Thursday, January 08, 2015

altars and alterations

If you had one full day in Oaxaca, what would you do?

Mind you, I am not really seeking advice.  It will come too late for me because that day is now past.  The best I can do is to tell you what I did.

You know me well enough by now that I prefer to do one thing intensively rather than running about to see a laundry list of bucket-worthy experiences.  And you know I am rather fond of the cousin interests of architecture and archaeology.

We are planning a major archaeological visit later today.  So, architecture it was on Wednesday.

Oaxaca is one of Mexico's oldest colonial cities.  In a move to relieve some pressure on his Aztec Empire, Moctezuma II told Cortés the Aztec got their gold from mines in the area we now know as Oaxaca.

Not surprisingly, an expedition was launched to conquer the area in 1521.  And the Spanish did just that.  Founding a city that soon filled with Spanish settlers.

Moctezuma had lied (slightly) about the gold, but the settlers came any way.  Oaxaca is one of the few Mexican states that has not joined the rest of Mexico in promoting the Mestizo myth.  For a very good reason.  The Zapotecs, Mixtecos, and 13 other Indian tribes have retained their languages and make up a large portion of the state's population.

That is why I wrote yesterday that Oaxaca is "
a city where the country's Spanish tradition lies lightly on a mainly Indian culture."  We decided to take a look at both sides of that equation.

The cultural hand of the Spanish is everywhere in the city's stone.  All of the public colonial buildings sing the praises of the crown or the church.

We chose church to start the day.  The Santo Domingo church and convent to be exact.

You saw the exterior of Oaxaca's cathedral yesterday.  The interior is not much.  Even the exterior is a bit jumbled -- due to a series of earthquakes.

Santo Domingo is not a cathedral.  But its interior architecture is far grander.  The baroque decoration stops just this side of rococo.

The dome of the side chapel gives you a good taste for the decorative style.  Lots of white paint and gold leaf makes the place glimmer.

This detail from the altar is indicative of the detail that went into decorating the church's interior.

What is more remarkable is that what we see today is a reconstruction.  Following the Reform movement of the mid-1800s, the church was turned into a stable.  With the expected deterioration.

The attached convent is now the state regional museum.  The pre-conquest exhibits were by far my favorites.

These pieces were carved before Christ was born.  It is almost impossible to look at the piece on the left without thinking of the series of pietas I have seen in various museums.

Even though her features are quite primitively carved, there is no doubt that she is grieving.

The Zapotecs who carved that piece had a good feel of what art is -- attempting to construct a moment in life, and to convey it to a viewer.  Similar to the look of astonishment in this clerk's eyes.  The piece is obviously designed to represent a real person in a real circumstance.

The scribe and this funerary urn of a high-ranking official (you can tell by the snake symbol emerging from his mouth) represent an inevitable step in urbanization.  As the cities grew, society divided into hierarchies.  Hierarchies that would be subsumed by the invading Spanish.

The museum contains the treasures of tomb 7 at Monte Albán -- a spectacular site you will undoubtedly hear more about in the next few days.

Moctezuma II had not completely lied about the gold of Oaxaca.  When the Aztecs invaded and made the local tribes part of the "empire," the tribes were forced to submit annual tributes to the Aztec emperor.  Gold and silver were amongst those gifts.

And gold and silver there was.  In one tomb, archaeologists found precious metal pieces, such as this representation of the wind god Ehecatl with his skinless jaw.

Probably a jewelry gift from a leader to his mother-in-law. 

Or this beautiful piece of jewelry.

Precious metals are interesting.  But I found a series of carved alabaster bowls to be far more beautiful.  Carved thin enough that they are translucent.

The museum does not omit how the Spanish lived during the colonial period.  Because not every church could afford a pipe organ, this portable version was toted from place to place and needed four men to operate.

The pipes are behind the cabinet doors.  The keys are in the two drawers at the bottom.

Or how about this rather eccentric painting of the Last Supper where the Jewish passover has been turned into a vegetarian dinner that would thrill a resident of Portland, Oregon.

My question was why John had passed out.  Maybe he ate too many giant carrots.

Even though the Spanish own the city's stones, the daily culture is still dominated by Indians.  That was our next stop.  Off we went to a local museum with the mission of preserving fabric manufacture in the Indian manner.

The place was not quite what we thought it would be.  We anticipated a "factory" of home-made factories.  Instead, we were treated to two videos on the creation of dyes and the preservation of methods that are slowly disappearing.

The museum is also teaching old methods to young students.  In the hope that the art of home-spun and woven clothing will continue to be made in the traditional style.

So, there you have it.  How we spent our Wednesday in Oaxaca.

This morning, we will be boarding the Dodge Ram to head off to parts as yet undecided.  You just may have to come back tomorrow to see what we ended up doing.

I know I will.


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