Sunday, October 11, 2015


Tourists coming to Mexico City usually allow themselves at least a day to travel out of town to visit the marvelous pyramids of Teotihuacan. Only a few minutes before arriving to Teotihuacan, they run past an old Church, clearly visible from the highway, in the town of Acolman, but very few buses bother to stop over and explain how important this mission was in the early history of Mexico, in the years just after the conquest, and the role the Augustinian Order played in this part of the country.

The Franciscans were the first religious congregation to come to Mexico after the Conquest, followed by the Dominicans two years later. Almost 12 years after the Conquest, in 1533, the first Augustinian Missionaries arrived to Mexico. Not only did they start up centers of Evangelization in Mexico City during their first years here in Mexico, but following the suit of the Franciscans and the Dominicans, they started routes of Missions outside the City, mainly to the north and to the west.

In 1539, these first Augustinian Missionaries began a Church and Monastery complex in the City of Acolman. It was finished in 1560.

These first Augustinian Missionaries were very brave. Unlike other missions in Mexico, where the local population was pacific, Acolman was subject during the greater part of the XVI Century to savage Indian attacks. So the enclave of Acolman not only took the aspect of a Monastery, but of an armed fort as well. Notice the stone wall behind by wife's back in the above picture.
Here I am on one of the ramparts, leading away from the huge outside atrium used for catechizing the first native catechumens, and for large Mass celebrations that would be impossible to hold inside the Church. During the following centuries, the baroque stone façade was added to the entrance to the nave of the Church. However, a unique element in this Augustinian Mission, was the balcony up on the second floor,  at the right of the entrance. This was obviously used for Passion Plays and many other plays, intended as part of the Augustinians Evangelization effort. This architectural element had been integrated into ecclesiastical architecture as early as the beginning of the XIth Century. A good example can be found is Torcello, in the lagoon of Venice.

Nowadays, many trees have been planted in the atrium, as you can see in this picture. Again notice the height of the wall in the background.

Here I am leaning on a split tree outside the walls of the atrium, with the church steeples in the background. This type of wall of a fortified structure was common in many places in Mexico, and still survives.

Here is a closer view of the balcony in the façade of the Monastery. As I previously stated, the object of this balcony was for passion plays and other religious plays. During Holy Week, they still hold a Passion Play in Acolman, 450 years later. Notice the beautiful fresco/style paintings, in which the native artist used local pigments and technique.



Estela is gazing into the sunset from the balcony.

Here I am on the balcony, amazed not only by the beauty of the frescos, but by the pristine state in which they have been preserved down to our age.

Estela stands outside a cell, where Augustinian monks formerly lived their life of prayer and contemplation.

Here is a part of the Acolman compound that has fallen into ruins, and has never been repaired. However, Estela and I tried to imagine the state of terror in which the first Christian settlers lived here, as they might have gazed from this very same point into the horizon, waiting for an attach from unfriendly natives.

Acolman had two courtyards.

A beautiful fresco of the Crucifixion along one of the aisles of the Cloister.

Estela is sitting on the base of an Atrial Cross, which either served also as a well or as part of the underground cistern.

Here is a view of the ramparts that slowly go down towards the façade of the monastery, and assuredly in previous times served as a sort of amphitheater for enjoying the religious plays up on the balcony.


The stone carving of the façade at Acolman is overwhelming. Not only are the most important saints taken into account, but also the angels. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Tepetlaoxtoc and the XVI Century Hermitage of Domingo de Betanzos

Tepetlaoxtoc. Have you ever heard of the place? Probably, not.

In the XVI Century, Tepetlaoxtoc was the last village on the road from Tlaxcala to Texcoco. Texcoco is a town, and once was the most important lake on the eastern side of the island kingdom of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan. For centuries, Tepetlaoxtoc remained the last town on the all important trade route from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. But that route as such no longer comes even close to Tepetlaoxtoc.

The cell of  Fray Domingo de Betanzos, at the Hermitage he built in Tepetlaoxtoc.

