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Missions of Sierra Gorda
 Page updated on 03.10.2015
 
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In Mexico, in Querétaro State, there are several exceptional monuments in the Sierra Gorda. The Sierra Gorda is a mountain area of the Oriental Sierra Madre, a mountain range that lies from South to North along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, from the northern part of Coahuila, close to the border with the USA to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec which is the geographic mark of Central America.

Extract of UNESCO site : The Franciscan Missions have been on the World Heritage list of UNESCO since July 2003.

”The five Franciscan missions of Sierra Gorda were built during the last phase of the conversion to Christianity of the interior of Mexico in the mid-18th century and became an important reference for the continuation of the evangelization of California, Arizona and Texas. The richly decorated church façades are of special interest as they represent an example of the joint creative efforts of the missionaries and the Indios. The rural settlements that grew around the missions have retained their vernacular character.
The five missions are located in the mountain area of the Sierra Gorda in Querétaro State, where the evangelization arrived later than everywhere else. Among the five missions, Santiago de Jalpán (the first built in1751-1758) and Nuestra Señora de la Luz de Tancoyol are established in the municipality of Jalpán de Sierra; Santa Maria del Agua de Landa and San Francisco del Valle de Tilaco are in the municipality of Landa de Matamoros and the mission of San Miguel Concá is in the municipality of Arroyo Seco. Jalpán means “on the sand” in Náhuatl language and Tilaco means "black water"; Landa means “mud” in Chichimec language and Tancoyol means “place of the wild date” in Huaxtec language.

The Franciscan missions were units of complex organizations, managed by monks wishing to evangelize Indigenous people, to put them in congregations and to teach them.
Each mission needed to erect its own church, get Indigenous people, to subdue them and group them in huts around the church. The missionaries had to learn the autochthon language, feed the population, teach them the rules of behavior and only then evangelize them. The five missions share similar elements about environment, the city and the religious edifices :
The environment offers wonderful mountain landscapes; the strategic location of the missions determined the development of the autochthones around there. At present, they became a traditional rural population.
The architecture of the missions follows a general common scheme in spite of individual differences. Their characteristics recall the convents of the sixteenth century, with a patio, a gate, an open chapel, procession chapels and a cloister. You also can observe some designs from the Mexican Baroque Art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as the cross-shaped plan of the church, the stucco sculpted facade and the use of lime plaster inside. These last characteristics are more visible in Jalpán, Landa and Tancoyol, while Tilaco and Concá show a more particular conception : there is no chapel and the edifices are built with local stone and plaster.
The orientation of the ensemble is different in each case : the main facade looks towards the West in Tilaco, the East in Jalpán, the South in Tancoyol and the South-East in Concá and Landa.

The congregation used to meet outside and the church is so richly decorated with sinuous plants and flowers, fantastic architectural elements, angels, figures of the Virgin and Saints, among them San Francisco. Even if the general disposition of the ensemble shows the Franciscan model, the spirit and the decorations refer to the local traditions and the local products, considered as gifts from God. On an artistic plan, there is an air of innocence and naivety. On a strategic plan, the images were used to reinforce the didactic impact of the mission. The facade is made of six panels, three horizontal and three vertical. However, in Tancoyol, there are five horizontal panels. The dominant color is ochre.

By contrast, the inside is a lot less pretentious; there is a very simple plaster; the forms of the altar are plain. A cupola crowns the junction of the transept. A high bell tower is attached to the left side of the church. The bottom part of the tower bell is square and simple while the top is richly decorated with architectural ornaments.
The residential part, on the right side of the church, shows a vaulted entrance, sometimes with cloister galleria around the courtyard. In addition, it is quite bare, without decoration.

 

History

The northern part of the Sierra Gorda, where the missions are located, is part of the Central Mountain region in Mexico. In the past, the autochthones worked in the mines and businesses and lived in small villages spread around the foothill of the mountains. The Sierra Gorda was a natural barrier between the sedentary peasants and the nomadic hunters of the North. When the Spaniards arrived, the autochthones mainly lived on agriculture. The Huastec lived on vast feudal domains and were skilled in cotton-spinning. The Jonaces lived in caves and attacked these domains. The important tribe of Pames grew corn and lived in houses made of branches or palm trees; they were docile and cooperative with the monks.

During the seventeenth century, the political interests and the silver mines often caused armed fights involving Spanish and autochthon groups. These fights destroyed an important part of the first missions. At this time, the Franciscans tried to penetrate the country but didn’t succeed to establish a permanent presence. At the eighteenth century, they obtained a new authorization that led to the decision, in 1744, of founding the five missions (Jalpán, Concá, Tancoyol, Landa and Tilaco). Because of the persistent conflicts in the region, the first years were difficult and delayed the construction of the complexes until 1750-1751, under the aegis of Father Junípero Serra. This Franciscan father had to be tenacious and persistent to have these five architectural jewels of the Sierra Gorda built.

