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Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda

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Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda

Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda
Mission At Santiago de Jalpan
Location Sierra Gorda, Querétaro, Mexico
Built 16th Century
Built for Franciscan Order
Restored 1990s
Official name: Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda of Querétaro
Type Cultural
Criteria ii, iii
Designated 2003 (27th session)
Reference no. 1079
State Party Mexico
Region Latin America and the Caribbean
Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda is located in Mexico
Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda
Location of Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda in Mexico

The Franciscan Missions of the Sierra Gorda in the Mexican state of Querétaro were declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 2003. They are credited to Junípero Serra of the Franciscan Order, who also founded important missions in Alta California.

The five missions are: Santiago de Jalpan and Nuestra Señora de la Luz de Tancoyol in the municipality of Jalpan, Santa María del Agua de Landa and San Francisco del Valle de Tilaco in Landa, and San Miguel Concá in Arroyo Seco. The facades of these churches are important because of the “Mestizo Baroque” style, which shows significant indigenous influence by the Pame Indians who built them.


The Sierra Gorda is an ecological region centered on the northern third of the state of Querétaro and extending into the neighboring states of Guanajuato, Hidalgo and San Luis Potosí .[1] The region is on a branch of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range and consists of a series of mountain chains that run northwest to southeast.[2] Within Querétaro, the ecosystem extends from the center of the state starting in parts of San Joaquín and Cadereyta de Montes municipalities and covering all of the municipalities of Peñamiller, Pinal de Amoles, Jalpan de Serra, Landa de Matamoros and Arroyo Seco, for a total of 250km2 of territory.[2][3]

All of the Sierra Gorda is marked by very rugged terrain, which includes canyons and steep mountains. Altitudes range from just 300 meters above sea level in the Río Santa María Canyon in Jalpan to 3,100 masl at the Cerro de la Pingüica in Pinal de Amoles.[2][4] The micro-environments of the region range from conifer forests, oak forests, mostly found on mountain peaks, banana and sugar cane fields in the deeper canyons. On the east side, there are deciduous forests. On the west side, bordering the Mexican Plateau, there are desert and semi desert conditions, with a variety of cactus and arid scrub brush. Among its features are the peaks associated with the Sierra Alta de Hidalgo, the pine forests of Zamoarano, the Extorax Canyon and the slopes of the Huazmazonta, the inter-mountain valleys where the five missions are found and the rolling hills leading into La Huasteca. The wide variations of altitude and rainfall favor a wide variety of flora and wildlife.[2][4]


Double headed eagle on the facade of the Concá mission

Although there had been some city building in this area during the Pre Classic era, with heights between the 6th and 10th centuries, these cities had been abandoned long before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.[2][3] At this time, the native peoples of the region were semi nomadic hunter gathers, such as the Pames, Ximpeces Guachichils and Jonaz, generally referred to together as the Chichimecas.[2][3] In addition, there were also groups of Otomis and Huasteca to be found.[2][5] The Spanish dominated the far west and the far east of the Sierra Gorda (today in the states of Guanajuato and Hidalgo), but could not dominate the center in what is now Querétaro. This is because the rugged terrain and fierce resistance, especially by the Jonaz.[6][7][8]

Efforts to dominate the region included evangelization efforts, many of which failed before the mid 18th century. During the 16th and 17th century, there were attempts to evangelize the Sierra Gorda of Querétaro by the Augustinians, Franciscans and Dominicans. However, almost all of these missions were never completed or were destroyed soon after they were built by the indigenous communities.[4][8] The best known example is the Bucareli Mission is located in the community of Puerto de Tejamanil in the municipality of Pinal de Amoles. The mission was founded in 1797 by Franciscan Juan Guadalupe Soriano for evangelization of the local Jonaz people. The full name of the mission is the Purísima Concepción de Bucarelí. It was never finished with only part of the monastery, the mines and the church visible. On 4 February, mass in honor of Francis of Assisi is performed here, in a small chapel with still remains, although there is no roof in any part of the complex. The mission was completely abandoned during the Mexican Revolution in 1914 and construction officially suspended in 1926.[3]

