Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Angels in the Architecture – Puebla & Cholula, Mexico

(Please click on the photos to enlarge, or you'll never be able to see them.)

The reason I write this blog, especially when traveling, is to share unexpected moments of beauty that I stumble upon. I’m driven to share these experiences and sights because so often they’re lucky accidents, not even hinted at in the guidebooks.

Often the objects that draw my eye are created by anonymous folk artists – in the name of religion, love (like the carved Greek hope chests for brides) – or just out of the creative urge that wells up in us. I think it’s wonderful that so many Greeks carved their wooden tools and vessels into fantastic shapes, and that the indigenous tribes of India hammered the gods and goddesses into their silver tribal jewelry.

It seems I’ve been collecting angels forever and am particularly attracted to naïve, primitive angels with personality and attitude—not the cookie-cutter kind you see on Valentines. (Haitian art boasts a lot of angels with attitude.)

On the four days in Puebla, Mexico that were the finale of our off-site art class (led by photographer Mari Seder and sponsored by the Worcester Art Museum), I quickly realized that Puebla has angels everywhere, just as skulls and skeletons seemed to be everywhere in Oaxaca. The first row of photos above show the angels we encountered on the edge of the Zocalo guarding the famous baroque Cathedral—part of the historic center that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Another day we boarded a van driven by Jorge Luis, who for 43 years has been leading tours to Cholula, just outside Puebla, famed for the view of its two snow-covered volcanoes (see the photo of the lovers in the second row above.) The first church we visited there was Nuestra Senora de los Remedios—the imposing orange building perched atop the Great Pyramid of Cholula—the largest pyramid (I’m told) in Mexico, (but not excavated). Angels in Redmedios were typical of the Spanish baroque style of so many churches.

Then Jorge Luis drove us to two other churches that he said had been decorated by the Indians—incorporating their own symbols and faces. In both cases, the outside of the churches is covered with the famous talavera tiles of the region. Once I walked inside the first one -- Santa Maria Tonantzintla—I was stunned into silence, as is everyone who enters. Every square inch of the interior was covered with carved images of Indian angels and saints. You weren’t supposed to take photos, but I took some anyway (in the third row above). At the door an Indian mother with a baby on her back was selling photos of the carvings, including angels wearing the traditional feathered headdress and also cobs of corn.

In the third church—San Martin Texmelucan -- also decorated by the Indians and , according to Jorge, restored since an earthquake some years ago—native workmen were cleaning the stunningly tiled exterior (see the fourth row above). And except for one man, they had no safety belts or ropes to protect them from a fall.

Inside we were allowed to take photos and I took dozens. (See rows four and five above.) If you compare the dome of this church—surrounded by a row of angels – to the dome of the previous church, you will see that there is more organization and less chaos in the décor, but in both churches, I don’t think anyone could count all the angels in a lifetime. No photos can indicate how there really do seem to be flocks of angels swirling overhead in complete confusion and the flutter of wings is almost audible.

The final row above shows two angels who came home from Mexico with me to add to my angel walls. The little red-faced angel with one wing, about six inches tall, was priced at less than two dollars in a Oaxacan antique store (because he only has one wing!) The wooden statue of the Archangel Michael, holding a cross and a sword, was carved by an anonymous artisan in Puebla.

Everywhere I go, even in non-Christian countries, I seem to find angels. I hope that these two will feel at home surrounded by their multi-cultural brethren and bring protection to our house.

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