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Mexico's Fortress Monasteries 4.


YANHUITLAN A Dominican priory in the Mixteca Alta

Ancient Yanhuitlan had enjoyed power wealth and prestige for centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards. As the leading kingdom of the Mixteca region of northern Oaxaca, its influence was felt far beyond its boundaries.

This proud tradition cost Yanhuitlan dearly when it refused to pay tribute to the Aztecs and murdered their ambassadors. The outraged emperor launched a punitive expedition. Yanhuitlan was sacked, and a thousand of its nobles and leading citizens were taken to Tenochtitlan and sacrificed to its vengeful gods.

The rugged Dominican priory here, set like a citadel atop a former pyramid, is a museum of 16th century Mexican art and architecture. The enormous Plateresque church is roofed with lofty Gothic star vaults and lined with gilded altarpieces, including the huge main retablo by the noted 16th century Sevillian artist Andrés de la Concha. Painted stucco and stone reliefs decorate many sections of the church, whose broad underchoir is spanned by an intricately carved Moorish wooden ceiling.

Gothic vaults also cover the cloister walks, and traceried windows punctuate the walls of the convent, whose entry vestibule has been converted into a gallery of early colonial sculpture gathered from the priory precincts. Among these treasures is a collection of painted wooden angels belonging to the different colonial barrios of Yanhuitlan. On Good Friday these figures, adorned with wings and crowns and carrying the Instruments of the Passion, are borne in procession around the town.

The Altarpieces

Restoration of the numerous colonial altarpieces inside the church has been under way for some years. Chief among these is the magnificent main retablo.

The Main Retablo

This exquisite gilded retablo is a masterpiece of 16th as well as 18th century artistry and craftsmanship. In addition to the vast timber frame of the altarpiece itself ­ almost 60 feet in height ­ there are numerous examples of early statuary and other woodcarvings along with extensive areas of paintwork and gilding from different colonial periods. The 16th century retablo canvases by the Spanish master Andrés de la Concha present a special restoration challenge.

Restoration of the magnificent main altarpiece is a major project, sponsored by INAH, the Mexican agency responsible for the restoration of colonial monuments, with the active participation of the townspeople as well as technical help from the Getty Conservation Institute (external link) and engineering firms. Although strengthened with a steel support in the 1970s, the original wooden structure remains fragile; the sculptural decoration and paintings at continuing risk from earthquakes, water and insect damage.

Full documentation of the retablo, using computer technology, has been completed and the decision as to whether to stabilize and restore the retablo in situ or by disassembly will be made shortly. Full restoration of this historic work of art will then proceed. Eventually, it is hoped, the complete ensemble of altarpieces at Yanhuitlán will be seen once again as they appeared in Spanish colonial times, and preserved for many generations to come.


Yanhuitlan also boasts a handsome 18th century pipe organ, which rests above the choir loft. This was also restored, by a French company, Atelier Pascal Quoirin in 1998.