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  • Natalie Taylor

THE HISTORY OF ART IN SAN MIGUEL: The Church of Santa Ana

The church of Santa Ana, at its current location on Insurgentes and Reloj, began as a school for girls in 1734. Some years later, a shelter for women was also added. It was a beaterio—a complex for lay women who wish to retire from the world, and live in a community, without having to take vows. In practical terms it was a place of refuge for orphaned girls, single, and widowed women.


The church of Santa Ana presents an austere, foreboding exterior. The high, unadorned walls, the jutting buttresses, and massive wooden door give the appearance of a fortress, a building as a protective enclosure. But when you step within, you are instead confronted with a lovely, welcoming interior. The well-proportioned groin vaults in the ceiling, the simple crystal chandelier, the solid columns, the rich wooden aisle imbedded on a ceramic floor, and the judicious use of gold ornamentation create an elegant, inviting space.



On the walls hang many impressive paintings worth noting. Some have been identified as being done by renowned novo-Hispanic painters, but many of the others are anonymous. Yet even within this latter group, there are a few that are very well executed and can be considered valuable as works of art. All of the photographs in this piece were taken by Jack Paulus.


As in any other church in the city, there is an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. However, in this case, the painting has been attributed to Juan Baltazar Gomez, one of the celebrated painters of the Colonial period in New Spain. Gomez has numerous works on display in many of the churches in San Miguel, and this is one of them.


This depiction of the virgin in Santa Ana is straightforward, showing all the usual elements—the blue robe strewn with stars, the rays of light encircling her, the black ribbon around her waist, and a cherub at her feet.


Lacking are many other elements often shown on other paintings of the virgin—such as roses. Often, paintings of the Virgin of Guadalupe are surrounded by small, inserts of images drawn from her legend, and sometimes a serpent and an eagle might also appear in some of the paintings.


This one lacks any of those additions, it is only a depiction of the virgin in prayerful pose.



Two other Marian images are worth noting. The first is titled Asuncion—the assumption of the Virgin toward heaven. Although we do not have information as to who painted the original, we are told that it was “retouched” by Francisco Antonio Vallejo, another renowned novo-Hispanic painter. Vallejo was born in 1722 and died in 1785, which means that he was a contemporary of Baltazar Gomez.


The second is a painting of the Virgin of Loreto, patroness of the de la Canal family, whose images are present on any buildings sponsored, or built by the family. In this case, the connection comes through the Oratorians who created the beaterio de Santa Ana.  The Oratorians in San Miguel el Grande were led by San Felipe Neri de Alfaro, who was closely connected to the de la Canal family. It is therefore not a surprise to find an image of the Virgin of Loreto here.


The painting of the virgin’s assumption to heaven is easily identified because it has all the iconography associated with that event. The virgin, dressed in a flowing robe is being elevated toward heaven by angels and below are those left behind looking upward in adoration. In Christian iconography of the assumption of Mary shows her being lifted toward heaven either by a cloud, or as in this painting, by angels. She is depicted in a blue-green cape, the color associated with her.



In Christian iconography, the assumption of Mary shows her being lifted toward heaven either by a cloud, or as in this painting, by angels. She is depicted in a blue-green cape, the color associated with her. In the painting on the left, she is shown leaving behind her shroud and the apostles, who look up toward her ascent.


A 7th-century account of Mary’s death and assumption says that the Apostles returned to the burial site after three days and found her sepulcher empty, but for the sheets that had covered her body. Sometimes the apostles are depicted simply standing around, or as in this painting, looking up in awe. Often, such a painting might include one to three young women—in this case, two are clearly seen. They are the "three virgins," who according to legend, washed Mary’s body in preparation for burial.


The main entry into Santa Ana is on the side, which means that when you come in, the main altar is to the right. Looking left, one sees the back of the church and a few interesting works of art. Two large canvases flank the back altar. The one on the left clearly comes from the Old Testament, showing Moses holding the Ten Commandments. On the right, an older man is leading an adolescent boy with a lantern. I am not familiar with a specific Biblical story that could account for the images, and will welcome any suggestions. Perhaps this is simply a generic representation of a wise teacher, or mentor guiding a boy on a path of learning and discovery.



Altar, rear of church. Doorway on the right leads to the gardens, and crypts.



There is a lovely statue of Saint Michael the Archangel in what looks like the pulpit, but without stars. The saint holds the sword in his right hand, ready to slay the devil, and a scale in his left as he is believed to be the one who will weigh souls on Judgement Day.


One painting was interesting mostly because of the research needed to identify the figure.  It’s an anonymous painting of what is most likely Saint Francis of Assisi. The habit, and his tensure haircut identify him as a Franciscan friar, and the crucifix held in his right hand, is one of the common prompts for this particular saint.


The presence of the skull, however, is a dead giveaway (sorry about that, it just came spontaneously). A skull is associated with Saint Francis of Assisi because he was apparently of poor health, and often contemplated death. Frequently, he would have a skull on his breakfast table as a reminder to himself, and his brethren, of the imminence of death.


The other paintings throughout the church are badly deteriorated, and most don’t appear to be of great artistic quality. The church of Santa Ana, however, is interesting because it was a large religious complex that included what is currently the Biblioteca Publica. In a future article I will address the connection between the two, and highlight some of the worthwhile works of art at the Biblioteca.

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