Exploring Colonial Mexico©
Ross Parmenter, who died in 1999, is probably best known for his expertise on colonial Mixtec documents and his book on D. H. Lawrence in Oaxaca. A journalist and music reviewer with the New York Times, Ross also spent much time in Mexico, especially Oaxaca where he maintained a residence after retiring.
In addition to his love of Mexico, its customs and culture, Ross cultivated early on a special interest in the Spanish colonial architecture of that country. In 1964 he published a full account of his extended visit to the Dominican priory of Yanhuitlan (Week in Yanhuitlan). Many years earlier, however, in the 1940s, he had traveled to several other major 16th century monasteries, notably Ixmiquilpan in the state of Hidalgo, Huejotzingo in Puebla, and the ruined priory of Cuilapan, just outside the city of Oaxaca near Monte Alban.
His descriptions of these early colonial monuments, then virtually unknown to American art historians or travelers, remain among the earliest accounts in English and can claim considerable historic interest. Although discursive, highly detailed, and interspersed with Ross' characteristic reflections on his own inner life and thoughts, these reminiscences, collected and published in 1983 under the title Stages in a Journey, reflect his growing sympathy with Mexico and its people.
As a tribute to Ross, a long time friend, we plan to excerpt some of these early descriptions, starting with his visit to Ixmiquilpan* in 1946. At the time, Ross was traveling in Mexico in an effort to come to terms with his traumatic experiences as an army medic in World War II and define his future role in life. His highly personal account is at the same time naive and insightful, for it was at Ixmiquilpan that Parmenter underwent the first of several illuminating changes of outlook that helped him set out on a new life path. His emotional memoir of Ixmiquilpan was colored by this spiritual experience, and is reproduced here in full.
"From under the arcade, the white church loomed up in
profile. It gave the impression of almost overwhelming solidity.
If it had not been for the tower, I would not have recognized
it as a place of worship. Heavy, compact and block-like, with
a battlement rimming its walls, it looked like a fortress. But
the tower was a stroke of genius - unexpected, yet perfectly right
for a pile of such stark masses. The first four-fifths of that
tower suggested a great upended squared beam; and the monolith
was unbroken, save for the twin bell openings near the top that
pierced each side. These belfries were not unlike those I had
observed at California missions, but the superstructure that capped
the beam was unlike anything I had encountered in ecclesiastical
architecture. With the urn finials and the pagoda-like roof of
the first tier, it brought to mind the most unlikely style, one
I had seen only in furniture- Chinese Chippendale.
Leaving the arcade, I crossed the road, entered the walled enclosure and came under the pleasant shade of the tall cypresses lining both sides of the brick pathway that led to·the side door. Many birds were twittering and a barefooted gardener, his white trousers rolled to his knees, was watering the vegetable garden on the left of the path. He was doing his work by sluicing water from a bucket, and his efforts made the close more charming, for the water that escaped to the path made gleaming rivulets that deepened the red of the bricks over which they flowed.
As I approached, the walls of the church were more cliff-like than ever and I could see their huge, honest stones through cracks in the dingy plaster. The weight of the walls was evidenced by the massiveness of the squared buttresses that braced them. These buttresses projected so far that they partitioned the church's broad flank into five divisions. The side entrance was in the centre one, and its wooden doors were so large that smaller doors had been cut in them. One of these wickets was open, and it was obviously the door of general use, for its log threshold was so worn by the feet of those passing in and out that it suggested a prehistoric bone that had been gnawed by some giant animal. Just inside, a high wooden screen shielded the interior from direct light. The barrier, which was plastered with church notices, formed a sort of vestibule. To see the interior fully one had to go either to the right or left. But the loftiness of the ceiling was apparent at once. It was so high, in fact, that as I rounded the screen I half expected to be stopped and sold a ticket of admission. After all, this was a far more remarkable building than the Bishop's Palace on that hill in the suburbs of Monterrey. If that had been set aside as a colonial monument, surely this church had been too. But there was no ticket taker. Candles flickering before altars and three Indian women in earnest prayer, their dark shawls slipped up over their heads, affirmed it was a regular church in daily use.
