THE DECORATION OF OAXACAN ORGAN CASES
The decorative features of Oaxaca organs, just like their technical characteristics, are a reflection of the unique environment, history, and cultural traditions of the state itself. The area corresponding to the present-day state of Oaxaca was one of the most culturally advanced and densely populated areas of Mexico at the time of the conquest, and thus equally attractive to both Spaniards in search of riches and friars in search of souls. However, Oaxaca, comprising a high central valley surrounded by a succession of mountain ranges, was isolated from other areas of colonial Mexico. This geographical isolation resulted in the evolution of differentiated linguistic groups and cultural traditions in Oaxaca and seems to have influenced organ construction and decorating techniques as well, so that over time Oaxacan organs developed particular characteristics which distinguish them from other Mexican organs.
Other areas of colonial Mexico—Mexico City and the surrounding areas to the east and north of Oaxaca—became quickly hispanicized; the various indigenous cultures blended with the predominant Spanish culture to produce the relatively homogeneous mestizo culture now found throughout much of Mexico. However, because of its isolation and other factors, Oaxaca remained largely indigenous. The indigenous groups, particularly the numerous Mixtecs, Zapotecs, and Mixes, have maintained many of their pre-Hispanic cultural identities and traditions to the current day.
Evidence of the rich artistic traditions of the ancient Mixtec and Zapotec cultures still abounds 500 years later in Oaxaca´s exuberant folk art, not only in the profusion of objects and materials, but in the extravagance of their color, form, and decoration. The decorative styles, motifs, and colors, while exuberant and vibrant, are not naïve in execution, often reflecting a sophisticated sensibility to design and innate understanding of color harmonies. In homes, markets, and village churches, one is reminded constantly of this irrepressible love of adornment and impressed by the artistic skill and variety of its expression. Oaxaca is justly considered one of the great folk art centers of the world. The adornment of Oaxacan organs reflects this folk art aesthetic, and, when viewed as a facet of the folk art tradition, does not seem as anomalous as first impressions would indicate.
Organ builders in New Spain were usually either Spanish or criollos (Mexican-born Europeans), but the organs would have been decorated by native artists, most likely specialized in such specific techniques as pipe shade carvings, painted angel musicians, saints, border designs, or pipe faces. It seems that the Dominicans, who perhaps strove more than their Augustinian and Franciscan brethren to understand the customs and languages of the indigenous people, respected and even encouraged the expression their native artistic tastes.
HIPS ON THE ORGANS AND CASE CONSTRUCTION
The trademark feature of stationary organs in Oaxaca is the unusual case profile, which has non-functional, rounded protuberances on the sides of the lower case, referred to as “hips”. This unique characteristic was apparently already part of the organbuilding tradition by the late 17th century, since Oaxaca´s two earliest organs, one in the Basilica de la Soledad in Oaxaca City and the other in the Mixtec pueblo of Yanhuitlán, already had hips. They were a standard feature on Oaxacan organs all the way through the 19th century. The only exceptions were organs imported from Puebla, where the cases had the usual straight sides, as well as those organs located in spaces too narrow to allow for any additional width (Oaxaca Cathedral and San Miguel Chicahua).
Hips come in many shapes and sizes—symmetrical, asymmetrical, with a repeated profile, small and discreet, large and extravagant—and they may be integral parts of the case or separate attached pieces. Since the hip profile changed over time, it is possible to estimate an organ´s construction date based merely on the silhouette of the case. The origin of this curious construction tradition is a mystery. Perhaps it evolved from the piece shaped to fill in and soften the space between a wider upper case and a narrower lower case. The only example in Oaxaca of such a construction is found on the 4´ stationary organ in Ocotepec (1721) and its filling, “protohips,” may have evolved later into true hips. But top heavy cases, though common on European organs, would have made no sense in earthquake-prone Oaxaca, which is probably why no other organs were built in this way (at least within the extant sample). These curved filler pieces then may have been displaced to the sides of the cases as independent elements once the lower case was widened to coincide with the upper. Whatever its origin, this peculiar characteristic makes Oaxacan organs easily recognizable and helps to soften the overall angularity of the organ.
BAROQUE CASE DECORATION (1686 – 1776)
More than a dozen organs dating from this 90-year period are so beautifully decorated that they could stand as visual works of art in their own right, independent of their ability to produce sound. The native love of, and skill in, decoration found an outlet in the elaboration of organ cases. In no other area of Mexico does one find organ cases decorated as exuberantly and extravagantly as in Oaxaca. These polychromed organs are considered Oaxaca´s “special” organs, and, in most cases, the same care was lavished on the phonic construction of the organs, so that their sound may be (or may have been) as beautiful as their image.
