Expert opinion
El Carmen Museum
Former College of San Ángel or Lady Saint Ana of Discalced Carmelites

The eruption of Xitle, a small volcano in the Chichinauhtzin series, at the base of the Ajusco peak, covered with its lava flow the traces of the ancient cultures that occupied the south-western portion of the Mexican basin in the first century of the common era. The little that is known about them is thanks to archeology; sites like Cuicuilco and Copilco provide evidence of the level of development reached by those people of the pre-Classical period. Once the volcanic activity ceased, new human settlements arose on the northern side of the solidified lava field, between it and the lake shore. It was here that the town of San Ángel first emerged, although the date remains uncertain.

Historical data enables provides us with better information about its more recent development. It is known that the Tepaneca lordship of Coyoacán, with its capital in Azcapotzalco, included settlements in Tenanitla and Chimalistac—Nahuatl words that mean “beside the stone wall” and “white shield,” respectively—at the dawn of the sixteenth century. It was in fact in Coyoacán that the conquistador Hernán Cortés established his temporary government following the fall of Tenochtitlán, while the new colonial city of Mexico was laid out and built.

In recompense for his services to the Spanish Crown, Emperor Charles V awarded Cortés the title of Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, together with the privilege of being the highest authority for territories across the central region of New Spain, which included the corregimiento of Coyoacán. This latter covered the area that today is occupied by the central section of Coyoacán, San Agustín de las Cuevas (Tlalpan), Tacubaya, and Cuajimalpa as far of the lake of Mexico, to one side, and the peaks of the Ajusco mountain, to the other.

Around 1529, the Dominican friars arrived in Coyoacán to begin to evangelize the indigenous people, where they had been preceded by the Franciscans a short time before. The Dominicans founded the monastery of San Juan Bautista in Coyoacán; they shared their apostolic labors with the Franciscans for a few years. They also founded chapels of visitation in the surrounding areas, such as Chimalistac and Tenanitla, where they erected humble chapels dedicated to San Sebastián and San Felipe Apóstol, respectively. As a result of the festivities for the canonization of San Jacinto celebrated in New Spain in 1596, they changed the name of their settlement to Tenanitla; from then on the incipient hamlet was known as Tenanitla de San Jacinto or San Jacinto Tenanitla.

In the mid-sixteenth century, the former Tepaneca chief of Coyoacán, Juan de Guzmán Itztlolinqui, the Elder, recovered his chiefdom thanks to his alliance with the Spaniards; he had led detachments of Coyoacán Indians in the 1541 Mixtón de Juchipila war, under the orders of Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. It is said that in a battle against hostile Indians near Cuernavaca he saved the life of Hernán Cortés, who in gratitude restored his rank; later he secured recognition of his properties by the Crown and was appointed Indian governor of Coyoacán. His various estates included a vast orchard in the vicinity of Tenanitla, which his grandson Felipe de Guzmán Itztlolinqui inherited in the second half of that century.

The Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

In Palestine, to the south of the present-day port of Haifa, the distinctive outline of Mount Carmel rises, from where it dominates the Mediterranean Sea; carmel means garden or orchard in ancient tongues. This mount was considered a sacred place for meditation in distant times; Pythagoras himself was said to retire there in search of solitude for his reflections. The Old Testament prophet Elijah and his disciples had their refuge here. The earliest Christian scholars considered Elijah to be the founder of monasticism, that is, of the religious order that chooses isolation from society in search of spiritual perfection and continual praise of God.

It is known that a monastery dedicated to Elijah existed in the year 570 A.D, though it is unclear who founded it. During the period of the Crusades, around 1156, soldiers and pilgrims who left for the Holy Land decided to make the mount their place of retreat to devote themselves to the life of contemplation, and established there a new hermitage dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in her avocation as Our Lady of Carmel. The life of the early Carmelites—as they became known—was consecrated wholly to prayer and solitary work; they only gathered to celebrate certain liturgical acts.

With the aim of regulating their lives they asked Saint Albert, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, to provide them with general recommendations, which were written out between 1206 and 1214, and approved by the Pope in 1226.

The Muslim victories in the thirteenth century led the hermits to abandon the site and take flight for Europe. They first settled in Cyprus, Sicily, France, and England, before spreading across the continent. The new horizons forced a change in their way of life, and they adopted the customs of other mendicant orders, such as the Dominicans. In the general chapter held in Aylesford, England, in 1247, they asked for the approval of a formal rule that transformed them into a mendicant order.

