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Hidden Gems of Oaxaca 3: Santa Maria Tiltepec

From its hilltop site this sculptural delight of a church commands panoramic views of the scenic valleys and surrounding countryside.

Located in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca, along an unpaved road some 10 kms west of Hwy 190 between Yanhuitlan and Nochistlan, Santa Maria Tiltepec amply rewards the curious visitor.

The West Front

After its imposing site, the next feature to impress is the sight of the broad church front, whose squat towers frame a densely carved "retablo-facade." Although its date is uncertain, it appears that the present facade incorporates a 17th century reworking of the 16th century front. Many classic Dominican features ­ the canted, coffered doorway, the massed shell niches ­ are embellished with Baroque style relief ornament.

Between the ornamental niches and rows of richly textured folk Ionic columns on the lower level, and the unusual "Egyptian" composite columns on the middle level, (the top level has been partly destroyed) decorative passages of floral relief, vines and strapwork fill every intervening space. Note the scalloped mudejar sculpture niche at center, and the octagonal "bulls-eye" choir window flanked by naive deer and jaguar reliefs.The Dominican cross is emblazoned above the columns in the main frieze.

The Side Portals

The matching lateral portals also hold great interest. Sculpturally, the south doorway is more elaborate of the two. Above the doorway, outlined by plain ashlar voussoirs, relief nude figures, carved foliage and what appears to be a monogram of the Virgin Mary adorn a large shell niche. The overhead pediment encloses a bust of the Risen Christ above a relief of a draped cross with Instruments of the Passion. A second figure of Christ, arms upraised, is cut into the attic block which is dated 1689.

The entire portal is surrounded by numerous carvings of coffered panels, floral medallions and, to each side of the crowning pediment, striking reliefs of the sun and moon ­ a reference to the patron of the church .

The north doorway, similarly studded with bold floral medallions, is also dated February 1687 ­ possibly to mark the completion of the church remodelling. The Spanish royal arms, crudely carved, appear above the be-scrolled keystone.

Note also the twin nave windows, north and south, handsomely framed by candelabra columns and surmounting shells, probably part of the 16th century fabric.

Tiltepec: south portal

The Interior

The church is surprisingly large, the 5 bays of the nave prominently defined by cut stone arches. The massive arch supporting the choir at the west end is especially impressive, set on squat, sculpted pillars and edged with reliefs of scrolls, floral medallions and angels' heads. A polychrome figure of Mary is carved on the keystone flanked by fluttering angels. As at nearby Yanhuitlan, the fine baroque organ case is raised on a pillar beside the choir.



The choir, choir arch and organ loft




Carvings on choir arch


The Retablos

Tiltepec is the proud possessor of a magnificent gilded retablo. Set against the north wall of the nave, this is a classic 17th century work, its three tiers framed by spiral columns and hung with the distinctive Oaxacan baluster pendants. The upper niches enclose a cycle of fine religious canvases.

More information on the Dominican churches of Oaxaca

Hidden Gems of Oaxaca 1

Hidden Gems of Oaxaca 2