In Mexico, Ornately Painted Churches Enshrine Years of Indigenous Resilience

In the Mexican state of Michoacán, several elaborately painted wooden churches enshrine centuries of Indigenous resilience in the face of colonialism. Now, as these buildings undergo contemporary restorations, they’re raising new questions about how architectural conservation ought to work — and whom such projects are really for.

Article by Michael Snyder

huatápera chapel in NurioThe elaborately painted ceiling of the huatápera chapel in Nurio, Mexico, one of Michoacán’s historic painted churches, with depictions of figures from the Bible that were completed in 1803. Photography by Stefan Ruiz.

For centuries, the first thing that residents of the Mexican village of Nurio saw when they walked through the heavy wooden doors of their adobe-plastered church was an orchestra of angels. Painted on pine panels mounted in an arch beneath the choir, the images were likely completed in the mid-1600s, less than 150 years after the first Franciscan missionaries arrived here in the Meseta Purépecha, or Tarascan Plateau, a highland region in the Michoacán state named for the Indigenous community that resides there. Set in pearlescent medallions against a blue-green field coiled with gold and crimson filigree, the angels held harps, guitars and violins in their hands, their Baroque lips curved into smiles — an image of heaven filled with music, order and joy.

As Mass ended on the afternoon of March 7, 2021, a fire, reportedly sparked by either a short circuit under the roof or a firecracker blown off course, caught among the church’s thin oyamel fir tejamanil, or ceiling shingles. March is the height of the dry season in central Mexico, and the tejamanil, dehydrated by years of winter sun, lit like tissue paper. A chain of 200 people formed across Nurio’s central plaza, dousing the flames with hoses and passing buckets of water from their homes to a group of 20 men who’d climbed onto the roof to choke the fire. As they worked, others in the community removed what they could from the smoke-filled nave: a crucifix in a glass vitrine lit with the words Señor de los Milagros, or “Lord of Miracles”; an image of the Apostle Santiago, Nurio’s patron, garlanded with dollar bills sent by relatives who had migrated north. But the winds that day were unusually strong; every time they succeeded in controlling the flames, a fresh gust would rile them back to life. Within 45 minutes, the roof was too weak to hold, and before long, the entire wooden structure fell in. Members of the community looked on, helpless, as it burned to blistered black coals.

Apostle San Bartolomé Church
An image of Santiago Matamoros, or Saint James the Moor-slayer — an apocryphal story invented in medieval Spain, when much of its territory was under Muslim rule — surrounded by angelic musicians in the 19th-century paintings of the Apostle San Bartolomé Church in Cocucho. Photography by Stefan Ruiz.
San Miguel Arcángel Chapel
Inside the San Miguel Arcángel Chapel of Pomacuarán, angels on the ceiling carry banners inscribed with the Beatitudes; the altar below had been decorated for the Christmas holiday. Photography by Stefan Ruiz.

The fire devastated the roughly 5,000 people who live in Nurio, most of whom still speak the Purépecha tongue as their first language. For the devout, the church was a space for meditation and respite from the challenges of daily life. For others, like José Manuel Torres Marcos, a teacher by training and, in his 60s, the unofficial keeper of Nurio’s village lore, the paintings, though Catholic, spoke of pre-Hispanic traditions. To him, the golden medallion at the heart of Nurio’s choir painting was not just a baroque ornament but “a spectacular image of the sun divided among the four cardinal points”, an abstraction, he says, of the Purépecha fire deity, Curícaueri. (Some art historians dispute this interpretation.) Even those who didn’t regularly attend Mass, Torres says, still gathered in and around the church for marriages and baptisms, funerals and festivals, market days and community assemblies. Regardless of how one read the paintings or viewed the faith that produced them, the building, Torres says, represented “a point of convergence for the community. It was what identified us as people from Nurio.”

Before the fire, Nurio’s church had seen several interventions since the ’70s. In the 2010s, community members requested permission from the National Institute of Anthropology and History, or INAH, the government body founded in 1939 to protect Mexico’s built heritage, to replace the old shingles with low-maintenance galvanised steel. The ministry of culture, which oversees INAH, demurred and, two years later, proposed a restoration project of its own; state and federal institutions were still negotiating funding when the church caught fire. The community saw the disaster as a direct result of bureaucratic stagnation, and authorities promised to rebuild the church exactly as it had been. Reconstruction began within the month.

