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A Mexican Apocalypse


In the mid-16th century a native Mexican painter, baptised Juan Gerson after the fiery medieval preacher John Gerson, created an extraordinary cycle of paintings for the Franciscan church of Tecamachalco, in what is now the state of Puebla.

The cycle illustrates the events recounted in the biblical Apocalypse of St. John, painted on ovals of traditional indigenous bark paper, known as amate. The scenes dramatically depict people, supernaturals and surreal landscapes in vivid reds, blues and earth colors that seem to have faded little since they were painted in 1562.

Probably based on black-and-white engravings in some medieval breviary, the scenes were transformed by Gerson into a visionary and colorful pageant above the church entry, creating a symbolic portal into the Celestial Kingdom - a favorite Franciscan theme. Then as now, the Apocalypse was a popular and obsessively studied subject, especially by the Franciscans, who were preoccupied by millenial ideas.

 

Sixteen episodes from the Apocalypse, including the Four Horsemen (above) radiate around the ribs of the stone vaulted underchoir, interspersed with the symbols of the Four Evangelists, together with other famous Old Testament subjects, including Noahs Ark, The Tower of Babel and Jacob's Ladder. A medallion of the Stigmata, the Franciscan emblem, is placed at the center of the composition.

 


Text © Richard D. Perry. Photographs from a 1972 portfolio by the eminent Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.

For more on the art and architecture of colonial Puebla, see our Puebla pages and our guidebook Mexico's Fortress Monasteries.

 

 

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