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The Folk Baroque churches of southern Morelos and Puebla

Jolalpan, the facade gable (©1998 by Felipe Falcón)

We have looked before at examples of "folk baroque" architecture and decoration in Mexico, notably in the state of Puebla, a region long noted for its decorative use of brightly colored tile and painted stucco (see our pages on Atlixco and Quecholac).

On a recent trip to southern Morelos and southwestern Puebla (see map), we had a chance to explore another group of extraordinary churches, whose dazzling facades of sculpted and painted stucco reliefs present colorful variations of the 18th century barroco poblano style.

The best known of these churches is the Santuario de Tepalcingo, in the state of Morelos, whose complex temple front was clearly a model for other churches in the area, notably that at Jolalpan, located some 50 kms to the south in Puebla state.

Along the axis between these two temples is a group of smaller village churches, undoubtedly inspired by Tepalcingo, whose "retablo" facades are exuberantly ornamented in a more rustic but extravagantly colorful style. These include Chalcatzingo (Morelos), and the striking churches in the neighboring Pueblan villages of Tlancualpican and Tzicatlán.



The Santuario was built between 1759 and 1782 to house the miraculous image of Jesus the Nazarene, or El Señor de Las Tres Caidas, whose cult was attracting increasingly large numbers of pilgrims from across the region. The retablo facade is a masterpiece of the barroco poblano style, possibly executed by stucco craftsmen from Puebla, although it is quite unlike any church in that city. Like the others in this group, the Santuario facade has been brightly painted in contrasting colors from time to time, although not at the present

The facade recounts the Christian story: the fall and redemption of man through the Life and Passion of Christ - illustrated in a series of expressive tableaux and reliefs that feature a myriad of biblical figures and events. The tableau of the Last Supper above the doorway is especially animated.

In the classic mode of the popular baroque, these detailed and formerly colorfully painted sculptures are densely framed by a variety of ornamental columns, friezes, archways and niches, decorated using an eclectic late baroque vocabulary of angels, swags, leafy spirals and scrolls.

(Full explication and analysis of the complex iconography of Jolalpan can be found in the masterly monograph Tepalcingo by the Mexican researcher Constantino Reyes-Valerio)


El Santuario de Tepalcingo >


Chalcatzingo is best known for its ancient pre-conquest site. But the village church here, which faces a quiet, tree-shaded zocalo, has a primitive charm. The church front is the most elemental of the group, currently painted brown with the columns, cornices and statuary boldly accented in white.

The columns are extremely plain, incised with minimal spirals on the upper tier, and are headed with clumsy, outsize capitals. The various saints and archangels are rendered in a rustic tequitqui style of flat, undercut relief that harks back to the 16th century.


This sunbaked village lies just inside the Puebla state line, some 25 kms southeast of Tepalcingo. The village church here, also of Jesus the Nazarene, is currently painted in gaudy blues, greens and reds. The retablo-facade is divided by spiral half columns draped with leafy stucco tendrils and the numerous sculpture niches are framed by drawn stucco curtains.

Colorful statues of bearded saints fill the niches and reliefs of archangels flank the niche of the Virgin on the upper level. The most notable figure is the stucco relief of Jesus the Nazarene above the doorway, the rope around his neck held by a soldier in the spandrel. Intricate stucco ornament above the niches and along the friezes is picked out in bright colors.


Tzicatlán is a rural village in the tierra caliente of extreme southwestern Puebla state, whose parish church of San Lucás has to be one of the most striking examples of the popular Pueblan baroque.

Beside Tzicatlán, Tlancualpican seems almost austere. The extraordinary retablo facade is a classic statement of horror vacui - every inch encrusted with ornament. As at Tlancualpican, the church front has been repainted in a palette of eye-popping colors, its numerous relief sculptures highlighted in bright hues against a backdrop of lacy white stucco ornament. Columns, capitals, cornices and friezes are all densely embroidered - the only appropriate word - with vines, scrollwork and floral decoration. The local masons may have seen and been inspired by the spectacular Jesuit church of La Compañía in Puebla, completed in 1767 - the year of the Jesuit expulsion from Mexico.

Saints, musical angels, cherubs and archangels proliferate across all three tiers of the facade, some ensconced in elaborately draped niches, others clinging to the columns, arrayed around the door and window openings, or emerging unexpectedly from the capitals and friezes. Notable among the abundant figure sculptures are Jesus the Nazarene, perched above the entry as at Tlancualpican, here flanked by harp-toting angels. St Luke sits in triumph in the uppermost niche, his ox at his feet and martyrs on either side.


The most remote of the group, the facade of Santa Maria Jolalpan is closest to that of Tepalcingo, especially in its inspired variety of richly decorated pilasters and columns: neo-Plateresque with basketweave decoration; bulbous estípites with caryatids; entwined Solomonic shafts like those at Tepalcingo; even neo-Egyptian!. Like the other village churches, Jolalpan is brilliantly colored, its stucco reliefs freshly painted in eye-catching shades of blue, burgundy and yellow ochre.

As at Tepalcingo, the abundant statuary and carved stucco figures in the facade relate biblical events to the history and hierarchy of the Catholic Church, its founding fathers and saints. Adam and Eve are found here, together with the Doctors of the Church, The Four Evangelists, leading Apostles and the founders of the religious Orders.

In the extraordinary crowning pediment (top), the blue-robed image of the Virgin Mary is framed by rays of the sun and prominently displayed in a curtained niche whose drapes are held aside by kneeling friars (St. Francis & St. Dominic). Flanking reliefs of the sun, moon and stars are surmounted by busts of Adam and Eve with prominent speech scrolls. At the apex is an unusual tableau of the Trinity that features a relief of Christ Crucified. Radiating around the gable are four outsize archangels with windblown skirts, bearing the Instruments of The Passion.

A joyous orchestra of musical angels processes along the cornice below the pediment, playing trumpets, guitars and violins. (Detailed documentation and analysis of the iconography of Jolalpan is discussed by Reyes-Valerio in his Trilogia Barroca)


Templo de Santa Maria Jolalpan (© Felipe Falcón 1998) >


  • Text, photographs and graphics ©2003 by Richard D. Perry.
  • The principal sources for this page have been the authoritative monographs - Tepalcingo (1960) and Trilogia Barroca (1960) by the distinguished art historian Constantino Reyes-Valerio
  • Photographs of Jolalpan courtesy of Felipe Falcón ©1998 (not to be reproduced without specific permission)
  • For more on the colonial churches and monasteries of Puebla and Morelos, consult our guidebook Mexico's Fortress Monasteries
  • Check out our other "folk baroque" pages on Guanajuato and the Sierra Gorda
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