THE WEST FAÇADE OF SAN FRANCISCO JAVIER IN TEPOTZOTLAN
Richard W. Amero
The west façade of the Church of San Francisco Javier (1760-1762), the principal church of the college and monastery of San Martin at Tepotzotlan (1584-1767), is one of the best know churrigueresque facades in Mexico. It ranks with the facades of the Church of El Carmen at San Luis Potosi (1749-1764), the twin facades of the Sagrario Metropolitano at Mexico City (1750-1768), the façade of the Sanctuary of Ocotlan at Tlaxacala (1745 ? ), the façade of San Cayetano de la Valenciana at Guanajuato (1765-1788), the façade of La Santisima Trinidad at Mexico City (1775-1783), and the façade of San Francisco at San Miguel de Allende (1779-1799). The much-praised façade of San Sebastian and Santa Prisca at Taxco (1775-1756) is not included in the above list because, Pal Kelemen and Sacheverell Sitwell to the contrary, it is not a churrigueresque façade. Details, such as the observance of the classic orders and the use of salomonicas, or twisted columns, are not distinguishing characteristics of the Churrigueresque.
The façade of San Francisco Javier is not the finest churrigueresque façade in Mexico . Observers rate the Sagrario Metropolitano higher. This façade, at the south and east corners of the square containing the Cathedral of Mexico City, is earlier and better documented. Its stepped and curved silhouettes and sloping walls harmonize with the broken, above-the-roofline profile on its two facades. The contrast between the red pumice stone (tezontle) of the sidewalls and white limestone (chiluca) of the facades is stunning.
Lorenzo Rodriguez, who designed the Sagrario, or architects associated with him, designed La Santisima Trinidad, El Carmen, San Francisco and San Francisco Javier. Art historian Leopoldo Castedo attributed the white-stucco, shell façade of the Sanctuary of Ocotlan to “the Indian Francisco Miguel.” Its inlaid red tiles and play of convex and concave volumes strike an original note.
Architectural historians have given the façade at Tepotzotlan fleeting attention as the eleven retables (altarpieces) covering the apse, transepts and nave inside the church, attract their interest. When confronted with the wealth of detail on these retables, most critics drop analysis and take to metaphors of sea grottos, fairy palaces, enchanted forests, gold cages, and carnival floats, or [Joseph Armstrong Baird] to a “Mexican version of a Mozartian symphony.”.. Architect Bertram Goodhue was so overwhelmed by the extravagant detail on churrigueresque facades he said they could not have been made from plans, but must have sprung from the creative hands (and minds) of the artisans who made them.. The abundance of heads, cherubs, flowers, artichokes, cauliflowers, chicory plants, urns and what-have-you on these facades is staggering.
Latin American art historian Pal Kelemen described the interior of San Francisco Javier in prosaic rather than poetic terms. He concentrated on the main ratable, one of three, at the apse end of the nave. As with all retables inside the church, the planar wood surfaces have been broken into jutting and receding planes, thus increasing ornament saturation spaces. The drama in the main retable was, however, not in its diffuse details but in an expressive statue of San Juan Bautista in a side niche with two angels on a spiral above him and above them, under a baldachin, a saint looking out from a medallion. In contrast to the dynamic stance of this half-naked statue, the fully-robed statue of San Francisco Javier in the central niche is wan and effete..
San Francisco Javier's façade and retables are both executed in the churrigueresque style. Nevertheless, they differ in materials, color, surface treatment, and plasticity. The interior is darker, richer and more mysterious than the exterior. The façade is not, thereby, irrelevant for it sets a mood of “holy awe” for what is inside.
San Diego architect Samuel Hamill, who worked on the buildings for the 1935 California-Pacific International Exposition in Balboa Park and who was a consultant for the reconstruction of the Casa del Prado in 1969-1971, declared that New York architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue used the façade at Tepotzotlan as his model for the façade of the California Building (today Museum of Man) in Balboa Park. A comparison of the two buildings does not back up this contention. During a visit to Mexico accompanied by Sylvester Baxter in 1899, Goodhue studied many churrigueresque facades, including that of San Francisco Javier. He was fascinated by the creative possibilities of the tapered estipite pilaster, a distinguishing feature of churrigueresque architecture.
