The El Carmen Museum is located in the south of Mexico City and is dedicated to the history of the daily life of the order of the Barefoot Carmelites, as well as to house a novohispano art gallery with outstanding works by Cristóbal de Villalpando and Miguel Cabrera, among others.
The museum contains a large collection of Mexical colonial religious art including paintings of Miguel Cabrera, as well as original furniture of the monastery, and a collection related to the history of the monastery and relates the life of the Carmelites.
In 1595 the need arose to establish a religious school to prepare the Carmelite friars, so in 1601 a first attempt was made in Mexico City, a fact that was frustrated by various circumstances. The same happened with the following attempts, even when it was sent to Valladolid (which is now Morelia ) in 1605. But this new location of the school did not suit the rest of the province, because there were two other foundations in Celaya and in the mountains of Santa Faith.
Even the foundation of the Holy Desert in the mountains of Cuajimalpa, a site that we popularly know as Desert of the Lions, had better luck. Over the years the Carmelite houses would proliferate: Querétaro, Salvatierra, Tacuba, Toluca, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosí, Tehuacán and the transfer of the Holy Desert of Cuajimalpa to the outskirts of Tenancingo are examples of the rise of the Carmelites in the viceroyalty. In 1597, the indigenous chief of Coyoacán, Don Felipe de Guzmán Itzolinque, Andrés de Mondragón and Elvira Gutiérrez donated land to the Carmelites of Mexico in the Coyoacanenses neighborhoods of Tenanitla andChimalistac, a few kilometers south of the capital city. Thus the religious had extensive grounds to establish a new school and house. The definitive foundation of the Carmelite school dedicated to San Angel took place in 1613. For the building of the school they called Brother Fray Andrés de San Miguel who had the experience to design and direct the new work, which began on June 29, 1615 with the laying of the first stone.
On June 29, 1615, the barefoot Carmelites laid the first stone of the San Angelo Mártir school, on land of a community called Tenanitla, with a privileged climate and rich in forests, rivers and good farmland. The town soon changed its name to San Angel due to the impact the school had on its economic and social consolidation.
The school was built by Fray Andrés de San Miguel, an illustrious character of the Carmelite order, heir to the reform of Saint Teresa of Jesus who was to give life to the “barefoot” Carmelites, a division of the order that sought to recover austerity and devotion of the hermits that inhabited Mount Carmel, in Palestine, centuries ago.
In 1617 the school was so advanced that it was possible to transfer students and continue their course in the new building, which was so spacious and well-conditioned that in 1618 it became the headquarters of the three-year meetings of the authorities of the province, known as provincial chapter. The temple attached to the convent was built between 1624 and 1626, and by 1628the main works of the construction were finished, although work continued in the fence that limited the enormous orchard and in the hermitages, bridges and hydraulic and agricultural works that were indispensable to him. The garden, which was fenced around its perimeter, extended to the east side of the school, occupying much of the current Chimalistac colony, and was used for planting fruit trees, which eventually provided the school with sufficient income to subsist and help other foundations in the province, earning with this fame and prestige.
Both the pears, apples, and perons, as well as the many flowers and vegetables that were planted there, irrigated by the waters of the Magdalena River, made San Angel creditor of a well-deserved reputation for a pleasant and healthy place, typical for the summer. The celebrations that to date are held in this neighborhood of the city, find their roots in that work of the Carmelites. Economic growth benefited the inhabitants of the town, who replaced the name of San Jacinto Tenanitla with that of San Ángel. In 1634 the official name of the school was changed to that of Mrs. of Santa Ana. The change of name was officially given, but in everyday life and among the towns it was still called with its old name of San Angel.
The Sanangelino College was the scene of some problems such as the so-called Patent War among the religious themselves, the dispute with the city council for the payment of tithes on the income of the garden and the outbreak of the War of Independence. From the nineteenth century the order of the Carmelites was suffering a series of catastrophes, since the decree of expulsion of Spaniards of 1828 significantly affected the Carmelite order, and since most of its members were of Spanish origin, the school was so depopulated that a president had to be appointed instead of a rector. In 1833 with the liberal dispositions of Valentín Gómez Farías the income of the school was reduced. Between 1847 and 1848, the occupation of San Ángel by the North American troops caused the destruction of parts of the building, the looting of many of its goods, and the felling and burning of trees in the garden.
