Tuesday, May 24

The storied skies of Michoacán, the artistic treasure kept by the Purépecha Indians

Five days later, a breeze is enough for smoke to still rise from the charred beams in Nurio’s church. Fire completely devoured this 16th century jewel, with a richly ornamented wooden coffered ceiling with religious scenes. The flames have illuminated one of the many treasures that the plateau of the Purépecha Indians kept, the land that every year, in November, guides its dead back home with flowers and feasts them. The whole world learned about them in 2017 with the famous animated film titled Coco. But very few know the artistic wealth that is hidden in the small churches of this region of Michoacán. From Nurio to Cocucho, from Cocucho to Zacán, from there to Angahuan, Aranza, Huiramanguaro and follow the road, each town has a temple with polychrome wooden panels that Franciscan evangelization left in the 16th century in good communion with local artists.

Pátzcuaro is the beautiful epicenter that attracts mass tourism with its colorful Day of the Dead celebrations. It is the land of the avocado, a lot of money that the narco’s hand turns into blood hundreds of times. Entering the area requires precautions, but the Michoacan authorities are determined to guide art lovers along this route that they have named Vasco de Quiroga, in honor of the most renowned religious among those who passed through those lands. The bishop founded the hospital towns, with their churches and chapels, inspired by the Utopia of Tomás Moro, where each community specialized in a trade: here hats, there those who shaped clay, those who worked wood, farmers and the musicians. Five centuries later, life is not very different. The Purépecha have known how to keep the essences of ancient chores and rich traditions that were mixed with the uses and customs of Castile in a syncretism that historians discover in the paintings of the temples.


The Nurio flames have not only destroyed the most special of all the temples in the area, known as the Sistine Cathedral, but have also turned their gaze to the rest of the churches, all of them guarded by the National Institute of Anthropology and History ( INAH) but lack of restoration, maintenance and protection. The budgets do not reach that much, complain those responsible for State Culture. Meanwhile, the pictorial treasures captured on walls and ceilings, the skies of Michoacán, are losing their color and succumbing to humidity.

No one has yet explained why the Nurio church burned, but the fire had already been present on three previous occasions. The roof of the building, made of pine bark, which there is called shingle, became an inferno in just a few minutes. Rockets are not friends of dry wood, but each funeral, each celebration, is celebrated in these lands by throwing fire into the sky, today and even in the most terrible months of the pandemic. It could be a short circuit and that is a very probable hypothesis, because all these churches suffer constant and unfortunate interventions from the neighbors who also adorn the patron saint with bizarre neon lights, who place rickety plugs in the walls, the little devils, or drill holes with a ring the eye of an angel painted on the wood to hang Easter curtains from the ceiling. “Heritage conservation is everyone’s business, of the INAH, yes, but also of the neighbors and of course the ecclesiastical authorities,” says Marco Rodríguez, head of the institute in Michoacán.

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“Sometimes we are not aware [del deterioro que se causa]”Acknowledges Ramiro, who has opened the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption so that journalists can see the wonder that awaits the world when the restoration is finished. This temple, in Santa María de Huiramangaro, is a worthy substitute to wipe the tears of those who today mourn the tragedy of Nurio. In just seven months, Joselia Cedeño and Gabriela Contreras, with the help of other technicians, have been used to clean the white paint that for decades, it is not known how many, has covered the polychrome ornamentation of the altarpiece. They have made coves in the cofferdam and on the side altars and everything promises another Sistine chapel in the Purépecha territory. Where there was white, gold, blue, red, green, bishops and angels, virgins and musical instruments have come out. The budget provided by the Ministry of Culture and the municipality has ended for the moment. “If we had money and the work was permanent, perhaps in a year we could delimit and in another year restore the paintings,” calculates Cedeño, on the phone. The covers, in this case, are made of clay tile, which protects from fire, but not from rain, it is always necessary to watch that there are no cracks through which water leaks. “Maintenance tends to fail in these churches,” says the restorer. Why was it covered in whitewash back in the day? Who knows. Perhaps to protect it from greed and bullets during the Cristero War, an armed conflict in the 1920s between those who sought to make Mexico a secular country and those who resisted it. That is a Ramiro hypothesis, but there are many others.

The car stops at the doors of the church of Cocucho, place of potters, and a Santiago Apostle amazes the visitor when he looks up at the choir. Santiago is everywhere, in every town, on the back of his white horse and with a raised sword that leaves no puppet with a head. Here he is depicted surrounded by arquebusiers. You don’t have to agree with the Matamoros saint to appreciate the beauty of the painting.

