Mexico – The Titian At Tzintzuntzan

THE charm of Mexico is the variety of its scenery — the majestic snow-capped mountains; the rolling prairies; tropical forests jewelled with gorgeous orchids amidst which flutter spangled blue butterflies; rivers embowered in the densest shade; fields yellowing to harvest; and the steaming, miasmic marsh lands waving with green sugar-cane. You can see all these facets of the earth’s beauty in a journey of twenty-four hours.

Mexico can even rival the picturesqueness of Switzerland and the Italian lakes. For at Lake Patzcuaro one has scenery which is not surpassed by that of Interlaken or Como. This lake is certainly one of the most beautiful in the world.

A railway journey of a few hours took me from Guanajuato to the little town of Patzcuaro on the borders of the lake, which is one of the most picturesque places in all Mexico. The town is about three miles from the station, and travellers journey thither in an old-fashioned stagecoach similar to that which runs between Atequiza and Chapala. I found it a dusty, jolting ride, but Patzcuaro proved a sufficient recompense for all the discomforts experienced in getting there. It is a wonderful old town and, in some respects, is Toledo in miniature. Lining its narrow, crooked streets are quaint old houses, with overhanging eaves supported by roof rafters similar to those which are seen in the towns of southern Spain. Many of these old mansions have large shady verandas overgrown with creeping plants and masses of bright tropical flowers. In some parts of the town iron chains stretched from house to house support wonderful old lanterns, formerly the only method of street lighting. Patzcuaro has some fine old churches dating from early Spanish times, and crumbling stone shrines are set in the walls at almost every street corner. In the middle of the town is a wide plaza shaded with venerable trees, and here on market nights swarms of Indian vendors sell their fish, fruit and vegetables by the light of little fires, making a scene that is wildly picturesque. Although seven thousand feet above sea-level, the town is so close to the hot lands that the market is always filled with tropical fruits and flowers, and the streets are thronged with natives in costumes of warmer altitudes.

Viewed from the shore, the lake presents a scene of surpassing beauty. It is rather narrow but of great length, and from its very edge rise lofty cliffs or pine-clad mountains, round the base of which its waters are often lost to view; while dotted over its surface are numerous little islands, on some of which are primitive Indian villages of grass-thatched bamboo huts. Queer flat-bottomed sailing boats, for freight and passengers, are navigated by Indian mariners on the blue waters.

A voyage of three hours in one of these craft took me from the town of Patzcuaro to ancient Tzintzuntzan, now a straggling Indian village, but which before the Spaniards came was a great city and the capital of the Tarascan kings. In the vicinity of the place there are a number of prehistoric ruins. After the Conquest, Tzintzuntzan again became a place of importance, but in the course of time its greatness once more departed and it fell into decay. Bordering the narrow streets of the village, which run at right angles, are crumbling walls of stuccoed adobe, behind which are the houses. Through gaping holes in the walls occasional glimpses can be caught of once pretentious mansions, now in ruins and overgrown with a tangle of vines.

The dilapidated parish church which stands in the middle of the village was once the chapel of the powerful Convent of San Francisco, which was closed in 1740, and since then has gradually fallen into ruins. In the convent garden there are still to be seen some venerable olive trees whose gnarled trunks have weathered the storms of 350 years. Beneath the shade of some of these were buried some of the great dignitaries of the church and several of the chiefs who sided with Cortes in the days of the Spanish Conquest. The Indians of Tzintzuntzan are industrious folk, mostly en-gaged in farming and fishing, and are intensely devout.

My principal object in visiting Tzintzuntzan was to see one of the most important paintings in the world, which hangs in the old church, and is no less than a Titian which was presented to the Convent of San Francisco by Philip II of Spain. Its authenticity is beyond dispute. The subject is the “Entombment of Christ.”

Escorted by the padre and the sacristan, I was led through the patio and along a dark corridor which ended at a massive door, barred, chained and padlocked. After much clanking of chains and creaking of rusty hinges, the key turned in the padlock and the door was opened. The sacristan carried a lighted taper, for the room was quite dark. Stepping forward, the padre pulled back the shutters from an unglazed window protected by iron bars, and a flood of sunshine revealed the picture. The coloring was magnificent, with all the superb tints for which Titian is famous.

Strangely out of place the great picture looked, in the midst of its tawdry surroundings, gleaming from a wide carved white frame which had once been gilt. But its preservation is marvellous, probably due in a great measure to the climate and to the clear air which circulates through the church. Large sums of money have been offered for the painting, the Archbishop of Mexico, among others, having offered, it is said, $50,000 for it; but the devout Indians of Tzintzuntzan steadfastly refused to part with their masterpiece. They worship it with a blind idolatry, even refusing to allow it to be photographed.

F. Hopkinson Smith, the well-known artist and author, visited Tzintzuntzan some years ago, when tourists were seldom seen in that region, and the painting was far more rigorously guarded than it is to-day. In his book, “A White Umbrella in Mexico,” he has given an interesting account of his expedition and a technical description of the famous painting, which, he says, is undoubtedly the work of Titian.

In giving a brief history of the painting, Mr. Smith adds: “In 1533 Charles V of Spain appointed Vasco de Queroga to the Bishopric of Michoacan to restore peace to that part of Mexico which had been almost depopulated through the misgovernment of the Spanish officials. Queroga established his see in the church of San Francisco at Tzintzuntzan in 1538; he founded schools, developed agriculture, conciliated the natives and restored prosperity. When Philip II ascended the throne, the good deeds of the bishop reached him. During this period the royal palace at Madrid was filled with Titian’s finest pictures. Titian was living at this period, and visited Spain in 1550. Remembering these dates, the religious zeal of Philip and his interest in the distant church, it is quite possible that he either ordered this very picture from the master himself or selected it from the royal collection. It is quite improbable that the royal donor would have sent the work of an inferior painter or a copy by one of Titian’s pupils.