In 1856 Rafael del Sagrado Corazón, the then rector, saw the need to divide and sell part of the garden before the liberal attack. The application of the reform laws with the exclamation of the religious orders and the nationalization of the clergy’s assets took effect in San Ángel in January 1858, after the triumph of the liberal troops over the conservatives in the War of Reform. The garden was alienated, the temple escaped being demolished and the school was disputed between the municipalities of Mexico and San Angel.
The school was only for boys; He had up to 51 students studying scholastic theology and a famous library composed of more than 12 thousand volumes. After the Reformation, in 1858, the school was closed and the custody of the enclosure passed to the city council. The land and the building itself, for the most part, were sold to individuals. The section that retained the municipality was used as a prison, barracks and other minor functions.
By 1874 Manuel Payno got the San Ángel school to be delivered to the San Ángel city hall. However, important portions of the building were sold to a private individual in 1891 after the destruction of others, as a result of the extension of the Ferrocarril del Valle to Tizapán. Finally, the core part of the school was handed over to the Ministry of Public Education in 1921. In 1929 the Museum of El Carmen was born, after public opinion focused on this town during the trial of the murderers of Álvaro Obregón. In 1939, when the National Institute of Anthropology and History emerged, that part of the property was handed over in custody, as it has been maintained to date.
At the moment the Museum of El Carmen has opened spaces that were in disuse to be able to show one of the most important colonial art galleries in Mexico, having as permanent exhibition “The silence of the Carmelites” that shows the history of the order from its origins, its founders and its reformers, all with paintings, sculptures, documents, furniture, and many other elements.
The permanent exhibition of the museum revolves around the 80 main pieces of the artistic collection, selected on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the museum (founded in 1929) among which we find paintings, sculptures, altarpieces, reliquaries, wall painting and valuable architectural spaces of the old Barefoot Carmelite College, built at the beginning of the 17th century by the architect and friar lego Carmelita, Fray Andrés de San Miguel. The museum’s collection includes works by the Novo-Hispanic artists Luis Juárez, Juan Correa, Cristóbal de Villalpando, Juan Becerra, Miguel Cabrera, among others.
During the excavations carried out by Zapatista soldiers in search of the friars’ treasures, several mummified bodies were found naturally, of the members of the Order and benefactors of the convent, which are still on display in the famous crypts.
Other exhibitions call the visitor’s attention to the El Carmen Museum: the 50 wax figures, almost in miniature, made with amazing realism by the Mexican sculptor Carmen Carrillo de Antúnez, of musicians and dancers of various traditional dances of our country, such as Dance of the Feather, the Dance of the Old Men, the Dance of the Umbrellas, etc. And the exhibition of old photography “San Ángel: Afanes de la memoria”, with images that show the drastic evolution of the landscape of the old country town of San Ángel, from the end of the 19th century, until it became one of the fundamental neighborhoods of the Mexico City, in the 50s of the last century. One of the biggest attractions of this museum is the exhibition of several mummified bodies.
In the old San Angelo Martyr College we find an example of Carmelite architecture in New Spain. Being one of the religious orders with the strictest precepts, it was essential to preserve the closing rules. The friars were forbidden to leave school and had to dedicate themselves to constant prayer. The access portal – also known as the pilgrim portal – was the line that divided the spiritual life of the earthly. It also served as a place of welcome for pilgrims who came to commemorate some holy date. The access portal of the old Colegio de San Angelo, has a wall painting at the top that tells the fundamental episodes of the Carmelite order. This mural made in oil – a technique very rare in the Novohispana painting – shows the prophet Elijah, mythical founder of the order, and Saint Teresa of Jesus and Saint John of the Cross, reformers of it. In an image, the mural manages to capture the origin and development of the Carmelite order. This mural hides a grayish bill of previous invoice that represents Christ crucified, of which there are only a few vestiges that appeared over time.
The introductory room is divided into seven nuclei, which will help the visitor to have a wider picture of what the museum protects: material and intangible heritage.
The word cloister comes from the Latin claudere, which means “close.” As a sign of the austerity professed by members of the Carmelite doctrine, their convents only had lower cloisters, that is, with the corridors discovered on the upper floor. Around this central courtyard, the cells and offices of the convent – school were distributed. The place has twenty semicircular arches, vaulted corridors and four niches in its corners, which surely guarded religious images.
This space was one of the first to be built and is characterized by the harmony of forms and proportions of the architectural elements. Both the corridors and the uncovered patio were paved with bricks, similar to the upper floor floors. The fountain covered with blue and white tiles was placed, surely, in the 18th century to motivate contemplation and meditation. The cloister walls were decorated with wall painting.