Its vastness hit me like a blow. Earlier in the day, having reached the edge of the plateau, we had stopped briefly at Zimapan. The magnitude of the old church there had surprised me, for the churches along our lowland route had been relatively unimposing. But this church in Ixmiquilpan was larger than the one in Zimapan. Though it was not so wide, it was both longer and higher than New York's Carnegie Hall. To find it in such a small town was staggering. Since architecture is the most slighted of the arts in North American education, I had few architectural words in my vocabulary. But I had some terms to help assay the church because those who had given me religious training had felt it important to know the names of the principal sections of Gothic-style, cruciform churches. Thus I knew that the narrowing section sealing off a church was the apse; that the wings of the cross-beam were the transepts; that where the axis of the transepts interseaed the nave was the crossing; and that the area beyond the choir stalls, where the ministers moved about in front of the altar, was the chancel.
But this church didn't conform to the pattern I was used to. It wasn't like a cross, subdivided by many aisles. It was like a huge shoebox. And its interior space, which was all free, was roofed for the most part by a long tunnel vault. Major sections were disposed differently, too. The choir was relegated to a gallery over the front door. The chancel was crowded into the apse. And there were no transepts. Yet, curiously enough, there was a crossing; and like those familiar to me, it had Gothic ribbing. At that time I was ignorant of the principles of vaulting. I did not know the arching ribs formed a structural framework to carry the plates of the roof, and I did not know that the diagonal supports, which made an X in crossing the square, were called groin ribs. But I did not need terminology to feel the beauty of the ribbing; and, even without comprehension of structure, I could discern the basic pattern. Essentially, what I saw, superimposed on the X of the groins, was a circle enclosed within a stubby cross; and the arms of that cross were tipped like the points of a diamond on a playing card.
The apse, too, was beautifully vaulted. It was as if elms were growing in the angles of the walls; and the boughs of these stone elms passed through each other as they interlaced in curving forward toward the chancel arch. Most of the flooring consisted of crude planks, but down the centre, like a bridal carpet unrolled the length of the church, was a strip of red and white tiling. On either side of this main aisle unpainted wooden benches were ranged in regular rows. At the back of each bench was a kneeling rack. The three women praying so fervently were at separate points in the front rows.
Since I wanted to observe in greater comfort, I took a seat
a respectful distance behind them. Being a Protestant used to
a single altar at the front, I was especially interested in the
multiplicity of altars projecting from the sides. The two nearest
were in the same heavy Greco-Roman style, but they were in different
states of upkeep. The one with the statue of a monk in the place
of honor was utterly unadorned, and its fancy plasterwork was
nakedly white. But the other was embellished. The gilt was fresh
and shiny on the capitals and bases of its pillars. An arrangement
of gilded wooden sunrays had been inserted in its broken pediment.
Flowers had been placed about in improvised vases; and, on the
level within easiest reach, a number of orange paper cups were
sheltering the flames that fed on the wax within them.
This altar housed nothing but a picture -- a colored print of a dark-faced Virgin standing on a crescent and surrounded by a spiky aureole that ran down her sides, enveloping her from head to toe. Because the Virgin was so young, and because her mantle and her dress were too big, she suggested a girl dressed up in her mother's clothes for Halloween. She was quite charming; but why, I wondered vaguely, should a framed lithograph be so much more popular than a saint carved fully in the round! I did not know enough about the country to recognize that the Virgin in question was Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico's exclusively originated and particularly adored version of the Queen of Heaven.