On the way to Zacán, you have to go through a couple of towns. Two vans crossed on the route prevent us from following the route. “They are watching over two little children who have died,” reports a neighbor. Whoever wants to pass will have to go around another block. Vans guarding a wake herald nothing good in cross-bullet land. Moments like this are a stone against the magic of these towns.

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In Zacán, the unease has not just faded. Avocado trees come and go on their open-top ATVs. They look at the stranger with curiosity, some come to investigate his origin and his mission. You have to be careful among the green gold that is imported by millions of tons to the United States. When the chapel is finally opened, spirituality takes over the visitor again. A beautiful, brightly colored cofferdam leaves a family in the area open-mouthed, waiting for someone to lead them through to the treasure. Today they have been lucky, but access to these monuments is not regulated, it is erratic and at the will of the local authorities. The paintings of the sky in the Huatápera chapel extol the virtues of the Virgin, in several of whose images she is represented with a red sash, a symbol of pregnancy among the natives. Here, again, the miscegenation of interpretations. Drawn litanies, like this one, guided the prayers of a community just landed in Christianity.

The Zacán figures are inspired by the devotionals that the parish priests brought with them from Spain, but the coffered ceiling is enriched with local contributions. There are little devils with bat wings and dragon faces and tails. A whole illustrated story to teach about the benefits of Christianity to whom not even the language of the priests knew, and to fear the punishments of those who dare to depart from the new imposed faith. This chapel is not opened normally, nor is it dedicated to worship, at first glance it seems in good condition, with the roof repaired, but cobwebs are rampant. Adjacent, dependencies of this old hospital among those founded by Tata Vasco, the first bishop of Michoacán, await to become an ethnographic museum.

Among the natives, the Catholic fervor from overseas persists. The women, with the traditional clothing of naguas and rebozos adorned with cross stitch, embroider, cook and pray. It is Lent and the loudspeakers invade all of Angahuan from end to end from the radio station located in the Church’s premises. They sing in their original language and procession a Christ in a purple skirt. Night falls, but the prayers do not cease, thunderous, over the public address system. The night sky and the early morning sky will be crossed with rockets. And the dogs will bark. In the church hangs a Purest Conception signed by the indigenous Francisco Antonio, from the mid-seventeenth century, “the first dated painting among all those that are preserved in Michoacán”, recalls the doctor in Art History Nelly Sigaut, who knows the artist by heart. artistic route of this plateau and its enormous value.

Wood is the protagonist of these temples, and of the houses of the towns, with their carved columns, some polychrome to Mexican taste. In 1985, when the wildest of contemporary earthquakes struck Mexico, the churches suffered their share. Gloria Álvarez visited several of them at the time and helped in their reconstruction. Doctor of Architecture, today she is retired and she is showered with recognitions and decorations. In the state capital, Morelia, he takes a few minutes to talk about the church of Santiago, in Nurio, to which he dedicated so much time in his day. Invaluable was the choir, he says, today completely lost, with its musical angels and quotes the misogynistic bishop, Francisco Aguiar y Seijas, so detested by Sor Juana Inés, that he had his memory there. “Nothing will be the same, to begin with, because even if you want to make a replica, the woods will not be the same. So they were 100-year-old trees, which were killed because the bark was stripped to make the shingle. Today they would be younger pines ”, he says. Get to know this area and its most hidden treasures like few others.

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Experts do not come out of mourning these days for the loss of Nurio. Neither did the neighbors of the place. Accustomed to her mother tongue, Purepecha, Marta struggles to make herself understood in Spanish while cleaning and relocating what little they have managed to rescue from the fire. He believes that the flames are also a thing of God and, as such, they must be received with resignation. For her the message is unequivocal: people stop too much to look at beauty and forget about faith. God has sent the purifying flames, although he blames the authorities for not having protected him in time.

It will not be easy for these towns to receive massive tourism that transfers to the world the wealth contained in the temples of the Purépecha. Even better. But the Michoacan authorities strive to manage visits in a sustainable way: “Tourism is not bad, only if it is poorly managed,” says the Secretary of Tourism of Michoacán, Claudia Chávez López. “The violence”, he assures, “is concentrated in some parts of the State. But those temples can be visited ”, he says. He totally disagrees with the information that every day transmits the image of Michoacán as a complete state under bullets. His intention is unequivocal and tenacious: the whole world has to enjoy the unique art that the churches of the plateau and adjacent regions keep. An assault on the storied skies of Michoacán that is born from the consensus with the indigenous communities and from projects that preserve these riches for so many more centuries.

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