As with other former Panama-California Exposition buildings in Balboa Park , Goodhue adapted to new conditions everything he had learned in Mexico . He followed the same procedure in his designs of innumerable Gothic churches and chapels in the United States . His success in designing or re-designing Gothic churches, is beyond dispute. However in his Spanish-Colonial work --- a small amount of his practice --- he did not do as well as the Spanish and Mexican mestizo architects whose work he imitated. Goodhue was a romantic who wanted to create the poetry rather than the reality of another era. He understond the forms of the baroque churches better than he understood their religious content. Ironically, he may have felt he was correcting the errors of his naïve predecessors. The plan for the California building --- derived in part from the Church of San Biagio in Montepulciano in Italy --- is superior to Mexican models, but the ornament is inferior.
The white limestone façade of San Francisco Javier is placed between a tower with a rusticated brick base and a matching brick-frame border. The tower, façade, frame and base project slightly from the main wall of the church. A single bell tower was often used in small local Mexican churches, whereas two identical towers were usually erected in front of large metropolitan churches and cathedrals. The façade is divided unevenly into three levels. Voids in the central door and choir window complement open spaces in the belfries.
Photographs darken the façade's details or merge them into the background. Seen at a distance, however, the ivory-colored façade sparkles in sunlight like a faceted diamond. Moonlight contributes a darker more haunting quality, more akin to the glistening sheen of a black opal.
Art historian Walter H. Kilham claimed façade and tower contained fifty six figures of saints, one hundred and eighteen heads of cherubs, and one hundred and forty six figures of saints. The Official Guide of the Viceroyal Period National Museum at Tepotzotlan identifies figures between lateral façade spaces as San Ignacio, San Francisco de Borja, San Luis Gonzaga, and San Estanislao de Kotska. A figure of San Francisco Javier is in a niche above the choir window while an image of the Virgin Mary, holding the Child, is in a top center niche.
Zigzag moldings and fragmented estipite shafts cast shadows. These shadows obliterate some details and highlight others so that the design is continually changing. The light oscillations vary with the position and intensity of the sun or presence and shape of the moon. Unlike the plazas and streets of Balboa Park , the atrium (plaza) in front of the church is devoid of plants, automobiles and free-standing sculpture that would diminish the impact of the building
The façade lacks a commanding central feature. Neither the off-center void of the choir window nor the small-size statue of San Francisco Javier provides a satisfactory focus. Attenuated estipites , resembling stalactites, give vertical thrust to the sides. They are split into sections and smothered with ornament. Pilasters between and at the sides of the estipites enclose multi-foil medallions. . These perch above inter-columnar niches while foliage and scrolls lie below. A rusticated border holds the overall design in check even as an S-shaped central gable provides a goal for ascending elements.
Projecting above the roofline, the many-pinnacled gable is over-size in relation to the tower and façade stages below. Motifs on the gable differ from those on the façade. Undecorated space was probably caused by the falling of relief. Two oval corner medallions contrast with multi-foil panels elsewhere. Estipites are slimmer and do not have the same details as those on the lower stages of the façade or the first stage of the tower, though they are similar to those of the tower's second stage.
A horizontal rusticated band which follows the in-and-out movements made by niches and estipites above and below separates first and second levels of the façade. Separation between second and upper level is not as orderly. There is no straight molding, rather a series of jutting and receding right-angle planes. The rebounding planes serve as cornice for estipites and niches above and bases for those below. A curved arch, intruding into the upper level, allows room for the niche containing the statue of San Francisco Javier. This niche is flanked by two half-size estipites.
