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HUATLATLAUCA Santa María de Los Reyes

Located in the arid, stony Atlixco valley of southern Puebla state, this ancient community, whose name means "Place of the Red Eagle", is the site of a little known but fascinating 16th century monastery.

Founded around 1550 by the Franciscan Order, who began work on the church, the monastery was later ceded to the Augustinians, who added the convento, with its colorful murals, in the 1570s.

The church is flanked on the left by the great archway of the open chapel, currently blocked up, and on the right, the convento is fronted by a long, low arcade.

Although the tower is a later colonial addition, the severe church front is typical of early monastery churches, its ornament being confined to a carved doorframe. Although no facade statuary remains, the handsome triple arcade around the choir window, framed by sinuous Moorish arches and trimmed with bands of relief medallions, may symbolize or may once have contained figures of the Three Kings.

But the principal treasure of the church is its 16th century wooden artesonado ceilings (below). Spanning the underchoir and part of the nave, these Moorish-inspired coffered ceilings are intricately carved with religious insignia and richly decorated in red, gold and silver.


To the right of the church, an unassuming portico admits us to the peaceful cloister, simply enclosed by broad stone arcades set on bulbous Plateresque columns. Both the upper and lower cloister walks are lined with well preserved 16th century frescoes. Elegant Plateresque frames of painted pilasters and friezes, entwined with native birds and plants, border the polychrome murals, which include numerous portraits of Augustinian saints and martyrs as well as scenes from Christ's Passion. The portrayal of St. Augustine sheltering friars of his Order beneath his ample cloak, rendered in vivid tones of red, blue and black, is especially fine.

Located not far from the new Puebla-Oaxaca highway, Huatlatlauca is well worth a visit for its authentic monastery, early colonial works of art, and numerous "barrio" chapels.

A good time to visit is during the festival of the Three Kings in early January, when the villagers re-enact their traditional dance drama of Moors and Christians.