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  • Natalie Taylor

THE HISTORY OF ART IN SAN MIGUEL: The Parroquia’s 20th century artists

The Parroquia holds many ancient artworks—paintings done by renowned novo-Hispanic painters, sculptures, and valuable artifacts held as treasures within the church. But there are also some important works done by 20th century artists who were part of the artistic renaissance of San Miguel de Allende in the 1930s, and beyond. Those artists contributed with murals that are part of the decorations on the walls of the Parroquia, and can be appreciated by anyone.

There was a major gap in the artistic contributions in the city for more than a hundred years—a time between the early 19thcentury and the beginning of the 20th. All the major artworks we find in the churches of San Miguel were done during the city’s apogee, the colonial period from the late 1500s to the late 1700s. In 1810 the revolutionary war began, and it eventually led to freedom from Spanish rule and an independent Mexican republic in 1821. Those turbulent war years saw the flight of wealthy Spaniards from the city, the decline of industries, and an eventual descent of San Miguel el Grande into a shadow of its former glory. No further artistic contributions of any significance took place during that century; instead many artistic treasures were most likely lost during those years.

Then came the 1930s when the city experienced an incredible revival because of the appearance of three major players: Jose Mojica, Cossio del Pomar, and Stirling Dickinson. Mojica was the first to choose San Miguel de Allende as his home, and together with others began efforts to preserve and renovate the deteriorating architecture of the city.

From left to right: The trio that revived San Miguel de Allende: Cossio del Pomar, Jose Mojica, and Stirling Dickinson.

Following Mojica’s lead, Cossio del Pomar from Peru, and Stirling Dickinson from the US, settled in San Miguel and teamed up to create a major art school. They brought in some of the best artists from Mexico, and around the world as faculty. It was those artists who contributed their talents with some of the most significant murals in the city. Two of them painted murals in the Paroquia which still grace its walls to this day.

Federico Cantu came to San Miguel de Allende in 1943 to teach mural fresco techniques at the School of Fine Arts. He was a renowned Mexican artist, well recognized for his sculptures, paintings, and lithographs who had exhibited throughout Mexico, Europe, and the United States.

He was admired for the precision of his drawings, and liked to incorporate the people and landscapes of Mexico, in both historical and religious works. In the painting on the left, which he called a self-portrait, he placed himself in a setting that is very much Mexico.

Aside from his teaching at the Art School, Cantu had a few private students. Among them was the then parish priest, Jose Mercadillo, who believed himself to be a great artist and muralist. He began taking lessons with Federico Cantu, and at one point presented him with an offer to paint two murals that would face each other in the recess containing the statue of Jesus on a cross.

Cantu enthusiastically agreed to do this.

The paired murals would be scenes from the passion of Christ—the Last Supper, and the walk to the Calvary. All seemed to go well until a visit from the bishop who viewed the works on the parish wall, and immediately disapproved. The reason for the disapproval was that Cantu had used indigenous people as models for the two religious scenes. Apparently, depicting religious figures as people of color was not sanctioned by the church, and the bishop ordered Mercadillo to “take care of the problem.” The parish priest decided to “redo” the murals by covering them with lime and sand, then painting in his own style. In effect, he destroyed the works of a fine artist and left a blemished work on the walls of the church.

Details of both murals showing the damage done by the applied lime and sand. In the one on the right, the woman’s face has definite indigenous features—the cause for sanctions by the bishop. Enough is left to be able to discern the fine work beneath, and one can appreciate the mural knowing that it is still there, covered up with a film of disgraceful artistic interference.

Ironically, Jose Mercadillo went on to paint many mediocre murals throughout the Parroquia, though he will always be remembered as someone who damaged the works of a much better artist.

Only steps from Cantu’s murals, inside the Meditation chapel, are the murals of Albert Tommi, another artist who spent time in San Miguel de Allende. Inside this small chapel, three walls are covered by his murals done in a very different style than the ones painted by Federico Cantu.

Albert Tommi was born in the Metropolitan city of Florence, Empoli in 1917 and turned to art as an escape from a difficult childhood.

He learned painting from his teacher and mentor, Filippo de Pisis, an Italian poet and painter, twenty one years his senior. Nature became an essential focus of Tommi’s works—scattered houses in incomplete villages, dispersed trees, forests, rivers and boats. Most of his compositions are completely devoid of human figures, and even when present they remain anonymous with backs turned and faces out of sight. An example is the painting of fishermen below.

