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  • Natalie Taylor

HISTORY OF ART IN SAN MIGUEL: The chapel on the hill

At the eastern top of the hill on San Francisco Street, where the road curves to the right onto Salida a Queretaro, stands a rather plain looking, terra cotta-colored building. On its northern end, however, there is a much more elaborate structure with mostly neoclassical characteristics. But additional ornamentation tells us that the builders were not fully committed to abandoning Baroque architectural elements, as seen in the decorative touches on top of the pediment, and the mingling of styles in the columns. The annex is the Capilla del Calvario—Calvary Chapel of San Miguel de Allende.

To the left is a photo of the chapel as seen today, not much different than the photo above, from the 1940s.

During the vice regal period, almost every colonial city in New Spain had a Calvary Chapel. Their functions had to do with the Stations of the Cross, practiced during Holy week. It is a reenactment of Jesus’s walk in Jerusalem, as he was led by Roman guards toward crucifixion on the hill called Calvary. In San Miguel, the procession winds through the city streets, and concludes at the Calvary Chapel on the top of San Francisco Street. It is the only time of the year when the chapel is open to the public.

The procession is not simply a walk. It is a theatrical play with elaborate costumes, props, sounds, musical accompaniment, and dramatic acting out of the different scenes.

My interest, however, is in works of art that might be stored in this chapel. I have seen, and passed by it

many times on my walks into town, but have never seen the door open. Finally, I was able to find out who holds the keys, and secured permission to go in. Armed with camera, and notebook, I visited the Chapel of Calvario.

The chapel itself was built by the Oratorian congregation in 1735.  However, the bell tower with two bells, as well as the small vestibule, were added during the latter part of the 1700s and even into the 19th century. At the top of stone steps is the entrance, with a padlocked double door. Once you walk in, there is a small vestibule, six feet deep by perhaps eight feet wide; and another door—this one quite solid, and much older looking, also with a lock.

An inscription on the door states: Capilla de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, El Calvario. Año de 1735 (Chapel of Our Lady of Solitude, Calvary, year of 1735). That is indeed the documented date of completion of the chapel, and the interior door is from that period.

Standing on the steps that lead up to the chapel, I noticed that the two pairs of columns on either side were a mix of architectural styles. In many of the religious buildings in the historical center—as well as secular ones—there is a mingling of various designs, because the construction may have started in one century and continued into the next. As styles changed, the new additions followed the current norms, so that in the case of the church of San Francisco, for example, we have an austere exterior on the original building, followed by an overwrought façade on the addition—the popular Churrigueresque style, a type of Rococo ornamentation which became popular in the mid-1700s. The same is true of Las Monjas, where the main church was built in the 1700s, but the dome was added in the late 1800s. And the best example, of course, is the Parroquia, constructed in the late 1600s and eventually transformed into its most unusual style, in the late 1800s. Although much smaller in size, the Calvary Chapel shows the same conglomeration of styles.

Its construction began in 1730, and the main structure was completed in 1735. In the 1790s it was the major religious center for the surrounding community, called barrio del Calvario or de la Soledad. Toward the end of that century, and the beginning of the 19th, the vestibule, as well as the altar were added. An inscription gives the date—July 23, 1882, and we are told that the altar was the work of the sculpture team of the brothers Francisco, Adrian, and Estanislao Hernandez.

The interior of the chapel can only be described as humble. There are no significant architectural features within, nor any great works of art. The dome is simple in design, and unadorned. The virgin of Solitude, inside the niche at the altar, is made in stone, and is flanked by two other statues.

There is a small painting of The Final Judgement on a side wall, and a fairly well done drawing of Jesus inside the sacristy. The drawing, in particular, appears well done, but neither of them can be attributed to artists of significance.

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