In the Christian churches the sacristy is the place where priests prepare for the liturgy. It is also the space where objects reserved for mass are stored, such as clothing, ornaments, sacred vessels and other goods. In the old school of San Ángel, today El Carmen Museum, the sacristy of the Carmelite order that inhabited this ancient site since the 17th century is preserved. The space, preserved almost entirely after its remodeling in the last third of the aforementioned century, is characterized by its rich gold and polychrome coffered ceilings – of Mudejar and Mannerist influences – and for its sober furniture. The sacristy also has five canvases by Cristóbal de Villalpando, signed by the artist, which embellish its walls.
Being the place where the priests were preparing for the liturgy, we can find cupboards – which were used to store chalices, clothes and other objects – a dressing room with Marian attributes carved on the doors and a small sink. The enclosure also houses a magnificent wooden inlaid chest of drawers that frames Villalpando’s canvases. This polyptych exalts the values of penance characteristic of the Carmelites. Scenes of thePassion are interspersed with the images of Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross, the reformers of that order. These pictorial compositions show how reconciliation with divinity is possible through isolation, pain and suffering. The works cited are located in the Mexican Baroque tradition and have a mystical character
The Carmelite friars chose the highest part of the land they had received as a donation to build their convent-school. The architect in charge of the works, Fray Andrés de San Miguel, took advantage of the steep slopes of the land and built a mortuary chapel in 1624, before the church was erected, which explains why the presbytery is located above the mortuary chapel. This space was intended to house the crypts where the friars and benefactors of the school were buried; Masses of the present body and funeral rites were also celebrated.
Two ships make up the mortuary chapel floor. The first one has a lush decoration: its walls are covered with tiles and it has several altars and wall paintings. In this ship they were buried, as already mentioned, Donors and school friars. While the former acquired graves in perpetuity, the remains of the religious rested for seven years in the crypt and, after this time, the bones were extracted and taken to the ossuary. In this space is the main crypt dedicated to Captain Juan de Ortega y Baldivia, whose polychrome coat of arms of the seventeenth century is preserved.
The mortuary crypt retains its original ornamentation although it was the victim of numerous looting in the early twentieth century. The altars, for example, were stripped of their original objects although they currently house paintings and a sculpture. In the central hall is the main altar that is the only one that retains its original altarpiece, which frames the Christ painting attached to the column. This composition is attributed to the Basque artist Baltasar Echave Orio, one of the great Novo-Hispanic painters. Finally, the famous eleven mummies, unique in Mexico City, which were discovered by Zapatista soldiers during the Mexican Revolution are displayed in the adjoining ship.
According to the reforms carried out by Saint Teresa, the construction of a domestic chapel was necessary so that the Carmelite friars could perform their liturgical acts without leaving the closure. This religious order was characterized by defending an ascetic and contemplative life where retreat and constant penance were fundamental. Following these principles, they built a former chapel where the friars performed their liturgical acts in the former Colegio de San Angelo Martyr, today the El Carmen Museum, without abandoning their withdrawal. Built in the 17th century, the chapel shelters the only Salomonic baroque altarpiece of the convent. From the access door to the sacristy – carved in red cedar and ebony wood – you can see the contrast between the sumptuousness and beauty of the place and the austerity of the cells. Five octagonal oculos allow light to enter the room and the walls are decorated with wall paintings. The structure of the altarpiece is made up of two bodies – horizontal sections separated by moldings – and three streets – vertical sections separated by pilasters or columns.
Large Format Room
The Carmelite order has been characterized not only by its asceticism and renunciation but also by the high intellectual level of its friars, who have dedicated themselves fervently to the reading and writing of sermons and epistolary. Clear examples of this taste for letters are the two main reformers of the order: Saint Teresa of Jesus and Saint John of the Cross. Both left in writing the testimony of their infinite love for God and sought, through the word, to reform the precepts of the Carmelites.
The close relationship that this religious order had with the letters is tangible, too, in the foundations that it carried out in New Spain, where it promoted study and writing in its convents, schools and deserts. In the specific case of the former San Angelo Martyr College, there is evidence of the religious’s delivery to the written word mainly by their library that, in times of greater splendor of the College, housed approximately twelve thousand volumes, being one of the best equipped of the time. After the barefoot exclamation, the library was ransacked, losing its valuable collection that was sold to individuals. From various testimonies, we know that this library protected important works of theology and classical and historical literature, including the manuscripts of Fray Andrés de San Miguel, as well as other Carmelite authors.