Capillas, in the context of this blog, are small chapels. Almost every community near San Miguel de Allende has one to five capillas. Some are new, many lovingly and recently restored, others well preserved and in use, many abandoned and sometimes used as dwellings or for animals, and quite a few in ruins
We have been painting capillas almost every week since 2014 and, two years later, are still buoyed by the thrill of discovery and the joy of plein air painting. Along the way, we have become more knowledgeable about the capillas, legacies of faith that dot the countryside around San Miguel de Allende.
Our understanding, developed with a paint brush in hand, may be different from that of the historian, archeologist, or restoration architect, but it is a way of seeing that we would like to share augmented with information from internet research, interviews, and print resources.
While some communities are constructing or have new iglesias and capillas, we are interested in the capillas constructed in the early 1700s to the early 1900s. According to photographer and author Robert de Gast, who drove back roads and hiked where there were no trails, there are over 300 capillas just in the county (municipio) of San Miguel de Allende. We have painted over 50 to date and have seen 20 more that we were unable to paint.
These capillas, along with other historic structures from the colonial era, are an important cultural patrimony worth documenting and preserving.
We would like to thank Eduardo Silva for sharing his expertise and resources with us. One such valuable resource is by a local San Miguel architect, Olga Adriana Hernández Flores. Her 1998 master’s thesis, Ruta de Capillas en Allende, Guanajuato y la conservación de 13 monumentos (University of Guanajuato, Mexico), details the history and construction of 13 capillas (nine of which we have painted) and outlines a restoration plan.
Historic capillas near San Miguel de Allende have some or all of the following architectural elements: nave, presbiterio (presbytery), fachada (facade), torre-campanario (bell tower), atrio (atrium), barda atrial (atrium wall), sacristia (sacristy), patio, calvario (calvary), and altar. A few have a coro (choir) or bodega (storeroom).
The materials used in construction are piedra (stone), adobe, cantera (quarried, volcanic rock), cal de piedra (limestone), arena (sand), and pisos de mosaico, ladrillo o barro (floors of tile, brick, or clay).
In many of these old capillas only the front or facade has been finished. A mixture of lime and sand or earth was used to cover the stone and then the facade was painted. The side and back walls are usually left unfinished original stone or, in some cases, adobe. Restored capillas often have all four exterior walls finished and painted.
Almost all have a carved cantera bell tower that can be one to four units high. Many have bells marked with dates ranging from 1743 to 1903. For capillas still in use, some bell towers have no bell, but, if you look around, there is a bell hanging from a nearby tree. We have come across capillas where the bells are named. For example, in the Capilla de San Antonio, in San Antonio de la Joya, the bells are named “Lupe” and “Carmen” with dates of 1894 and 1901 cast into the surface of the bells.
Bell tower carved from cantera, Capilla de los Ricos L. Topinka
The atriums (courtyards) of capillas that are still in use often have locked gates; if we cannot find the mayordomo, we must paint from a high vantage point or through the gate. Atriums are now focal points for community celebrations. In the atrium of the Capilla de San Mateo in Oaxaca, reddish, black, and light colored stones are placed on the ground in designs representing religious symbols.
A feature of many capillas is the inclusion in the atrium of one or more calvarios. The term calvario is used for structures, many tiny, that can be found along paths and roads, on top of hills, in the middle of fields, as well as, in the atriums of the capillas. Offerings in the form of candles and flowers are left in the calvarios and prayers said for the dead. A few are decorated with stone carvings and paintings. It is always worth inspecting the inside of a calvario because some are quite remarkable.