THE HISTORY OF ART IN SAN MIGUEL: The church of San Juan de Dios
Somewhat removed from the historical center of San Miguel, stands the church of San Juan de Dios. The construction of this church began in 1770, but there was already an existing structure upon which it was built. After many years of raising funds and cutting through red tape, a hospital was constructed in 1753. Since the poorest of the poor were mostly indigenous people, it came to be known as “hospital de indios” and there was a small chapel attached to it, named for Saint Raphael, considered patron of nurses, physicians, medical workers, and healing—his Hebrew name means “God has healed.”
A popular legend claims that Saint Raphael restored the sight of a young man named Tobias, and slew the demon that was plaguing his beloved, Sarah, thus allowing the two to marry. An oil by Dutch painter Jan Steen (circa 1606) depicts the story.
When construction of the church started, attempts were made to maintain the chapel, however at present only some vestiges of it remain on the site. At first, the hospital was under vice regal authority, and up to 100 patients could be treated there. But with the passage of time, funding became progressively scarcer, and by the beginning of the 19th century, the hospital was in complete disrepair. With just one nurse, only eight patients could be cared for. In 1935, the hospital building was converted into a school and remains so today.
Over the years, the church of San Juan de Dios has become a central focus for the neighborhood to such an extent, that it almost feels as if it were part of a separate small town, an island onto itself. However, during Easter season the church of San Juan de Dios becomes integrated into a major religious celebration in San Miguel, and plays host to a very important statue. On Saturday, one week before Palm Sunday, a life-sized figure of a bloodied Christ leaning against a column for support, is brought from Atotonilco on the shoulders of the faithful.
El Señor de la Columna—the Lord of the Column—is accompanied by a procession of thousands, the sound of drums, and the singing of hymn, brought inside the San Juan de Dios church amid the thunderous ringing of church bells and explosion of fireworks. It remains there until three days after Easter, when amid fireworks and music it is returned to Atotonilco.
The ritual delivery of the statue began in 1812, when the town was ravaged by an epidemic, and the townsfolk hoped that a visit by the ancient figure would offer respite and cure from the illness. The tradition became ensconced in San Miguel, and in 2022 celebrated its 200 year anniversary.
To commemorate that occasion, a statue of the Lord of the Column, made of cantera—quarried volcanic rock—was erected. It stands on a pedestal in the public plaza to one side of the church, and was created by the San Miguel sculptor Jorge Godínez.
The interior of the church is rather sparse and there are no significant artworks on the walls. However, there is a mural on the western wall of the nave, near the main entrance. It is definitely an old piece of work, the crucifixion with all the main characters—the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and a man who is most probably John the Baptist, at the feet of Christ. The two thieves are also shown on crosses on either side, and in the upper right of the mural one can see a Roman soldier on a horse.
One of the strange elements is a depiction of hell beneath all, flames and hands of the damned raised upwards. There is no name of the original painter, and none of the historians in town appear to have that information. It is possible that it is one of the many anonymous works in the city. What is significant about it, however, is that there are two inscriptions referring to the restoration of the mural. The first one is on the left side, and is that of Lorenzo Barajas, a member of a renowned artistic family in San Miguel de Allende, dated October 25, 1952. His ancestor, Jose Maria Barajas, born in 1840 was responsible for finishing the murals of the Sanctuary of Atotonilco after the death of the original painter, Miguel Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre.
Mural photographed by Jack Paulus
Aside from the mural, there are several paintings on the walls of the sacristy. There are neither dates nor names of the artist or artists.
Here are two of the several paintings in the sacristy, each of them stating part of the Lord’s Prayer. They are obviously quite old, most likely done at least a century ago.