General impressions are usually received in a spontaneous flash. But specific details do not come so easily. One absorbs them bit by bit, and the order in which they come through to different people is apt to vary. In my case, my conscious mind nearly always examines forms before it starts taking in colors. But by this time I was concretely aware of the colors in the hideous wave of interior decoration that had assailed me on entering the church. I was accustomed to gray stone churches that relied for their color on the stained glass in their windows. But this church had scarcely any windows and certainly no stained glass. Its colors came from paint - buckets of it. The designer had apparently conceived the idea that the vast walls would be less blankly appalling if he pretended they were paneled. Accordingly, enormous rectangular spaces were painted an ugly yellow in the hope of giving an impression of yellow panels superimposed on blue walls. Tan and tomato red were the subsidiary colors. The red was used to depict flowing draperies so that each major side altar might appear to be surmounted by a peaked canopy, as if it were a royal throne. The tan was the final profanation. It was coated over all the fine stonework - the pillars and arches of the crossing, as well as the beautiful Gothic ribbing. And as if this was not bad enough, the tan was crudely veined with irregular streaks of brown and white. The idea was to pass the stone off as marble. Fortunately, time had robbed the colors of some of their loudness. In many places the paint was faded and streaked. Glancing behind me, too, I noticed gaps where supports of the choir railing were missing. In fact, the whole church was in a state of sad disrepair.
The altar area was the only section that showed signs of recent care. But here again there were features which disturbed my sense of what was fitting in a place of worship. The decorative scheme was white and gold, which I felt suggested a ballroom rather than a church. And I did not know the curtained central structure was a ciborium to shelter a revered object. With its cupola supported by white pillars, it made me think of a Temple of Love in an eighteenth century garden. Other decorations seemed incongruous too, especially the urns of flowers on the altars, for the huge-petaled blossoms were artificial and the urns were shams. They were pieces of board, cut in urn outlines, which had been painted to suggest convexity. From the side one could see they were braced perpendicular by wooden props. Such obviously fake, latter-day decorations led me to think of the past.
I began to be curious about the history of the church. Had there ever been a time when the altars were adorned with urns of real silver! there were enough evidences of former splendor to make it seem likely. The most striking clue was provided by the gigantic murals that lined the long barrel vault. Their largeness of concept suggested original work of an early period, but now those ceiling paintings served to underline the contrast between past grandeur and present decay. They were in wretched condition, having been harmed both by man and by time. Someone with not much skill had re-done them. There were cracks and holes in them and in some places the plaster had fallen away. The figures were more than life-sized and in being brightened up they had been made rigid and two dimensional. One mural in the choir loft showed a pope at a feast attended by princes of the church. The dove of the Holy Ghost hovered above them in a circle of cloud, sending white rays down to each head. Across from this, a saint in a cloud grotto was also receiving rays from the Holy Ghost. Rising behind the figures in the nave murals were gray mountains and a strip of tan sky leading into blue depths in which floated awkward orange clouds. One of the big pictures depicted lael outside the tent where she had slain Sisera by pinning his head to the ground by a huge spike driven through his ear. Another showed Judith holding the head of Holofernes; and in this mildew, or some other agent, had rendered ironic justice by corroding and demolishing most of the murderess's own head.
As I sat there studying the murals, one of the women got up, crossed herself and ducked on one knee as she passed before the altar in making her departure. The other two remained upright on their knees, motionless in their devotions. Growing restless, I got up to explore further. At one side altar the glass was so coated with dust that if a few panes had not been broken I could not have made out that the figure within was a Christ on the Cross. Under the crucifix, in an enclosed space, was a life-sized doll, dressed like a bride and laid out as if for burial. The lace of her gown had turned gray with age. Being accustomed to statues with drapery carved as part of the sculpture, I found the real clothing in the poorest artistic taste. Most of the larger figures were wearing it, though. A lady in a mauve silk dress and a blue cloak, for instance, was standing on an altar near the door, her hands clasped at her chest as if she was about to sing an aria. A companion figure was an over-aesthetic Jesus in a violet nightshirt and a red cloak.
