Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Cholula Churches

After leaving Oaxaca we stopped in Cholula again for a couple of days. This time the 135 mile drive between Oaxaca and Cholula was only 6 hours instead of the 7.5 hours it took us to get there. Crazy.
There are 2 churches near Cholula that we wanted to see - Santa Maria Tonantzintla and San Francisco Acatepec. Since they were both within a few miles of our campground we decided to check them out.

Santa Maria Tonantzintla

This colorful entrance to the church looks as though it was specially built for the holidays.
The church itself and the tower are faced with tile, characteristic of this area.
The interior of the church is incredibly ornate and bursting with color. There wasn't an empty space on the walls, ceilings, or anywhere else. Construction was begun in the 16th century and took Indian craftsmen 200 years to complete. Before the Spanish conquered the Indians, Tonantzin was mother of the gods and protectress of corn. When this church was built the Spanish allowed the Indians to model the stuccowork in accordance with their own traditions to avoid offending their ancestral beliefs.
There were no photographs allowed in the church, so I took some images from the internet. It was pretty overwhelming to be in the midst of the colorful saints, angels, fruits, flowers, birds,cherubs and faces covering every inch.
More images can be found at  Tonantzintla Images
Image result for santa maria tonantzintla church

Image result for santa maria tonantzintla church

Image result for santa maria tonantzintla church

San Francisco Acatepec

The church of San Francisco Acatepec is about one mile from Tonantzintla. It's known for a facade that is entirely covered in colorful handmade Talavera tiles.

The spiral columns on the bell tower are made completely with tiles.

On December 31, 1939, a fire destroyed Acatepec's original interior which featured carved cedar altars and gold-covered stucco details. Fortunately, some 15 years before the disaster an engineer named Alberto Pani made a series of books called Churches of Mexico, which depicted 17th- and 18th-century churches. To present them in the best way possible, he worked with one of the nation’s top photographers, Guillermo Kahlo , Freda Kahlo's father. Based on these pictures the interior of San Francisco Acatepec was largely reconstructed in 1941. Although it's said to be nowhere as complete as the original, it’s still stunning.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Alebrijes in Oaxaca

It's difficult to capture the intricacy of one of the outstanding crafts produced in Oaxaca called alebrijes. The painting is so delicate that it's often done with a brush having one single hair, or a small syringe and the carving is generally from one piece of wood. For example, the wings on the dragon in the photo below are not only individually painted but also individually carved, all from one piece of wood.
To get the most out of the photos, try clicking on them and then zooming in to see the detail work.
The first alebrijes, along with use of the term, originated with Pedro Linares who lived in Mexico City. In the 1930s, Linares fell very ill and while he was in bed, unconscious, Linares dreamed of a strange place resembling a forest. There, he saw trees, animals, rocks, clouds that suddenly turned into something strange, some kind of animals, but, unknown animals. He saw a donkey with butterfly wings, a rooster with bull horns, a lion with an eagle head, and all of them were shouting one word, "Alebrijes". Upon recovery, he began recreating the creatures he saw in cardboard and paper-mache and called them alebrijes.
Today alebrijes are carved from wood rather than made from paper-mache. The Oaxaca valley area already had a history of carving animal and other types of figures from wood, and Linares’ designs were adapted to the carving of a local wood called copal. The carving of a piece, which is done while the wood is still wet, can last anywhere from hours to a month, depending on the size and fineness of the piece. Often the copal wood that is used will influence what is made, both because of the shapes the branches can take and because male and female trees differ in hardness and shape. Carving is done with non-mechanical hand tools such as machetes, chisels and knives. After the carving, the figure is then left to dry for up to ten months, depending on its overall size and thickness
Then the painting begins.  Most of the artists we spoke to told us that the men would do the carving, while the women did the painting.The paint is acrylic and it was fascinating to watch the women paint. They usually had some sort of drawing on the wood that they followed while painting.
There are three towns that are primarily known for alebrijes - San Martín Tilcajete, San Antonio Arrazola, and La Unión Tejalapan.  We were able to visit the towns of Arrazola and Tilcajete. The styles of the alebrijes in the two towns were different in some ways but similar in others. Alebrijes can be found in galleries and shops throughout Mexico, and after visiting Arrazola and Tilcajete we've learned to identify which town produced the pieces we've seen.

San Antonio Arrazola

The making of alebrijes in Oaxaca was initially established in Arrazola by Manuel Jimenez. In Arrazola, one of the community’s specialty is the carving of complex animal bodies, especially iguanas out of one single piece of wood.
One of the best known artists in Arrazola is Miguel Santiago, who sells about forty pieces a year. Some of these sales are individual pieces and others are multiple sets such as Frida Kalo surrounded by monkeys. Sets are usually sold to foreign buyers for between $300 and $800 USD and have been sent to Europe, Japan and the United States. Sets often take more than a month to make and his work is considered to be in the high end of the market. Santiago’s orders extend more than two years in advance.
We visited several shops in Arrazola and saw a variety of beautiful pieces. The prices ranged according to quality and after a while we could tell why one piece was priced differently than a similar piece.