Another distinguishing feature, and by far the most conclusive, is its handling. Without strong contrasting tones of color, Titian worked out a peculiar golden mellow tone — divided it into innumerable small but effective shades, producing thereby a most complete illusion of life. This Titianesque quality is particularly marked in the nude body of the Christ, the flesh appearing to glow with a hidden light.”

Mr. Smith made a close inspection of the picture and examined it with the aid of a powerful magnifying glass. “In the eagerness of my search,.” he says, “I unconsciously bent forward and laid my hand on the Christ.

” Ciudado ! Estrangero, es muerte’ (Beware, stranger, it is death), came a quick, angry voice behind me. I started back in alarm, and noticed two Indians in the room. One advanced threateningly, and the other rushed out, shouting for the padre. In an instant the place was crowded with natives, clamoring wildly and pointing to me with angry looks and gestures. The padre arrived, breathlessly followed by Moon (the author’s travelling companion). `You have put your foot in it,’ said Moon in English, in great agitation. `Now, do exactly what I tell you, and perhaps we may get away from here with a whole skin. Turn your face to the picture !’ I did so. `Now, walk backwards, drop on your knees and bow three times, you lunatic.’

“I had sense enough left to do this reverently and with some show of ceremony. Then, without moving a muscle of his face, and with the deepest solemnity, Moon turned to the padre and said to him : `This distinguished painter is a true believer, holy father. His hand had lost its cunning, and he could no longer paint. He was told in a dream to journey to this place, where he would find this sacred treasure, upon touching which his hand would regain its power. See, here is the proof.’ Here he pointed to a sketch I had made which was resting on an easel. The padre examined it, and repeated the miracle to the Indians in their own tongue. The change in their demeanor was instantaneous. The noise ceased; a silence fell upon the group and they crowded about the drawing, wonder-stricken. Moon bowed low to the padre, caught up the easel, pushed me ahead of him, – an opening was made, — the people standing back humbly, and we passed through the group and out into the village and thence to the lake, where we regained our boat and set sail.”

From Patzcuaro I went to Queretaro, a town on the Mexican National Railway, which almost rivals Puebla in the number and size of its churches. It is a thriving place, with a population of forty thousand, and is rapidly coming to the front as a commercial centre.

In the early Spanish days Queretaro was not only one of the greatest strongholds of Catholicism in Mexico but was also the scene of a famous miracle. One of the Indian chiefs baptized by the priests who accompanied Cortes was Fernando, Chief of the Otomites. Soon after his conversion he marched an army to Queretaro, then an Indian town, with the intention of conquering the inhabitants and compelling them to accept Christianity. During the battle which ensued, an angel is said to have appeared in the heavens with a fiery cross, whereupon the fighting ceased and the baptizing began. The old church of Santa Cruz marks the site of the conflict and surrender. Of another of the old Queretaro churches — Santa Rosa — Charles Dudley Warner said : ” It is one of the finest chapels in the world, rich in wood carving and over-laid with thick gold-leaf, almost gold plate. In some places the gold is covered with transparent tortoise-shell. The French, in 1866, tore down the great altar and burned it to get the gold, securing, it is said, the value of $1,500,000.”

In 1867 Queretaro was the scene of the surrender of the unfortunate Emperor Maximilian and his little force of imperialists to the victorious Republican army. In the old convent of La Cruz, which served as the emperor’s head-quarters, the formal surrender took place on May 15, an event which sealed the fate of the short-lived Mexican Empire. The Republicans, it is said, were enabled to enter the town through the treachery of Colonel Lopez, Maximilian’s chief-of-staff, who received a bribe of twenty thousand pesos.

Under the title of “Fernando Maximiliano of Hapsburg, Archduke of Austria,” the emperor was summoned to appear before a court-martial on charges of filibustering and treason. He refused to attend, but his two generals, Miramon and Mejia, who were indicted on the same charges, were present during the proceedings. Although ably defended, the emperor and his generals were found guilty and sentenced to be shot the next day, but were granted a reprieve for five days. All appeals for mercy, including one from the United States government, were in vain, President Juarez firmly refusing to interfere.

On the morning of June 19 the three victims were taken to the Cerro de los Campanas, a hill near the town, and placed against a low wall. An officer with seven riflemen — the firing squad — were stationed a short distance away. Maximilian went up to the soldiers, shook hands with them and gave to each a gold coin. He then said, “Aim well, muchachos ” (boys), and pointing to his heart, added, “Aim right here.” Returning to his place, he addressed a few words to the soldiers, expressing the hope that his blood might be the last shed in the Mexican civil war. He then shouted, “Viva Independencies, viva Mexico.” Miramon and Mejia cried, “Viva Mexico, viva el Emperador.” The command to fire was then given, and the Mexican Empire came to an end. The two generals fell at the first volley, but it required a second volley before the emperor was dead. He had requested that he should be shot on the body, so that his mother might look upon his face. His body was interred in the old convent of the Capuchins, but was after-wards taken to Austria and buried at Miramar.

In 1869, with the permission of President Diaz, admirers of Maximilian erected a chapelle expiatoire on the spot where the execution took place, the project having been approved by the House of Hapsburg. Diplomatic relations between Austria and Mexico were then resumed. The beautiful little chapel of white stone has three slabs near the altar marking the positions occupied by Maximilian and the two generals at their execution.