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  • Natalie Taylor

ART SLEUTHING IN SAN MIGUEL, Part 2

Some months ago I wrote about the challenges, frustration, and joys of uncovering hidden art treasures in San Miguel. As I explained in the previous article, getting information about the paintings and sculptures housed in the churches is not an easy feat. There is no one repository that provides a catalogue of works, let alone identifying the artist, and in which church and in what part of that church a particular piece of significant work might be found. You construct your information bit by bit, you visit churches and try to figure out which specific work of art was referred to in a brief mention, in some obscure history book about San Miguel. You might simply get a statement about “the Virgen de la Luz” somewhere in the Parroquia, or a painting of hell done by Martinez de Pocasangre, which “used to be” at the entry way of San Rafael. So you need to learn the iconography of the Virgin of Light, then check every painting of the Virgin in the Parroquia, and hope that you may eventually spot the one mentioned.


But all of that is only the first part of the story. Then you discover that many of the valuable works are not displayed in the public areas of the churches. They are hidden in the sacristy, or behind the altar, or even—like the painting of Pocasangre—in a locked storage room. To access these, you need to get permission from the parish priests or the chief friar, or brother. And to get to them is not easy.


I knew that one of the churches had a valuable, and ancient piece of art. I stopped by their offices one day and asked if it would be possible to speak to the parish priest to get permission to take photos of it.


Here is what I was told. You can speak to Father X (I will not be using real names here), any day of the week at 5pm. Where? You show up at the church and wait for him, this is when he does confessions. Every day? Yes, except when he is not here. Is it possible to call and set up an appointment? No, he does it all himself, he carries his own agenda. You need to speak to him.


A few days after this conversation, I showed up at the church at exactly 5pm. A custodian sat by a table at the entrance and I asked if Father X would be coming. He told me that yes, I would just have to sit and wait for him. Are there many people before me? Yes, the custodian said, there are eight ahead of you waiting for confession. I made a quick mental calculation, eight confessions, at a minimum of five minutes each would mean waiting for at least 40 minutes for what was basically a fragment of time to set up a future appointment. Where will the Father be coming in? I asked. Right through that door, the custodian replied pointing to a corner to the side of the altar. So I took a seat as close to that area as possible and waited. At about 5:15 the door opened and the priest walked in. I immediately rose and approached him. Father X? I asked. When he acknowledged, I apologized for intruding, but that all I needed was a time when I could talk to him. I am sorry, he said, I did not bring my agenda with me. When will you have your agenda? Perhaps tomorrow or the next day, he replied. I’m here every day at 5.


It would mean that every day, for who knows how many days, I would have to repeat the same process—come at 5 and hope that on one of those days he would have his agenda on hand! Father, I said, all I need is your permission to take photos. Then I quickly explained that my mission is to photograph the artistic treasures in the churches and write about them. Well, he said, you have my permission. Why don’t you come next Sunday, half an hour before mass when we open the doors. I thanked him and moved away. My time with him was no more than a few minutes.


That following Sunday I was there, and with the light streaming in from outside, the painting I was searching for was beautifully displayed. Father X walked in and greeted me warmly when he saw me. I thanked him again for the opportunity, and then he said: Would you also like to go into the sacristy? There are more paintings there. My thought was: Is the Pope Catholic? But I don’t think that would have been appropriate. Naturally I accepted his offer, and the paintings hidden in the back were a real treat.


Then there is a chapel that has always fascinated me, but the doors are always locked. I eventually found out that it is under the auspices of the Parroquia.


But they don’t have the keys to it. Who does? I asked. The vet next door, was the answer. Why of course, aren’t the keys to all chapels held by veterinarians? This means I have to go to his office one of these days (I have no pets), and see if that is indeed true, and then ask if he would grant me permission to go in.


I have no idea if he is young, or old, but I can only hope that he is as pleasant as the man in this 19th century painting.


I will keep you posted.



In another church the story was a bit different, but just as interesting. I had missed an opportunity of a talk at the Casa de la Canal by a priest about iconography of religious art. The director told me that he is quite knowledgeable, and I decided to track him down. I stopped by the church office, but unfortunately he was not in town that week. He should be back next Monday, they said. Can I make an appointment with him? Not really, they told me. He celebrates mass every day at 11 and what you need to do is wait for him in the sacristy, at about 11:30 and speak to him directly. So the following week, I came in a little after 11 and Father J was indeed celebrating mass. I walked over to the sacristy and waited.


At about 11:40 the door opened and the priest, in his vestments walked in. I stood up and waited as he brought the chalice to a small altar, placed it there and made the sign of the cross. Then I approached him and explained my reasons for being there. I was truly touched by how interested he was in my work, and how knowledgeable he was about ancient art. We spoke for almost half an hour and he said he would be happy to guide me through the church, but the one to speak to is the father superior. And how do I find him? Well, Father J said, Father Superior celebrates mass every day in the morning, so if you come to the sacristy after….


And so it goes. Another trip, another wait, and hopefully permission to see and photograph the treasures of that church. Again, I will keep you posted.

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