In 1452, the Carmelite Prior General, Jean Soreth, obtained pontifical authorization to establish the female branch of the order with devout women. However, the Carmelite order suffered, like the rest of the church, from the upheavals of the late medieval and early Renaissance period. By the beginning of the sixteenth century the Carmelites, friars and nuns alike, had moved far away from their original principles. Faced with the state of the order, the Carmelite nun Teresa of Jesus (1515-1582) set out to restore it to its original purposes and undertook an internal reform in 1562. Shortly afterwards, at Teresa’s invitation, Friar John of the Cross (1542-1591) decided to do the same with the male branch in 1568.

These events marked the birth of the so-called “Discalced” (“Unshod”) division of the Carmelite order. In 1593 the Discalced or Reformed Carmelites became completely independent of the Calced (“Shod”) or Mitigated Carmelites, who did not accept the reform led by Teresa, and constituted a separate order. The fundamental purpose of the Carmelites was to devote themselves to a life of contemplation and prayer within the monasteries, with a lesser apostolic task, in order to achieve the perfection of the soul and its consequent salvation.

The Discalced Carmelites in New Spain

The express desire of Saint Teresa de Jesús that the order should join the work of evangelization being carried out in the Americas and in Asia, an arduous task that was taken on by very few, was the origin of the move to New Spain. As an initial outcome, it was agreed to send a first group of friars to New Spain in the celebrated chapter of Almodóvar del Campo, Spain, in 1583. In October 1585 a total of eleven barefoot friars arrived in Mexico City with the aim of pursuing evangelization in the north of New Spain and in the Philippines, a goal that only lasted until 1612.

The Indian parish church of San Sebastián Atzacoalco, founded by Friar Pedro de Gante in a district to the north-east of Mexico City, was the first home of the Discalced Carmelites in New Spain. From here, they spread rapidly across the country: Puebla, Atlixco, Valladolid, Guadalajara, and Celaya became foundations in the sixteenth century. In 1595, ten years after their arrival, the Province of San Alberto de Indias was constituted, independent of the existing provinces in Spain.

After this, the order’s legislation made it necessary to establish a college to train the friars. After many ups and downs, the College de San Angel was founded in Mexico City in 1601, although it saw very difficult times in its early years. This college was meant for the friars to learn theology and philosophy (arts), although it was moved to the monastery of Valladolid by orders that arrived from Spain in 1607.

The foundation of the sui generis monastery in the hills of Santa Fe del Santo Desierto in 1605—the site we now know as the Desierto de los Leones—was more successful. Over the years, the Carmelite houses proliferated until they numbered sixteen. The houses in Querétaro, Salvatierra, Tacuba, Toluca, Oaxaca, Orizaba, San Luis Potosí, Tehuacán and the move of the one in Santo Desierto de Cuajimalpa to Tenancingo, bear testimony to the growth in the Carmelite province of San Alberto during the vice-regal period.

The preference of the order for admitting European rather than locally born followers, and the political and economic events of the nineteenth century, led to the decline of the province, until the Reform Laws put an end to what was left of the colonial Carmelite splendor.

The College of San Ángel or Lady Saint Ana

In 1595 the indigenous chief of Coyoacán, Felipe de Guzmán Itztlolinqui, ceded one-third of an orchard in his possession in Chimalistac to the Carmelites of Mexico, as capital to support the foundation of a chaplaincy for his deceased parents and himself. Shortly afterwards, two other benefactors, Andrés de Mondragón and his wife, Elvira Gutiérrez, acquired the rest of Felipe’s orchard in Tenanitla and immediately handed it over to the Carmelites for the same purpose; other benefactors followed. As a result, the religious order obtained an extensive plot of land in Coyoacán for the establishment of a new house.

The definitive establishment of the Carmelite college, dedicated to the holy martyr San Angel, began with an ecclesiastical hospice in 1613, situated on the land adjacent to the Dominican establishment known as San Jacinto Tenanitla.

For the construction of the college the order relied on the wisdom of the Carmelite lay friar Andrés de San Miguel, who had sufficient experience to design and direct the building work. On June 29, 1615, the cornerstone of the new Carmelite house was laid. In less than two years, the college and its annexes were completed and the students were able to occupy it. The adjacent church was built between 1624 and 1626. By 1628 the main works were finished, although work continued on the erection of the infirmary wing, the wall bounding the enormous orchard, the bridges over the Magdalena river and various indispensable hydraulic and agricultural works. The building was so large and well-located that it became the seat of the triennial meetings of the superiors of the province, known as chapters, from 1618 to 1858.

