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Hidden Gems of Oaxaca: 4.

The Retablo of Santa María de la Natividad, Tamazulapan

In 1542 the people of Tamazulapan cut wood in the mountains to build the first mission in this crossroads town of the Mixteca Alta region of northern Oaxaca. By the mid-1580s a substantial Dominican church had replaced the primitive structure. In the 1700s, the church was apparently rebuilt and a lofty new front added in an imposing "retablo" style. The facade is currently painted a dazzling white, accented with brown, and greatly enlivened by charming folk baroque reliefs of saints and angels in carved stucco.

The Altarpiece

In 1587 the Sevillian artist Andrés de la Concha, who also created retablos for the grand Oaxacan missions of Yanhuitlan, Coixtlahuaca and Teposcolula, entered into a contract with the town of Tamazulapan to fabricate and decorate a main retablo for the new church, at the then princely sum of 2000 pesos.

Little now survives of the 16th century altarpiece. As at Yanhuitlan and Coixtlahuaca, the original retablo was later enlarged and reframed, at Tamazulapan in a rich baroque style replete with intricately carved spiral columns and decorative shell niches containing many new paintings and sculptures. This splendid gilded retablo, which rises in four main tiers and spans seven vertical divisions(calles) in a dynamic, screen-like format, has been fully restored and reassembled to once again dominate the east end of the church.

The Paintings

Although the later addition and misplacement of the artworks has made the original iconography and artistic attribution uncertain, it is believed that four of the ten original paintings contracted for by De la Concha still remain in the present retablo, together with one or two early statues of the Apostles.

The four large canvases attributed to De la Concha are located in the outer calles of the retablo and comprise: 1) The Adoration of the Magi (upper left); 2) The Adoration of the Shepherds (middle left) - the juxtaposition of these two themes or scenes was especially favored in the Americas, as Barry Kiracofe* has pointed out. 3) The Annunciation (middle right); and 4) The Presentation at the Temple, or Circumcision (upper right). This last work repeats a theme seen in Andrés de la Concha's work at Yanhuitlan and bears some similarity to the composition and palette used at nearby Coixtlahuaca - a style that might be described as Italian Mannerism with a mellow Andalusian flavor.

The Statuary

Among the many santos in the retablo, the sculptures of St. Peter and St. Paul (located in the outer niches of the bottom tier) stand out. As Dr. Kiracofe has noted, they also bear a striking similarity to those at Coixtlahuaca. Their garments are arranged and ornamented in a closely related fashion, and their faces are also alike: Peter with his short beard; Paul with his flowing dark beard; and the telltale raised V in their brow is identical to the Coixtlahuaca sculptures.

Although the carver of these figures is not known, they may have come from the De la Concha workshop, or could possibly be the work of Simón Pereyns, the celebrated 16th century artist who designed and reputedly help carve the Yanhuitlan retablo.


< Statue of St. Peter



  • * My thanks go to Barry Kiracofe for his insights, and to his Inter-American Institute for Advanced Studies in Cultural History for permission to reproduce pictures of the Tamazulapan retablo from their archive.
  • The church also features a number of folk santos on side altars. Excellent pictures of these, as well as some of the figures from the main retablo can be found on the Stracke's web site, an excellent pictorial source on the church imagery of Oaxaca.
  • For more on the Dominican churches of Oaxaca, consult our guide, Mexico's Fortress Monasteries, as well as the work of the late Robert J. Mullen, a pioneer researcher in the field of Oaxacan art and architecture.
  • For more Hidden Gems of Oaxaca see the Oaxaca section of our archive.
  • > La Natividad Tamazulapan, facade