In a previous article I spoke about the art works found in the Parroquia—the Saint Michael the Archangel parish church—the most recognized landmark of San Miguel de Allende. But there is much more inside the church, works that anyone can visit and see firsthand.
To the left as you enter the church is an alcove behind bars, within which is one of the most significant historical objects. It is a baptismal font dating back to at least the 1700s, since it was the font in which Ignacio Allende was baptized in 1769, shortly after his birth that year.
There are actually two fonts within that alcove. One is quite elaborate and it has a cover over which stands a small statue of Jesus with the cross. One can only imagine how heavy that cover must be, and how many individuals would be needed to lift it. The idea of a cover for a baptismal font is not that unique; it was used quite frequently in early churches to protect the holy water held within the font. In some cases these covers were securely attached to keep the contents from being used by practitioners of black magic. The addition of a statue of Jesus over the cover would perhaps be considered extra protection to ward off non-believers.
In front of that elaborate font, stands another—a simple one of white cantera stone. My speculation is that wealthy Spaniards in the 18th century, such as the family of Ignacio Allende, would have had the use of the large font. However, in the famous mural “The Life and Works of Ignacio Allende,” of David Alfaro Siqueiros at the Nigromante Cultural Center (Bellas Artes), there is a depiction of Allende’s baptismal font, and it looks exactly as the plain, white one. I was also told at the parish offices that the white font predates the other one. It appears that the humble white font, and not the large, ostentatious one is the historical one.
Along the left wall, just after the baptistry, you come across two statues. The lower one is of Saint Martin de Porres. A friar born in Peru in 1579, he was of mixed race, and was barred from full religious participation because of the color of his skin. Instead, he performed menial tasks in a monastery and is therefore often depicted with a basket or a broom. Miracles were attributed to him, and he was canonized in the 20th century. St. Martin de Porres is in the Parroquia, but there is also statue of him in Las Monjas; in that one he holds a broom.
The second statue, located above St. Martin de Porres, is of a French friar from the 14th century—Saint Roch—known as San Roque in Spanish. He may have been a real person, but the details of his life are most likely legend. It is claimed that he tended to those afflicted with the plague, became infected with the illness himself, and was banished to wander through the forest alone. They say that he survived in the wilderness because his faithful dog brought him bread every day. Saint Roch is most often depicted baring his thigh to expose the pustules which mark those with the plague. And, he is also usually shown with his dog at his feet. The only other place where I have seen a statue of Saint Roch in San Miguel, is in a private property in the neighborhood of San Antonio, where I immediately recognized it as such because of the exposure of a thigh.
On the right side of the nave are several interesting paintings worth mentioning. Above the doors that lead to the bell tower is a large painting of the crucifixion.
Aside from Jesus, the only identifiable figures are those of his mother, Virgin Mary on the left in the blue gown, and John the Baptist next to her. On the ground, to the left of those two, is Mary Magdalene. The painting is quite dark because of age, and can be appreciated better in the professional photo above—as well as the others taken by photographer Jack Paulus.
That painting is flanked by two others. To the right of it is one of the baptism, and on the left is the ascension of Jesus. In the latter you can see the footprints of Jesus left below, and the apostles at his feet, but there are only eleven, not twelve of them. The reason, as was explained by the parish priest, is that Doubting Thomas was not present because he did not believe. The two paintings look very similar in style and age, but there is no artist name on either of them. Like all the others mentioned until now, the works are anonymous.
When you walk away from these paintings, toward the front of the church, there is another one facing you. It is an intriguing work of Virgin Mary standing on a globe. There is no artist name, date, or identification of the Virgin. After considering all the options, my best guess is that it is the Virgin of the Apocalypse, based on a similar work with that title, shown below, done by Miguel Cabrera.
Most of the paintings in the Parroquia are anonymous, but we do know the author of the one hanging on the left wall when facing the altar, flanked by statues of Peter and Paul. The ribbon along the bottom of the painting, as well as the plaque on the frame, gives the name—“La Madre Santisima de la luz,” (The Virgin of Light), dated April 1747. Iconography includes the virgin holding the child Jesus on the left, and grasping the hand of a soul in purgatory. Historical documents identify the painter as Jose Ibarra, one of the most distinguished painters of the latter part of the 18th century, but his name does not appear on the painting. It is possible that the signature may be on the back of the canvas, since that was sometimes done by the painters of the era.
Jose Ibarra was born 1688, and died 1756, which means that the painting in the Parroquia was done eleven years before his death. He was a disciple of Juan Correa, another of the great novo Hispanic painters. The works of Ibarra were highly influenced by Italian and French masters, and he is known for the realistic facial expressions of his subjects, and correct anatomical representations. He is considered the direct antecedent of the great painter Miguel Cabrera (1715-1768), whose works would eventually eclipse those of Ibarra himself.
There are still other works inside the Parroquia that I will highlight in a future article; not only from the Colonial era, but several from the 20th century. Some are in the public areas of the church, while others are in private locations, only accessible with permission.