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Treasure cities of the barroco poblano (2)

San Juan de Dios: gateway lion

Return to Atlixco

Recently we made a return visit with Felipe Falcón, the talented photographer of colonial Mexico, to the attractive hill town of Atlixco de las Flores, located just 30 kms southwest of the City of Puebla. Atlixco is renowned for its charming "folk baroque" churches, several of which we have described in an earlier posting.

In addition to revisiting its early Franciscan monastery, where we viewed the recently restored main altarpiece (the subject of a forthcoming feature), we took a closer look at the remarkable colonial hospital of San Juan de Dios (hillside location at 11 sur/3 poniente).

The first hospital on this site was founded in the 1580s and dedicated, like so many early hospitals, to La Purísima: the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.
Although, the institution continued to function through the 1600s, by 1731 financial and administrative problems obliged the viceroy and local bishop to hand it over to the juaninos, the more experienced hospital order of St. John. The hospital was then expanded with the new church, a second level added to the cloister, and many additional rooms and wards. The juaninos continued to run the institution until 1821. The hospital continues to function today as a community clinic.

Please click on thumbnails to view larger images


The Gateway

Both church and hospital are set back from the road beyond a narrow, divided atrium. An ornamental double arched gateway, crowned with pierced pediments, opens to the atrium. An elaborate escutcheon of the Hapsburgs, painted in stucco relief with rampant lions, rises between the two gables - a handsome entry whose effect is currently marred by an obtrusive utility pole festooned with wires.

The Hospital
A narrow tiled lobby - with many colonial era azulejos - leads directly into the interior patio. The arcaded lower level features stout columns of dark gray basalt with a pronounced batter. These probably date from the late 1500s or early 1600s and are capped with ornate capitals of corinthian inspiration.

Small carvings of hearts and a crowns of thorns project from the keystones, beneath an elaborately carved foliated frieze supported by cherubs.

The upper level of the cloister, believed to be the work of the architect Agustín de Oliva, is later and reflects the popular baroque taste of the mid-18th century.

Rectangular windows replace the arcades of the lower level and are flanked in the corners by paired, spiral pilasters densely carved with stucco foliage, shells, rosettes and angels. The pilasters are headed by ornate capitals, with carved pelicans emerging from acanthus foliage. Decorative balconies front the center openings on each side.

For us, the most intriguing feature of the patio is its elaborate fountain, dominated by a large, ambiguous stone figure thought to represent Hercules and the Lion, although claims have also been made for John the Baptist, as well as San Adrián, a minor saint believed to prevent epidemics - more appropriate for a hospital setting.


The Art Gallery
Perhaps the most interesting, and unexpected, aspect of the hospital is its extensive art gallery, which occupies a large salon opening off the upper cloister. It contains a substantial collection of late colonial paintings, most of them recently restored, that include works by noted 18th century poblano artists Luis Berrueco, Pablo José Talavera and Alonso López Herrera. (
see detail)

Highlights of the collection include portraits of the archangels with scenes of healing and ministering to the poor and sick; and two cycles depicting scenes from the life of St. John of God, represented both as San Juan de Dios, the patron saint of the hospital, and as Juan Ciudad, his secular given name. One cycle portraying the juanino founder is believed to be the work of the artist Pablo Sebastián. Painted in the 1740s and based on the engravings in Fr. Antonio de Govea's 1660 biography of the saint, these canvases may be the most complete such sequence in colonial Mexican art.

The Church
The small 18th century church is unexceptional; attractive but quite plain with a clean neoclassical interior. A tiled cupola in the Pueblan style crowns the single tower.