A Dominican Chronicler, Fray Agustin Davila Padilla, in the latter part of the XVI Century, wrote of his trip to Tepetloaxtoc: " Domingo de Betanzos built a convent in Tepetlaoxtoc, 7 leagues from Mexico, dedicated to the Devotion of Saint Mary Magdalene. He constructed an orchard, and in the middle, a  small cloister, where he (Betanzos) spent many a day and many a night...with cypress trees surrounding it. In the middle of this small cloister, there is a smaller interior orchard, 12 feet by 12 feet.."

Almost 500 years after Betanzos built this compound, consisting of the orchard, the Church, the Convent, the cemetery, it stands practically unchanged. In the center, was the Caxcantla, as the Indians called it in their native language: a hermitage, with its chapel, central orchard, and Betanzo's dormitory and cell. It was the first permanent building by the Dominican Orden in Mexico, along with the Church of Santo Domingo, which we visited last year.

"Contemplata aliis tradere" was the motto of the Founder of the Dominican Order, Saint Domingo de Guzman: "contemplate (the mysteries of God), so as to take (those meditations) to others". Thus prayer, contemplation, solitude, reflection are as important to this mendicant order as it was for all the former cloistered monks, such as the Benedictines. The difference lies, that the Dominican take what they contemplate, out of the hermitage, our of the chapel, out of the cloister, into the lives of everyday people.

The cross in the chapel of the Hermitage

The feet of Christ in the crucifix have human toe-nails.

This detail might seem gory: human toe-nails, quite possibly taken from the faithful deceased.

The Dominicans in general, and especially Betanzos, were staunch defenders of the Indians who were subject to the abuse of the "encomenderos". Their mission was twofold: protect and evangelize.

The chapel of the Hermitage of Tepeslaoxtoc is consecrated to the Passion of Christ. The 4 Pendentives supporting the dome, instead of bearing paintings allusive to the four Evangelists, as is the case of most churches from this period,  bears portraits of Angels of Sorrow,  some with symbols of the Passion, the nails and crown of thorns.

Here is the eight-sided dome of the minuscule Chapel of the Hermitage, the Chapel of Dolores.

The ancient well that connects the hermitage with the convent. The legend, revered by the locals, states that Betanzos would go down this pit, and travel to Rome and to the Holy Land. 

The walls of the compound built by Betanzos. The stairway leads to a group of bells inserted in the wall, instead of building a bell tower, which was considered by the first Dominican and Franciscan Friars, as too ostentatious.

The cypresses have always been the insignia of burial grounds in Mexico

The bell walls.

Tombs of famous religious and political personalities of Tepetlaoxtoc.

The Hermitage had an entrance of river stones, used for pilgrims that approached the doors of the chapel on their bleeding knees, as an act of penance.

The path leading up to the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene.

The atrium cross.

The well financed by Emperor Iturbide.


Finally, I would like to make a personal confession: how did I discover this long forgotten village of Tepetlaoxtoc. A book? A conference with a learned scholar? Nothing so noble. For better or for worse, this town has a paper mill, and for years I would come here to deliver spare parts. The only road to the paper mill is past the compound that Domingo de Betanzos started building back in the XVI century. As with most communities with a paper mill, the relationship with the townspeople is a love-hate relationship. Paper mills pollute rivers. They also pollute the air. However, the paper mill has provided the community with employment. Otherwise, Tepetlaoxtoc would have become a ghost town years ago. However, the remoteness of Tepetlaoxtoc have helped to seal the Domincal compound and the XVI century Hermitage in a time capsule, safely guarded and protected from the advances of modern civilization and urbanization.

The statue honoring Domingo de Betanzos in a plaza in Tepetlaoxtoc. Domingo was the first superior general of the Dominicans in America. Some believe he should have been canonized by the Church, including almost everyone who lives in this town.

Please try to visit Tepetlaoxtoc someday. I understand why Domingo de Betanzos picked this village for a hermitage. It is a peaceful town. A good place to look for your soul, for peace and on the way, for God. And the people here are as beautiful as the Hermitage.