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Hidden Gems of Oaxaca 1*: San Miguel Huautla

San Miguel Huautla, "where the wild amaranth abounds," is a secluded mountain village in the Mixteca Alta of northern Oaxaca, one of several pueblos named Huautla in the region. *This page is the first in an occasional series on the lesser known colonial churches of Oaxaca.

Not to be confused with the border town of Huautla de Jiménez, famous for its caves and magic mushrooms, San Miguel Huautla is located further south, east of Coixtlahuaca near the new autopista, but currently only accessible along an unpaved road from Nochistlan.

Despite its obscurity, Huautla is of architectural note for its unusual early church, which is designed in a style traditionally associated with the Franciscans rather than that favored by the Dominicans, who missionized most of Oaxaca.

Modest in most other respects, the church is outstanding for its carved stone facade, whose medieval Isabelline style and mudéjar forms recall early Franciscan church fronts in Puebla and Tlaxcala ­ the doorways at Huejotzingo, Tepeaca and Tecamachalco have a family resemblance ­ instead of the grander, Renaissance-inspired Plateresque style usually favored by the Dominicans.

The square church front, braced by angled buttresses, stands above stepped terraces of possible pre-Columbian origin. The broad west doorway is capped by a spectacular star-shaped Moorish arch, a facade configuration unique in 16th century Mexican architecture.

Rosettes of varying sizes and shapes decorate the archway and the broad supporting jambs as well as ornamenting the ogee-arched choir window overhead. The doorway is crowned by a tall, beaded alfiz carved with an intriguing thorn-and-ribbon molding which has been interpreted as a corn stalk entwined with serpents, suggesting a strong indigenous influence.

The alfiz encloses a large sculpture of St. Peter rendered in sharply undercut low relief ­ the so-called tequitqui style of early colonial stonecarving. The saint wears the papal tiara and holds up the keys to Paradise. Panels of feather-like motifs frame the relief, which rests on highly stylized representations of an eagle and a jaguar ­ more pre-hispanic survivals. The portrayal of St. Peter rather than St. Michael, the village patron, may reflect the transfer of the church to the episcopal clergy after 1560.

The Franciscan connection?

Two smaller reliefs flank St. Peter. These display crosses surrounded by the Stigmata of Christ and framed by a knotted cord ­ emblems commonly found in Franciscan churches throughout Mexico. Although the Franciscans were very active across the border in Puebla to the north, there seems to be no record of them operating in this area of the Mixteca Alta. But the unusual facade at Huautla clearly suggests their influence, if not actual presence, during the building of the church.

It may be that Franciscans from Huejotzingo or Tehuacán evangelized San Miguel Huautla and built the church in the 1540s or '50s before relinquishing it to the secular arm in the 1560s. Perhaps this was because of the lack of friars willing to stay in this remote area. It would be interesting to see if any other similar church fronts have survived in the surrounding mountains of the region.


More information on the early mission churches and monasteries of Puebla and Oaxaca can be found in our archive as well as our illustrated guidebook, Mexico's Fortress Monasteries