Exploring Colonial Mexico©
off the beaten track...
Chiapas: Forgotten Missions of the Camino Real
Continuing our series describing the lesser known colonial missions of Mexico, we return to the southern state of Chiapas. In colonial times, the Camino Real, or "royal road" from Mexico, ran through Chiapas - at that time part of Guatemala - on its way to the colonial capital at Antigua.
In the early years, the camino followed the ancient Maya trade route south along the banks of the great Grijalva River, through the Central Depression of Chiapas from Chiapa de Corzo to Guatemala. In later years, with the establishment of the Spanish colonial city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, a secondary road was added which follows the present route of the Pan-American Highway through the highlands from San Cristóbal south to Comitán, after which it headed back down into the tierra caliente to join the original route.
Numerous pueblo-de-indio missions were founded by the Dominicans at strategic points along the old colonial highway through the tierra caliente. Most of these were, for various reasons, abandoned - usually because of depopulation - and the missions left to the mercy of the elements. Some of these pueblos have since been re-settled, and their little known but spectacular standing missions partially preserved and once again in use. Examples include Copanaguastla (above left) and Soyatitán (above right) - both described in detail in our Chiapas guidebook.
On this page we focus on a quartet of still abandoned and even less well known missions along the upper Grijalva River basin, a region known in colonial times as Los Llanos (see map). Coapa, Escuintenango, Aquespala and Coneta were initially visitas of the Dominican priory at Comitán, serving congregated villages of the now extinct Coxoh-speaking Maya. Later, all four became missions in their own right. During the1600s, masonry churches with elaborate fronts were built and small conventos added. By the18th century, however, all had been abandoned except for Aquespala.
Although the crumbling
fabric of these early missions has in recent years been partially
stabilized, the conventos have largely disappeared and only fragments
of the four churches remain - some more extensive than others.
Isolated in empty fields, these evocative monuments, however,
share a regional, vernacular style of architecture. Although clearly
related to the larger churches at Soyatitán, Copanaguastla,
and that of San Sebastián in Chiapa de Corzo, these venerable
buildings present distinctive and original features.
Set in the swampy lowlands of the Central Depression, Coapa retains several of its mission structures although in varying stages of decay. The earliest building is probably the T-shaped structure behind the main church. This may be part of the original 16th century mission - possibly an open chapel with a wood or adobe nave attached. Only part of the facade now stands, although this includes the remains of an attractive arched doorway framed by an alfiz and crudely carved rosettes.
The church dates from the mid-1600s. Its thin walls of coarse rubble are set in mud and chinked with pebbles - a pre-hispanic practice. These have mostly collapsed, however, although a small section of the north nave wall still stands, enclosing a classic Dominican window frame with recessed jambs. Only the lower tier of the facade survives, divided into three bays in a primitive "retablo" design with an arched main doorway and lateral niches separated by double half-columns. Here the stoneworking is finer, suggesting a later date, although the facade was no doubt originally faced with decorated stucco.
A ruined range of rooms,
part of the convento, stands to the north of the church. Other
foundations, including the possible base for an atrium cross,
lie on the south side.
Situated beside the San Gregorio river, a tributary of the upper Grijalva, the Escuintenango mission was built sometime after 1600 and finally abandoned by 1800. The convento has gone, and the tower is the only readily distinguishable feature of the once monumental church to remain, although ruined sections of the polygonal apse and massive nave walls still protrude from the debris, their earthen cores set in crumbling retaining walls of rudely fashioned local "chac" limestone.
The tower retains part of its surmounting belfry and encloses remnants of a spiral, caracol stairway. A few decorative details can still be made out, notably some decorative columns and a niche that contains the headless statue of a saint.
One of the longer lived missions, Aquespala was founded shortly after 1550 and survived as a community until almost 1900. Located near the Río San Juan, which also flows into the Grijalva, the convento and much of the church - mostly built of adobe - have returned to the earth. The stone church front, though, remains largely intact, owing to its massive masonry construction. Great stone slabs inside and out make up sturdy curtain walls enclosing a mud-and-boulder core.
In its design, the facade follows the retablo format we saw at Coapa, although here simpler and more harmonious, with three broad bays and three tiers framed by giant pilasters. The belfries and central espadaña have crumbled away.
Although formerly faced
with stucco, the facade is now plain, with no surface decoration
or side niches - only the large arched doorway and a central opening
above. As at Escuintenango, the remnants of a caracol stairway
are embedded in the facade on its north side.
The last, the most original and the best preserved of the four ruined Camino Real missions, San José Coneta stands alone on a remote ranch close to the Guatemalan border. Founded in the late 1500s, the church dates from the next century, the facade being the final addition. Coneta was depopulated around 1800, and when John Stephens visited in 1839 the church roof had already fallen and the mission in an advanced state of abandonment.While its once grand convento now lies in ruins, the church, although roofless, remains in place.
Like Escuintenango, Coneta has a single nave with a polygonal apse. The walls and church front are of roughly cut stonework set in a matrix of lime mortar containing snail shells - a sturdy mix that may account for its good condition. The fallen vaulting was also of stone, a rarity among pueblo-de-indio churches in Chiapas. The spectacular west front is preserved virtually intact - the result of timely restorative work some years ago and again recently. Its unusual design and highly original decoration are remarkable for provincial Chiapas, and perhaps unique in Mexico. The broad facade rises in five tiers to its crowning espadaña. Amazingly, the stucco facing has survived the centuries in good condition, retaining its intricate decorative designs - an intriguing blend of folk Plateresque, mudéjar and even Mayan motifs.
The central doorway, whose
stepped frame is incised with angels, crosses and maize plants,
retains traces of its original colors and painted decoration.
It is flanked by blind arcades enclosing elongated niches. Three
shallow tiers rise overhead featuring rows of little ornamental
niches separated by a variety of stubby pilasters in what might
be termed a "folk estipíte" style - differing
in detail on each level. A bulls-eye window above the doorway
is surmounted by a succession of distinctive decorative niches
on each level, culminating in a large bell opening on the espadaña.
The headless statue of St Joseph? occupies a larger niche on the
text©2001 by Richard D. Perry. images©Robert Guess 1994 & 2001
My thanks go to Bob and Ginny Guess for suggesting this topic and making available their superb pictures of the Camino Real missions.
I should also like to acknowledge Sidney Markman's landmark study, Architecture and Urbanization in Colonial Chiapas, Mexico. (1983), a prime source for much of the text.
For additional information on the other colonial buildings of Chiapas, consult our guidebook: More Maya Missions, and our other web pages on Chiapas