The case facades of Oaxaca´s two earliest and most imposing 8´ organs, which are in the Basílica de la Soledad (1686) and Yanhuitlán (ca. 1700), are extravagantly and fancifully decorated with polychromed motifs that are more phantasmagorical than religious. In the Soledad organ, two human figures, depicted symmetrically on either side of the console and dressed rather like classical centurions, have limbs that morph into vegetation motifs which cover most of the façade. In Yanhuitlán, the main figures are stylized birds in profile instead of humans and they are also depicted symmetrically on the front of the case. Here we also see the only example of the standard Dominican symbols of the black and white cross and the mastiff with globe painted on an organ case, though they often appear on altarpieces. The 4´ organ in Tiltepec (1703), perhaps the third oldest organ, presents lateral carvings of female faces in profile which are equally fanciful. What could be the source of such designs? Were there other organs, now lost, that were equally amazing and original in their decoration? The tradition of polychromed façade decoration did not continue on large 8´ organs after the early organs in La Soledad and Yanhuitlán, though they continued to be richly carved and gilded. No smaller organs survive from this period, but one can assume that at least some of them were embellished in a similarly fanciful way.
From 1721 (Ocotepec) until 1776 (Tejupan), religious imagery become the standard motif in organ decoration, highlighting more than ever the strangeness of the design motifs in La Soledad and Yanhuitlán. Perhaps these important organs were not intended to be seen by the illiterate and did not need to contain didactic themes, whereas smaller organs implied smaller communities, a population predominantly indigenous, and an interest on the part of the friars in having an appealing, but religiously instructive, decorated organ. In any case, the trend from less to more religious decoration is curious.
Although the roots of these design motifs are European, they evolved in such a way as to become distinctively Oaxacan. For example, the feathery volutes prevalent in 18th century church art imitate the swirling acanthus leaves and vines so prevalent in European Renaissance art, for example, those in the border designs of illuminated manuscripts. This design motif appears everywhere—carved in stone on church façades or in wood on altarpieces, or painted on interior walls, altarpieces, and organ cases. But one wonders if in Oaxaca such designs evoked feathers, so highly valued in pre-Hispanic adornment, rather than acanthus leaves which no native Mexican had ever seen. The backs of several 18th century table organs are profusely decorated with such designs, a uniquely Oaxacan feature.
Table organs with doors are often painted with images of religious figures or angel musicians on as many as seven rectangular surfaces (doors outside and inside, sides, and back). These may be rustic (Peñoles, Guevea) or exquisitely rendered (Tamazulapan, Tlazoyaltepec). Each painted surface then becomes like the page of a book, the images serving as reminders of the saints and their stories. Perhaps this pictorial language was particularly effective and meaningful to the Mixtecs, whose own gods and heroes had been depicted in similar fashion in their pre-Hispanic codices. Although the idea of painting saints on organs parallels the custom of putting them on altarpieces, the organ paintings were usually not as fine, since the organs served a utilitarian purpose and were not designed mainly for contemplation. These painted images, obviously didactic in purpose, seem to imply that they were meant to be seen by the non-elite, particularly if they were carried in processions throughout the village for saints’ day celebrations.
PIPE DECORATION IN THE 18TH CENTURY
The façade pipes of several 18th century organs are painted with grotesque faces (mascarones), slightly feline in appearance, whose mouths correspond to the pipe openings. Such pipe decoration had been prevalent throughout Europe, but by the late 16th century they had disappeared everywhere except in Spain. The fierce expressions on the pipe faces contrast dramatically with the serene images of the saints, archangels, and/or angel musicians painted on the case. Similarly decorated façade pipes in Europe and the rest of Mexico have minimal (sometimes stenciled) or no decoration along the length of the pipe, whereas in Oaxaca the entire pipe is lavishly painted with floral motifs.
NEO-CLASSIC CASE DECORATION
Although the mechanical aspect of Oaxacan organs changed little over time (as described in Characteristics), the outer appearance of the organ changed dramatically. By the late 18th century, the aesthetic pendulum had swung from the busy baroque to the more restrained neo-classic. Dominican influence had waned with the secularization of the parishes, and the exuberance and originality of native artistic expressions seem to have been repressed for a more standardized, discreet style.
Organ cases built from that period until the end of the 19th century were usually left unpainted though some were painted over in one or two quiet tones or even with an imitation wood grain finish. Although they were still embellished with richly carved and gilded pipe shades, moldings, and façade designs, they were no longer polychromed or decorated with religious figures or symbols. Two organs in sequence chronologically demonstrate this shift: the organ in Tejupan (1776) is richly painted with images of saints on its sides, while the organ in Comaltepec (around 1780) is of a uniform dark red with faux wood striations.
Similar design elements may be found on altarpieces of the same period.
The organ in La Soledad demonstrates both baroque and neo-classic decorative techniques. The opulent late-17th century polychrome was completely painted over in grayish-green tones during the 1950s, probably to upgrade the exterior after a new pedal board and extended keyboard were installed on the organ. Fortunately for the church art of past centuries, the pendulum has now swung back and current appreciation for pre-neoclassic and idiosyncratic expressions has led to conservation projects throughout Oaxaca, including the restoration of the original polychrome decoration on the Soledad organ in 1999.
I would like to thank Bill Autry, Debora Bittaker, and Susan Tattershall for their help in the preparation of the texts entitled “History,” “Characteristics,” and “Decoration.”
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