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"Portals to Paradise." Mexico's colonial doorways.

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Cuitzeo: a history in stone

Beginning in the 1550s, Augustinian missionaries settled upon the lakeside town of Cuitzeo as the site for a grand new monastery. The former temple of the Tarascan sun god Curicaueri was demolished and the new church began to rise on its foundations, using the cut stone from the old building.

Even today, the priory of Santa María Magdalena Cuitzeo is among the most sumptuous 16th century monasteries in Mexico, the sculpted Plateresque church front being its most prominent feature.

The Facade

Although derived in style from the influential classical church front at Acolman, the Cuitzeo facade surpasses its model in its soaring grandeur, its sculptural dynamism and especially its iconographic interest.

Elevated above a flight of steps, the facade rises in measured, diminishing tiers to the crowning gable. Each stage is framed by swagged baluster columns and wide projecting cornices.

It is believed that the design as well as the carving is the work of a native Tarascan craftsman, one Juan Metl, whose signature is prominently inscribed on an ornamental plaque beside the doorway 1. - the sole such example in early colonial Mexico.

Spanish royal arms, Christian symbolism, Augustinian insignia and native imagery are artfully integrated throughout the facade:

Garlanded candelabra columns, draped with fruits and foliage, frame the coffered entry. On the lower part of the shafts, the Augustinian pierced heart is emblazoned on the Spanish imperial two-headed eagle, whose drooping, parrot-like heads and sharply undercut plumage reveal a powerful prehispanic influence. 2.

From the broad cornice above the doorway, lavishly carved with winged angels like the doorway itself, hang decorative cornucopia set with native calabash blossoms and inscribed plaques: on the left the name of Mary Magdalene, the patron saint of the church, and on the right, the name Fr. J. Metl, the native sculptor.

A condensed Latin inscription 3. from St. Augustine's Confessions stretches above the cornice, beneath another relief of the pierced heart, luxuriantly framed by more calabash flowers. Above the choir window, also framed by festooned baluster columns, is another inscription, "it is fitting to praise the Lord," taken from the Psalms. 4.

The lofty top tier, although less easy to see, is perhaps the most interesting. St Mary Magdalene occupies the niche, conventionally portrayed with her long tresses and box of ointment, with a lamb at her feet. 5.

Armorial escutcheons on either side incorporate the ancient insignia of Cuitzeo. Traditional water jars signifying its Tarascan place name, "Place of the Jars", are quartered with pelicans, who symbolize the lakeside location as well as the person of Christ. These arms are crowned with plumed diadems as worn by the ancient Tarascan kings. 6.

The Hapsburg two-headed eagle appears again at the top of the facade with the staff, miter and pierced heart of St Augustine. 7. The eagles' heads are once again bowed against their plumed breasts in an attitude of defeat or death - a subtle lament, perhaps by the native sculptor, on the demise of traditional Tarascan society under Spanish military and religious supremacy.

Other treasures at Cuitzeo *

In addition to the church facade, there are several other items of artistic and historic interest at Cuitzeo. These include (8) the elaborately framed open chapel, recessed behind the portería of the adjacent convento; a well preserved and detailed 16th century fresco of the Last Judgment (9) at the north end of the portería; and the forbidding 17th century mural of a crucified friar, set above the main cloister stairwell, the TIPUS VERI RELIGIOSI (10) The figure is framed by references to monastic vows and may portray the 16th century Augustinian missionary Fray Antonio de Roa.

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