Passing under the choir loft, I saw its underside was also decorated with Gothic ribbing. There was a wooden screen against the direct light at this entrance, too, and the big doors were open. Their timbers were runneled with worm tracks and the elements had long since robbed them of any finish, but those great doors were still imposing, being carved in big, square panels, with each panel having a raised surface resembling a pyramid pressed almost flat. The sheer front wall of the church rose to a gable, which, like the side walls, was surmounted by a battlement. Decorative stonework trimmed the arched door and the window above. Being hazy about architectural styles, I could not place the scheme exactly, but the Corinthian pillars and the winged cherub heads gave me the idea that it was Renaissance. I was intrigued that none of the carving was fully in the round. The pillars and other elements looked as if they had been sliced in half with only their fronts being pasted on the whitewashed surface of the wall. If the niches on either side of the door had ever sheltered saints, the stone figures had been removed. The carving that remained had been worn with time. It suggested ice cream that was a little melted.
Lower buildings adjoined the church on the right, but the two
handsome arches that led into them were blocked up. These arches
I could recognize, for they were unmistakably Gothic. But because
they were impassable I decided to go back into the church to investigate
its left side. Near the door I saw a figure that caught my emotions.
It was a life-sized image of Christ, standing, forlorn and neglected,
in a baroque case. He stood with his head tilted forward, his
poorly modeled arms hanging limp and useless at his side. The
figure had a wig of human hair and blood was trickling down the
grey forehead. His blue velvet robe was almost black with dust
and its gold hems were tarnished brown. The case, which suggested
a bay window, had long ago lost its glass. And when I studied
the figure in the shadows I saw the end of its nose had been chipped.
How it contrasted with the Christ in the violet nightshirt across
the nave! The other figure, standing in the full light from the
door, might have been a young seventeenth century Spaniard of
good family with a taste for the arts, but this was unmistakably
the Man of Sorrows. And not a candle burned at his forgotten shrine.
But when I looked closer I saw that he had not been utterly despised
and rejected. Against the bottom of the dusty case, some poor
soul with a fellow feeling had inconspicuously propped an offering
-- a small cross made of two bits of twig fastened with a bit
By this time, I had the huge edifice to myself, for the other praying women had left. With its tawdry decorations, mannequin-like virgins and bleeding Christs, the church embodied aspects of religion I found repellent, but perhaps it had grown on me more that I realized. Even though there were no longer any worshippers to disturb, I continued to walk as quietly as if I were in a holy place.
Near the pulpit I glanced through an opening leading to a dark room that I took to be a sort of anteroom to the vestry. The room was empty, so I gathered my nerve and went in to look around. The deserted vestry was to the left. In its way, it was as surprising as the church. Here, too, dilapidation, neglect and harmful usage had done their work, but all their depredations could not conceal that it was a splendid room - one in which an archbishop in former days would have felt at home changing his vestments. In the segments between the ribs of the high, vaulted ceiling - painted in pale blue and traces of yellow - were decorative vases, scrolls and flowers. And around the walls were a series of black and white frescos. But a hole had been punched in the fine ceiling so a bell rope could be pulled through it. Water coming in from the window had left dirty streaks below it. And a naked bulb, such as might have dangled above a work bench in an American garage, hung over one of the doors, carried there by exposed wires tacked to the wall.
The frescoes must have told the story of the Passion, for they began with the Entry into Jerusalem and ended with the Crucifixion. But the whole sequence could not be seen. An ugly brown armoire blocked one wall almost entirely, and large, unframed oil paintings, propped on cheap cupboards, obscured many of the other frescos. The canvases amazed me. They seemed as unlikely as the church itself, for they might have come out of European art museums. They were the work of expert craftsmen who depicted Biblical scenes in the Renaissance tradition, with well- modeled, amply draped figures and natural, three-dimensional backgrounds. Even though age had darkened the dramatic chiaroscuro, the merit of the paintings was still apparent. Yet I could tell how little they were valued. They were covered with dust, and one, which showed two women weeping at the foot of the cross, had been carelessly spattered with blobs of white plaster.
The vestry had a door that led further into the side buildings. But, being indoors, I was even more apprehensive of being taken for a prowler than I had been in the patio of the Municipal Palace, so I did not go through that mysterious door. Instead, I got back to the safety of the church, where I knew no one could challenge my right to be. I made it just in time. For a moment or so later a party of twelve tiny Indian men in the white native pajama costume came through the vestry into the church. One surprised me by cordially putting out his hand as if he were an old friend. Naturally I extended mine too. He grasped it and shook it, not once, but three times. I was quite charmed and he seemed delighted, turning back to grin as he almost bumped against the screen in following the other men out the side door.
