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Mexico's Fortress Monasteries 3.


Shortly after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the Franciscans began building a chain of monasteries and mission towns to convert the vast native population. One of the first was at Huejotzingo, at the foot of the volcano Popocatépetl in the present state of Puebla.

Dedicated to the Archangel Michael, the rambling monastery sits atop an ancient mound in the busy town center, secluded from the sounds and bustle of the street within its walled churchyard. The monastery is famous for its many outstanding examples of 16th century art and architecture: the elaborately carved corner chapels of the churchyard, the medieval church doorways spanned by Moorish arches and emblazoned with Franciscan escutcheons, and not least, the extraordinary murals that line the walls of the church and cloister.

The North Doorway

The north doorway, pictured above, is the most complex of the church entries. Sensuously carved in the ornate Manueline style, its complex iconography reflects the special significance attached by the Franciscans to the north porches of their churches. As well as commemorating the rebuilding of a chapel by St. Francis outside Assisi, the north doorway was the main processional entry to the church. Known as the Door of Jubilee, it signified for the friars the entrance to the New Jerusalem, the celestial City of God that the Franciscans hoped to establish in the New World.

The Murals

The 16th century cloister murals are outstanding. Highlights include the monochrome depiction of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception surrounded by her biblical attributes and flanked by the associated figures of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus.

The walls of the chapter room, or sala de profundis, are richly decorated with frescoes of New Testament scenes along with popular Franciscan saints. Above the doorway are pictured the kneeling figures of "The Twelve," the first group of Franciscan missionaries to arrive in Mexico in 1524.

The later, but more recently uncovered church murals are equally fascinating. They portray the hooded figures of a 17th century penitential cofradía as they march in procession around the nave reenacting scenes from Christ's crucifixion and carrying the Instruments of the Passion.


Penitent from nave mural, Huejotzingo

The Pereyns Retablo

But perhaps the finest work to survive in the monastery church is its superb late 16th century altarpiece.

Designed by the Flemish sculptor and painter, Simon Pereyns, the retablo rises in four main tiers to the high vault of the church sanctuary. Its seven bays are outlined by gilded Plateresque columns and frame a cycle of paintings illustrating the life of Christ, thought to be from Pereyns' own hand.

The interposed sculpture niches house a gallery of saints, apostles and other luminaries of the Church.These statues are expertly carved and beautifully finished in dazzling polychrome with gold estofado work.

The Pereyns retablo is truly one of the great treasures of New World art.

2000 update

The 1999 earthquakes took a heavy toll on the church at Huejotzingo. Some the ceiling vaults were cracked and damaged, causing water and debris damage to the art objects in the nave. While the ceilings have now been repaired, and hopefully made watertight, Damage to the altarpieces and other objects remains to be fully assessed. Unfortunately too, thieves took advantage of the situation to make off with some of the statuary including some 16th century sculptures. According to the latest report, these have not yet been recovered. The convento was unaffected.

Text & illustrations © 1992 ,2000 by Richard D. Perry

Information on fortress monasteries in Puebla and throughout central Mexico can be found in our companion guide:Mexico's Fortress Monasteries

For more on the Puebla earthquakes of 1999

More pictures of Huejotzingo (external link)

More on Penitential nave murals (external link)

Fortress Monastery map (updated)