Such approaches to conservation first emerged in the mid-19th century, primarily through the work of the French architect
Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, whose ideas for restoring buildings by updating — and sometimes fancifully transforming — them reached an apotheosis in the neo-Gothic spire at Notre-Dame in Paris, erected in 1860 and lost to fire in 2019. The English writer John Ruskin, Viollet-le-Duc’s contemporary and ideological adversary, argued instead for the valorisation of decay. As he writes in his 1849 treatise “The Seven Lamps of Architecture”, structures from the past “are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us.” Over the next 50 years, theorists came to see architectural monuments as “an indispensable link in the developmental chain of art history”, the Austrian academic Alois Riegl writes in his 1903 essay “The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Essence and Its Development”. As the 20th century progressed, nationalist movements in countries like Poland, Italy, Germany and Mexico turned to their built heritage to fortify a fragile sense of shared cultural identity. After the damage wrought by World War II, the rhetoric of conservation turned towards universalism, as enshrined in 1964’s International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites,
better known as the Venice Charter. Signatories from 19 nations, including Mexico, affirmed that document, which, following in the spirit of Riegl and Ruskin, declared that historic monuments represented “the unity of human values” and a “common heritage . . . to safeguard for future generations”. The Venice Charter gestured towards the importance of contemporary use, yet strict conservationism, almost by definition, prioritises the past, leaving scant room for what Ruskin called “the restless and discontented present”.

The ceiling of Tupátaro’s Church of Santo Santiago
The ceiling of Tupátaro’s Church of Santo Santiago, built in 1725, depicts angels alongside scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary. Photography by Stefan Ruiz.

As the American art historian George Kubler writes in his seminal 1948 book, “Mexican Architecture in the Sixteenth Century”, “Each building, and each colonial artifact, was nourished by the destruction of a culture, and the decline of a race.” Yet images are infinitely mutable, their meanings reshaped as societies change. Conceived to erase a civilisation, the churches of the Meseta and the paintings they contain stand today as priceless artworks and historical records but also as sacred spaces through which a long-suppressed culture can retell its story on its own terms — a restoration of another kind.

Before the arrival of Spanish invaders in modern-day Michoacán in 1522, the Purépecha kings, or cazonci, had spent 200 years consolidating control over a territory that, at its height, extended from the Pacific Coast to the central highlands, encompassing salt pans and copper mines, hunting grounds and fisheries, fertile valleys and dense forests draped like shawls over the sloped shoulders of extinct volcanoes. Rich in natural resources, the region was rich, too, in craft, with guilds of carpenters, stonemasons, painters and feather workers who stitched technicolour plumage to adorn elaborate ritual objects and vestments. When the first Europeans set foot in the lakeside capital of Tzintzuntzan, they found a mighty empire, second only to the rival Aztecs in size and power, laid low by a plague of smallpox brought by the Spanish.

The first Franciscan missionaries followed three years later. As they extended their influence through Purépecha lands, they forcibly relocated hilltop hamlets to villages in the valleys and exploited local labour to build humble churches of mud, timber and stone. The monastic friars, Catholic clergy and, later, locals themselves established huatáperas (sometimes called hospitales de los Indios, or “Indian hospitals”) to provide medical care, lodging for travellers and pastoral teaching. They were also civic centres, administered by the community on principles of shared property and reciprocal labour. The hospitals, says the historian Carlos Paredes Martínez, “allowed the Indigenous people to continue performing traditional practices under the aegis of Christianity”.

Though most early missionaries learned the local tongue, a linguistic isolate, language proved incapable of transmitting their complicated theology. As in other religious spaces, from the Buddhist cave temples of classical India to the Gothic cathedrals of Northern Europe, paintings became powerful visual aids. In the earliest convents, monastic orders painted fortresslike walls in sombre grisaille, often filling the chapels where Indigenous initiates gathered for Mass with brutal images of the Last Judegment, a violent inducement to conversion. After the Council of Trent — a series of Catholic assemblies held in northern Italy from 1545 to 1563 to combat the Protestant Reformation — priests and friars in New Spain radically changed their pastoral message to focus on the maternal grace of the Virgin Mary, a humane face for a religious community in crisis. From then onwards, churches throughout Mesoamerica burst with colour and movement, nowhere more so than in the Meseta, where drop ceilings fashioned from the region’s abundant timber and supported by gracefully carved corbels provided ample space for places of worship to become illuminated manuscripts.

huatápera chapel in Zacán
The Litany of the Blessed Virgin, painted on the ceiling of the huatápera chapel in Zacán. Photography by Stefan Ruiz.
huatápera chapel of Zacán
A painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, likely completed in the second half of the 18th century, in the huatápera chapel of Zacán. Photography by Stefan Ruiz.

