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The cloister at Cuilapan (drawing by Ross Parmenter)

Ross Parmenter at Cuilapan

In this second excerpt from Ross Parmenter's book Stages in a Journey: A Memoir of Mexico, he describes the great Dominican priory of Cuilapan, located just outside the city of Oaxaca, not far from Monte Alban.

Although Ross spent much time in Oaxaca over many years, even maintaining a residence after his retirement, this is a delightful account of his first visit to Cuilapan in 1948, when the monastery and its two churches were almost unknown, and rarely visited by travelers. In this deceptively simple narrative, he creates a word-picture of Cuilapan, before its later restoration, that conveys a strong sense of place as well as a detailed account of the architecture.

Note: Over the years, Parmenter developed a strong spiritual as well as artistic affinity for monasteries of all kinds. His last book, published in 1994 and entitled A House for Buddha, recounts his 1960 sojourn at the Japanese temple-monastery of Ishite-ji. Like his accounts of Mexican monasteries, his lengthy description dwells on personal and spiritual as well as artistic matters.

"After the confining roof of the crowded bus the enormous vault of the sky seemed especially vast and free because the mountains were far off and there were no other buildings to compete with the old monastery. Surrounded by broad fields, it stood in isolation on its gentle eminence.
Knowing I had only thirty minutes, I was anxious to quickly find the roofless nave shown on the post cards. But I had my usual feeling that I should obtain permission to rove around before taking the liberty of doing so. Thus it was logical to take the footpath ahead. It was so well-trodden I could tell it led to the entrance most commonly used.
The path brought me to a massive old courtyard. There was no front wall to contain it and the wall on the right came to a meaningless end. Nevertheless I got the feeling of a prison. Perhaps the impression was caused by the barred windows in the second story of the main structure, a heavy building of large, rough-hewn, dark green stones. But I think it was more than the bars that did it. There was something jail-like about the atmosphere of the place. Even in the full sunlight of a peaceful Mexican afternoon, it looked gloomy and forbidding.

