Last week, when I read that the volcano of Popocatepetl, known fondly in Mexico as “El Popo”, was producing fire, smoke, lava, ash and loud underground groans, 40 miles southeast of Mexico City, I began to worry about the angels in the churches of Cholula, right below the volcano.
The alert level near the volcano is now at the fifth step on a seven-level warning scale. The area is closed to visitors and the next stage of alert would prompt evacuations. I’m sure the populace would be evacuated in time, but what will happen to the churches, the most stunning display of religious art that I’ve ever seen? For someone who loves folk art, and especially angels, the two churches I visited in Cholula two years ago, decorated by the local indigenous people, seemed as close to heaven as I would get in this life.
Cholula is famous for its views of the volcanoes, especially from Nuestra Senora de los Remedios—the imposing church perched atop the Great Pyramid of Cholula, the largest in Mexico. The décor in Remedios is typical of the Spanish baroque style seen everywhere.
But the next church I visited, lower down the hill—San Martin Texmelucan—blew my mind--both the exterior, covered with the famous Talavera tiles of the region (which were being cleaned by workmen with no safety belts), but even more so the interior, where the local Indians had incorporated so much of their culture into the portrayal of angels that fill the dome and every inch of space; some holding ears of corn or wearing feathered headdresses. This style is what they call indigenous baroque, and baroque it was.
Another native-designed church, Santa Maria Tonantzintla, also covered with tiles, is even more of a whirlwind of angels everywhere. You weren’t supposed to take photos inside, but I took these anyway.
Tonantzintla, which means “place of our little mother” in the Nahuatl language, comes from the Aztec earth mother who evolved into the Virgin Mary when the Spaniards conquered the area. So perhaps this church is protected by both Christian and pagan spirits.
I hope that the wrath of “El Popo” does not fall on these exquisite churches, so expressive of the religious fervor of the people of Cholula, but these angels have survived earthquakes in the past and hopefully will be shielded by their divine protectors from “El Popo” as well.