In 1740, the colonial government decided to exterminate indigenous resistance here to secure trade routes to Guanajuato and Zacatecas. This was accomplished by José de Escandón, whose expedition culminated in the Battle of Media Luna, defeating the Jonaz and Ximpeces.[3][9] The military pacification of the area by José de Escandón in the 1740s allowed for the building of permanent missions in the heart of the Sierra Gorda.[5] However, the five Franciscans missions accredited to Junípero Serra were built in Pame territory, as these people were more accepting of Spanish domination. The Spanish decided to burn original Pame villages and resettle the population around missions for better control. Those who did not submit either committed suicide or went to live in the mountains. The placement of the missions had the purpose of dividing the heart of the Sierra Gorda and to open roads into San Luis Potosí.[3][9]

Junípero Serra spent eight years on the project of building the missions until 1770, when a number of historical events, including the expulsion of the Jesuits, forced the abandonment of the missions. Serra moved onto California.[5] From then until the late 20th century, the complexes suffered abandonment, deterioration and damage. This was especially true during the Mexican Revolution with many churches in the region were sacked and a number of portal figures on these Franciscan churches became “decapitated” by the fighting.[9][10][11]

In the 1980s, a group from the [3][12] Restoration costs for the Tancoyol mission alone were over three million pesos by 2008.[12] The effort to inscribe the missions as a World Heritage Site began in 2000 by a group of Mexican intellectuals including Dr. Miguel León Portilla. The effort took two and a half years but was ultimately successful in 2003, when it was added during the 27th meeting of the World Heritage Committee.[3] The five missions are promoted by the state tourism authority as the Ruta de las Misiones, (Mission Route) .[10]


Mission at Jalpan de Serra

Although the mission in Jalpan was established before Junípero Serra’s 1750 arrival into the region, Serra is given credit for building the five main missions of this area and completing the evangelization of the local people.[3][4] In reality, the missions were built by Pame hands, under the direction of various Franciscan monks including José Antonio de Murguía in Concá, Juan Crispi in Tilaco, Juan Ramos de Lora in Tancoyol and Miguel de la Campa in Landa.[9] However, the vision for the building of the missions was Serra’s, as he imagined a type of utopia based on Franciscan principles. Serra insisted that the missionaries learn the local languages and experience hunger along with the rest of the population. There was still hostility to the Spanish presence, and Serra’s response was economic as well as spiritual.[5]

The main feature of these churches is the ornate decoration of the main portals, although there is decoration on the bell towers and in some churches, other areas as well. This decoration is termed “Mestizo Baroque” or “mestizo architecture” according to INAH .[9] The ornate decoration is primarily aimed at teaching the new religion to the indigenous peoples, but unlike even the Baroque works further south, indigenous influence is obvious as the Serra’s idea was to demonstrate a blending of cultures rather than complete conquest.[3][5] One element is the use of red, orange, and yellow, including pastel shades, and native sacred figures such as the rabbit and jaguar, appear.[10] The mission churches have a single nave, covered by a cannon vault, but each has its own peculiarities, especially in the portals.[9] Serra spent eleven years in the Sierra Gorda before moving north in the late 1760s.[3] The missions established in Querétaro would be the first of a long series of missions that would be established as the Spanish made their way north into what is now southern California.[10]

The Santiago mission in Jalpan was established before the arrival of Junípero Serra in 1744, but Serra was in charge of building the mission complex that stands today from 1751 to 1758, the first to be built. It is dedicated to James the Greater, the first evangelist.[5][11] This complex is situated in the center of the modern town in front of the main plaza and formed by an atrium, cloister, pilgrim portal and church, with a chapel annex on the left side. The original atrium wall was lost, but reconstructed in the same style, with three portals and inverted arches.[3] The main features of the ornate portal on the facade are Our Lady of the Pillar and the Virgin of Guadalupe, both with Mesoamerican connections, as well as a double headed eagle, meant to symbolize the blending of the two cultures.[5]

