Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 23, 2006
Zapotec revere ancient site
World famous pre-columbian ruins respected by conquistadors
Conversion of St. Paul – January 25
By TED FITZGERALD
Two-thirds of the people still identify Zapateco as their mother tongue.
First time visitors to the world famous pre-Columbian ruins at Mitla in southern Mexico's Oaxaca state may be surprised to find that the most prominent structure there is his substantial, four-domed Catholic church.
This, Eglesia San Pablo Apostal, is an important part of the story of the 16th century Spanish conquest of the area.
Throughout Mexico, the conquistadores commonly erected great colonial churches using the stone from pre-existing native public buildings. Here at Mitla however, the newcomers recognized the attachment of the local Zapotec people to the ancient site and a compromise was reached.
The Church of San Pablo was constructed to avoid damage to old structures that surround it on three sides so that today's visitors may examine finely decorated ancient walls and friezes within the shadow of the church.
As with many places in Oaxaca State, the present dual name of this town, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, recognized both the Spanish St. Paul and the Zapotec Place of the Dead, Mitla.
Most accessible of several preserved and restored sites here, that at San Pablo is thought to have been a palace complex.
Mitla's ruins are unique in Mexico in containing geometric ornamentation, lacking the more conventional animal, plant and human figures of most of Meso-American art. Structures here served a population of perhaps 10,000 in 1350 AD and were constructed by Zapotec-speaking people, later altered and added to by Mixtec arrivals from the north.
Visitors will find that Mitla, at an elevation of 1,680 metres in Mexico's Central Valley, is not an isolated mountain-top ruin, but is a thriving, living town of some 7,200 inhabitants with remnants of pre-conquest structures scattered through it.
Occupation of the town was continuous during the Spanish incursion and today, two-thirds of the people still identify Zapateco as their mother tongue.
Once past two life-size plastic altar boys soliciting funds for church reconstruction, visitors to San Pablo are free to appreciate the inside of the historic church.
Arches separate the four sections of an almost windowless interior illuminated by an enormous centrally situated crystal chandelier.
A statue of St. Paul the Apostle behind glass is the centrepiece of the church's ornate retablo.
The patron is also portrayed dramatically in a large statue against the north nave wall.
Here, a bearded Paul wears a gold, star-studded halo and holds a large sword, emblematic of his reputation as a warrior for the faith. In his left hand is a book of his epistles.
Additionally, above the easternmost arch, a dark painting portrays the saint's martyrdom.
Parishioners stopping in for a mid-afternoon prayer are aware that a trend towards separating St. Paul's feast day from the currently shared celebration with St. Peter's each June 29 exists.
This would suit Mitla's Zapotecos well, since they have traditionally always observed the January memorial of his conversion as their major yearly fiesta.
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.