In 1634 it was decided to change the name of the college to Santa Ana, in light of the desire of another benefactor: Mariana de Aguilar y Niño, widow of the famous patron of Santo Desierto de Santa Fe, Melchor de Cuéllar. Although the new name was formally adopted, in everyday use it continued to be known as San Ángel.

The orchard that extended to the rear of the college (which occupied a good part of the present-day Chimalistac neighborhood) was intended for the plantation of fruit trees, which with time produced sufficient income to support the college as well as other foundations in the province. They also won it prestige: the pears, apples, and the many flowers and vegetable crops planted there—irrigated by the Magdalena River—won San Ángel deserved fame as a pleasurable and healthy district well suited to holidays and convalescence. The celebrations that still take place in this quarter of the city have their roots in the secular work of the Carmelites and their neighbors. The so-called prison of San Juan Clímaco (popularly known as the Chamber of Secrets), the three bridges over the river—now buried underground—the remains of the stone wall and other vestiges in the surrounding area are silent testimonies to tenacious labor over more than three centuries. The Carmelite work and the benefits that its orchard brought to the neighborhood gradually and naturally led to the village becoming known as San Ángel in place of the old name of San Jacinto.

The Reform Laws, particularly the disentailment of church property and the exclaustration of the religious orders in 1859, were the beginning of the end for the college, the orchard, and, ultimately, the entire Carmelite province. The friars were forced to leave the college in January 1861, which was placed under the care of the municipality of San Angel.

In 1921 part of the building was transferred to the Ministry of Education. Eight years later a small museum was established, due to the interest in the area arising from the trial of José León Toral and the nun Concepción de la Llata, who were the assassins of President-elect Álvaro Obregón. In 1939, when the National Institute for Anthropology and History was founded it was granted partial custody of the building, which it retains to this day. By then it had become known as the Del Carmen Monastery, seat of the Del Carmen Museum.

The Architecture of the College and the Del Carmen Museum

The reform introduced by Saint Teresa of Jesus and Saint John of the Cross was still recent when the college was built at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The architectural style selected by Fray Andrés de San Miguel was in accordance with the principles of sobriety, humility, and poverty they advocated.

The church was designed with a Latin cross plan, vaulted and with a half-dome in the transept, which was replaced by a segmental dome in the eighteenth century. Its façade is austere, adorned with two pediments and a portico with three openings. The Saturday Chapel, also known as the Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was built during the second half of the seventeenth century; the Chapel of the Lord of Contreras a century later.

The main cloister of the college has only low vaulted corridors and lacks high corridors as in monasteries of other orders; the harmonious proportions based on the cube and the square and the play of chiaroscuro produced by draperies and moldings give it an attractive aesthetic quality without abandoning severity. On the eastern flank is the antesacristy and the sacristy, with Mudejar-style coffered ceilings that contain beautiful colonial artistic treasures. Beyond are the lavatories with their single vault, which mark the access to the crypts where twelve mummified corpses are exhibited. Both lavatories and crypts are decorated with beautiful majolica tiles from Puebla and painted mural decorations.

From the cloister, the monumental bell-gable on the south wall of the church may be observed, together with three smaller ones. These bell-gables were cheaper, faster and easier to build than ordinary bell towers.

To the south of the cloister is the principal staircase leading to the upper story. To one side is the so-called Kitchen Courtyard with passageways around three sides, followed by a space of particular interest: in what was once the chapterhouse—in former times adorned with paintings by Miguel Cabrera—and the college refectory, the “Fray Andrés de San Miguel” auditorium now stands, named in honor of the builder of the college.

On the upper floor we can visit the corridors with the friars’ cells, the domestic chapel (adorned with a gilded Solomonic altarpiece from the first half of the eighteenth century) with its sacristy, the antechoir, and the library.

The area corresponding to the college infirmary, adjacent to the double-arched aqueduct, recently incorporated into the museum, has been transformed into a temporary exhibition space.

The museum displays items of colonial art from a number of viceregal sites across the country, and from the Carmelite college itself. Works by painters such as Cristóbal de Villalpando, Miguel Cabrera, Juan Correa, Juan Becerra, Francisco Martínez and others are on show. Paintings, sculptures, furniture, liturgical objects and other pieces are used to decorate the Carmelite building, which has become the most important historical monument in present-day San Angel, admired by locals and foreigners alike.

San Ángel, CDMX, Fall 2019

Under translation
Under translation


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