Often working from European engravings, Indigenous and mestizo artists, some likely brought in from the colonial capital in Mexico City, depicted a Christian cosmology in an unmistakably foreign style. Yet their use of pigments made, in some cases, from local plants and insects, extended centuries-old traditions into a radically altered present. In Michoacán, says the art historian Nelly Sigaut, who has spent 40 years studying the state’s colonial art, “there was an enormous tradition of working with feathers, so it wasn’t difficult to transform Western engravings and give them colour and form”. The paintings themselves were as vivid and absorbing as a star-filled sky: they represented, as Elsa Arroyo, an art historian, puts it, “parallel worlds, different from the realities they lived in”. The Spanish had all but obliterated the Purépecha universe; the paintings, beyond being mere pedagogical tools, offered sanctuary from a ruined world.

In Nurio, they depicted a firmament filled with heavenly music. A short distance south, at the church of San Miguel in the village of Pomacuarán, 18th- and 19th-century artists rendered biblical scenes and the lives of saints across the barrel-vaulted ceiling as delicate pastorals in pink, sage and dove grey. In one panel, Santa Elena dreams peaceably while asleep on a cross — the instrument of Christ’s suffering reimagined as a place of repose — while egrets stalk the reeds at the edge of a placid lake, a scene the Purépecha cazonci might have recognised themselves.

Farther east in the village of Tupátaro, the church of Santo Santiago occupies the centre of a lavender-scented garden shaded by privet and ash. Built in 1725 to house an image of Christ found in a pine tree by an Indigenous villager, the temple walls rise to a densely patterned wooden ceiling shaped like an inverted trough (or artesón in Spanish). Angels dance over clouds on the lateral panels while, over the nave, fruiting vines in indigo, verdigris and ochre wreathe scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary. Gilded pomegranates and avocados — today, the Meseta’s most lucrative crop and thus one of the central drivers of violence in the region — decorate the gilded altarpiece.

Protected by the state since the 1930s and intermittently restored since then, Tupátaro’s paintings have nonetheless fractured through the years. But their meaning remains undimmed: to Gloria Araceli Velázquez Reyes, a local custodian of the church who is in her mid-40s, walking into the temple “is like receiving the catechism from above”, one where the angels’ feathered headdresses call to mind the penachos worn by pre-Hispanic nobility. Around them, she says, “you see squash blossoms and leaves and flowers from our everyday life”. Whatever the initial painters and sculptors might have intended, Velázquez sees in their work a heavenly banquet both foreign and familiar, a paradise that looks almost like home.

Tupátaro church
Another view of the Tupátaro church, where pomegranates and avocados adorn the gilded altar. Photography by Stefan Ruiz.

For most of the 20th century, Tupátaro’s church was the exception to the rule of neglect among Michoacán’s painted churches. The last major paintings in the region were completed in the mid-19th century, around the time that Mexico’s liberal government passed reforms to strip the church of power and property. In the 1920s, after the country’s decade-long revolution, conflicts between the secular political establishment and church loyalists led to the closure of countless chapels in central-western Mexico. Some were destroyed; far more were shuttered for years on end, a period of abandonment that caused irreversible damage to the Meseta’s fragile mud-and-timber architecture.

In those years, conservation in Mexico focused on rebuilding pre-Hispanic ruins, first among them the 2,500-year-old city of Teotihuacán, just north of Mexico City, originally excavated in the 1880s and partially rebuilt in the early 1900s. Revolutionary thinkers used these massive structures, once decorated with paintings of their own, to draw a connection between the glorious civilisations of Mexico’s Central Valleys and the (non-Indigenous) leadership of the political establishment in Mexico City, creating symbols of unity for a newborn state deeply fractured by language, ethnicity, class and geography. Having never been conquered by the Aztecs, whom they declined to aid in their fight against the Spanish, the Purépecha stood outside that lineage. The folk Catholicism expressed so vividly in their churches fit awkwardly into the revolution’s vision for anticlerical modernity — and so official interest in the Meseta’s surviving churches was scant at best.