Perhaps I should have correlated the man's friendliness with that of the good-humored travelers who had waved to us from the tops of the buses and with that of the women who had offered me tortillas in the market. Perhaps the three together should have provided evidence enough to show that in coming to Mexico I had stepped into an atmosphere of human friendliness richer than any I had known. Perhaps, as a man discharged from one comradeship and seeking another, I should have realized that this Mexican friendliness was to mean more and more to me. Perhaps, too, I should have seen how much of my whole Mexican experience was already implicit in this one unexpected stopover. But I was still too bound by old notions, too involved with observing only the particular, too unaware of what lay ahead, to make any such generalization.
And no sooner had the men left than there were fresh particulars to catch my interest. Three women came through the church, who, if it had not been for their full white shirts, might have been diminutive Arabian sheiks. They were carrying big round baskets on their backs and the straps that supported them looked like headbands round their blue shawls. The baskets contained switches of maguey hair, and I got the impression that there was some sort of a factory conducted in the buildings on the far side of the church. These women, like the men, were workers going home. Having watched the new troop also disappear round the screen, I took another seat. A timid young woman came in by herself, went to the altar railing and began to pray.
Things that are crowded and confusing are always hard to apprehend. The difficulty is increased if the elements involved are unfamiliar. But one of the fascinating transformations that comes about in observing is the way in which details, that were impossible to see at first, become easily visible once the mind has recovered from its bewilderment and realized it is not confronted with a hopeless jumble. And this process worked with me as I sat there facing the cluttered area of the main altar. Effortlessly, my eyes took in the objects they had missed before. Chiefly they were caught by the incandescent gleaming of the crystal pendants of a pair of brass chandeliers. Perhaps such ornate and unecclesiastical lighting fixtures had been salvaged from the salons of the city hall when the passage of many years had made it obvious that there would never be any more formal dances in the elegant palace. The chandeliers were handsome. In a ballroom of moderate proportions they must have seemed large and brilliant. But they were dwarfed by their new surroundings. Hanging from the lofty roof of the Gothic ceiling on long strands of unadorned wire, they looked frivolously out of place. A pile of stones heaped in one corner of the sanctuary contrasted sharply with the pathetic finery of the chandeliers. The stones looked as if they had slithered down from the old walls and no one had known how to set them back again.
Having stilled my own bodily movement by sitting there quietly, I became aware of the silence of the church. This, in turn, made me realize that in the midst of that vast silence there was a small, dry, regular, rhythmic sound. I looked about for its source. It was an old-fashioned kitchen clock. Set in an octagonal oak frame, it was hanging from one of the walls of the sanctuary. The ticking grew louder as the silence intensified. And from somewhere outside came the cock-a-doodle doo of a rooster. The crowing of the cock conjured up in my mind the people of the village. Remembering them sitting by their poor vegetables, I realized that the present inhabitants of Ixmiquilpan could no more build a church like the one the Spaniards had left them than they could fly to the moon. The pile of stones was mute evidence that they did not have even enough technological skill to keep their inherited church from slowly falling into ruin.
Ixmiquilpan, according to St. Rosa, had been the capital city of the Otomies. I wondered about the character of those early Indians. Another guidebook had said they had been subjugated by the Aztecs before the Spaniards came, so they must have been a very ancient people. It occurred to me that when the first Europeans found them they could not have been much different from the Indians I had seen in the market. They had raised the same things, spun the same maguey, and surely they could not have been much more primitive. What had happened was that the Spaniards had come, built a handsome town and by force of will had imposed the outward standards of European life on these people. But with the expulsion of the Spaniards, the will and knowledge that had maintained the old level were gone. The Otomies, basically unchanged, had reverted to type, living in a ghost town that had survived the Spaniards because the Spanish architects had insisted that native masons, stone cutters and carpenters should build with such enduring solidity.
