Saturday, November 14, 2009

Tepotzotlan's Colonial Treasures

The first thing that catches your eye when you step off the bus in downtown Tepotzotlan is the Iglesia de San Francisco Javier with its soaring three-tiered bell tower and richly decorated façade. This extravagant 17th-century church is considered to be one of the finest examples of Churrigueresque (Mexican baroque) architecture in Mexico.

Tepotzotlan is a pleasant colonial town on the northern edge of Mexico City’s urban sprawl. A lively outdoor handicrafts market held in the main square and streets lined with outdoor restaurants make Tepotzotlan a popular weekend retreat among people from the capital. However, the main reason for visiting the town is the Museo Nacional de Virreinato (National Museum of the Viceroyalty) that occupies a former Jesuit monastery adjacent to the San Francisco Javier church.

The monastery originally housed two schools, one for indigenous children and another for novice priests. During the early 1960’s, the building was extensively restored and turned into a museum displaying religious art and other artifacts from Mexico’s colonial period. The San Francisco Javier church and Jesuit monastery were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.

Behind the monastery’s walls lies a maze of corridors and rooms surrounding two main courtyards. The larger courtyard, the Patio of the Reservoirs, gets its name from cisterns that are still used to collect rainwater. This space was reserved for the Jesuit priests and school children. Fronting the patio is an apothecary room with 17th-century murals documenting the medicine-related work of several Catholic saints.

Smaller and more intimate, the second courtyard is called the Patio of the Oranges, after the scented orange trees growing in it. Novice priests apparently used this area for rest and recreation, amusing themselves with worldly pastimes such as bowling and billiards. The cloister’s upper floor harbors religious murals and the students’ library, whose shelves are stocked with some 4000 antique books in Latin, Greek, Spanish, and French.

Hidden away in another corner of the monastery, the lavishly decorated Chapel of the Novices or Capilla Domestica has a towering gilded altar festooned with mirrors, portraits of saints, statuettes, and reliquaries. Here, the novice monks prayed and no doubt did their best to look pious under a vaulted ceiling ringed with the crests of the various religious orders that came to Christianize the peoples of New Spain.

Most of the museum’s exhibits can be found in a series of large rooms once occupied by Jesuit fathers. On display are important paintings, furniture, carvings, textiles and countless other colonial treasures from Mexico’s viceregal period, which lasted from the Spanish Conquest in 1521 to the beginning of the 19th century. There are also some haunting pre-Columbian artifacts plus a fascinating “diagram of the castes,” an 18th-century painting depicting the various racial mixes that resulted from interbreeding during the colonization of Mexico.

From the monastery, a narrow staircase leads to the San Francisco Xavier church. It becomes obvious upon entering this opulent building that the Jesuits were neither short on missionary zeal nor strapped for cash. During the 18th century, they commissioned some of New Spain’s finest architects and artists to create the church’s sumptuous baroque altarpieces, all of which were fashioned from polychromed wood and covered in gold leaf, statues, and paintings.

The church’s resplendent main altar is dedicated San Francisco Xavier, patron saint of the monastery. Other altars include one devoted to San Ignacio de Loyola, principal founder of the Jesuit order, plus another honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Equally impressive are the jewel-box-like Relicario de San Jose, a glittering room built to store valuable relics, and an octagonal chamber known as the Camarin de la Virgen, which has celestial scenes painted on its ceiling.

All this gold and glitter can get a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, the museum offers visitors a quiet refuge. Its pleasant open-air restaurant is an ideal place to relax over regional specialties such as tortilla soup or huitlacoche crepes while contemplating a peaceful courtyard filled with flowering bougainvillea and ghosts from Mexico’s colonial past.


The easiest way to get to Tepotzotlan from downtown Mexico City is to take the metro (subway) to the El Rosario station and then catch a minibus, which will let you off beside the Iglesia de San Francisco Javier. The trip from El Rosario to Tepotzotlan costs 10 Mexican pesos (abiut US$1.00) and takes about 75 minutes. The Museo Nacional de Virreinato (Plaza Hidalgo 99) is open from Tuesday through Sunday from 9am to 6 pm. Admission is 43 pesos (about US$4.25).

Tepotzotlan, Mexico - Images by John Mitchell

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