After a winter break, we are back sleuthing our way along the country roads in search of snippets of paintable history. A photo in Robert de Gast’s book of what appeared to be a capilla abierta in the community of Jesús María la Petaca has always been on my to paint list. You know how that goes….so many capillas, so little time. We don’t often paint in this part of the municipality so I had never actually seen this capilla.
The day did not start auspiciously for a plein air outing as it was cold and cloudy with a strong prediction of rain; however, shortly after we arrived the sky cleared and we were blessed with the perfect day. Well, almost perfect, except for the herd of cattle that really wanted to go just where Linda was painting. No mishaps…Linda is fine.
Having explored this capilla and done a little research online, I cannot say with certainty whether it is a capilla, capilla abierta, or capillita as the passing vaqueros referred to it. I don’t believe it is a calvario. The capilla abierta or open chapel is considered to be one of Mexico’s most distinctive architectural forms. Simply described, there is an altar under a domed structure that is supported by arches on three sides with the altar being on the only closed side thus the term “open” chapel. There is no nave (where the congregation sits in modern churches), instead, the courtyard or bare ground in front of the structure is where the people gather.
This type of architecture was built and used in Mexico during the early colonial times when the church was actively converting the indigenous people to Catholicism and the Friars needed to baptize hundreds of people at the same time. There are records of a few thousand being baptized at one time.
While the front of this structure could be a capilla abierta with its three arches and small dome, the remains of the altar are in one tiny room attached to the structure, not against a back wall. We have not seen any capilla like this one but then our forays have been limited geographically to the municipalities of San Miguel de Allende and Dolores Hidalgo Cuna de la Independencia Nacional. Perhaps there are others of similar design or was this built by a creative spirit and destine to be an architectural dead-end?
Jesús María la Petaca: Population, 495; elevation, 2008 meters; dwellings, 155. GPS coordinates: Longitude (dec): -100.654722; Latitude (dec): 21.061389