Mission at Tancoyol

The facade is elaborately done in stucco and stone work, with ochre of the pilasters contrasting with the yellow of many of the decorative details. Much of the detail is vegetative, along with small angels and eagles.[13] European elements include images of saints such as Saint Dominic and Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan coat of arms. Inside the door, there are the images of Saints Peter and Paul. Native elements include a double-headed Mexican eagle devouring a serpent. On the upper left, there is an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the upper left, the Our Lady of the Pillar. These are the virgin images of Mexico and Spain respectively. This statue is said to have been taken by a general at the end of the 19th century. It was replaced by a more modern clock.[13][14] Inside, the cupola of the Jalpan mission contains scenes of the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe.[13][14][15]

A second mission is located in the community of Tancoyol called Nuestra Señora de la Luz de Tancoyol, dedicated to Our Lady of Light. This facade has profuse vegetative ornamentation, with ears of corn prominent and is the most elaborate of the five missions.[3][5] It is likely that this mission was constructed by Juan Ramos de Lora, who resided here from 1761 to 1767.[3][12] The structure is similar to those in Jalpan and Landa. It has a church with a Latin cross layout and choir area, a sacristy, atrium with cross and chapels in the corners of the atrium called “capillas posas.” There is also a pilgrims’ gate, a cloister and quarters for the priest. The interior has a number of sculptures including one of “Our Lady of Light.”[12] The facade is marked by a rhomboid window surrounded by a representation of the cord Franciscans use to tie their habits. The basic theme of the facade is mercy, represented by interventions by the Virgin Mary and various saints. The iconography of this portal is the most elaborate of the five missions.[14][15] The facade consists of three bodies, a pediment and four estípite columns. The lower body has sculptures of Saints Peter and Paul and who Franciscan coats of arms. The second body has sculptures of Joachim and Saint Anne, with the Virgin Mary in her arms, and a niche in the center. There are also images from the Passion such as nails and a lance. This niche contained an image of Our Lady of Light, but it is empty now. Between the second and third bodies, there is a large window and above it, a representation of the stigmata of Francis of Assisi. The pediment contains a large cross in relief of two styles related to the Franciscan and Dominican orders.[11][12] The main cross at the top represents redemption with the crosses of Calatrava and Jerusalem on either side. Indigenous elements are found in the church’s interior, with an image of a jaguar and a person with Olmec features.[14][15] The bell tower is narrow and the baptistery is at the base of this tower. On the lower part appears a small window which illuminates the baptistery. The cupola of the tower is in a pyramid shape with a Baroque iron cross on top.[12] Indigenous influence is noted in the interior columns of the church, which have images of a jaguar and a person with Olmec features.[11]

Facade of San Miguel Concá
Portal at the mission in Tilaco

San Miguel Concá is located forty km from Jalpan on Highway 69 to Río Verde. The church is in the center of the community on one side of Guerrero Street. It is oriented to the south and dedicated to the Archangel Michael. It is the smallest of the mission churches and was probably finished in 1754, according to an inscription located inside the church.[3] Concá is a Pame word which means “with me.”[5] San Miguel Concá is the furthest north and the smallest of the missions. The decoration features large flowers, foliage and coarse figures in indigenous style. It is distinguished by an image of the Holy Trinity at the crest along with a rabbit (a Pame symbol) and double-headed eagle.[5][11]

San Francisco del Valle de Tilaco is in a small community eighteen km northeast of Landa de Matamoros.[3] It was constructed between 1754 and 1762 by Juan Crespi and dedicated to Francis of Assisi .[11] It has some characteristics different from the other missions. First, it is built on a gradient.[9] The bell tower is separated from the main nave of the church by the baptistery and structurally functions as a buttress for the church.[3] Tilaco is the best conserved of the five missions and has the most subtle ornamentation on its facade.[11] Its facades are composed of three horizontal and three vertical partitions, with the Franciscan coat of arms prominent over the main entrance.[9] In Tilaco, the facade has small angels, ears of corn and a strange large jar over which is an image of Francis of Assisi.[5] One distinctive decorative element is four mermaids with indigenous features. Tilaco has the best conserved atrium corner chapels called “capillas posas,” which were used for processions.[11]

