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Santa Ana Zegache Oaxaca

Santa Ana Zegache

On a day trip to visit the crafts towns along Highway 175, south of Oaxaca City, my friends and I made a brief detour to admire the church at Santa Ana Zegache. Like many poor towns in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca, Santa Ana has seen a mass exodus, as villagers have left their birthplace in search of gainful employment. Santa Ana’s population today is around 3,000, including outlying areas.

Heading back toward Oaxaca from Ocotlán, we turned west onto a secondary road and drove past fallow corn fields and several small herds of Brahman cattle. We didn’t know anything about the town we were about to visit, except that my friend had seen a TV special about its amazing “painted church.” Luckily, finding the 17th-century temple in such a tiny town wasn’t hard. We spent more than an hour there, just gawking at the stunning building and talking with its friendly caretaker.

Beginning in the 1990s under the direction and inspiration of artist/philanthropist Rodolfo Morales, the church was not only restored but reinvented. The original Mexican baroque façade was sandstone color; the new one sports angels in flowered boots and niches with 3D potted plants in pink, red, cerulean blue, forest green, orange, and yellow ochre. It’s not your usual Dominican façade.

Tiers of shell niches framed by fluted columns house saints, angels, crosses, and above all, the flower pots mentioned above. The church face is tucked between stocky towers designed to resist the earthquakes that plague the region. Heading inside out of the sun, we admired the carved stonework and painted baroque decoration. Throughout are images from the natural world amid elaborate rocaille, strapwork, and scrolls. Some of the ornate 18th-century altarpieces have been restored, and there are dozens of statues of both colonial and more modern vintage.

In the room to the left of the nave are many restored estofado-style mirrors decorated in gold and silver leaf layered with tempera and oil paint. Part of the original church décor, these cedar frames are now reproduced by artisans of the Zegache Community Workshop, on the opposite side of the complex. Local people originally trained for church restoration now produce the mirrors as well as hand-embroidered pillows and utilitarian carved wooden objects such as chairs and tables for sale. Grants by the Rockefeller Foundation, Rodolfo Morales Foundation, and others have helped keep this team alive, but the project can only continue if the public purchases their wares.

On our way out, we talked to a towering blond beauty, impossible to miss with her yellow curls and pale skin. Geska Helena Brecevic and her husband Robert Brecevic, with their young daughter, were wrapping up a collaboration among the European Union and the Alfredo Harp Helú Foundation. At the entrance to the church yard the artists have created a tiny chapel of brick and blue stucco. Inside a small box we saw their modern installation art piece, a holographic-type image floating within the space. After the excessive Mexican baroque splendor of the church we’d just seen, this otherwise charming installation fell a bit short. We recommend checking it out before you enter the church, before your senses become overwhelmed.

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