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Zinacantépec, a colonial convento near Toluca, Mexico

The high Toluca Valley, across the sierra west of Mexico City, was evangelized by the Franciscan order in the 1520s. During the 1550s and 1560s the area became the focus of an intense program of mission construction to build out a network of visitas and conventos linked to the main provincial monastery in the city of Toluca, where the friars studied the languages and customs of the various valley peoples - Otomís, Nahuas and Matlatzincas.

Although the mother house in Toluca has been largely destroyed, several of its satellite missions still stand, in varying states of repair. Of these, the early Franciscan convento at Zinacantépec ("Bat Mountain") some 7 kms southwest of Toluca, is the best preserved, a living museum of the history of colonial art and architecture in Mexico and the valley region.

The Open Chapel

The mission was founded in the 1550s as a humblevisita of the Toluca monastery. Its first permanent structure was the open chapel, still preserved in the porteria, or front arcade of the convento and cloister, which were added in the 1560s.

Recessed behind the larger center arch of the elegant five-bay arcade, the flared sides of the chapel lead the eye towards a pedimented 17th century altarpiece on the rear wall. The ten newly restored painted panels include the central figure of St. Michael - the original patron saint of the mission. Above him is depicted St Clare? with archangels and luminaries of the Church shown in the surrounding panels. God the Father looks down from the triangular pediment, while the Four Evangelists grace the base predella.

Murals on the side walls of the chapel picture St. Francis preaching to the birds and fishes (right) and receiving the Stigmata (left).

The Baptistry

A small room at the south end of the porteria was the original mission baptistry. Above the low entry door is a 16th century "Tree of Life" polychrome fresco, also newly restored, illustrating the Spiritual Lineage of St. Francis.

From the chest of the reclining saint grows a genealogical tree whose branches are crowded with various saints, prelates and martyrs of the order emerging from the blossoms. The blue-gray outlines are enlivened with red and green accents as well as flesh tones and earth colors, and the mural is framed with broad painted bands of grotesque ornament.

The Font

Inside the chapel stands an extraordinary baptismal font, which dates from the earliest days of the mission. The huge monolithic basin, cut from gray tezontle stone by native stonecutters, is profusely carved with Christian and Indian symbols. Carved medallions illustrate episodes in the early life of Christ, in addition to a relief of the Archangel Michael casting down Satan. These narrative tableaux are linked by a decorative sculpted frieze with grotesque decoration, Aztec speech or "song" scrolls and, appropriately, prehispanic water imagery. A rare Nahuatl inscription encircles the font below the cord rim, dated 1581 and commemorates Fray Martín de Aguirre, an early guardian of the mission.

The Convento

The sturdy arcades of the two story cloister are even plainer than the portería, their gray austerity somewhat enlivened by the whimsical zoomorphic gargoyles projecting overhead.

The cloister and its surrounding rooms have been restored as a regional museum of colonial religious history and art. Several artifacts are on display including colonial statuary as well as numerous paintings, hung both in the former refectory and the friars' cells of the upper cloister - some works being attributed to the noted Sevillian artist Andrés de La Concha. Fragmentary frescoes abound: in the entry vestibule, the conventual rooms and restored kitchen area, as well as along the cloister walks beneath the surviving sections of a 16th century wooden artesonado ceiling.

The Church

Although it dates from the 1600s, displaying such 17th century features as a cruciform plan, central dome and an ornate two-tier tower, the church at Zinacantépec nevertheless echoes the general Franciscan severity of the convento. The sober baroque doorway and choir window are minimally embellished with vegetal reliefs in the spandrels.

Inside, built into its south wall, the church boasts a stone pulpit decorated with carved scales. There is also an unusual ceramic baptismal font of early colonial vintage. Other colonial paintings and church furnishings are found in the sacristy.

Pictures: ©Dr. Manuel Aguilar. Retablo: ©James B. Kiracofe, by kind permission.

Other Franciscan missions of the Toluca Valley

Calimaya "Where Twin Towers Stand"

With an ancient placename of sadly topical resonance, Calimaya boasts a Franciscan mission dating from the 1560s.

San Pedro y San Pablo Calimaya, like Zinacantépec, has an imposing portería, in this case battlemented and only four bays in length, formed by simple Tuscan columns and finely molded arches. The largest arch fronts a recessed open chapel, which is framed by an archway in the same style. A painting on leather of the Man of Sorrows hangs over the chapel altar. As at Zinacantépec, a separate baptistry lies at the south end, with retouched murals of uncertain date adorning its inner walls.

An arcaded two-story cloister, similiar to that at Zinacantépec lies within the convento. Of note is an Isabelline corner niche embellished with dense floral designs in Moorish fashion.

The church dates from the late 1600s, although altered since. The main art treasure inside is a painting of The Virgin of Light dated 1763 and attributed to the noted baroque artist Miguel Cabrera.

Note: The feast day of St. Peter (San Pedro-June 29th) is celebrated in Calimaya with several traditional folkloric dramas, including the Dances of the Moors and Jaguars, the Little Shepherdesses, and The Hunting Dog - all featuring colorful regional costumes.

Photograph: porteria in mid-1900s. ©Elisa Vargas Lugo.


The hillside mission of San Juan Bautista was founded here by Franciscans from Toluca in 1532, and is notable for its large atrium. As elsewhere in the region, the convento dates from the 1560s, with a typically Franciscan, plain, colonnaded, two-story cloister.

The church, known locally as El Calvario because of its elevated site, seems to be earlier than other regional Franciscan churches, dating from the later 1500s, although with later alterations. The plain facade has an understated classical entry and the interior contains a number of colonial paintings.

Although the town is best known for its popular "Tree of Life" ceramics, there is no trace of a colonial mural on the theme at Metepec that might have served as a model.

Text ©2002 Richard D Perry.


Other missions in the State of Mexico


  • Zinacantépec murals and retablo (©James B. Kiracofe)
  • more pictures by Dr. Manuel Aguilar
  • Mexico's folk festivals