The stepped interruption between second and attic stages echoes the stepped design on all three levels. These shifting forward-backward movements were made possible because the estipites do not run full-length but rest on moldings and pedestals three-fourths of the way down. This division of estipites allows the horizontal lines of the alfiz frames above the door and the multi-foil window and beneath the central medallion of the gable to join the horizontal lines of the supporting pedestal moldings and to extend to the sides.
The pyramidal arrangement of side and central niches implies a series of isosceles triangles. These culminate in an implied angle at the top of the multi-linear crest. There is also a sweeping drapery curve above the central niches on all three levels. These intricate design devices impart ascending movement to the façade.
Pal Kelemen criticized the exterior façade as being cold and geometrical in contrast to the linear and rhythmic qualities of the façade of La Valenciana. A similar contrast could be made between the monochrome white stone façade of San Francisco Javier and the polychrome, wood-carved, estofado brocades and encarnado faces inside the church and on the walls, ceiling, dome and cupola of an adjacent chamber ( camarin) of the Virgin.
The design of the San Francisco Javier façade is conventional and highly ordered. It is not decoration gone mad. Details are profuse, but they are not boundless. Because of the rectangular shape of façade, with the length being approximately two and three-fourths times the width, because of its stepped relation to its one tower, and because of the vertical emphases ascending movements predominate. Lopsided though they may be, façade and tower function as a finger pointing to the sky or, in traditional language, to heaven. Could it be that the inverted estipites by defying the forces of gravity encourage the spectator to emulate the angels and fly aloft? One thinks in musical terms . . . of acclerando passages, sforzando chords, staccato octaves, and contrapuntal melodies. There is a dynamic quality about the facade that goes well with the baroque music that is often performed today inside the church. At the same time, voids of door and window, jutting cornices, hollow niches, and fractured estipites emanate vitality so lifelike that the limestone structure seems to breathe and move.
The San Francisco Javier façade expresses Spanish rather than Indian feeling. It is decorative and sculptural and displays wealth and magnificence (but less so than the interior). In this sense, it is both Spanish and baroque. It stuns with its multiplicity of ornament, though this can be seen adequately only with binoculars. The ornament is arranged formally and rhythmical sequences are exact.. Students of churrigueresque might prefer the façade of the Church of El Carmen at San Luis Potosi for variety and drama or the façade of San Cayetano de la Valenciana at Guanajuato for unity and lyricism.
Jesuit priests lived and taught at the San Martin seminary, school for Indians, and monastery from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. With the initial help of Don Martin Maldonado, an Indian cacique at Tepotzotlan with the riches of the Order acquired through its management of nearby haciendas, and with gifts from merchants in Mexico City, priests and monks oversaw the planting of the gardens and orchards and the building of the church, chapels, convent, libraries refectory, and study cells that tourists see today. In 1777 secular clergy transformed Tepotzotlan into a seminary for the instruction and “correction” of secular clerics. After long periods of abandonment, the Mexican government returned Tepotzotlan to the Jesuits in the middle of the nineteenth century. To escape advancing anti-clerical revolutionaries, the Jesuits abandoned the entire complex in 1917.
Unlike the fate of the ex-Jesuit church called :”La Compania,” in Guanajuato, whose rich dark churrigueresque retables were replaced by sparse white and gold neoclassical decoration, the long periods of disuse at Tepotzotlan helped to preserve the churrigueresgue character of the Church and Chapels. By converting buildings and grounds into a National Museum of the Vice-Royalty beginning in 1964, the Mexican government recognized the aesthetic and historic values of the San Martin monastery. Since that time, custodians of the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia have augmented on-site paintings, sculptures and works of art with Spanish Colonial treasures collected from all over Mexico .
The west façade of San Francisco Javier shimmers in its white elaborate embroidery and rises in an orderly manner to the urns and solitary angel at the top. Its diminutive details are not easily comprehensible. Nevertheless, its plastic surface vibrates in chiaroscuro inviting one heavenwards as much or even more than inside where an incredible variety of details, forms and colors look toward a world to come, or backward toward a world that has passed.
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For more articles by Richard Amero see: www.sandiegohistory.org/balboapk.htm