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 Vera Cruz O.S.A., at a, Augustinian Chapter meeting 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 the 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.
Photos (at right): Picture 1: At Actopan the main facade of church (left) and convento (right). Picture 2: Side wall of the church. Picture 3: Painted vault of former monastery chapel.
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 Teotihuacan. 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.
MartÍn de Acevedo O.S.A. is another friar also possibly involved in the history of the construction of the convento. He was the Augustinian prior (community leader) there in about the year 1600. His picture occupies a central position underneath the main staircase, beside effigies of Pedro lxcuincuitlapilco and lnica Juan Atocpan, the chiefs of the towns of lxcuincuitlapilco and Actopan respectively.
Because of this prominent portrait, the architect Luis Mac Gregor has raised the possibility that MartÍn de Acevedo O.S.A. was the one who commissioned the painting of the murals on the walls and vaults, and possibly other works and transformations in the building. With the secularisation of monasteries and the restriction on religious orders by the government law of 16th November 1750, the church was staffed by a diocesan priest, Juan de la Barreda. The monastery and its lands were sectioned and sold. In 1873 the chapel was also sold by the government to Mr Carlos Mayorga for 369 pesos. Among various uses made of the monastery building over the years was that of a museum, a hospital, a primary school and subsequently the boarding section of a secondary school.
Photos (at left): Picture 1: Cloister (clausura, patio) outside of the refectory. Picture 2: Painted vault of sanctuary of the church. Picture 3: Painted vault of former monastery corridor. Picture 4: Main entrance to monastery, to the right of the church.
On 27 June 1933 the building was taken over by the Director of Cultural Monuments of the federal government, and the restoration of the building as part of the cultural heritage of Mexico began. This continued the work of the artist Robert Montenegro, who in about the year 1927 had begun to remove the heavy layers of lime that have been painted over the murals near the main staircase.
On behalf of the Director, the architect, Luis MacGregor made an assessment of the property and in 1933 and 1934. He found the building still to be sound, without any severe problems endangering its integrity. Even so, the centuries of lack of suitable maintenance had caused significant deterioration. MacGregor ordered initial steps to halt further deterioration of the buildings and their murals. He also directed the removal of modifications that had been made when parts of the ex-convento had been adapted for use as a hospital and as the residence of a boarding school.
Not much in the way of positive restoration happened until a major project between December 1992 and April 1994. During that period, extensive repairs and restoration were made to the roof, drainage, flooring, to cracked walls, to the supports of the bells. Extensive painting was also undertaken. The careful work of the artistic restoration of the murals in the church and monastery was carried out according to high international standards.
Outside the building, part of the original orchard was recovered, and converted into pathways and a botanical garden of local flora. Except for the absence of some works of art originally prepared for the building, the ex-convento of San Nicholas de Tolentino at Actopan in Hidalgo State, Mexico is one of the finest examples of the Augustinian architectural contribution to sixteenth-century Mexico and to world heritage generally. It is now a Museum of Religious Art.
Fortress Monasteries: San Nicolas de Tolentino, 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. http://colonialmexicoinsideandout.blogspot.com.au/2014/06/mexicos-fortress-monasteries-san.html