Many artworks in San Miguel de Allende are found within churches or other buildings, but there is a considerable amount of public art throughout the city. Most are familiar with the murals that decorate many walls in various neighborhoods, but these are all current or recent works. However, there is artwork dating back several centuries that we can still admire on the facades of buildings. I am referring to the religious niches high on the walls of buildings.
A few years ago I began a search for niches documented by historian Cornelio Lopez Espinoza. I wandered the streets in Centro, locating and photographing them. The list consisted of over seventy niches, and not only did I find those, but discovered many more during my search. Many were described and dated by Espinoza, but others are simply there for anyone to see and admire. I would like to highlight some significant ones.
One of the most prominent niches is on the façade of the Casa de la Canal, the mansion built by Tomas de la Canal in the 1700s. This grand building, in the center of town, has been the property of Banamex for a number of years, and currently functions as a museum and art exposition center as well.
When you stand on Canal Street facing the main entry—a magnificent, elaborately carved wooden door—the niche is centered directly above.
There are many fascinating elements in this elaborate niche. Within a semicircular frame, with a seashell motif, stands the statue of the Virgin of Loreto. The niche is located in the middle of a pair of Corinthian columns, with partially fluted shafts. Above all is a circular pediment with a medallion showing the Calatrava cross, the order to which the father of Don Tomas belonged. On each side of the central figure appear the coats of arms of De la Canal, and those of his wife’s family, the Hervás.
The Virgin of Loreto was the patron saint of the Canal family, and is shown with her Jesus in her arms, who holds the terrestrial globe in his left hand. Her arms are not seen—an easy feature to identify in any of her other depictions, and she stands on top of a house which reflects the story that is associated with her.
According to legend, the house represents the original home in Nazareth, where Virgin Mary was born. Fearing destruction of the house in the 13th century, angels transported it to the town of Loreto in Italy. Thus, the house, or a suggestion of a house, is almost always shown in any portrayal of the Virgin of Loreto. This particular niche was done at the time of the construction of the house itself, in the early 1700s.
Numerous other niches contain the Virgin of Loreto on any buildings constructed by the Canal family. In close proximity to the former, there are several more examples.
On the opposite side of the Casa de la Canal, on the corner with Hidalgo, is a small, modest niche. The building is from the 18th century, and was property of the de la Canal family, but the niche was placed on the building in the 20th century.
The statue shows the typical depiction of the Virgin of Loreto, the infant Jesus in her left arm. There is no house beneath her feet, most likely because of the lack of any decorations or details throughout.
A few steps farther, heading south along Cuna de Allende, there is an inconspicuous niche over a doorway, beneath the arches. This one is from the 18th century, most likely placed there when the building was constructed. It is a crude portrayal of the virgin, but there is an insinuation of a house that she is standing upon.
Turning north, one comes upon another niche with the Virgin of Loreto. Hidalgo 1 marks the location of the home of the second-born son of Tomas de la Canal. This is one of the loveliest niches in the city, with many decorative elements.
Although the virgin is not standing on a house, there are enough elaborate decorations in the niche, and the statue to counter that lack. The statue itself is beautifully carved of cantera stone and is housed within an enclosure topped by a shell, with a pelmet, and canopies on each side. The niche is framed by a pair of pilasters with Corinthian capitals. High above, is another, smaller niche with an elaborate Latin cross. Underneath the figure is a carved image of the Canal coat of arms.
Another Virgin of Loreto, on Callejon de Loreto 14, dates to the 18th century. This, according to Espinoza, is one of the few niches that survived what he called “restoration fever” in the 1940s. With the approach of the 400 year celebration of the founding of San Miguel, in 1542, the city’s buildings went through major renovations. In that process, many decorative elements were damaged, or totally obliterated. In the case of this niche, the child Jesus which would have been on the left side, was knocked off.
This was probably the case with the niche at Insurgentes and Loreto, where a figure of the virgin used to be present, and then disappeared. All that is left is an empty niche.
The final Virgen de Loreto featured is one located on Jesus 32. It is from the 20th century and the niche itself is not very elaborate, with plain arches done in coffee-colored cantera. The figure itself is nicely done in rose-colored cantera.
There are niches in the city that predate the ones I have presented—the oldest dating to the 1600s. But all the ones of the Virgin of Loreto appeared after 1736 when Tomas de la Canal established residence in San Miguel and began construction of all his properties. After 1810, with the start of the War of Independence, most construction ceased and so did the addition of niches for the next several decades. Eventually, the city began to recover, and new niches were put in at the start of the 20th century. Overall, there are probably more Virgen de Guadalupe statues than those of the Virgin of Loreto, but I do not have a full count.
This is a very small part of all the niches throughout the city. Aside from those listed by Espinoza, I have found many more on my own, so at this point the total number is over 120 throughout Centro and in the near neighborhoods.