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Gilded Lace, The Huayapan Retablo

an article by Richard D. Perry

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Huayapan main altarpiece
Oaxaca is celebrated for its wealth of superb colonial altarpieces, invariable intricately carved and gilded, and often housing priceless paintings and sculptures. We feature some of the grander examples on our web site, notably those at Santo Domingo de Oaxaca, Yanhuitlan and Tamazulapan, all recently restored to their original brilliance. But several less well known retablos, often smaller in size although no less compelling in their quality, survive in churches across Oaxaca. Here we look at one such treasure, the ornate baroque altarpiece of San Andrés Huayapan, located in the sierra foothills just to the east of the city of Oaxaca.

The Main Retablo

Described as "gilded lace"* the Huayapan main altarpiece is remarkable for its intricacy of its ornament, a testament to the skilled woodcarvers and other artisans who crafted this extraordinary work of baroque art. Early in the1990s the retablo was disassembled and fully restored to its former glory, and further work was done more recently by the regional chapter of Adopte una obra de arte.

Probably late 17th or early 18th century in date, the retablo is framed by opulent columns, wreathed with exquisitely carved spiralling vines in a variant of the Solomonic baroque style, then dominant in altarpiece design throughout Mexico. At the same time the ornamental lower third of the columns follows the "tritostyle" treatment traditionally associated with Oaxacan regional design. Every intervening surface is densely filled with swirling volutes and foliated relief decoration, another characteristic of Oaxacan baroque retablos, as are the spindle pendants below the main cornices.

Within this regional style, the retablo shows considerable sophistication in its forms and great confidence in its execution, suggesting the presence of a team of accomplished retablistas, who may have worked at Santo Domingo de Oaxaca or come from Puebla, a leading art center of the 17th century baroque that exerted a strong influence on its southern neighbor.

The Iconography

Although the centerpiece of the retablo is a wooden statue of the patron Saint Andrew, a striking polychrome figure notable for its powerful bearded visage, the retablo principally showcases a group of three unusual canvases depicting episodes from Christ's Passion.

These unusual, large, unsigned paintings are almost monochromatic and portray attenuated figures in a detailed and spare style influenced by northern European Mannerism. In addition there are smaller portraits of St Dominic and other church luminaries.

The main altarpiece is not the only treasure in the church. A large mural of the Last Supper decorates the sanctuary arch. Two other baroque retablos line the nave, together with several other finely crafted images including this affecting, Guatemalan style statue of the Virgin of the Rosary.

18th century pipe organ, documented by IOHO

Guatemalan style statue of the
Virgin of the Rosary

Statue of San Andrés

Painting: Ecce Homo

Text & pictures ©2010 by Richard D. Perry. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with permission from www.colonial-mexico.com

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