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San Miguel Huautla

San Miguel Huautla, "where the wild amaranth abounds," is a secluded mountain village in the Mixteca Alta of northern Oaxaca, one of several pueblos named Huautla in the region. Not to be confused with the border town of Huautla de Jiménez, famous for its caves and magic mushrooms, San Miguel Huautla is located further south, east of Coixtlahuaca, but currently only accessible along an unpaved road from Nochistlan.

Despite its obscurity, Huautla stands out for its unique early church, designed in a style traditionally associated with the Franciscans rather than that favored by the Dominicans, who missionized most of Oaxaca.

The Church Front

Modest in most other respects, the church boasts a spectacular carved stone facade. Its medieval Isabelline style and mudéjar forms recall early Franciscan church fronts in Puebla and Tlaxcala - the doorways at Huejotzingo, Tepeaca and Tecamachalco have a family resemblance - instead of the grander, Renaissance-inspired Plateresque style usually favored by the Dominicans.

Braced by angled buttresses, the square facade stands above stepped terraces of probable pre-Columbian origin. The broad west doorway is capped by a star-shaped Moorish arch, a configuration unique in 16th century Mexican architecture.

Rosettes of varying sizes and shapes decorate the archway and the broad supporting jambs, as well as ornamenting the ogee-arched choir window overhead. The doorway is crowned by an alfiz carved with an intriguing thorn-and-ribbon molding which has been interpreted as a corn stalk entwined with serpents, suggesting a strong indigenous influence.

Above the doorframe, the alfiz encloses a large sculpture of St. Peter rendered in sharply undercut low relief ­ the so-called tequitqui style of early Mexican colonial stonecarving. The saint wears the papal tiara and holds up the keys to Paradise. Panels of feather-like motifs frame the relief - another possible pre-hispanic survival.





The Franciscan connection?

Two smaller reliefs flank St. Peter. These display crosses surrounded by the Stigmata of Christ and framed by a knotted cord - emblems commonly to Franciscan churches throughout Mexico.

Although the Franciscans were very active across the state line in Puebla and Tlaxcala to the north, there seems to be no record of them operating autonomously in this area of the Mixteca Alta. But the unusual facade at Huautla, possibly derived from the early church front of the great Franciscan house at Tlaxcala (marked 1. on the 1580 map) clearly suggests their influence, if not actual presence, during the building of the church.

No other similar church fronts are known in Oaxaca.