Tommi’s works are reminiscent of the paintings of Impressionist artists: representational art characterized by visible brushstrokes, unblended colors, and an emphasis on natural light. Even in these works there is a move toward angularity, possibly a hint of Cubism. This prevalence of acute angles eventually manifests itself in his murals in the Parroquia.

The mural above attempts so depict the mass conversion of the native population to Christianity throughout Mexico. In particular, it shows Fray Juan de San Miguel, the Franciscan friar who is given credit for founding the first mission of San Miguel de Allende.

The inscription beneath the mural is as follows: The distinguished founder of this city of San Miguel de Allende was Father Fray Juan de San Miguel of the order of Francis of Assisi. He came from Spain with a group of Franciscan friars to the convent of Acambaro, from where he departed to evangelize this region populated by Chichimeca Indians. The history shown is that in the year 1542 he transferred the first population founded by him in the place now called San Miguel Viejo. In this place he found the springs called “chorro,” with abundant, potable waters. Fray Juan de San Miguel was accompanied by a dog, and the Indians called the place “Hizquinapan” (sic) which means “water for dogs.”

Whoever provided the above information, had several facts wrong. It was indeed Fray Juan de San Miguel who founded the first mission in the place that we now call San Miguel Viejo, some two miles west of the current city center. But it was a different friar who eventually transferred the population from its original place. A few years after founding the mission, Fray Juan de San Miguel left, and French missionary Bernardo Cossin took over. Because of continued attacks by the Chichimecas, Fray Cossin decided to look for a place at a higher elevation. When he arrived to the place we know as El Chorro, he found a natural spring with an ample water supply, and thereby moved the mission to this place. There are some interesting conjectures about the name Izcuinapan, Perhaps it was already called “water for dogs,” by the natives, but there could be a different, more colorful explanation for the name.

One Spanish historian gives an alternative scenario. He says that what might have happened is that when the dogs that were at Cossin’s side ran off, he asked his guide where they had gone. The native guide then pointed toward the dogs and shouted out: “Izcuinapan”! When Cossin asked what he meant by it, the guide said: “Oh, it’s where the dogs go to drink.” We will never know if that was the name of the place already, or simply an explanation of that particular event. In any case, you can find the statue of Bernardo Cossin accompanied by a dog, on the hill just up from El Chorro. Which version of the story you believe is entirely up to you.

The mural continues on another wall, with Tommi again using sharp lines and angles. There is a definite religious slant with a family—father, mother, and child— shown under the protective arms of a figure. This most likely represents the Catholic Church, and touts the benefits of conversion to Christianity.

Above all is the Archangel Saint Michael, patron of San Miguel. He is shown holding a sword in his left hand; in his primary role as the slayer of Satan, whom he never truly vanquishes. In his right hand he holds a scale, his second role as the archangel who will come at Judgement Day to weigh each person’s merits. His third role is as the Christian angel of death, who descends to give the dying a last chance for redemption.

Perhaps the historically most important mural is on the right hand wall. It is the celebration of San Miguel de Allende’s 400th anniversary. In 1942, the city put on a major show which included the unveiling of the Fray Juan de San Miguel statue to the side of the Parroquia. The event was attended by hundreds of people with the participation of major religious and political leaders.

The inscription below the mural names many of those shown. Center front is Jose Mercadillo, the parish priest who commissioned the sculpture of Fray Juan de San Miguel. To his right is the bishop of Leon, with other religious leaders behind. On the right side of the mural, the mustachioed man looking forward is Enrique Fernandez Martinez, governor of Guanajuato from 1935 to 1937. Although I had known that he was shown in the mural, I wanted to make sure to identify him properly. To that end, I interviewed his son, Jaime Fernandez Harris, former mayor of San Miguel de Allende and part owner, with his brother, of Instituto Allende. He identified his father in the foreground, as well as the man to his right—Lazaro Cardenas, the then president of Mexico who was also present for the festivities.

Jaime Fernandez shared several colorful anecdotes about the actual event, and the preparations leading to it. But that is part of a future story. In the meantime, I leave you with what I hope is an awakened interest in the artworks in the Parroquia, including those produced by 20th century artists.

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