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Hidden Gems of Oaxaca 2 - Santiago Nejapilla

Some time ago we ran a page on the sculpted 16th century facade of San Miguel Huautla, a picturesque little church hidden in the Mixtecan highlands of northern Oaxaca.

We follow up by looking at another little known gem of early colonial architecture, the church of Santiago Nejapilla, also located in the Mixteca Alta region*. This remarkable church is cast in the characteristic mold of 16th century Dominican buildings throughout Oaxaca, and is notable for the richness of its sculpted west portal, framed in the form of a triumphal arch - a classical motif especially favored by the Dominicans.

The Doorway

The grand main doorway is framed by powerful fluted jambs capped by dentilled capitals. A double coffered archway inset with cross-banded diamonds spans the doorway - another signature of regional Dominican architecture. Carved vines spring from urns on each side, arching above the doorway and spreading across the spandrels.

A vigorous relief of the Archangel Michael fills the keystone, with spread wings and cloak. Three enormous plumes rise from his helmet. This sculpture, dated 1696 by an inscription, most likely replaced an earlier relief of St. James (Santiago,) the patron saint of the church.

Scalloped upper and lower niches with broad beaded frames flank the doorway. While the upper niches are plain, the lower pair is delicately carved with openwork doves in the arch, draped cross reliefs in the recess and projecting corbels or fonts at the foot. Intricate relief medallions featuring the diagonal Dominican cross separate the tiers of niches.

Above the doorway, running cornices - another common Dominican device - outline the entablature. Dentils and a twisted cord ornament the upper cornice and another vine snakes along the intervening frieze. Shell, anchor and cross reliefs appear over the keystone.

Fluted spiral columns flank the portal, extending through the entablature - one more Dominican feature - to the upper tier of the facade. This upper tier echoes the doorway level but is more austere, possibly a later addition. Its only sculptural ornament is in the surmounting frieze, which displays a row of winged, seated figures in flat relief.

The Exterior

Bold arched openings, also embellished with dentils and beading, punctuate the church: in the lateral porches, niches and nave windows. Assorted reliefs, floral, animal and figural, also adorn on the exterior. Deer, a jaguar, and a caped figure with the legend "Yo El Rey" (I the King) are carved into the wall of the apse.

The Interior

Inside the church, five arches, enriched with carved and painted moldings and reliefs, separate the bays and support the long barrel vault. Again, figure sculptures embellish several keystones, notably a spirited Archangel Raphael and a relief of Christ, both are colorfully painted and dated 1700. Together with the facade relief of St. Michael, these sculptures probably mark a refurbishment of the earlier church.

Other classic Dominican architectural features include the ribbed wheel vault with its carved floral bosses supporting the underchoir, and the round coffered vault that spans the narrow sanctuary.


Although one of the minor Dominican missions in Oaxaca - probably a visita, since there seems to have been no convento attached - the substantial scale, quality of workmanship and richness of ornament at Santiago Nejapilla indicate not only the importance that the Dominicans attached to even their lesser establishments but also the pride so demonstrated by the local Indian congregations.

* Santiago Nejapilla is located off Highway 190 to the southwest about 25 kms south of Yanhuitlan


This article is substantially based on the detailed description given by the late Robert J Mullen in his landmark study, The Architecture and Sculpture of Oaxaca: 1530s­1980s. (ASU Center for Latin American Studies. 1995)

Picture by kind permission of Carolyn Brown ©1997.

For more information on the Dominican missions of Oaxaca consult our guidebook, Mexico's Fortress Monasteries See also our guide More Maya Missions, on the Dominican buildings of Chiapas