Author Archives: Brett Lazer

From the Philippines to Flanders in the Ochavo Chapel, Puebla

Gilding from the Rosario Chapel in Puebla, similar to the Ochavo Chapel.

Sitting in a spacious but sparsely furnished living room somewhere between Puebla and Cholula, chatting with three Germans, a Dutchman, and a Mexican, the subject of China came up. As we all marveled and prognosticated about its size, its culture, its history, and its role in the world economy, my thoughts turned to the 16th century (as, I suppose, is not particularly uncommon for me). The artist that forms the subject of my research, the Basque émigré to New Spain Baltasar de Echave Orio (1548? – 1623), would not have been a stranger to groupings of a similarly international flavor. His coterie would have included other Spaniards like the poet Bernardo de Balbuena, the German publisher Enrico Martínez (Heinrich Martin), and perhaps Creole intellectuals like Baltasar Dorantes de Carranza. And China was on their minds too. In Chapter III of his encomiastic ode to the viceregal capital, Grandeza Mexicana (1603), Balbuena makes consistent reference to the Chinese goods offered in the market of Mexico City. For Balbuena, the New Spanish capital was a “pueblo ilustre y rico, en que se pierde el deseo de más mundo.”[1]

For me, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of viceregal Mexico – the potential for its citizens to perceive themselves globally. A particularly striking manifestation of this global outlook is the Ochavo Chapel[2] at the Puebla Cathedral. Built in the 1680’s, the Chapel of the Holy Spirit gets its nickname, Ochavo, from its octagonal plan. A tall column of space with a reduced footprint, three of its walls house enormous and resplendent altarpieces. Each comprises a structure of gilded wood tangled into a thicket, suspending within its vines a panoply of precious objects. There are small oil paintings on wood and canvas made in Mexico, and painted copper plates imported from Flanders depicting religious scenes. Feather mosaics dot the walls, as do bits of bone set within opulent reliquaries, and one altarpiece is crowned by a sculpture of the Crucifixion made in ivory and likely imported from the Philippines.  In this agglomeration of objects the old (copper paintings in the early 16th c. style of Joachim Patinir) and the new (coppers by Juan Tinoco made in the late 17th century to complete the space) stand side by side. Quetzal feathers cozy up to Roman relics and Asian ivory.

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El Puente Inconsciente

Lazer - Mexico - Tlatelolco

Plaza de las Tres Culturas, Tlatelolco

My days are beset by the overlapping and intertwining of the tres culturas[1]. El Museo Nacional de Antropología: galleries teeming with the fearsome lithic remnants of the Toltec, Mexica[2], and Maya, arranged around a monumental interior courtyard not unlike the typical patio of a casa colonial, rendered in the clean geometries of the Mexican iteration of 1960’s international architectural modernism. A table of tres culturas: stewed beef (a meat introduced by the Spanish) in salsa de tomate (i.e. tomatillo[3]), with a bottle of tomato ketchup on the table (a probable result of the cultural influence on modern Mexico of the United States, where the sauce first gained popularity).

Mexicans are proud of their triplicate cultural heritage, but two of the three seem to take precedence. Streets, theaters, neighborhoods, metro stations, and businesses in Mexico City boast the names of great Mexica rulers – Cuauhtemoc, Nezahualcoyotl, Moctezuma – and of the heroes of Revolution and Independence – Juárez, Hidalgo, Madero, Carranza. The colonial period, however, seems to show itself more selectively. Pedro de Gante (a monk and one of the first artists in New Spain[4]) and Motolinía (Fray Toribio de Benavente, a16th century Franciscan chronicler) lend their names to thin thoroughfares a few blocks long in the historical center. Indeed, at times the colonial period only seems present in the ubiquity of Catholicism, a characteristic of both of the post-Conquest culturas. When I told Miguel, the owner of the hotel where I am staying, that I study the art of Viceregal Mexico, he very frankly told me that the era represents a hueco. Children in elementary schools, he said, aren’t taught about the 300-year period that forms un puente inconsciente que se cruza diariamente[5]. My research this summer will examine some of the most stubborn and, to all outward appearances, unremarkable struts of that puente.

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