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El barroco poblano

Atlixco: Treasure city of the Pueblan baroque

In 2000 we traveled across the state of Puebla, inspecting damage to colonial monuments caused by the 1999 earthquakes. One of our most rewarding visits was to the attractive hill town of Atlixco de las Flores, located just 30kms southwest of the City of Puebla.

In addition to its early Franciscan monastery, perched on a knoll above the town, Atlixco is also renowned for its charming group of "folk baroque" churches in the town center. Here we look at just three outstanding examples, all of them colonial churches whose late 18th century facades are richly decorated with painted statuary and intricately carved stucco ornament.

The artists and sculptors are unknown, but it is likely that they were skilled craftsmen who lived and worked in the City of Puebla - a mecca of decorative architecture and sculpture. Although "popular" in feeling, their work is anything but naive in conception and execution, generally considered to be art of the highest order.

Chapel of the Holy Sacrament (Santuario del Santísimo)

This chapel was added in the late 1700s on the north side of the parish church. Its painted cupola and polychrome stucco facade stand in stark contrast to the plain facade of the adjacent church, which is distinguished only by its single, gigantic tower.

Decorative spiral columns flanking the former doorway are succeeded on the upper level by unusual "woven" columns and bands of intricate filigree and foliated relief around the shell choir window. An ornate, scrolled escutcheon projects above the facade upon which is emblazoned a relief of the Holy Sacrament above the two-headed Hapsburg eagle. Rampant lions, and angels bearing the Instruments of the Passion stand on either side, all boldly outlined in white on an ocher ground.

Although the interior of the Santuario was remodelled in neoclassical style in the 1840s, one ornate, late colonial retablo survives, with carved wooden saints, and paintings attributed to the baroque master Luís Juárez.

 

La Merced

Of the 17th century Mercedarian convent, only the church remains intact, and this was damaged in the 1999 earthquakes. While most of the fabric of the church, including the decorative side door dates from the 1600s, the spectacular facade is 18th century. Although conventional in its retablo-facade form, the decoration is an extravaganza, its dazzling, painted stuccowork rendered in popular late baroque style.

Paired columns, boldly carved with spiralling vines in high relief, enclose ornamental sculpture niches on both the lower and upper levels. Below, the columns flank a decorative doorway with a lobed Moorish arch. Above, they serve to frame an elaborate niche set in a floral tapestry of carved stucco, which contains the figure of the Virgin of Mercy, who shelters Mercedarian saints, including San Pedro Nolasco the founder of the Order, beneath her spreading cloak. A richly carved frieze separates the two levels, replete with curling vines, foliage and cavorting cherubs. The stone statue of St. Joseph and the Christ Child stands atop the facade, set between the cusps of a baroque pediment.

Despite an 19th century makeover, the interior contains a large colonial portrait of Our Lady of Mercy by the noted regional baroque painter José Joaquín Magón, as well as an exquisite octagonal pulpit of inlaid wood dating from the 1700s.

Unfortunately, due to the 'quake damage, the church was closed for repair during our visit. (See also our earlier page on the Mercedarian "folk baroque" church of Quecholac)

The Third Order Chapel

Set at the foot of the hill leading up to the mother monastery, the Franciscan Third Order Chapel is probably the finest expression of the decorative folk baroque style in Atlixco.

The classic retablo design of the west front has been transformed into a delightful baroque confection. Paired "Solomonic" columns, generously encrusted with vines and fruits, enclose two tiers of ornamental niches containing statues of apostles and Franciscan saints. A masklike cornucopia projects above the arched doorway. The choir window overhead is also covered by a shell arch and framed by bands of geometric filigree relief and decorative "basketweave" columns like those of the Santuario. Moorish medallions on either side frame two more saints. Cherubs and angels appear throughout the facade.

A Moorish theme is also sounded in the earlier side entry, whose octagonal doorway and Isabelline window vie with geometrical and foliated stuccowork, acanthus scrolls and cherubs in a complex decorative composition.

The richness of the chapel entrance is matched by the extraordinary, screen-like altarpiece inside. This gilded "Retablo de Reyes" dates from the early 1700s and is framed, like the facade, with spiral Solomonic columns and bands of carved floral decoration. Three tiers of statuary, housed in ornate frames, feature prominent Tertiary saints, including San Luis Rey, from whom the retablo takes its name. Although the altarpiece only contains sculptures, four large paintings, illustrating scenes from the life of St. Francis by the prolific18th century Pueblan artist Lorenzo Zendejas, are mounted on the wall to either side.

The hilltop church and monastery of The Assumption


  • Text & pictures ©2001 by Richard D. Perry, based in part on interpretations by Marco Diaz and Arq. E. de la Lama G.
  • For more on the monasteries of Puebla, including Atlixco, see our guidebook Mexico's Fortress Monasteries
  • Check our archive for more pages on the colonial arts and architecture of Puebla.
  • For more on the Mexican "folk baroque" see our page on the churches of the Sierra Gorda, Querétaro.
  • Look for our forthcoming page on the restored altarpiece at San Francisco
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