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Chapultenango: Trial by Fire

In 1982 the volcano called Chichonál, in northeastern Chiapas, erupted violently, bringing devastation to the surrounding area. The rain of volcanic ash and rocks damaged several of the old Dominican mission buildings in the Zoque region, including Chapultenango and Ostuacán, and completely destroyed the historic church of Francisco León.

Chapultenango, "Place of the Grasshoppers," was one of a chain of missions erected by the Dominicans among the Zoque Indians, who populated the fertile tropical lowlands of northeastern Chiapas. Founded in the 1590s, the mission was largely built in the 17th century, with some later additions.

The large church, constructed of brick and stone, bears a family resemblance to the other churches of the region, notably those at Copainalá and the Dominican priory at Tecpatán, both of which are described in our Chiapas guide, More Maya Missions. The outstanding feature is a massive belltower that projects from the south side of the facade. Punctuated with numerous window slits and arched bell openings, the tower is capped with great corner pinnacles. A slender, cylindrical caracol stairway is attached to the northwest corner, similiar to those constructed at Copainalá and the celebrated fountain at Chiapa de Corzo.

The facade remains intact, and is distinguished by an elegant classical arched doorway cut from smooth white limestone surrounded by a variety of now empty niches. Above the dividing cornice is a small choir window framed by narrow baluster columns. Another pair of baluster columns hangs below the cornice - a classic marker of Dominican Plateresque architecture in Mexico. The nave, now covered by a flat metal roof, was formerly pitched and at one time thatched with palm leaves - the main victim of Chichonal's fury. Only the grand polygonal apse retains its original covering, a handsome coffered half-dome sheltering a popular image of El Señor de Esquipulas, the patron saint of the community. The baroque north entry, which boasts a large oval medallion, is an 18th century addition although the fine arched windows along the nave, with their continuous stepped frames, are typical of early Dominican buildings in Chiapas.

Only the east range of the two-story convento remains, its roof also destroyed by the eruption, and all the old brick arcades have gone. Sections of the colonial atrium wall still stand precariously in front of the church - a unique survival in Chiapas.


Text and illustrations ©1997 by Richard D. Perry

Much of the information for this piece was gleaned from Elsa Hernández Pons' monograph, El convento Dominico de Chapultenango (Instituto Chiapaneco de Cultura .1994)

map of Zoque missions

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