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El Santuario de Atotonilco, Guanajuato

Located north of San Miguel Allende in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, the Santuario de Atotonilco (aka: the Church of Jesus the Nazarene) is famed for its role in Mexican history. It was here, in 1810, that Miguel Hidalgo, leader of the insurgent Independence forces, took from the altar an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe as the banner of his movement.

But the Santuario is principally noted for its unique assemblage of 18th century murals covering the walls and ceilings of the church and its many chapels. Themes include the Passion of Christ, the lives of Catholic saints and martyrs and scenes of the Last Judgment, linked by ornate banners and colorful floral decoration.

In addition to these devotional murals, painted in popular "folk baroque" style by the native artist Miguel Antonio Martínez Pocasangre, this "polychrome grotto," as the church has been described, also contains a treasury of sculptures, also dating from the late 1700s. Because of neglect and environmental degradation over the centuries, murals and sculptures alike are in an extremely fragile condition, with their very survival at stake

The World Monuments Fund recently named this historic and artistically important pilgrimage church to its list of "100 most endangered monuments." With a $20,000 grant from American Express in July 1996 the Mexican non-profit organization "Adopt a Work of Art" began work on the restoration of the Chapel of the Virgin of the Rosary. The State of Guanajuato also donated an additional 500,000 pesos to the project in 1996, and committed an equal amount in 1997.

The damaged exterior stucco and roof were replaced, and an inspection of the interior murals was carried out with analysis of the original pigments and binders. Following this research, the murals were professionally cleaned and restored to the highest standards. With these efforts, the fabric of the church and its murals have been stabilized and further deterioration for the moment arrested. In 1997, work began on conservation of the sculptures inside the main church, and will proceed in 1998 subject to continued funding.

Text and illustrations ©1998 by Richard D. Perry


For more on the Santuario de Atotonilco, as well as the historic colonial monuments of San Miguel Allende and Guanajuato, consult our recent guidebook, Blue Lakes & Silver Cities.

2001 UPDATE: For full details on the restoration of the Santuario, see the illustrated page by Adopte Una Obra de Arte.