walls at Cuernavaca which clearly were for defensive purposes. 

          (2) Open chapels, or capilla obierta, where mass took place. The rituals of the local people took place outside and this modification by the Spanish made the Christian rituals more similar to their own, and also allowed many people to attend in conjunction with the large atrium. The open chapel and atrium were usually built first. When the main church was built later, it was always connected to the open chapel. 
This open chapel would have been open at the top originally. 
          (3) Large atriums, in front of the open chapel, surrounded by low walls, to make the area more intimate.The large atriums helped accommodate the large numbers of locals.      
The opening to the atrium in Huejotzingo. The arches are supported by wood due to damage from the recent earthquake. Note merlons on the wall. 
The atrium is now full of trees. This would have been the open atrium originally. The main church is straight ahead, but due to earthquake damage, church is now held in the tent. 
      (4) Four chapels, capillas posas, one in each corner of the atrium. These chapels were used during processions, especially Corpus Christi
One of the corner chapels, or capilla posa. Huejotzingo is one of only a couple of monasteries that still retain all four corner chapels. The indigenous people had a tradition of  religious processions. The Franciscans built upon this with processions on feast days. The corner chapels were used during processions as places for pausing for prayers and may also have been used at other times as places for teaching. Each chapel at Huejotzingo was dedicated to a saint: one for John the Baptist, one for Peter and Paul, one for the Ascension of Mary, and one for James. 
Each chapel is covered with the Franciscan cord with tassel, an emblem of Christ or the Virgin Mary, two angels carrying instruments of the Passion, and symbols of the five wounds of Christ. The angel on the left appears to be carrying a cock or rooster and the angel on the right is carrying a scourge. I believe the center is a monogram of Christ. 
Another of the capilla rosa.
Top right is the monogram of the Virgin Mary. The angel appears to be holding a spear in her right hand and hyssop in her left hand. 
Yet another of the capilla rosa.
The symbols across the top represent the five wounds of Christ and the angel on the left appears to be carrying a lantern, which would represent the lanterns used by the arresting soldiers, and the angel on the right appears to hold the Holy Grail, or chalice used during the Last Supper. I believe the center may be a monogram of Christ, but I don't know what the symbols inside represent, although part appears to represent the arms of Jesus and St. Francis, Jesus with the wound in his hand and St. Francis with the stigmata in his hand.   
        (5) An atrium cross made of stone. The cross is often set on a rock altar which the locals would have associated with their sacred human sacrifice rituals. The cross on top represented the superiority of the cross over the ancient rituals and the cross did not have the figure of Christ because the friars did not want to link Christianity to the ancient ritual of human sacrifice. 

The first church built, out of the 14, was in Huejotzingo, and it is one of the most impressively preserved. The original structure was built in 1524 by the Twelve Apostles of Mexico and it is built on a raised area, likely an area of worship by the local inhabitants. I'm assuming the original Christian structure consisted of the open air chapel and large atrium, surrounded by the atrium wall. What is currently there was begun in 1544 and completed in 1570 under the supervision of Fray Juan de Alameda. 

The west door to the church is the main entrance. It is mudejar architectural style, deriving from Andalusia and reflects the Moorish influence on Spanish culture. 
A symbol on the front of the church representing the five wounds of Christ.
Although closed for repair because of the recent earthquake, we were allowed a brief visit inside the main chapel to see the 16th century altarpiece known as the Pereyns Retablo, after its creator, the Flemish artist Simon Pereyns. It is one of only two 16th century altarpieces that survive in Mexico. Simon Pereyns, a Mannerist painter, came to Mexico in the 1560s and he did the paintings. His signature has been found on the altarpiece. It rises in four tiers to the high vault of the sanctuary, where Padre Eterno, God the Father, is found. Seven gilded bays form a series of paintings of scenes from the life of Christ. Niches house carved statues of saints and other church luminaries. 
The chapel with wood scaffolding on the sides.
An etching on the walls shows Christ with two sets of arms. 
A closer view of the altarpiece.
A closer view of a couple of sections. 
The cloister at Huejotzingo is open for viewing. It reminded me of the cloister at Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy. We were able to visit the refectory (room used for communal meals), the kitchen, and look into the rooms of individual friars. 
A passageway in the cloister.
The refectory
The monastery kitchen
The room of a friar.
Another room of a friar. The stepped areas beneath the window I believe were used by friars to sit where they could get natural light. 
My favorite part was the mural of the Twelve Apostles of Mexico, the first 12 Franciscans who initiated evangelism in Huejotzingo. 
These are some of the neatest murals I've ever seen. They are old and historical to this place. They arrived in Mexico City on June 17 or 18, 1524. Their first evangelization was in the Valley of Mexico and the Valley of Puebla. In the Valley of Puebla, Huejotzingo and Texcoco natives were allies of the Spaniards in the conquest of the Aztecs. 
The names of the friars are given above their image. Fray Martin de Valencia, their leader, is the man on the right, next to the cross. The most famous of the friars was Toribio de Benavente Motolinia, third from the right. He wrote extensively on the customs of the Nahuas and the challenges of Christian evangelization and his works are critical for the history of this period of Mexican history. 
Following are more murals and paintings and photos of the cloister.
Mural of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
A mythical creature.
View of two corridors and into an atrium with orange trees.

Another view of the atrium.
Ground level view of a smaller atrium. 

Some believe that the native who painted this image of the Virgin Mary also painted the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe (those who do not believe the Virgin of Guadalupe is of divine origin). 
A close-up of the Virgin.
The Virgin of Guadalupe, for comparison. This was also in the cloister. 

I don't recall what the purpose of this was, but the pottery basins in the base were beautiful. 

I believe our guide told us that this blue cannot be duplicated. The identity of the source has been lost. 
This painting shows God the Father at the top, looking down; the Holy Ghost as a dove; and I'm assuming the baby Jesus is in the hands of his Mother. I love the early representations of the Trinity by the Spanish artists. I'm sure that it was an accommodation to help the natives understand the concept of the Trinity. 
I would love to go back to San Miguel Arcangel and take a closer look at the corner chapels, the open chapel and some of the murals I missed, particularly one of St. Francis driving around in a fiery chariot that looks like a small wheeled car with fire blasting out of it. 


  1. Great background info on the origin of these monasteries, and I loved your info about the cross in the courtyard built on top of the locals' structure. I too thought the black-and-white murals were spectacular. They were so unusual.

  2. Pido permiso al dueño del site para divulgar esta canción en honor a São Miguel (Cancion a San Miguel Arcangel). 
    Si te gustó la canción, compártela con tus amigos.