History Of Art In San Miguel: The Chapel of Loreto 

Part II

By Natalie Taylor

In my last article about the Santa Casa, or Capilla de Loreto, I spoke about some of the art stored within. The chapel holds some truly wonderful examples of paintings, and sculptures done by the artists of New Spain, in the 18th and 19th Century.

Inside the sacristy, a whole wall is lined with paintings of the archangels, all very well executed and painted on laminated copper, with the exception of the largest one. The painting of Saint Michael the Archangel—patron of our city, is on canvas. Along the same wall are other paintings of famous converts. One, specifically pointed out by Father Juan Francisco, who led me through the chapel, was that of Saint Mary of Egypt. Her story is that she ran away from her parents at 12 and became a prostitute in Alexandria. After 17 years she converted, and retired to the desert to live the life of an ascetic. She represents fallen women—like Mary Magdalene—who changed their lives after finding religion. The painting is one of about a dozen others all about such conversions, and part of traditional Church lore.

Opposite the wall with the archangels, there is an impressive full-wall painting that, at first glance, appears to be a mural. It is, however composed of several panels painted on canvas and was done by a well-recognized novo-Hispanic painter of the late 18th century. There is indeed a signature, and a date: Andreas Lopez, 1795. It is a depiction of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus—the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and according to Father Juan Francisco, Lopez studied with Miguel Cabrera, who was considered the best Spanish painter in his lifetime. The painting is very well done, with well-proportioned figures of angels and saints, and realistic interior scenes. 

One unique painting is special because it records a particular event in San Miguel in the 18th century. It is perhaps a meter and a half by a meter, and hangs some twenty feet off the ground. Darkened with age, the subject can hardly be perceived with the naked eye. An inscription at eye level tells the story. On October 14 of 1760, a ten-year-old boy named Miguel Joseph de Vallejo fell as he was coming out of school. Seeing a horse-drawn carriage careening toward him, he called out for help to the Virgin of Loreto. When the wheels of the carriage struck him in the head, he lay immobile on the ground bleeding profusely from nose, mouth and ears. He was taken home, where both a doctor and a surgeon said he would not last the night. However, in the morning he awoke feeling much better, and soon became well. Within a day, his grateful father commissioned the painting, giving credit to the Virgin for his son’s recovery. The painting reveals the scene described, with the carriage passing along the road between churches, the boy sprawled on the ground, and people rushing to his aid—a depiction of San Miguel el Grande at that time. It was only with the use of a zoom lens that the painting could be seen, and photographed. 

The entire chapel is filled with opulent decorations. The lavish gold on the altar, on the capitals of the columns, in the enclosures, and on the statues is impressive. The sculpted figures of Tomas de la Canal, and his wife, within decorated niches are excellent, and are the only depictions of their likeness in our city. I have never seen nor do not know of any existing portraits. Also, when standing within the chapel, one can admire the high dome which was added much later, in the 19th century. It is encased by windows that let the light in, elaborate decorations along the borders, and about a dozen glittering crystal chandeliers. But what most impressed me was the ceiling in the room beyond the sacristy. It is completely covered by a magnificent trompe l’oeil that one might think is ceramic or wood, but instead is ancient tapestry. Sadly, it will be stripped shortly to reveal the wooden beams. These need to be inspected for structural soundness, and ability to bear the weight of the roof. It will be impossible to preserve this treasure once it starts to be taken down, it will only remain in memories and photos. This is another reminder of the ethereal nature of all the art in our city, and the need to preserve and document it.

Natalie Taylor: BA in English Lit and Journalism, Loyola University, Chicago, 1995. MFA in Creative Writing, Vermont College, Montpelier, VT, 1999. Published writer, editor, journalist. Spanish teacher in the US, English teacher in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Translator. www.natalietaylor.org Contact: tangonata@gmail.com