Even when INAH expanded its mandate to include more religious architecture in the 1970s, the communities of the Meseta remained too remote from centralised bureaucracies to solicit much investment in their built heritage. Sigaut, the art historian, recalls travelling to the village of Zacán at the western edge of the Meseta in the mid-1990s and finding its 16th-century hospital chapel filled with electrical cables and guano. The paintings overhead, drawn in 1857 over pre-existing artworks, had yellowed after years of neglect. When restorers stripped away the grime a few years later, they revealed the Litany of the Blessed Virgin spelled out in resplendent shades of azure and rose. Inclusive and direct, these paintings were “an invitation to prayer — not of punishment or penalty or sadness but rather of happiness”, Sigaut says, “of a community living in permanent joy”.

For most people in the Purépecha heartland, that prayer remains unanswered. Like so much of rural Mexico, the region struggles with the crushing poverty that, for decades, has driven immigration to Mexico’s largest cities and to the United States. Violence spurred by longstanding territorial disputes and organised crime — in the drug, agricultural and logging trades — has devastated the Meseta’s forests and impelled its citizens to take governance, resource management and security into their own hands. “We’ve always lived with marginalisation and discrimination,” says Demetrio Alejo Rubio, in his 60s, the former head of Nurio’s local government, which operates out of a modest concrete building on the grounds of the old huatápera. “The important thing now is to recuperate our civic, historic and cultural traditions.”

Sacred objects
Sacred objects, rescued from the burning church in Nurio, were transferred to its huatápera chapel, which is currently undergoing renovation. Photography by Stefan Ruiz.

In Nurio and elsewhere, that process has involved the banishment of political parties and ongoing work by activists and community leaders to revive their ancient cosmology through events like the celebration of the Purépecha New Year, marked in a different village each February by lighting the “new fire” of the year to come. Grassroots efforts to repair the churches have also played an important role. Take, for instance, the village of Tzentzénguaro at the southern edge of Lake Patzcuaro, where the restoration of its church’s ceiling panels, likely painted in the early 19th century, has been accomplished largely through community fundraising. In nearby Santa María Huiramangaro, restorers began stripping whitewash from the church’s 16th-century altarpiece in 2014 after villagers approached INAH with concerns about cracks in the chancel walls. In the process, they revealed layers of gold leaf and darkly luminous paintings of the four Evangelists. Some members of the community are frustrated by the pace of the project, but for Daniel Chávez Francisco, a member of the village council, the ongoing discoveries offer a glimpse of a richer past; they might also, he hopes, attract international visitors and, by extension, attention from institutions that rely upon architectural heritage to drive tourism. “Our problem,” he says, “is that people aren’t curious about coming here. They don’t even know this place exists.” For many of his neighbours, restoration has little to do with the Venice Charter’s lofty unity of human values. It’s a hedge against disappearance.

Miraculously — or rather, thanks to a fluke of wind and weather — the March fire spared Nurio’s huatápera chapel, where conservation work began last November. Separated from the main church by a stone bell tower and a pair of 200-year-old yuccas, the building now serves as both the centre of Nurio’s religious life and a temporary sacristy for the artefacts rescued from the Apostle Santiago Church. On a cool September afternoon, Torres, the teacher, offers his own interpretations of the chapel’s paintings, completed in 1803, which arc overhead like garden arbours. The garlands of pink wildflowers that wind over the steel blue barrel vault remind him of the mirasoles that grow along nearby country roads. Blooming white clouds painted on the undersides of half-hidden ceiling beams, he says, represent the winter winds or the mists that settle low in the valleys on damp summer mornings. Above the gilded altarpiece, an impassive sun and moon stand not for Jesus and Mary, their meaning in Catholic iconography, but for older gods looking down from an older sky.

Outside the chapel, a group of women and children sit on the far side of the grassy plaza where the village still holds its assemblies, a place of learning, rest and communal life that has survived for centuries. While the children play, the women talk and laugh, glancing down occasionally at the Spanish-language Bibles open in their laps to read passages that speak of love for nature and neighbour, ideas central to the ancient society that the crown, the church and the successive governments of an independent Mexico all failed to eradicate. “The faith of our ancestors was engraved in the walls,” says Hermenejilda Alejo Lázaro, who is in her 50s and the leader of the study group, referring to a local Catholicism expanded and amplified by the Purépecha cosmology that it never fully subsumed. “The church might have burned,” she says, “but our faith did not.” Here in the Meseta, after all, fire has always represented not just destruction — but renewal, too.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 104 of T Australia with the headline: “Faded Glory”