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Sirens, Saints and Angels of the Sierra Gorda

In the 1750's, Father Junípero Serra, the future apostle of California, ventured with his fellow Franciscans into the rugged Sierra Gorda area of eastern Querétaro state. They set out to evangelize the semi-nomadic Indian tribes who lived there, and gather them into mission towns. Their efforts soon bore fruit and within a few years five new missions rose in the verdant valleys of the region. These churches are famous for their richly ornate, "folk baroque" facades of painted and sculpted stucco, recently restored to their original, colorful condition.

From the city of Querétaro, the 200 km journey to this scenic but until recently remote region of sub-tropical valleys is varied and picturesque. Irrigated plains gradually give way to an arid upland region of cactus-covered hills and spectacular rock formations lying in the rain shadow of the Sierra Madre oriental. From the pineclad summit at Puerto de Cielo (Heaven's Gate), the road descends rapidly more than 7000 feet to Jalpan, the principal town of the Sierra Gorda and site of the flagship mission of Santiago. Other Serra missions were founded at Landa; Tilaco; Tancoyol, and tiny San Miguel Concá (see map).

Tilaco

South of Landa, a side road snakes off through a green valley to the hamlet of Tilaco, where crenellated walls, gateways and corner chapels frame the charming hillside mission of San Francisco. Founded by Father Serra's companion Fray Juan Crespí, Tilaco is the happiest of the five missions, tinted in hues of blue, white and ocher, and possessing an elegant and slender three stage tower. Its festive facade is the most intimate of all the churches, busy with relief figures of cherubs, sirens and angels - some playing instruments, others grasping grapevines or holding tasseled stone draperies, and a few just smiling joyfully.

 

 

 

Tilaco: west front

 

Tilaco: gable with St Francis and musical angels

 

 

 

Tilaco: St Joseph

Tilaco: Siren One

 

Tilaco: choir window with angels, curtains and vines

 

Tilaco: Siren Two

Saints and Sirens

Tilaco honors its patron saint and the founder of the Franciscan order St Francis of Assisi. From an elaborately festooned niche, set like a projecting stage in the upper facade, the statue of the cowled and barefoot saint leans forward, smiling ecstatically as he listens to the celestial music of winged angels playing the violin and guitar.

Below, a youthful Virgin Mary and the mature St. Joseph attend St. Francis on the middle tier. The rapturous Joseph, clothed in beautiful painted robes, carries the Christ child, who tugs playfully at his beard. Naked angels, veiled in spotted blue ribbons, disport around a curtained choir window that resembles a waterlily blossom whose curling petals reach out from the recesses below. The Franciscan Arms spread out below the window, almost engulfing the small relief of a dove-symbol of the Holy Spirit. Saints Peter and Paul stand on either side of the scalloped doorway fringed by luxuriant tendrils.

The Tilaco facade celebrates more than saints. A mass of ornamental vines reaches around the St Francis niche towards the "horned" gable, which is supported by caped caryatids at the sides and surmounted by a gigantic urn. Berry plants with fleshy leaves climb up the sides of the urn, which is capped by stylized conch shells.

< A pinnacle, on the right side of the gable, sports exotic tropical vegetation as well as a lion and cub engaged in play. This is thought to reflect the ancient legend that a stillborn lion cub was revived by the father's breath, an allegory of Christ's Resurrection.

Two eagles are perched in an archaic frontal stance with spreading wings just below the gable. And the entire middle tier is held up by grinning sirens* with scaly tails.

Four more sirens appear on the facade at nearby Landa, another of the Serra churches in the Sierra Gorda >

 

* Since their most recent restoration, the fronts of all five Sierra Gorda churches have been covered with netting to discourage birds. While this helps to preserve the facades it makes detailed photography problematic.