The phase of construction stretched over two decades. It was combined with an active work of evangelization from the Franciscans. In 1770, the mission was done. The political situation had changed and the missions were secularized. In the nineteenth century, the missions suffered as a result of armed fights and rebellions : The golden altars were destroyed; At the end of the century, some churches were confronted by other problems : some images were substituted, for example in the central part of the church of Jalpán. In the twentieth century, the population decreased and some missions were abandoned; others endured alterations, such as the patios of Landa (1966) and Jalpán (1964).
Nevertheless, they lasted as religious entities, dominating the people around and representing a reference for the region. Since the publication of Monique Gustin in 1969 about the baroque art in the region of the la Sierra Gorda, they started the protection and the restoration (in 1990) of these masterpieces of baroque.

Junípero Serra (1713-1784), Spanish Franciscan father who obtained the title of Apostle of California for his job as a missionary in North America (beatified by the Pope in 1988) started the phase of evangelization. He contributed to the establishment of the missions of the Sierra Gorda where he taught from 1750 to 1758, before leaving to the center-south of Mexico (1758-1767). When Spain started to occupy the Alta California (actual California), Serra joined the expedition and founded the mission San Diego in 1769, the first mission in California.
J.Serra and his successors founded 21 missions in California. These missions became the main factors of development of the region.

Justification from the state of Mexico


Criterion ii: The Sierra Gorda Missions exhibit an important interchange of values in the process of evangelisation of central and northern Mexico, and the western United States. Criterion iii: The five Sierra Gorda missions bear witness to the cultural encounter of the European missions with the nomadic populations of central Mexico, remaining a significant testimony to this second phase of evangelisation in North America.




Itineraries for the visitor

Start in Querétaro either with a car or a tour (information at the Tourist Office), drive on the Highway 57 then Highway 120 via San Juan del Rio and Tequisquipian or via Bernal (the third bigger monolith in the world).

Misión de Jalpán Start the visit at the Misión de Jalpán, dedicated to Saint Jacques, 190 km (119 miles) from Querétaro. It was the first built; it is the biggest one. Admire the facade with the statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe (pillar of Mexican faith) and Virgin of Pilar (spiritual protector of Spain), as well as the double symbol of the bicephalous eagle devouring a snake at the bottom of the facade. The main motive of this church is the scallop shell.

Left picture : Misión de Jalpán





Then, go to Misión de Concá, 34 km (21 miles) further east : it is the smallest church in the Sierra Gorda. With its amazing and beautiful red and orange ochre facade, this church differs from the others with imposing wine grapes and luxuriant foliage of the semi-tropical valley of the region. Admire the Archangel Miguel and the representations of Saint Trinity. Concá is dedicated to Archangel Miguel, venerated by the Franciscans as "the one who leads the souls to Paradise." Look at a representation of Saint Trinity at the top of the facade.



Misión de Landa de Mataromos Go back on the road towards east during 20 km (12.5 miles) to reach the third mission, Misión de Landa de Mataromos, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception Virgin. It is the last mission built and the best kept with its church, cloister, chapels and an atrium. On the facade, there is a staging of several chapters and interpretations of the Bible (niches housing statues of Saints). This decoration of facade symbolizes "The City of God".

   Right picture : Misión de Landa de Mataromos



Keep driving north for 10 km (7 miles) then east for 16 km (10 miles) to reach the Misión de Tilaco, dedicated to Saint Francisco de Asis. This mission comprises a church with a slender tower, a convent, open chapels, a square and an artificial cross. The statues of Saints such as Saint Peter, Saint Paul, Saint Josef and the Virgin are generously represented with many angels probably playing huapangos on a violin and a guitar.






Misión de Tancoyol Go back on the road in the opposite direction to reach the crossing with Highway 120, cross the wooden valley of Tancoyol "place of the coyotes” and you will reach the last mission, the Misión de Tancoyol. The facade, dedicated to Our Lady of Light, is ornate with Saints and Franciscan symbols. Two of the inside columns are crowned with a jaguar and an Indian face personage. Its facade is one of the most elaborate of the five temples. One of the most remarkable elements of this facade represents six angels along the sides.

Left picture : Misión de Tancoyol







Each mission is open from 7 AM to sunset.

On the road back to Querétaro, you can visit two archaeological sites. First, Ranas (open daily until 6 PM) : it is an archaeological zone with a fortress city and a ceremonial centre showing original ball games, pyramid-shaped bases and plazas adapted to the topography of the hill and it is surrounded by luxuriant vegetation.

A little further east is Toluquilla. This place is strategically located at the top of a hill; there are four ball games and a building with remaining stucco on its outside wall (open daily until 6 PM).

The village of Jalpan de Serra is part of the "magic village" since 2010.


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