San Martin Tilcajete

Of the three major carving towns, San Martin Tilcajete has experience the most success. Today, the carving of alebrijes is the economic base of Tilcajete. We were both captivated by the pieces we saw in Tilcajete and really liked the style of the Tilcajete alebrijes. The painting was more intricate with a variety of patterns and figures on the pieces.
Every Friday on the main square is the “tianguis del alebrije” or weekly market selling wooden figures. The event allows visitors to purchase items from local craftsmen directly. The day we went to Tilcajete was the last day of a 2 week long art fair and we enjoyed seeing the various alibrejes on display in the booths. Our favorite artist was Lucy Mendez Sosa, whose work really stood out. Lucy does the painting and her husband Pablo does the carving. More about them can be found at
Not only did Lucy have the flying horses (Pegasus) that are very popular, but each feather was carved and painted separately. Really amazing. Her pieces were beyond our price range (for good reason) or we would have come home with one. We did, however, buy some smaller and less expensive pieces from some of the other artists.
In addition to wandering around the booths at the art fair we walked around town and went into some of the workshops and stores. It was all pretty mind-blowing to see such unique and talented artists.
We bought a few smaller pieces from one of the well known artists husband and wife teams, Ivan and Mayte. More information about them can be found at   While we were in their shop, Mayte was working on this incredible piece.
Following are pieces that represent just a fraction of what we saw. Zoom in to see the details.

This piece with the three animals is carved from one piece of wood.
There's an indigenous painting on the hindquarters of this piece.

Note the turtles on the leg of the anteater.

It was all just amazing and we're so glad we were able to visit these villages. It was very special to meet some of the artists who were so friendly and eager to share their work.

Following are links to more artists and images of more fabulous alebrijes

Herencia de Cultura y Tradicion Nestor y Leticia Melchor

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Monte Alban

The archaeological site Monte Alban overlooks the city of Oaxaca. It stands at nearly 6562 feet of altitude on top a a large hill that was leveled in order to build the large central plaza seen above. There were a lot of people visiting on the same day we were, but it's such a large area that it wasn't a problem.
The rectangular plaza is approximately 200 meters by 300 meters. Leveling the summit and then cutting away the rocky sides to make the plaza is a pretty astonishing engineering feat which was accomplished by the Zapotec Indians beginning in about 500 B.C., over 2500 years ago. The map below shows the position of the major buildings on the plaza.
Monte Alban was the most important center in the region of Oaxaca for almost a thousand years. Because of its position it was easily defended and able to dominate the surrounding valleys that supported it. It was initially a civic and religious center but over time it grew into a city with patios, palaces, and tombs for the ruling classes. Estimates of the population of Monte Alban at its height range from 16,000 to 100, 000. Big difference in estimates and I have no idea which one is correct.

It was a beautiful day for doing a bit of hiking around and learning about the different areas of the complex. The ball court is one of the oldest in Mesoamerica.
The steps leading up to the south platform are impressive from a distance
and even more impressive when standing at the bottom, wondering whether or not to give it a try.
It was believed that this building was some type of observatory or to celebrate victory in battle. There are carvings on the walls that may be the names of conquered tribes.
This building appeared to have some type of altars or tables between the staircases. At the top there would have been a wooden temple.
There was a Stela, or upright stone column, next to the building above. The plaque next to the Stela indicated that it was an astromomical instrument to verify both midday and the winter and summer soltices.
There were numerous stone slabs known as Danzantes. They show humans in strange, tortured positions who were first identified as dancers but are now thought to be prisoners of war.
On our way to the North Platform Brian made a friend.
The North Platform is believed to be where the elite governing class lived. There are 2 rows of broken stone columns that would have supported a roof, and the sunken court was probably only accessible to the elite. The remains of an altar can be seen in the center of the court.
There were great views of the city and surrounding area from the top of both North and South Platforms of the ruins. The ruins can be seen from all parts of the valley and attracted visitors and explorers, but it wasn't until 1931 that large-scale scientific excavations were undertaken under the direction of Mexican archaeologist Alfonso Caso.
Many of the artifacts found at Monte Alban are in the Cultural Center next to the Church of Santo Domingo in Oaxaca and the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.There is also a small museum at the Monte Alban site with artifacts - so fascinating to think about how long these have been around.

Wonder how they managed to move all these stelae (carved stone slabs).
Some of them are huge and some are probably just a part of something much larger.