Atotonilco, meaning “the place of thermal waters,” is a village located fifteen minutes north of San Miguel de Allende along the highway that leads to Dolores Hidalgo, in the state of Guanajuato, Central Mexico.
The area was considered sacred before the arrival of the Spanish because of the hot mineral springs, and the Chichimecas came to this particular place to perform penance rites, puncturing themselves with maguey thorns and washing away guilt in the thermal springs.
In this site, we discover the Sanctuary of Jesus of Nazareth, considered to be one of the most beautiful churches across Mexico, and often called the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas“.
The complex was built in the 18th century by Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro who, according to tradition, was called upon by a vision of Jesus with a crown of thorns on his head and carrying a cross. The main feature of the complex is the rich Mexican Baroque mural work that adorns the main nave and chapels.
This majestic work of art was designed by father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro and artist Antonio Martínez de Poca, of criollo blood and born in the city of Querétaro.
On the outside the church complex is very plain with high walls that give it a fortress appearance. The outer walls are about ten metres high; the cupolas reach twelve metres and the clock tower is about twenty metres high.
The main entrance is also simple under a “mixtilineo” arch that faces east, towards Jerusalem, giving the entire complex an east-west orientation.
To the south along the main facade is the Casa de Ejercicios and the clock tower. To the north is Santa Escuela de Cristo. In front of the main facade is a narrow atrium, which was once used as a cemetery. Today, it is shaded by trees and surrounded by a small fence. The main church is a single nave without a cupola, lined on the north and south flanks by chapels and chambers.
On the north side of the nave, there are the new sacristy, the Rosary Chapel, the chambers of Father Neri, the Belen Chapel/Baptistery and the Reliquary Room.
On the south side, there are the Santisimo Chapel, the Soledad Chapel, the Loreto Chapel with its back chamber, the Gloria Escondida Chamber and the Santo Sepulcro Chapel with the Calvario Chapel behind it.
The walls and ceilings of the interior are nearly entirely covered in mural work, sculpture, inscriptions and oil paintings in a style called Mexican folk Baroque, although indigenous influence can be seen. The only exception to this are the Neoclassical altars which were installed later.
Most of the mural work was done by Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre with some done by Jose Maria Barajas over a period of thirty years with almost no free space left among the numerous images.
Martínez de Poca recreated the Passion of Christ, further embellishing it with poems by father Alfaro.
This artistic and architectural masterpiece also witnessed the passage of the glorious insurgent army, led by father Miguel Hidalgo, a prodigy of San Miguel, and Ignacio Allende y Unzaga, one of the leading advocates of this important, heroic movement: The Mexican Independence.
They seized a banner laced with the image of the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe, the symbol that inspired the people to stand up against Spanish rule.
Throughout the years, the art and architecture of this magnificent Sanctuary suffered from deterioration, mostly due to high humidity. This humidity comes from the thermal springs that flow under the ground on which the complex rests, and which also have a high mineral content. The moisture and minerals were seeping into the walls and foundations, causing them to crumble and were causing damage to the murals, oil paintings and sculptures.
Restoration work began in 1994, starting with the chapels. To highlight this effort the site was listed in the 1996 World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund.
About half of the oil paintings and all of the mural work were saved. Funds for the work came from various sources, including the state and federal governments, the World Monuments Fund and private sources such as American Express. After repairing water damage in the walls and roofs, sealant was applied.
Further restoration work was undertaken in 2010 as part of the preparations for Mexico’s Bicentennial. The walls and roofs were aired out and old wells were cleaned out to allow drainage away from the foundation. Channels were constructed in the foundation for the same purpose.The remains of the Sagrado Corazon Chapel were demolished. It was not part of the original construction and had blocked light into a portion of the complex. The arch to the La Higuera courtyard was uncovered. However, the tree planted in this courtyard remains as it was planted in memory of the sanctuary’s founder. This courtyard was reconstructed as it is an important part in providing light and drainage to keep the complex dry.
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