The center of just about any community, large or small, in Mexico is its local Catholic church. I cannot tell you how many times I oriented myself in car, public transport or walking, by looking for bell towers. These churches replaced pre Hispanic temples as the center of Mexican life, legitimizing the new social and political situation.
While religion does not play the all-consuming function that it did up to the late 19th century, the parish church still has a function in the identity of a place. It not only marks the geographic and political center (as the main government building is almost always on the same plaza), but it also reflects the cultural and economic bases of the people who live here.
Mexico has quite a few towns whose main economic focus is the sale of handcrafts, the tourism it attracts or both. Some are quite famous, such as Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua and many others obscure. Although not all do, a number of the parish churches have elements related to this economic activity, and in some cases rather dominate the place of worship.
One of the first churches of this type that we discovered is the Nuestra Señora del Sagrario Church in the center of Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacan. Santa Clara is famous for its copper working, and may be the only town left in Mexico dedicated to it. The Purhepecha had just developed techniques for working this metal when the Spanish arrived, but the emotional attachment to the office is related to the work of Vasco de Quiroga, who set up a system of trades and trading that allows the region to recover economically from the Conquest.
Like many churches in Michoacan, the use of dark wood is a distinguishing feature. This provides the perfect backdrop for copper chandeliers and other elements.
Another church in Michoacan is the Natividad de María parish of Cuanajo. This is a wood working town, specializing in furniture. The traditional furniture from here is colorful with raised images, although more simplistic and modern forms are becoming more popular.
Examples of the traditional style can be seen on a couple of pieces near the main altar. The stand for the Bible is particularly interesting as it contains the old pre-Hispanic symbol for speech, as can be seen in numerous codices. The pews are also made in town, with finely joined parquet style piecing and the inner doors show the fine work the local craftspeople are capable of. One surprise was 10 gigantic banners along the sides of the main nave, all cross-stitched by hand.
San Bartolo Coyotepec is famous for its barro negro (black clay) pottery. The working of this clay goes back to the pre Hispanic period, but what made it famous was a technique developed by local potter Doña Rosa, who found that if the piece was burnished with a smooth stone before firing, the result was a shiny black instead of a dull gray. This pottery ever since has been a favorite with tourists to the central Oaxaca valleys. The San Bartolo parish has pieces of barro negro both inside and outside the church.
Another pottery town, Metepec, State of Mexico, marks the importance of its wares on the Capillo de Calvario, which stands on the hill that overlooks the town center. The exterior wall has large ceramic suns with smiling faces in bright and/or terra cotta. These are one of several notable types of products made here. Part of the hill is covered with a “mural” made of ceramic tiles that tell the story of the town.
The small community of Vizarrón, Querétaro has not one, but two, interconnected parish churches. The older one dates to the 18th century, with the newer one built in the 1990s. The older church faces the plaza, which is paved with the local marble in white, black and yellow. Inside the older church, marble elements can been seen from the large block of black marble serving as the main altar to plaques indicating the stations of the cross and donors in rose or gray. These are significant because they date back to the beginning of the working of marble here in the 1950s (though mining it is older). These pieces show chisel marks from a time before the use of power tools in the artisan community.
Marble nearly engulfs the interior of the new church, a modern circular building. The floors are of polished marble and the walls are lined with more roughly-hewed pieces. The main altar is of pink marble, with a high relief of the Last Supper. Even the priests’ seat on the main dais is of marble.
The only breaks from marble here are the pews for congregants and the ceiling, formed with curved sections of brickwork. But the cupola at the center top of this ceiling is marble as well.
Sometimes local craftsmen’s talents are used to create images related to the local economic activity. In the case of the parish of Papantla, Veracruz, there are wood panels along the walls of the church dedicated to the vanilla plant. This plant is native to the area, important both culturally and economically for millennia.
Do you know of other churches that reflect the handcraft traditions of the community?
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia and Leigh Thelmadatter