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Colonial Corners of Guanajuato

RESCUING MARFIL: how a colonial treasure was saved

Located on the outskirts of the historic city of Guanajuato, Santiago Marfil ("Ivory" in Spanish) was founded in 1556 as a citadel guarding the open western approaches to the new mining town of Real de Santa Fe de Guanajuato, primarily to defend against marauding Chichimec Indians. During colonial times its fortunes paralleled that of its larger sister city, with an early fort, silver mines, haciendas and churches.

In the 1700s, the great silver baron El Marqués de Rayas played a leading role in the development of the settlement, establishing the large mining haciendas of San Matías and San Juan Nepomuceno in the area.

The Church
The parish church of Santiago y San José was founded in the mid-1600s on the banks of the Guanajuato river. The church was remodeled in the late 1700s, when the ornate Churrigueresque facade and south portal were added, partly under the patronage of the Sardaneta (Rayas) family.

Following the upheavals of Independence and the Reform era, and with the playing out of the silver veins, the mines and their haciendas were gradually abandoned. By the late 1800s Marfil had become a virtual ghost town. Situated in a rugged canyon beside the fast flowing river, the settlement was subject to periodic flooding. Occupying a low-lying site, the church was especially vulnerable and severe floods, especially that of 1905, undermined the church, threatening its survival.

As a result a new parish church was erected on the hill above the town, and the old chapel abandoned. However, in the 1940s*, because of the continuing threats of flooding and vandalism, the two magnificent baroque portals were removed from the decaying structure, under the impetus of the Italian designer and architect Giorgio Belloli, and subsequently relocated side by side in the precincts of the then new University of Guanajuato building, where they may still be admired today (picture above) appropriately overlooking the arcaded courtyard of the 18th century Jesuit college.


< The West Portal
The former west facade (left) is the most sumptuous, fashioned in the late
Guanajuatan baroque manner.

Ornate niche-pilasters flank the relatively plain rounded doorway. A moorish inspired niche sprouts from the keystone and pushes through a broken pediment to a second level, where the richly sculpted choir window is flanked by massed tiers of encrusted estípite pilasters.

Above the choir window on the third level, an exuberant rococo relief of the Trinity (right) is also bordered by ornamental pilasters that push up to meet the prominent mixtilinear parapet crowning the entire ensemble.

The statuary that once graced the empty sculpture niches is no longer in place, leaving the original iconographic program in doubt. However, the presence of the Trinity relief relates this facade to others in Guanajuato, notably the Jesuit church of La Compañía and the "silver chapels" of La Valenciana and Cata.


< The North Doorway
This slender lateral portal is an elegant although simpler variant of the main facade. The plain doorway and flanking pilasters are capped by a richly carved relief that protrudes through a layered pediment, prominently surmounted by urns and statuary.

Sculptures include a traditional relief of Santiago Matamoros, carved on the keystone (right), and a gracefully modeled statue of an archangel outlined against the nave window.

In the late 1950s the river bank at Marfil was finally reinforced and the church of Santiago rebuilt with a neoclassical style front. In the 1990s, however, a group of dedicated local conservationists, aided by the townspeople, did further restoration work that included adding a carved stone replica (left) of the original lateral doorway.

While conservation of the original facades in situ would have been preferable, given the earlier circumstances the preservation of these important 18th century portals, which were at great risk of destruction, and the subsequent addition of a replica to the original church speak highly of the renewed historic sense and civic pride of the city and people of Guanajuato and its environs.

Felipe de Ureña

Although the author of these splendid portals has not been securely documented, it seems likely that they may be traced to the workshop of the celebrated baroque architect and retablo designer Felipe de Ureña, who, with family members, enjoyed especially close ties to the Rayas dynasty and their various building projects in the Guanajuato region.

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

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

* In 1947, the celebrated art historians and colonial art enthusiasts Pal & Elizabeth Kelemen visited Marfil, and noted the recent removal of the facades as well as the continuing dismantling of the church fabric:

"On March 11th we left by car in the early morning, stopping in less than half an hour at another ghost town named Marfil.... We drove into the valley below the main road where there was another church, this one with lovely shell-shaped windows. The last place was so isolated that trucks had drawn up in broad daylight and taken away the bells and the great ancient beams of the choir loft. Such pillaging was one of the reasons the other facades had been transferred to safer locations in the city."

Excerpted from the recently published The Kelemen Journals, edited by the eminent photographer and Mexican art specialist Judith Hancock Sandoval. Please read a new review by Bernard Fontana, a long time friend and colleague of the Kelemens.

  • text and pictures ©2004/2005 by Richard D. Perry. All rights reserved.
  • See our feature on the saving of the Lost Temple of Rayas
  • *see our ongoing series on Felipe de Ureña
  • For more information on the colonial buildings and art treasures of Guanajuato consult our guide Blue Lakes & Silver Cities