Cemetery and church in San Juan Evangelista

Cemetery and church in San Juan Evangelista

I’d have counted it a very rewarding day if it ended with my visit to the studio of barra (clay working) maestro Martín Ibarra Morales in Jalisco’s San Juan Evangelista.

I turned out instead that the studio visit was but a taste of what would soon reveal itself along the shores of Lake Cajititlan.

Spanish soldiers and Catholic missionaries arrived here on horseback within 50 years of Columbus’ first arrival in the New World and within 10 after Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) fell to Cortes, pressing toward the Pacific Ocean and ever in search of more gold.

From its first expansion beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, Catholicism has time and again promoted conversion of pagan peoples by incorporating aspects of their religions into its own imagery and rituals.

In few places is its chameleon bent as widely evident as in Mexico, and nowhere in my experience as pervasively as in San Juan Evangelista.

San Juan Evangelista 2013-02-15 02 stone arches

Stone arches at the church of San Juan Evangelista

Martín guides me and my Mexican artist and friend Jesús López Vega across the street to where a church dating from the 1600’s stands adjacent to a graveyard.

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Front facade, church of San Juan Evangelista

Like many buildings of the period in this part of the world, this church was constructed by indigenous craftsman under the direction of priests.

Martín explains the facade imagery to Jesús.

Martín explains the facade imagery to Jesús.

Church belltower in San Juan Evangelista

Church belltower in San Juan Evangelista

To the untrained eye it looks like many Spanish Catholic churches, but Martin knows better and he shares his insights as he points out features of the building’s architectural detail.  It becomes quickly apparent that things are not what they first might seem.

If the priests believed that ministrations backed by Spanish arms would quickly and irrevocably convert native peoples to Christianity, they were indulging far more in wishful thinking than they were ever to know.

Detail of church facade, San Juan Evangelista

Detail of church facade, San Juan Evangelista

Hidden within the elaborate stone façade are icons of the native religion, speaking in seditious code to a people conquered, but undefeated.

In Christian tradition the serpent is a personification of the Devil, but in native religion the plumed serpent is a deity that archeologists say first appeared in Mexico about the time that Christ was born.

Martín sketches in the dust

Martín sketches in the dust

Soon the artist in Martín can resist no longer and he stoops to reproduce the façade’s scrollwork in the dust, showing how its unusual double-scroll pattern is actually a serpent.

Doorway in carved cantera stone

Doorway in carved cantera stone

Feline faces that adorn drain spouts just below the roof line high above are decidedly un-Christian images of jaguars.

Worn and weathered church door, San Juan Evangelista

Worn and weathered church door, San Juan Evangelista

We enter the church through a side door that shows every sign of being part of the original construction, its edge worn smooth by worshipers’ hands over the course of more than 300 years.

Church door lock and hasp

Church door lock and hasp

Inside, Martín points out more indigenous icons hidden within the three-story-high carved imagery behind the altar, and in designs of carved cantera stone above the doorways.

He recounts a story long told in his village that priests discovered – years after completion of the construction – that the native workers had hollowed out statues of saints which adorn the interior, and placed within their hollowed spaces images of their native gods.

Church alter tableau in carved and gilded wookd

Church alter tableau in carved and gilded wood

Detail of church alter tableau, San Juan Evangelista

Detail of church alter tableau, San Juan Evangelista

It’s a remarkable demonstration of faith and passive resistance that can’t help but inspire.

If I concluded on the strength of this visit that such pagan imagery within Catholic churches was a thing of the distant past, though, my view was soon to be set on its ear by what I next saw as we rounded the western edge of the lake and doubled back on the other side toward the town of Cajititlan…

More on this blog about Mexico’s native artisans…

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