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Santos de Los Sardaneta: La Casa de Rayas: its history & iconography

In 1776 Don Vicente Manuel de Sardaneta y Legaspí, an aristocratic hacendado, sole owner of the famous Mineral de Rayas silver mine, and one of the richest men in Mexico, added the finishing touches to his colonial mansion in the burgeoning city center of Guanajuato. This was a suitably imposing residence for the new Marqués de Rayas - a title bestowed on Don Vicente by the king of Spain two years earlier. This venerable townhouse now houses the city museum: El Museo del Pueblo de Guanajuato.

The Chapel

The greatest care as well as considerable funds were lavished on the family chapel, located on the upper level of the house. Its elegant late baroque portal (top) at the head of an imposing flight of stone steps, was reportedly designed by Felipe de Ureña, the celebrated architect of the nearby Jesuit church of La Compañía - an early masterwork of the ornate "Churrigueresque" style in Guanajuato.

The Portal

Framed by layered estípite pilasters, fashioned in Ureña's signature late style, the elongated portal provides an appropriately impressive entry to the chapel. The doorway is dated 1776 and its arch is inscribed with biblical verses in Latin.(1) The partially obliterated escutcheon of the Sardaneta family is emblazoned above the doorway, crowned by an aristocratic coronet and flanked by the names of Jesus and Joseph. A large octagonal window overhead completes the design. The pilasters as well as most of the intervening spaces are carved with arabesque reliefs that add to the richness of the design.

Sculpture pedestals below and to each side of the window, now vacant, once supported three statues. These probably portrayed The Virgin Mary and her parents Saints Joachim and Anne. Together with the inscribed names of Jesus and Joseph below, they would have signified the Five Lords - a popular late colonial devotion of the Virgin especially dear to the Sardaneta family, as the altarpiece confirms.

The Altarpiece

Up until the 1920s, a time of virulent anticlerical feeling in Mexico, the crown jewel of the Rayas chapel was its dazzling gilded altarpiece.

During that period new owners, unrelated to the Rayas family, bought the mansion but decided to sell off the retablo. It was subsequently acquired by the prominent American collector Frank Augustus Miller, who had it shipped north, painstakingly restored and reinstalled in a specially designed "wedding chapel" as part of his historic Mission Inn in Riverside, California, where it remains today.

The "Rayas altar" is a masterpiece of late 18th century design, fabricated from rot resistant red cedar. It is exceptionally large for a family chapel, measuring 16 feet across and soaring some 25 feet up into the rounded vault. Exquisitely carved, delicately painted and lavishly gilded in the highly decorative Churrigueresque mode, the retablo displays a complex iconography reflecting the pieties of the time and in particular of the Sardaneta family.

*Although its designer is so far undocumented, it is logical to suppose that the retablo also came from the workshop of Felipe de Ureña, the architect of the chapel portal. Ureña was a prominent altarpiece designer and ensamblador as well as an architect, and with other family members established workshops to undertake such commissions.

Fortunately few changes have been made since its creation. Virtually all of the carved reliefs and statues of saints remain intact, mostly in their original condition and more importantly, occupying their original location within the altarpiece. The statues are skilfully carved and finely detailed in a dynamic late baroque style featuring flowing draperies in the opulent estofado (2) manner.



St Joachim



St Joseph and Archangels Michael & Raphael


St Anne

The Iconography

The integrity of the retablo allows us to trace with some accuracy the intent of the designer and the devotional preferences of the Marqués de Rayas and his family. The theme of the Five Lords, suggested on the chapel facade, is reiterated on the lower part of the retablo (see plan).

The glassed in center niche, which today contains a crucifix, originally housed a statue of the Virgin, most likely the Virgin of Sorrows (La Dolorosa) a Sardaneta favorite, now missing.

She was flanked by the statues of her parents, St Joachim and St Anne, and above, in the main niche, the figure of St. Joseph holding the Christ Child guarded by two archangels. The prominence accorded to St. Joseph may have been intended to honor the memory of the Marqués' father, José Sardaneta, who first acquired the mine, as well as his brother José Joaquín (see below), and his son, the second Marqués, José Mariano.

The upper sections of the retablo feature a mix of Franciscan and Jesuit saints, reflecting family ties and devotions. The brother of the Marquis, José Joaquín was a Jesuit priest, and a driving force in the funding and construction of the aforementioned church of La Compañía. A statue of Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuit founder, occupies the prominent upper niche, surrounded by four other noted Jesuit saints. St Francis and St Anthony of Padua perch on the outer pedestals at the top level. A handsome relief of the Mexican Holy Trinity (3) crowns the retablo.

For more on the Sardaneta family saints, see also our page on the Lost Temple of Rayas.

In domestic chapels, churches and cathedrals, such radiant gilded altarpieces offered the worshipper a celestial vision of heaven and its saints. Reminiscing about the retablo when formerly in the Rayas chapel, one elderly woman observed, "This was our Paradise. Now when I go home in the summer, I still like to sit there in silence with my remembrances of Heaven." (4)

(1) "My house is a house of prayer saith the Lord. Within, whoever asks shall receive, whoever seeks shall find and to whomever knocks it shall be opened. How awesome is this place; truly, is it not the house of God and the Gate of Heaven."

(2) estofado was a decorative technique for imitating brocade or the texture of clothing on statuary, achieved by selectively incising the overpainting on underlying gold or silver leaf.

(3) A favorite Mexican depiction of the Trinity as three young men, usually bearded and seated upon a composite throne (synthronos) This representation, based on Psalm 109 and originally promoted to combat heresy and signify the Church Triumphant, was deemed especially appropriate for newly converted peoples, especially in the Americas. Ironically, by the late 1700s, this depiction was itself considered heretical and had been banned by Rome, although to little effect in distant Mexico.

(4) from a letter by Doña Ofelia Arizmendi, as quoted by Dr. Parra.

Felipe de Ureña *

Known as El maestro transhumante, the "peripatetic master," Felipe de Ureña was among the most influential of the Mexican born architect /designers to introduce and develop the Churrigueresque style in New Spain. During the second half of the 18th century, together with other family members, he was primarily responsible for the adoption and evolution of this ornate late baroque style into cities across Mexico, especially along the silver routes north of Mexico City.

Primarily an innovative designer and fabricator of altarpieces, Ureña later adapted the barroco estípite style as it was called, for church facades. His elegant and integrated designs are recognized as the felipense style.

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