The effect of a deserted jailyard was heightened by a solitary post that supported a bit of boarding with a projecting basket ball hoop. But it must have been a long time since any prisoners had exercised there, for the hoop was rusty and the net had rotted away.
The path led to a small opening in the sheer wall of the main building. The arched doorway was undecorated, but, like the windows above, it was framed by stones which were conspicuously pale because they were more finished than the stones of the wall. I rapped on the wooden door set back under the arch. As I waited, I read a sign over a small barred window that showed the place had once been a jail indeed. Vicente Guerrero had been held a captive in the narrow cell that could be seen through the bars.
This excited my interest. Thanks to the reading I had done, knew that Guerrero, along with Hidalgo and Morelos, was one of the great trio of insurgents during the War of Independence. Perhaps he had been held here by the Spaniards. I studied the sign for further help. It gave the imprisonment date as February, 1831. That was ten years after the war was over! I knew it was around 1831 that a military mutiny had deposed Guerrero as president and forced him to take refuge in the southern mountains. It dawned on me, then, that this must have been the cell where the old chieftain had spent his last hours before being murdered by the firing squad of his political enemies.
The realization had hardly sunk in when the door on which I had knocked was opened by a fairly heavy-set old man. He looked like a native of the village, for he was a characteristic peasant, wearing a straw sombrero, white pants, leather sandals and a blue shirt which hung free like a smock. Deep crowsfeet spread from his eyes, he had a white moustache, and, when he spoke, I saw his front teeth were missing.
He indicated the place was a government monument controlled by the National Institute of Anthropology and History. There was no admission charge, but I would have to sign a book, which he shuffled off to get. The register was a dirty old scribbler which had been kept up very casually. After I had written my name, I realized that, whether I liked it or not, the old man intended to serve as my guide.
I expected him to close the door behind him so he could take me to the roofless nave. But instead he beckoned me to follow him into the building where he was living. It seemed even grimmer inside, and the moldy preliminary corridor was what I anticipated from such an exterior. Thus I could hardly believe my eyes when the corridor suddenly gave on to a particularly splendid cloister.
I stood and gaped. It was so totally unexpected. The post cards had given me no preparation for it. The man had given me no clue where he was leading me. And I had not visited enough monastic establishments in Mexico to know a central cloister was an invariable feature.
This one, obviously, had seen better days. The galleries of the second floor were roofless and three scrawny fruit trees struggled for existence in a yard overgrown with weeds. But battered and forsaken as it was, the cloister had an kind of architectural grandeur. With its beautifully finished sandy-green stone, it was the sort of sumptuous Renaissance building one might expect to find in a great European city. I had a sense of awed improbability coming upon it plunked down on a deserted plain on the outskirts of an Indian village where no one had seen a dictionary.
Because Mexico's fine buildings had been so exciting to me on my first trip, I'd read something about architecture in the intervening year. By providing me with new terms and a new understanding of structure, the study had heightened my powers of observation. One of the most useful knacks I'd acquired was the ability to distinguish between an arcaded cloister and a buttress-type cloister-that is, between one whose openings are created by arches supported by pillars and one whose openings are perforations between buttresses.
Thus I was able to size up this Cuilapam cloister as a buttress type. This step led me to examine the buttresses between the openings. It gave me a finer appreciation of the excellence of the design and the finish of the workmanship. These buttresses were not massive blocks of crude masonry. They were carefully shaped to blend with the whole, the lower portions being cut like polygonal prisms and the upper sections being rounded like pillars. Naturally my architectural reading had taught me a good deal about columns. After I'd digested the Greek orders - Doric, lonic and Corinthian - I'd gone on to the Roman ones and learned that columns of the Tuscan order had plain round shafts with simple rings of stone at their capitals and bases. So I could see the pillars framing the openings here wereTuscan in inspiration. And I felt a touch of pride in being able to note that, because they were partially embedded in the walls, they were "engaged" columns.
As I studied the details, the roles of the guide and myself became reversed. At first I had wanted to break away from him, but now he was getting impatient with me. At this point, however, there was a distraction. A youth came nonchalantly riding into the cloister on a burro.
The guide held up his hand with his thumb and forefinger almost touching to indicate he'd only be gone a moment, and went to speak to the lad. Left alone, I examined the cloister walks that surrounded the quadrangle. The lofty corridors on the ground floor had crudely white-washed walls, but they were splendidly roofed. In perspective, the stone vaulting of each ambulatory presented a vista of diminishing, concave Xs.
Presently the guide returned to take me on the rest of the tour. As we started back toward the entry I was almost tripped by a frightened black rooster, which unexpectedly darted under my feet in scurrying across the red tiles of the walk. Back in the entrance corridor, the guide called my attention to a feature I had not noticed on passing through. Protected by the glass of a rough frame was a bit of gray fresco. It was old and faded, but one could discern a strange tree with priests and friars growing from its boughs as if they were large leaves.
