Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 5, 2007
Fortress cathedral fresco depicts deaths
Mexican walls tell the story of Paul Miki's martyrdom
St. Philip of Jesus – February 6
By TED FITZGERALD
- WCR photo by Ted Fitzgerald
Cuernavaca's Catedral de la Asunción one of Mexico's oldest churches is basically a fortress.
As one of Mexico's famous Franciscan fortress-churches since 1891, Asunción Cathedral presents a formidable aspect of blank stone walls to visitors, not enhanced by the once-common Franciscan skull and crossbones motif above the main entrance.
The solitary bell tower is topped, above defensive slit windows in its lower part, by the only obvious ornamentation - three tiers of Romanesque cupolas.
Near the west front of the building is the city's famous San Jose open chapel, said to be the oldest surviving in the New World. It is basically a large arched stone apse before which large crowds could assemble in the spacious open-air cathedral courtyard to attend Mass.
The cathedral interior is plain and stark, a result of the original monastery design and later renovations.
Study of the spectacular fresco by experts has identified the subject of the work but not the artist(s).
The several hundred square metre mural depicts the martyrdom of Paul Miki and companions in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1597. It is a pictorial narrative from the arrival by sea of the doomed missionaries to the details of their deaths. Three Japanese Jesuits, six Spanish Franciscans and 17 other Japanese Christians were tied to crosses and then killed with spear thrusts.
During the Colonial era, the Cuernavaca Abbey was a centre for eastern missionary activities and a staging area for those departing from the port of Acapulco for the Orient. This explains the presence of the artwork here.
Felipe Casas Martinez was born in Mexico City and entered the Franciscan order then, uncertain of his vocation, he left to become a merchant in the Philippines, realized his mistake and rejoined a year later.
In 1596, he sailed on a ship bound for Mexico where he would be ordained. Despite his anticipation of a life serving his creator as a priest, God had other plans for Felipe de Jesus as he was now known.
His vessel was forced by a storm to land in Japan at the height of a persecution of Christians. There he was marched with 25 other faithful to Nagasaki for trial and ultimate martyrdom.
He was canonized with the other martyrs of Japan in 1862 and shares his Feb. 6 feast day with them on the Roman calendar.
As his country's first native-born saint, San Felipe de Jesus is a popular intercessor in Mexico, is honoured with shrines and chapels in many churches and is an unofficial patron of Cuernavaca's great Cathedral de la Asunción de Maria.
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