The History of Art in San Miguel: Artistic treasures of the San Francisco church

By Natalie Taylor

I had the opportunity to walk through the San Francisco church in the company, and guidance of Fray Oscar, one of the Franciscan friars. Walking along the main aisle, he pointed out the statues on both sides, and the paintings hanging high above. He also spoke of the significance of churches, rituals, and the Franciscans themselves.

The construction of the church began in 1779, and was completed in 1799. Originally, the atrium facing San Francisco Street was a plaza, then it became part of the church. There is also a convent on the grounds, where the friars reside. The Franciscans believe in modest interiors for their churches, and this is evident in the San Francisco church of San Miguel de Allende, with clean walls and columns. However, there are many paintings along the walls, and numerous statues of saints. It was indeed the statues that first piqued my interest in what was in the interior. They are finely executed—carved in wood, according to the friar, and they date back to the time of the church construction, which places them in the latter part of the 18th century. The majority appear to have been done by a single hand, they are so similar in appearance, dimension, and execution. But none of this could be verified. 

Along the side aisles are what used to be secondary altars for celebrating mass, with many priests celebrating simultaneously. He explained that after the Second Vatican Council, communal celebration of mass was permitted, so that currently you can have several priests celebrating mass at the main altar. Once the side altars were no longer used for this purpose, they were trimmed so as not to stick out into the side aisles. It is above these altars that the statues of saints are positioned. Naturally, there is a statue of St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order and other Franciscan saints. But there is also a depiction of St Dominic of Guzman, the founder of the Dominican order. This is symbolic of the fraternity that prevails between the two orders. 

One particular statue, that of San Felipe de Jesus—St Philip of Jesus, has a compelling story. Philip, a Mexican Franciscan missionary, was sent to Manila, the Philippines in 1590. In 1596, he was aboard a ship that was driven by a storm to the shores of Japan, where he and the other 25 friars—Franciscan, Augustinian and Dominican—were taken prisoners, placed on crosses, and stabbed to death. They are known as the Twenty Six Martyrs of Japan, and Philip was eventually elevated to sainthood. He is the first Mexican saint, and patron of Mexico City. All of the statues are extremely well crafted, with realistic faces, and well-proportioned bodies. 

High on the walls on both sides of the aisle, are numerous paintings in sequential order. They represent the fourteen Stations of the Cross. Apparently in the past, each church had its own stations, although we also know that there were public ones along the streets of San Miguel—the first station is in the atrium of the Parroquia, on the wall of San Rafael Church, and the rest were placed along many of the streets in Centro. Now many are missing. However, the paintings in San Francisco Church have every one of the fourteen stations, towering above. If you are interested, you will be able to recognize the paintings because each has a cross at the top, with a Roman numeral beneath. The first station is found to the left of the main altar, and shows the sentencing of Jesus. Then you follow along that wall, crossing over to the other side in numerical order. The fourteenth is the burial of Jesus and normally shows him being laid in the tomb. But the painting in San Francisco only shows Virgin Mary—la Virgen de los Dolores, the mother of Jesus mourning her son’s death. According to Fray Oscar, the modern norm is to have a fifteenth station, showing the resurrection of Jesus. 

Another painting along the left is interesting in that it shows a different version of the Virgin Mary. It is an Eastern Orthodox Madonna, not normally found in Mexican churches. Again, there is no information as to who painted it or when. Finally, high over the main altar, there is a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which I had never noticed before, until it was pointed out by Fray Oscar. 

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. Contact: