Wednesday 3 December 2014

Picture post 36 - A riot of colour, Santa Maria Tonatzintla and San Francisco Acatapec

Church of Santa Maria Tonatzintla
The journey from Mexico City to Puebla takes a couple of hours dependant on traffic. However, there are many delights en route that tempt travellers to lengthen the journey by enjoying short stops to look at the volcanoes Popocatapetl and Iztaccihuatl (at least on a clear day) and the historic city of Cholula, which will be the subject of another post. There are also two stunningly beautiful churches in small settlements near to Cholula and I was lucky enough to be able to visit them on my recent Mexico trip.

Tonatzintla is a small, very ordinary village but its pride and joy is the Church of Santa Maria of Tonatzintla in the main square. Accessed through a yellow painted archway and across a paved patio, the talavera and brick facade is a glorious red with blue, yellow and white details and naive figures sheltered in a series of small recesses. I love the crisp, clean combination of colours and the way they fit perfectly with the bright Mexican light. 

Archway, Santa Maria Tonatzintla
Work began on the church in the 16th century and the style is described as folk baroque, mixing elements of Christianity with indigenous beliefs and practices. Interestingly, even the name of the church (and the village) reflects this. Tonanzin was a goddess of fertility popular amongst the indigenous Nahua speaking peoples, whilst the village name means "place of our little mother". This is mirrored in the choice of Mary for the church's dedication.

The exterior of the church is beautiful but the interior is overwhelming. Over the last several hundred years, craftsmen have covered almost every inch of the church with stucco ornament including birds, plants, fruits and indigenous figures interspersed with biblical characters. Everywhere you look there is something different to see and it is hard to know where to look first. It is fascinating to see that many of the figures have the facial features of the original Mexicans rather than the Spanish colonialists, suggesting perhaps that the vast majority of the craftsmen were also indigenous people. This style of decoration is known as churrigueresque and originated in Spain in the late 17th century. Unfortunately photographs are not allowed inside but it is relatively easy to find pictures of the interior on the internet.

Acatapec is another small village just a short distance form Tonatzintla. It is home to the riot of colour that is the church of San Francisco. The baroque exterior is covered in glazed bricks and locally produced talavera tiles in blue, green, yellow, red and white. Set back from a busy main road, it is a complete surprise in a village that is otherwise unremarkable. Built at the end of the 18th century it is a other example of the churrigueresque style of stucco decoration on the internal walls and ceiling with the rear of the main altar being particularly impressive. But for me the facade was the main reason for visiting. The uniquely Mexican combination of bright colours, brilliant sunlight and ceramic beauty is truly spectacular, whilst the main lines, angles, edges, curves and patterns are a photographer's delight. 

Both San Francisco and Santa Maria Tonatzintla are unmissable sites on the road to Puebla or Cholula, but a word of warning. Get there early because both churches attract large numbers of visitors including coach parties and school groups. Its great that so many people want to visit, but these are treats best enjoyed quietly. 

Church of San Francisco, Acatapec

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