Exploring Colonial Mexico©

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This nondescript western suburb* of Mexico City was once the Imperial capital of the Tepanecs, a warrior people who dominated the Valley of Mexico before the rise of the Aztecs. The former lakeside city retained its political and economic importance until late in colonial times, only to be engulfed in recent years by the expanding megalopolis.

Tucked away in a corner of the tree-shaded main plaza, stands the venerable Dominican monastery of St. James and St. Philip, whose handsome church is a treasury of high quality colonial art. The 16th century convento also has great charm.

The Church
The church is mostly 17th century with some 18th century additions, notably its elegant baroque facade. Carved from gray limestone, the porch is a tapestry of extravagant scrolls, angular strapwork and sharply curvetted cornices, dripping with stalactite-like pendants.

Inside, imposing gilded altarpieces showcase many superb colonial works of art, including paintings by the early 18th century Mexican masters Juan Correa, and the prolific Cristóbal de Villalpando whose Rubens-esque canvases fill the retablo of St. Rose of Lima, on the south side of the church.

On the north side stands the opulent Rosary Chapel - a common adjunct to many Dominican churches, and a study in late baroque extravagance. Above the entry arch, the Virgin of the Rosary extends her cloak to shelter a group of cowled friars. Rays of sunlight from the high dome of the chapel illuminate the gilded main altarpiece - a dazzling confection in which the underlying structure is all but submerged beneath a profusion of luxuriant carving.

The Convento

The faded outline of a mural depicting the arrival of the Dominicans in the New World can still be traced on the walls of the arcaded entry. Beyond lies an intimate cloister of archaic simplicity. Primitive Ionic capitals embossed with rosettes - an emblem commonly associated with the Dominican Order - adorn the broad arcades, and bands of rosettes also frame the corner niches. On the north side, a pair of intricately crafted wooden artesonado ceilings lend color and texture to the somber beamed walk.

Vestiges of early murals also add interest to the cloister. Decorative painted door frames are linked by grotesque friezes, where garlanded cherubs gambol in a world of fruit, flowers and chimerical beasts.



the monastery entrance (portería)

the cloister

Text & pictures©2000 by Richard D.Perry

* Note: Azcapotzalco is easily reached by taxi or subway from the city center

For more on the early churches of the Mexico City region, consult our guidebook, Mexico's Fortress Monasteries