THE HISTORY OF ART IN SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE: Endangered treasures
A disturbing piece of news appeared last week about damage being done to one of the religious niches in San Miguel.
The headlines stated that the niche on the corner of Isurgentes and Hernandez Macias is in a severe state of deterioration because of cables, and other electric paraphernalia. Not only has that damaged its esthetics, but it has accelerated the collapse of this important historical relic. Rodean de cables y hacen orificios a nicho y reliquia de San Miguel Arcángel en San Miguel de Allende - News San Miguel
For a number of years I have been compiling a comprehensive list of religious niches of San Miguel de Allende, including photographs of each. This bit of news struck a chord with me because this niche is significant for a variety of reasons.
This particular niche dates back to the middle of the 18th century, and depicts the patron saint of San Miguel—Saint Michael the Archangel.
Both niche and figure are carved in rose and gray cantera stone. The archangel is represented in a traditional way; holding a shield in his left hand for protection, and right hand upraised. Originally, there was a sword in the right hand, but it disappeared over time, either because of vandalism, or simply damage by the elements through a period of more than two hundred years.
Often Saint Michael is shown standing over Satan, with his sword ready to strike the demon. In this niche, however, he is standing over the heads of cherubim. This demonstrates his dominion over them since he is considered head of all angels. The niche itself is elaborately decorated, with two columns on each side, and a shell motif overhead.
The photo on the left was taken in 2020, and the cables that were present even then, were removed through Photoshop.
My interest in the niches of San Miguel de Allende began during the Covid lockdown, when I would wander through the nearly empty streets of the historic center. This afforded me clear views of the buildings, without the distraction of car and pedestrian traffic. The city showed itself bare, and the faces of the buildings exposed their historical treasures, inviting me to discover hidden details, and take photos. A history of San Miguel book by Cornelio Lopez Espinoza, former city chronicler, included a section about the niches in the historical center. Each had a description and locations, but no image. This became an irresistible challenge to me, a scavenger hunt of sorts, with a historic angle.
For more than a year, I catalogued the niches described, located them, and took photos which matched the descriptions in the book. I was able to find most of them, but unfortunately many were no longer in the niches as indicated in the book. All in all, I found and photographed more than 60 niches throughout the historical center. But that was only the start, because walking through the city for so long, and having become accustomed to directing my vision upwards, I began to notice many more niches that had not been catalogued by Mr. Espinoza. Over time, my collection of niches identified and photographed grew to over 100, most of them in the historical center, but some in a few outlying neighborhoods.
The niches located in the core of the city, are numerous, and they are the oldest ones. Some date back to the 17th century, and are still well preserved. One such example is the niche on the building at Mesones Street 19, showing Saint Joseph holding the child Jesus.
The niche is on the façade of Meson de San Jose, which served as a place for lodging for the mule trains filled with silver and gold that passed through San Miguel el Grande. These mule trains, sometimes consisting of as many as 100 men, carried goods from mines as far north as Santa Fe (New Mexico), on their way to Mexico City. From there, they would be transported to ports and then carried by ship to Spain. San Miguel was conveniently located along this extensive route—the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Inland Road). As these caravan passed through town, they stopped for nourishment and a stay for the night. There were so many inns—mesones—that the treet itself took the name: Mesones, the street of inns.
Saint Joseph is shown holding the infant Jesus in his right arm, and a tuberose in his left. This fragrant flower, similar to a lily, is part of the legend of how Joseph was chosen to be the father of Jesus.
One of the most recognized niches is high on the façade of the Casa de la Canal (currently owned by Banamex), on the corner of Canal Street and Cuna de Allende. The Virgin of Loreto was the patron saint of the patriarch, Manuel Tomas de la Canal, this is why she appears here, as well as on any other buildings related to the family. The façade of the Instituto Allende also has a Virgin of Loreto high up above the entry door of what was his first home, in 1732. She also appears on the home of his son Mariano, on Hidalgo 1. However, the Virgin within the niche on the Casa de la Canal is probably the most distinguished of all. The figure is flanked by two columns on each side, made with cantera of different colors. The shafts are multi-layered, and the capitals are Corinthian. As is traditional, the Virgin of Loreto is shown standing on top of a house.
There is an interesting aside about the Saint Michael niche on Insurgentes and Hernandez Macias, referred to at the beginning of the article. On my wanderings through the city, I came upon another just like it on Salida a Queretaro 37. The owner explained that it is indeed a replica that was put in place in 2010. In this one, the sword is intact.
We have many more examples of centuries-old niches that grace the facades, or corners of buildings. Sadly, some have been destroyed or stolen, leaving empty niches. The ones that remain, are historical treasures that ought to be protected and preserved. It is my hope that the news about this particular niche, is the call to action that leads to the attention it needs from city officials.