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  • Natalie Taylor

THE HISTORY OF ART IN SAN MIGUEL: Hidden treasures of the Parroquia

In previous articles I have spoken about the artwork within the parish church of Michael the Archangel, the major church in the center of town. One can walk all about in the interior and admire the many wonderful paintings and sculptures, many of them done by famous novo Hispanic artists of the 18th and 19th century. However, there are areas of the church which are not easily accessible, they are the private domain of the clergy, and may be visited only with permission.

On September 11, with the consent of Father Armando, the parish priest, Jack Paulus and I were allowed into some of these. Jack, as always brought along his photography equipment, which has enabled him to shoot some great photos in the past.

We were led through the locked white doors of the ante sacristy, the area just beyond the Meditation chapel, and were immediately confronted with many lovely paintings. Unfortunately none of these have the names of the painters; we simply admire the works without being able to honor those who painted them.

High above a doorway is this large oil depicting the visit of the three kings. We are all familiar with their names—Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, but how do we know which is which? Neither how many they were, nor their names are given in the Bible; a Greek manuscript from 500 CE is the accepted source for the names and other details. The oldest king was Melchior from Persia, depicted with white hair and white beard. The gift he supposedly brought was gold, and this is what we see in the above painting where he kneels, and bows as he presents a large chalice filled with gold coins. On the left side stands Gaspar, the king of India, who bears the gift of frankincence—an aromatic bulb used for incence. In paintings he is often depicted with a long, reddish beard, just as he is here. The third king is Balthazar, and he comes from Africa, thus he is most often shown as a Black man as he is in this painting. His gift was myrrh—a resin used for perfumes and also incence. When we assess the different gifts presented, we might think that a resin or an aromatic bulb would be far inferior to gold. But that was not the case in the ancient world. The trees that produce frankincence and myrrh are almost impossible to grow outside the Arabian Peninsula, and their products were constantly in short supply, and high demand. Some historians claim they were worth more than gold.

Several other paintings appear in the sacristy. The one on the left shows the wedding of Joseph and Mary, and the one on the right is the annunciation. Saint Gabriel announces the news of Mary’s pregnancy, bringing a lily representing her purity. All the paintings in the area appear very similar; they were probably done by the same artist, and are obviously centuries old.

As you move from the ante sacristy to the sacristy itself, the artwork seems to be of even better quality. Even the frames seemed richer in this area. Such as the painting below, showing Jesus appearing at the temple.

Many paintings hang throughout the room—the sacristy is where the priest changes his garbs, and dons the vestments to appear before congregants for mass. The other paintings here are definitely not done by the same artist who did the works in the ante sacristy. Even to an untrained eye, the differences in style and technique are stark.

One of the most fascinating parts of looking at these ancient works is attempting to figure out what the scene represents. To do that, you have to be familiar with some iconographic elements in religious paintings. The painting on the left shows the Virgin Mary, with Joseph behind her. What is interesting is that in this painting he is shown as a fairly young man, where in many he is shown as an old man, or at least a much more mature one. The assumption is that this is Joseph, rather than the old man to the left of Mary, because in the second painting he is clearly the husband and looks almost identical to the one on the left. The kneeling woman is almost certainly St. Anne, Mary’s mother, because she is usually depicted wearing a green dress. Mary, on the other hand, is most often shown wearing blue. The dove above all is the Holy Spirit. My guess is that the older man to Mary’s left must be her father, St. Joachim. As far as what the scene represents, it seems most likely the moment when Mary tells her parents that she is with child.

The painting on the right shows Joseph and Mary, visibly pregnant, asking for lodging. To their left stand the inn proprietors, a man and woman, telling them than no space is available. The Mexican posadas are a reenactment of this event, carried out over a nine day period prior to December 24.

The last area we were allowed to visit was the part behind the altar—the camarin—and this was an amazing experience. When you face the altar in the Parroquia, you might not be aware that behind that wall there is an entire section with beautiful architectural details, and a richly decorated dome. The dome is far more beautiful than the one in the main church.

I was informed that this entire area used to be part of the Parroquia at one time, with the altar all the way back here. I have no information as to when this changed, or why. The whole section sits lower than the floor of the Parroquia, with stairs leading down. This adds height to the ceiling, and the dome above all.

Shown above are two of the four walls within the area behind the altar. The photo on the left, with stairs on each side, shows the glass-paned window beyond which is the altar. The photo on the right is the eastern wall, with a statue of Virgin Mary within a niche.

There were no paintings in this section, but many beautiful stained glass windows all around. Sunlight streaming into this room with its enormously high walls, gives a sense of airiness, and all is bathed in a glow because of all the gold throughout. The multicolored painted ornaments on the walls, and even within the dome, are stunning. These are the hidden corners of the Parroquia, repository of great artistic treasures.

It is not only ancient artworks that are stored within the church, there are a number of works done by prominent artists of the 20th century as well. And these I will feature in the next series of articles on the historical artworks of San Miguel.

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