The guide, I judged, had not had much experience with tourists who had difficulty with Spanish. Those who are tourist-wise say relatively little and answer questions in simple terms. But this man talked a good deal without apparently realizing that I could hardly understand a word he said. But as he expatiated on the tree fresco, I caught that the sprouting ecclesiastics were " Dominicos," which gave me the clue that the monastery had been established by the Dominican order.
Once we returned to the sunlight of the prisoners' yard, we rounded the meaningless end of the stone wall that fenced the property off from the road. We walked along outside this wall until we came to the roofless nave the post cards had led me to expect. I recognized it by the two cylindrical towers, each with a conical cap, that stood at the front corners. A glance at the sky showed the afternoon sun was already on the far side of the ruin, which meant the building ran north and south.
Passing two leafless, oddly twisted trees, we went through an arched opening, which was one of a series of uniform openings piercing the long side wall. Within the shell, I could see the church formerly had three aisles, for it was partitioned iengthwise by two lines of arches. One of the arcades-a graceful procession of columns supporting thirteen round arches-still stood in all its Tuscan beauty. But the other was cruelly fractured. Only four of its arches were left standing at the southern end, while all that remained of the other nine was a half- arch projecting from the front wall. This fragment was broken irregularly and with its jagged curve it seemed to be reaching out to its sister arches, in a pleading and hesitant gesture, across the intervening piles of tumbled stones strewn over the weed-grown floor. The lost arches might have been toppled by an earthquake. But to the imagination the gaping breach suggested that a giant had stepped over the walls and, in a wanton act of destruction, booted down the arches with the side of his foot.
I wanted time to take in the whole effect, but the man was intent on calling my attention to the details he had been instructed to point out. He made me look back at the wall through which we had entered to see the inlaid stone plaque engraved with the Dominican coat of arms.
Then he took me through the broken arcade to show me another inlaid plaque. This one caught my interest for it had a familiar capital A with one leg standing through a compressed O. The guide pointed in the direction of the mountains, but I hardly needed such an indication that the plaque was associated with Monte Alban. I had recognized the Mixtec motif as being the one I had seen on the gold jewelry from Tomb No. 7.
The plaque had some lettering. It looked like ISSS, but when the man said it was the date of the edificio I realized it was 1555. It meant the church was built within five years of the monastery at ixmiquilpan. In fact, while the Augustinians had been working on that monastery in the north, the Dominicans must have been working on this one in the south. And again I marveled at what the Spaniards had created on my own continent before Shakespeare had been born.
From the position in front of the plaque I got a new view of the interior colonnades. Those lines of equal arches, one broken and one entire, were beautiful. And not only were the arches lovely in themselves, but they had the added beauty that always seems to result from a continuous series of identical forms. Clean, chaste and pale tan, they stood under the blue sky, contrasting sharply with the rough walls of dark stone that formed the outer shell of the building.
But still the guide wasn't going to let me stand and gaze. He was aware there was more to see and he knew he had a limited time in which to complete his duty. So he hurried me out of the shell through one of the open ings in the western wall.
For the place being a sort of stone sieve, that wall, too, was pierced with a series of arches matching the series in the eastern wall through which we had entered. To my astonishment, there was an even larger edifice on the far side of the three aisled building. It was another huge church. Actually, then, what I thought was the principal stru ctu re was on ly a wing on the northern side of this other ruin. The more ponderous ruin was built in the same monumental style as the doister. Its entrance had the same consistency and excellence of design, the same distinguished workmanship. A high fencing of red boards had been knocked together as an impromptu barrier, but not even this could mar the lovely effea created by the pure Roman simplicity of that noble, round-arched portal.
But once inside, I realized the handsome entrance was merely a side door. We were obviously in the center of a nave. I was so confused by this second enormous church that hardly anything made a definite impression as the guide led me about. I was relieved therefore when, having felt his duty was done, he tipped his sombrero and left me. One thing, though, was clear about this other ruin: most of it was roofless too. Looking at the traces of the choir gallery, I estimated that the massive walls were about two-thirds of their planned height. But their tops raised a question. They were fringed with small bushes, but they were too clean ly sliced off to suggest destruction by natural forces. And I learned later that the front of this church was a shell, not because some of it had fallen down, but because it had never been completed. Apparently it was too sumptuous for so small a community, and in a wave of Dominican retrenchment in the 1570'5 the order had gone through to abandon the project.
When I returned to the three-aisled edifice, I examined its walls to see if they, too, had been built only part way up. But here the evidence was that the building had been completed. I estimated it must have been a good 200 feet long. The main aisle was about thirty feet wide, but the side aisles were comparatively narrow.
At the front end, rising between the towers, was a gable that looked especially incongruous. Not only was it free-standing, but it was only wide enough to span the centre aisle. Trying to reconstruct the building's former appearance in my mind's eye, calculated that this centre aisle must have once had a peaked wooden roof that ran the length of the church. The side aisles must have had lean-to roofs, and these must have been much less steeply pitched than the main one, for the inner arcades, which undoubtedly supported the beams, were hardly higher than the outer walls.