I was swept with a sense of the incredibility of those Spaniards. What a difference between this town, with its huge stone church, and the modest New England towns, with their small wooden churches! There was no doubt about it: the Spaniards, especially when one compared them with other colonizers, worked on a magnificent scale. They had been gone more than a hundred years, yet the courtly Don Diego, with his staff of office, still stood on top of his column, looking towards the surrounding hills, and the town of his fellow countrymen remained as evidence of the imposing civilization they established in an Indian outpost beyond the northern rim of the Valley of Mexico.The juke box and the Coca-Cola were evidence that these Indians were once again being invaded by another civilization that was more advanced than their own. I wondered if the American invasion would transform them any more essentially than the Spanish one had done. Perhaps two or three hundred years hence the American influence might have come and gone too, leaving less notable monuments, with the people still spinning maguey string and sitting for hours by the small fruits they had wrested from poor soil with primitive means.
After these reflections had passed, something else began to stir in me. I had entered the church with no intention of praying. I did not hold much with churches, and this particular one, with its curious combination of Greco-Roman decorations and a crudely violent version of Christianity, had seemed more like a Chamber of Horrors than a church. Yet something strong in the atmosphere began to work on me. I became conscious of all the intensity of supplication that had gone up through the centuries from the Indians who had come to pray there. Having seen enough to know their poverty, and having guessed the lack of any medical care, I knew that many a mother, father or child had prayed hard in that church for health or fortune. Out of suffering, pleas for help had gone up from who know what depths of beseeching. The vibrations of all the prayers of the past, and those of the prayers still being offered - for new women had come in since I had sat down - gave the place a peculiar spiritual vitality.
I found myself moved to pray too.
The trip had already lightened my spirits, but I was still having my ups and downs. While we were on the go I felt fine, and I had been jubilant careening over the waste spaces of the Southwest in that old four-cylinder car. Then an embittering past and a troubling future were both obliterated in the joy of an intense present. But whenever we stopped, and I found myself with time on my hands, the old feelings of despondency and lostness would sweep back over me. I have already suggested most of the factors causing those feelings, but there was one more intimate which this story obliges me to reveal. The strong ruling hand of the army was not the only support that had suddenly been withdrawn. God, too, it seemed, had clanged shut the gates of His mercy. And this was a loss not easy to be borne, for all through the war the sense of the indwelling Presence had been my chief stay. But now it was gone. And my feelings enabled me to understand why the word "anguish" is so often used to define the pain of being separated from God.
Faced with the task of remaking my life as I neared 34, I had prayed for guidance with all my earnestness. "Show me the way, the way," I had cried out on many a dark night, only to hear my voice reverberating as if in a bare racket court. No answer had come. But worse than this, I had no sense of having been heard. It was a time of spiritual dryness. Not only did I want the help of the Eternal Spirit in finding my path, but I thirsted for what the Book of Common Prayer calls "the continual dew" of His blessings. In other periods of doubt and trouble I had generally experienced the consolation of His nearness and this had refreshed my wellsprings. But all my recent praying had left me hard, dry and comfortless.
I began to pray in that barn-like old church nevertheless. And for the first time in months I began to have some feeling of contact. Not only was my spirit consoled with a sense of peace, but I received a message as clearly as if it had come in words. Perhaps I had been foolish, but in my grievous need I had looked for guidance in the form of some clear call, some irresistible compulsion to take up a given work in life that I wouId know would be right. The message - and skeptics might argue it was only my subconscious becoming sensible at last - was no such thing. It was the assurance that illumination would come upon me imperceptibly. With heart-easing calmness came the certainty that nothing would happen dramatically, but that one day, simply and unexpectedly, I would realize I had come to understand what I needed to know."
Text and illustration of the Virgin of Guadalupe from Stages in a Journey ©1983 by Ross Parmenter
Introduction ©2001 Richard D. Perry.
*Parmenter's visit to the vast monastic church at Ixmiquilpan was made before the discovery, beneath layers of whitewash, of the spectacular 16th century battle murals lining the nave.