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  • Natalie Taylor

THE HISTORY OF ART IN SAN MIGUEL: A stonemason and a mystery painter

Along the left wall in the church of San Rafael, halfway to the altar, there is an opening that leads into a chapel. The doorway was there for centuries because it was originally the main entryway into that church. But the chapel was built in the late 1800s and holds the story of its builder, and a painting by a contemporary artist—both native sons of San Miguel de Allende. How they are connected is the point of this tale.

­­The chapel was designed and built by Zeferino Gutierrez, a stonemason born on August 24, 1840.

Although not trained as an architect, he became highly respected as a master stonemason. His work gained enough attention because he was called to Dolores Hidalgo to work on the altar of the parish church, Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, from 1871 to 1873. Following that, he was given a much bigger task, the building the city’s church of La Saleta. He made it in a Neo-gothic style, with a grand dome.

His early works in San Miguel de Allende included the steps and entryway of La Ermita church along Salida a Queretaro, and the altar in the church of Oratorio. Then, in 1880, he was commissioned to recreate the façade of the Parroquia, which had suffered great deterioration over the centuries.


Doorway to the chapel of la Saleta

Gutierrez was self-taught, and took his inspiration from the cathedrals of Europe, which could be viewed on postcards, since photography had made that possible. The new façade seems to have some elements of such churches; many say it takes it looks particularly like the cathedral of Cologne, Germany. Others say it is closer to Disney’s Cinderella castle—sans the blue domes. It really makes little difference which building it resembles, the structure stands out and garners more photographs than any other building in town. Gutierrez worked for ten years to complete his magnum opus—the neo-gothic façade of the Parroquia, made of pink lava stone that has become the iconic image of San Miguel de Allende.

When the work was completed, however, the city did not have sufficient funds to pay him. Instead, they gave him a property adjacent to the back wall of San Rafael, fronting Diez de Sollano Street. This became Zeferino’s family home. (Today, it is partly a parking garage).

Having acquired the property, Gutierrez decided to add a family mausoleum which would have an entrance inside San Rafael church. He chose to call it the Capilla de la Saleta—the chapel of Saleta—and inside are the remains of his wife, and only son, who both died before Zeferino.

                                           Interior of the chapel of la Saleta

Inside the chapel there is a small altar, dedicated to the Virgin of Salette—Saleta, in Spanish. The name refers to a legend about the Virgin, who supposedly appeared to a boy and a girl on September 19, 1846 in the town of La Salette, in France. She is depicted dressed in white, surrounded by roses.

                                      The church of La Salette in France

Inside the chapel, on the wall on the right, there is plaque with the names of the wife, and only son of Zeferino Gutierrez, the latter died in 1883 aged 17, and the former in 1902.

In addition to the façade of the Parroquia (as if that were not enough!), Zeferino Gutierrez also designed, and built the dome of the church of the Immaculate Conception, also known as Las Monjas. In this case, it is said that he took his inspiration from the dome at Les Invalides in Paris, where Napoleon Bonaparte lies buried. He also modified the tower of San Rafael church, designed and built the Mercado Ignacio Ramirez in the Plaza Civica—which has since been demolished, and replaced with the statue of Ignacio Allende on a horse. In 1901 he built the Mercado Aldama, on the northern end of San Rafael. It has gone through several transformations, until eventually becoming the restaurant La Terraza; now closed. In 1907 he completed the main altar of Santo Domingo church.

Zeferino Gutierrez died in San Miguel on March 23, 1916—in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, and while the typhus epidemic swept through San Miguel de Allende. He was buried in the cemetery of San Juan de Dios, and it was not until many years later that his body was exhumed and placed in San Rafael Church. It is not entirely clear where his remains are. There is no plaque commemorating him in the chapel. I inspected all the engraved names on the tiles in the floor and could not find his name. As happens with most of my investigations, some things are left unanswered, waiting for another time. I have the name of someone who is his descendant, and when I find him, he may have that answer.

Within the chapel of Saleto, above the plaque commemorating the wife and son of Zeferino, a painting had intrigued me for some time. It is a depiction of a friar with two dogs, standing by a natural spring. The signature is of Luis Antonio Lopez Torres, dated March 3, 1992. Obviously it was a 21st century artist, most likely still alive. The question was, who was he, and how do I find him?

For the past two years I have become part of a tertulia—a social gathering to discuss a particular topic of interest; what we might call a literary soiree. In this case, it’s a local group that gathers weekly to talk about history, culture, and traditions. The leader, whom we know as Toño Lopez, was the former librarian of the Biblioteca Municipal on Pepe Llanos—a knowledgeable, yet a humble, soft-spoken man. Still trying to find out the identity of the mystery painter of the chapel of la Saleta, I decided to turn to the tertulia group on WhatsApp. When I posed the question, the reply was almost immediate: Luis Antonio Lopez Torres, the painter, is no other than our leader Toño!

Thus it was that I sat down with Toño under the umbrellas of Café Rama, to talk about his work. The painting in question was indeed done in 1992, painted on a wooden board with acrylics. It was commissioned by the city for the 450th anniversary of the founding of San Miguel in 1542. Toño finished the work just in time for the celebrations, and submitted it without a signature. Sometime later, his father insisted that his name should be on the painting, and took it upon himself to write his son’s name. “That’s why it doesn’t look like my signature on my other works.” Toño chuckled.

The man in the painting is supposed to represent Fray Juan de San Miguel, the original founder of our city. However, I pointed out, the two dogs might give the impression that it’s Fray Bernardo Cossin who found the waters in el Chorro, and according to legend had dogs lead him to the spring. Toño smiled, and shrugged. I have no problem in allowing him artistic license, so I let it go at that. After all, who is to say that Fray Juan didn’t have a few dogs himself?

Luis Antonio Lopez Torres was born in San Miguel to a family that has been here for several generations. Although he does not have a specific art degree, he studied art with Genaro Almanza, one of the better known sculptors of religious art in San Miguel. He also studied interior design at the University of Guanajuato, and at the school of architecture. In San Miguel he took a course in sculpture from Lothar Kastenbaum at the school of the Instituto Allende, as well as many other workshops in painting.

He has been involved in various restorative works, and has done decorative elements for the Parroquia and other churches. He also did a number of interior design projects for individuals in the city, including murals, and decorative elements on walls. And, as he has been doing for several years, Toño remains in charge of the weekly gatherings—the tertulias, which are now held at Instituto Allende every Wednesday. He helps choose a particular theme, brings in speakers, and sometimes organizes a field trip to one of the historical spots in the city. Some of those who attend the tertulias are related to the first families that settled in San Miguel, and often share their memories, and personal knowledge of the history of the city; a truly enlightening experience. And best of all, I no longer have to wonder about the mysterious painter whose work graces one of the walls of Zeferino Gutierrez’s Capilla de la Saleta.

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1 Comment

Danita Brisson
Danita Brisson
Mar 25

Mucho gusto Sr Torres. Thank you for beautifying our world with your art.

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