Located in the town of Actopan, the former Convento (monastery) of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino de Actopan is possibly the most important historical building in the whole State of Hidalgo, Mexico.
Architecturally and visually, it is one of the best examples of neo-Hispanic art of the sixteenth century, and for this reason was declared a Historical and Artistic Monument of the Nation by the Government of the Republic of Mexico as long ago as 2nd February 1933.
The foundation of this Augustinian convento (combined public church and community residence) dates back to 1546. Its erection was actually approved two years earlier by the famous Augustinian Provincial, Alonso de la Veracruz O.S.A., at a chapter meeting of the Order of Saint Augustine that was held in Mexico City.
Construction took place progressively between 1550 and 1570. An early Augustinian historian of the Augustinian Order in Mexico, Juan de Grijalva O.S.A., attributes the supervision of the building and its distinctive appearance to Andrés de Mata O.S.A., who certainly was the builder of the Augustinian convento nearby at Ixmiquilpan (where de Mata died in 1574).
The design talents and building activities of Andrés de Mata O.S.A. at Ixmiquilpan have long been much discussed. In the absence of evidence of any other Augustinian as responsible for the convento at Actopan during the years that Andrés de Mata O.S.A. was at nearby Ixmiquilpan, it is justified to credit him for conceiving the magnificent design at Actopan as well as at Ixmiquilpan convento.
If indeed there had simultaneously been a second Augustinian with equal architectural talents in the district at that time, it is highly improbable that Augustinian historians would not have known it and not have recorded it.
In the Actopan convento, there is a brilliant eclecticism of architectural forms of diverse styles. For example, the cloister (interior courtyard) of Actopan gothic style is reminiscent of the Renaissance; the gothic interior vaulting of its church is Romanesque; its bell tower, of noticeable Morish flavour, is of the special “plateresco" style of colonial Mexico.
Sumptuous paintings of Renaissance style also decorate several of the walls, and a chapel (see picture 3) with a mural of singular religious syncretism.
The most notable architectural innovation of an early Hispanic-Mexican convento was the Open Chapel, of which two clear examples are those at Actopan, northwest of Mexico City, and Acolman, near
The Open Chapel is an auditorium-like accessory to the main monastery, designed to accommodate the huge crowds of worshippers in the earliest post-conquest years. Open Chapels are amphitheaters, to allow crowds of worshippers to gather without walls. They are only rarely roofed.
The Open Chapels concentrated the worshipping crowds to focus on the preaching and teaching. Many also contain colourful didactic dioramas - graphic illustrations to augment the hurried sermons overworked friars gave their converts in native dialects in which they struggled to be fluent.
In the relative absence of illustrated publications and ecclesiastical leadlight windows, these open chapels of stone and plaster operated to mesmerize the peoples of the former Aztec Empire with the new images of religion from Catholic Spain.
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For further information and images.
Colonial sites in Hidalgo. In this web site, the first ten images deal with the Augustinian ex-convento and
Saint Nicholas at Actopan in
Hidalgo State, Mexico.