By this time the first melancholy impression made by the broken line of arches had passed. I realized the break in the arcade's continuity even had a strange way of enhancing the beauty of the ruins. The break made one so much more conscious of the building's fundamental design. The edifice was no longer a perfectly achieved whole that could be taken for granted. One could not just size it up as a church and dismiss it. One had to search for the basic design to fill in the missing parts.
Completing the arcade in fancy had the still more important effect of liberating the imagination. And in some mysterious way one's powers of visual observation are always heightened when the imagination has been stirred. Thus the act of conjuring up the lost arches endowed the whole building with magic. The stone drums of the toppled pillars, the bits of shattered masonry and the fragments of the broken arches that lay where they had fallen, sprawling in heaps in the breach of the arcade, were actually less disheartening than many sights I had seen in other Spanish colonial buildings which were intact. The really saddening spectacles were the magnitlcent buildings that were still usable, yet which nevertheless were left standing, dilapidated, empty and neglected. Worse still, were the buildings whose destruction was being accelerated by the abuse they were undergoing in being used as garages or tenements.
This shell fell into neither category. There was no disparity between original grandeur and present tawdriness. It was something to be accepted frankly for what it was - a noble ruin. No longer did one feel a pang at the thought of what minor repairs, new panes of glass, sweeping and polishing could do. It was beyond such reclaiming. Yet being a national monument it was no longer suffering human abuse and it was not likely to be allowed to disintegrate further. And so much of it remained that the heart did not feel dismay at the sense of beauty irretrievably lost. Indeed, in its ruined stage the shell had gained new character, for it had gathered to itself those intangibles of dignity and awe which are the special qualities of enduring ruins.
Certainly I felt no sadness at the absence of the roof. Most of the church interiors I had seen in Mexico had been depressing. Too often decorations in atrocious taste had marred fine architectural effects. Roofs had merely closed in dusty, stale, incense-laden air. But here was a building open to the sky, stripped of everything but its clean stonework. The sun, the rain and the wind had scoured it. Its architecture with the perfect order of its identical arches, still proclaimed it was a temple, but it was an open air temple: a temple not of a lean, agonized Jesus with blood running from a crown of thorns, but of triumphant Nature, where one could feel the warmth of the sun on one's face and one could stand in the nave and look up at white swirls of cirrus clouds, high in the intense blue of a huge sky. The openness to the sky also lent the building something the original designers could hardly have foreseen - namely, the differing lighting as one moved about the shell. With such a multiplicity of arched openings both in the outer walls and the inner arcades, the arches were always framing each other in different ways. The rooflessness allowing the admission of so much sunlight, the interplay of light and shadow created all sorts of lovely effects. At one point one would see a near arch, which was in shadow, serving as a dark frame for a range of columns picked out by the sun a little further back. Elsewhere one would see the reverse effect: a luminous arch of creamy stone framing a shaded vista. And everywhere one looked one saw far mountains under the arches.
After I left through the opening by which the guide and I had entered, the effect, looking back, was especially magical. I could see right through the building. The fields on the far side sloped gently up to the mountains and the sinking sun was edging the hills with soft yellow light. This little scene of green and gold was framed by four arches - the one I had come through, the two of the aisle arcades and the simpler arch in the opposite wall. And each diminishing frame was standing in a different light. Judging the gabled front wall would have some ornamental stonework on its outer face, I walked around to have a look. My calculation was correct. There was an arched entrance for each aisle and some delicate carving. With the round towers at the corners, the roofless facade suggested the gateway of an old walled town. But I had no chance to study it, for members of the village band came streaming across the fields.
I assumed the musicians came from the town, but I could not say for sure. For that was one of the extraordinary features of the massive ruins: their isolation. From no point where I had wandered had I seen a sign of the town. A trumpeter was the first man to reach me and he shook my hand warmly. The next man, a trombone player, shook my hand lust as cordially. When the tuba player did too, I realized I was caught like a host on a receiving line. I shook hands with them all. There were seven or eight musicians and by the time I had greeted the last I was aware they were tipsy. They pointed to the ruins and made signs that they wanted to guide me in a body to inspect them once more. Fortunately, at this moment I heard a welcome sound - the honk of a bus horn.

The driver had remembered his promise and there was Diamond, noisily rounding the upward curve of the road to the place where I had got off. I pointed excitedly to the ancient vehicle to show the convivial musicians I had to tear myself away. I said I was sorry to leave, shook hands with the trumpeter once more and ran to catch the bus."

  • text and illustration ©1963 by Ross Parmenter
  • Read Parmenter on Ixmiquilpan
  • For more on Cuilapan and the Dominican monasteries of Oaxaca consult our new guidebook, Exploring Colonial Oaxaca
  • See our other pages on colonial Oaxaca
  • Ross Parmenter and Richard Perry in Oaxaca (1990)