Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 23, 2016
Alena Robin Las capillas del Vía Crucis de la ciudad de México: Arte, patrocinio y sacralización del espacio Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2014. 309 pp.; 44 b/w ills. Paper (9786070260766)

During much of the colonial period and into the nineteenth century, a series of fourteen chapels marking the Vía Crucis, or Stations of the Cross, stretched from the Franciscan monastery in downtown Mexico City to the Calvary chapel at the western edge of the city’s Alameda park. The buildings were constructed between 1684 and 1706, with the support of members of the Third Order of Saint Francis. The chapels allowed residents of Mexico City, who were geographically removed from the Holy Lands by thousands of miles, to retrace the steps of Christ’s passion. Although the chapels—and the ritual practice they facilitated—were part of the architectural and social life of Mexico City during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, they were dismantled by 1861, as waves of reforms swept the Republic. In the ensuing years, the chapels have been largely forgotten and overlooked by scholars of colonial art.

In her book Las capillas del Vía Crucis de la ciudad de México: Arte, patrocinio y sacralización del espacio, Alena Robin attempts to return the chapels to our collective consciousness. She combines an analysis of varied archival sources (artist contracts, financial records, lawsuits, etc.) with visual analysis of the few illustrations of the chapels in order to trace their history from the last years of the 1600s to their destruction roughly a century and a half later.

Robin begins by contextualizing the chapels of the Via Crucis within the transatlantic trend of replicating in distant cities the religious topography of Jerusalem. She surveys the texts that disseminated geographical knowledge of the Holy Lands and codified the practice of the Stations of the Cross between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Carefully planned and executed, the chapels in Mexico allowed devotees to carry out a “peregrinaje de sustitución” (“substitutive pilgrimage”) that enabled them to reap the rewards of a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands without leaving the Americas (13). Robin notes that the chapels erected in Mexico City predate similar examples in Europe and the formal concretization of such practices through Papal decrees in 1731 and 1742, and she suggests that New Spanish devotees seem to have led, rather than followed, their European counterparts in developing such practices (24–25). Her consideration of how the textual tradition complemented the visual arts found in the chapels will surely be of interest to those who work on religious art from the period, although the lack of extant visual evidence from Mexico City’s chapels prevents her from concretely exploring the ways that text, image, and ritual action were woven together within these architectural spaces.

Robin devotes the next three chapters to unpacking evidence pertaining to the patronage and construction of the chapels. The cult of the Via Crucis in New Spain was promoted and supported, in large part, by the Third Order of St. Francis, a group of lay members of the Franciscan order that established roots in Mexico City in 1615. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Third Order had become integral to the organization of the annual Lenten processions that retraced Christ’s passion in the western margins of Mexico City, acquiring exclusive rights to administering the Stations of the Cross across the globe. In the second chapter, Robin uses the group’s financial records from the period between 1684 and 1706, together with other archival and published materials, to identify the major patrons, architects, and artists involved in the construction of five of the first chapels built. She shows that the chapels were financed in large part by individual donors, with additional support from public donations and from the Third Order itself.

In the third chapter, Robin focuses upon the project’s most outspoken and generous patron, Domingo Ferral. Ferral was a native of Seville, who had climbed the social ladder in New Spain through strategic marriages and a career as a merchant within the Philippine trade route. Four successive wills outlined his bequests for the project, and a pair of extraordinary statements outlined his desire to found a convent at the Calvary chapel. Robin analyzes each of these documents in turn, providing a survey of his generosity and patronage of the building project.

Robin’s analysis is at its best when she leverages the archival evidence she uncovered to achieve a better understanding of how acts of generosity and faith fit into the social landscape of colonial Mexico City. In the fourth chapter she does just that, drawing back a bit from the exposition and analysis of data to offer a number of conclusions and interpretations regarding the broader significance of the chapels and the patronage that made them possible. She begins by addressing the role of the artists responsible for creating the chapels. She argues that rather than hiring a single architect to permanently oversee the project, the Third Order contracted many of the city’s most respected architects to oversee finite parts of the larger project as money permitted, often gravitating toward artists who maintained a connection with the Order itself. Robin’s reconstruction of this piecemeal process of patronage brings into focus the economic realities of artistry and patronage during the late seventeenth century, and makes clear the social network that made many of the city’s building projects possible. She also concludes that the donors and patrons responsible for funding the chapels were a remarkably homogenous group of male, Spanish-born merchants who used patronage of religious institutions not just to assure the fate of their souls, but also to concretize their connections to the city and generate social capital. To conclude the chapter, she analyzes four city views that include depictions of Vía Crucis chapels, considering the implications of their location within the space of the park. Lastly, she argues that the chapels formed an integral part of what she calls the “franciscanización” (“Franciscanization”) of the western edges of the city, monumentalizing their history of evangelization and their role in overseeing the monuments of the Holy Land, including the original sites represented by the Stations of the Cross.

In the fifth chapter, Robin turns to the maintenance of the chapels during the eighteenth century. She describes the defense mounted by the Third Order to retain control over the chapels within the Alameda and other Stations of the Cross across the region. Perhaps most interesting, however, is her use of an inventory carried out between 1728 and 1732 to reconstruct the interior of the Calvary chapel, which housed, among other things, an extraordinary main altarpiece that recreated the scene of Christ’s crucifixion on mount Calvary, complete with a large painting of the city of Jerusalem, a wooden simulacrum of Mount Calvary, sculptures of Christ flanked by the two thieves, and in all likelihood Mary and Saint John at their feet. Although a lack of remaining evidence prevents Robin from further analyzing the devotional experience that such a space would have provoked among devotees, the reader can nevertheless imagine the impact that such a tableau would have had on viewers.

Robin concludes by chronicling the destruction of the chapels in the nineteenth century, positioning the Stations of the Cross as a site for understanding the tensions between the church and state in the rapidly changing Mexican Republic. She documents the dispute between the Third Order of St. Francis and the City Council, which sought to destroy the chapels starting in 1824, alleging that they were in disrepair, sheltered criminal activity, and interfered with a project to broaden the avenue at the southern edge of the Alameda. Robin traces the tactics deployed by the Franciscans to protect their property, and frames the destruction of all of the chapels within the movement to nationalize ecclesiastical properties and propel the liberal campaign to modernize the nation.

Many of the questions raised by Robin’s book can no longer be readily answered, owing to the destruction of the chapels and the scarcity of documentation regarding their use. Nevertheless, she does a commendable job of recognizing those limitations and making the best of archival sources to recover some sense of the now-destroyed artworks and their social significance. Perhaps as a result of this approach, the text can, at times, seem overly determined by the structures and genres of its archival and visual sources, jumping from one document to the next rather than allowing for more synthetic analysis. Nevertheless, Robin’s detailed engagement with the sources, her publication of nine transcribed documents within the appendix, and the visualization of a great deal of data within the four charts included in the text will be welcomed by experts in the field. Overall, her work provides a valuable contribution to an understanding of the physical and social landscape of Mexico City, and will hopefully inspire others to tackle the histories of monuments and artworks lost to time.

Derek Burdette
Visiting Assistant Professor, Swarthmore College