Dominican Churches, Full of Sorrows

Earl on the steps of the restored Santo Domingo in Yanhuitln, north of Oaxaca.
It's Saturday afternoon and we are back home in Houston after a week in Oaxaca. The sun is warm, doors are open and Earl says he is no longer cold. Nights and early mornings in Oaxaca were cool and he'd packed no jacket. Three days ago, we drove north into the Upper Mixteca mountains to visit two of three recently restored Dominican monasteries and churches. This was our third and last day trip with Benito Hernandez, guide extraordinaire, whom Earl found on-line at DiscoverOaxaca.com.
Tollway north to Mexico City. No billboards except this monumental tire.
By mid-day, it was rainy and windy; however, weather did not deter us from seeing two of these rehabilitated monasteries, destroyed during the 19th century Mexican revolution against Spain and the Church. Gold was removed from high alters, ceilings were pelted with stones and priests were driven out. They've been meticulously restored. Benito told us that ceilings have been recarved, parts of alters have been recreated and recovered with gold. See link for a good NYT Travel article about these monasteries.

The 16th century Templo y Exconvento de Santa Domingo de Guzman is in Yanhuitln and Benito left the highway at the edge of town to drive us through the center of the village before approaching the church. The village, or pueblo, is simplicity itself when compared to the grandness of the monastery.
In addition to sampling Oaxacan moles and colds and walking through the markets, I was eager to see churches on this trip. We'd visited so many churches in Italy and I wanted to compare. Each day of our eight week Italian sojourn, Earl would announce which 'important churches' were on our itinerary. Within each 'important' church were 'important' paintings, towering above us on alters and tombs. There was also architecture to be experienced, domed ceilings, tufa and marble columns, grotesqueries and in Rome, those cosmati floors. But for Earl, first and foremost was love for the paintings of Caravaggio, Raphael, Lippo Lippi and Titian in those churches. I was the one more enamoured of the patterned floors and out sized striped tufa columns.
How different to walk into Oaxacan stone churches with tiled floors. No detailed narrative frescoes from floor to ceiling, no paintings by those most famous of Renaissance artists employed by the powerful. What we discovered in Oaxaca's churches was a great sense of pageantry, and a story filled with blood and excruciating sorrow. Christ was not soaring triumphantly into heaven with angels as he does in Rome.
No, in these Mexican churches, Christ is bound to the cross, bleeding and in agony. Mary, the Holy Mother, is suffering, beseeching. There are no Madonnas with far away looks, nursing the infant Christ child. There are no playful, naughty putti. If there were tombs for the famous and godly, surrounded by painted portraits of their families, we did not 'see' them.
Were Indians meant to be converted into a Christian life and death through fear? Was this focus on Christ's Passion a Spanish tradition, or simply a way to subdue the populace in these newfound territories? Spaniards worked the Indians to death and their priests molded them into Christians, yes? Benito reminded us that churches and cathedrals were built on top of sacred Indian places and I answered, "Yes, just as they were in Ireland, the British Isles and Rome itself."
We spent a long time in the church and then walked round to the restored monastery, which was of monumental proportions and must have seemed especially so in the 16th century. Apparently, a lot of the funding for restoration of this site comes from the Getty Foundation and the place will be used for study. We could see where a library will be housed.
In chilly wet weather, we drove on to Teposcolula and found that it was their market day. Unexpected and fun to walk through the vegetable stalls on the way to a small restaurant where we eat lunch - the homemade halenpeno pickles were divine and I have the recipe - and then on to the Templo y Ex-Convento de San Pedro y San Pablo. This church blew me away, for different reasons than the painted Santo Domingo which enchanted me on our first day in Oaxaca. I think you can see why I was so taken with the place in the photos below. Pageantry on a grand scale.
And again, the bloody tortured Christ, on collection boxes and on postcards behind locked glass doors. And, of course on the alter and in the chapel.
I have only the most general knowledge about Chiristendom's monumental business of saving souls. But in Oaxaca, I was so struck with a bloody telling of Christ's Passion as a method of persuasion. Where was the annunciation, the nativity, Christ's miracles and demonstrations of his remarkable goodness?
Perhaps I digress. Suffice it to say that I photographed to my heart's content. I was fascinated with these churches, enchanted with their ornamentation and idiosyncrasies. We lingered so long in these two restored churches that we never made our way to the third in Coixtlahuaca. Here's a photo of the exterior of San Pedro y San Pablo with its restored open chapel on the left.
There is more to tell about this day. Later. The rain left, the sun was brilliant, and on our return to Oaxaca, we saw a rainbow.





Comments