Santa María del Agua de Landa is located twenty km from Jalpan on Highway 120 towards Xilitla. The mission was built between 1760 and 1768 by Miguel de la Campa is dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, which gives rise to part of the community’s name. It was the last of the missions to be built.[3][11] The atrium is bordered by a wall and centered by a cross, and paved in stone. It is noted for its equilibrium in composition and very narrow bell tower, which is integrated into the facade. The sculpture of this facade is considered to be the best of the five according to Arqueología Mexicana magazine.[3] The faces of the mermaids at Landa have indigenous features.[5]

See also


  1. ^ "Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda" [Sierra Gorda Ecological Group] (in Spanish). Mexico: Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad. Retrieved March 29, 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Velasco Mireles, Margarita (Jan–Feb 2006). "El mundo de la Sierra Gorda" [The World of the Sierra Gorda]. Arqueología Mexicana. 77 (in Spanish) (Mexico City: Editorial Raíces S.A. de C.V.) XIII: 28–27. Retrieved March 29, 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Cornejo, Josué (Jan–Feb 2006). "La Sierra Gorda de Querétaro" [The Sierra Gorda of Querétaro]. Arqueología Mexicana. 77 (in Spanish) (Mexico City: Editorial Raíces S.A. de C.V.) XIII: 54–63. Retrieved March 29, 2011. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Poblaciones pre Hispanicas, misiones franciscana y biodiversidad en la Sierra Gorda" [Pre Hispanic populations, Franciscan missions and biodiversity in the Sierra Gorda] (in Spanish). Mexico: INDAABIN. Retrieved March 29, 2011. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Gonz, Eduardo. "Las misiones de la Sierra Gorda, Querétaro" [The misión of the Sierra Gorda, Querétaro] (in Spanish). Mexico City: Mexico Desconocido magazine. Retrieved March 29, 2011. 
  6. ^ "Estado de Guanajuato - Xichú" [State of Guanajuato - Xichú]. Enciclopedia de los Municipios de México (in Spanish). Mexico: Instituto Nacional para el Federalismo y el Desarrollo Municipal. 2005. Retrieved March 29, 2011. 
  7. ^ "Estado de Hidalgo - Zimapán" [State of Hidalgo - Zimapán]. Enciclopedia de los Municipios de México (in Spanish). Mexico: Instituto Nacional para el Federalismo y el Desarrollo Municipal. 2005. Retrieved March 29, 2011. 
  8. ^ a b Arroyo Mosqueda, Artemio (2002). "Apuntes para la Historia Colonial de la Sierra Gorda Hidalguense" [Notes about the Colonial History of the Sierra Gorda of Hidalgo] (pdf). Revista del Centro de Investigación (in Spanish) (Mexico City: Universidad La Salle) 19: 75–83.  
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h Mondragón, Carmen (June 25, 2009). "Misiones de la Sierra Gorda" [Missions of the Sierra Gorda] (in Spanish). Mexico:  
  10. ^ a b c d Édgar Rogelio Reyes (December 5, 2009). "Sierra Gorda Queretana" [Sierra Gorda of Querétano]. Milenio (in Spanish) (Mexico City). Retrieved March 29, 2011. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Misiones en la Sierra Gorda de Querétaro" [Missions in the Sierra Gorda of Querétaro]. Terra (in Spanish) (Mexico City). January 14, 2009. Retrieved March 29, 2011. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f "Misiones Franciscanas en la Sierra Gorda de Querétaro" [Franciscan Mission in the Sierra Gorda of Querétaro]. El Informador (in Spanish) (Guadalajara, Mexico). March 14, 2010. Retrieved March 29, 2011. 
  13. ^ a b c Robles, Daniel (May 12, 2002). "Desfile de santos en el Mexico profundo" [Parade of saints deep in Mexico]. Reforma (in Spanish) (Mexico City). p. 4. 
  14. ^ a b c d "Circuito Misionero" [Missionary Circuit] (in Spanish). Mexico: Municipality of Jalpan de Serra. Retrieved March 30, 2011. 
  15. ^ a b c "Querétaro - Jalpan de Serra" [Querétaro – Jalpan de Serra]. Enciclopedia de los Municipios de México (in Spanish). Mexico: Instituto Nacional para el Federalismo y el Desarrollo Municipal. 2005. Retrieved March 30, 2011. 

External links

  • UNESCO Site
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