Visit to the Ex-convento de los Agustinos
By Magdalena Copado
The Ex-convento de los Agustinos was one of the first convents founded by the Augustinians (a religious order) in the old Diocese of Michoacán. It is located in the south of the state of Guanajuato, on the border with Michoacán. The construction of the convent began in 1550 and concluded in 1559. It is the work of Spanish architect Pedro del Toro under the order of the Augustinian Fray Diego de Chávez y Alvarado. At that time the monastery had one level. The second level was added in the early 17th century. The monastery complex was named and dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle.
Tue, Sep 27
Ex-convento de los Agustinos
The old name of Yuriria, “Yuririapúndaro,” comes from the Purépecha language, meaning “Blood Lake.” This is part of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt with elevations ranging between 1,700 and 2,000 meters. The soil is fertile due to its volcanic base, producing crops such as sorghum, wheat, corn, and vegetables. The land also produces building materials such as tezontle (from the Spanish, meaning a porous, highly oxidized, volcanic rock, used extensively in construction. It is usually reddish in color due to iron oxide) and black sandstone. The artificial lake covers an 80-square-kilometer area (about 31 square miles) in the midst of a volcanic area. It was easy to conduct the waters from the Lerma River to the lake in 1548 for survival and agriculture. There are several small lakes, as well as canyons and cave systems, some of which were used for ceremonial purposes by pre-Hispanic peoples. The architecture of the monastery complex stands out as an important testimony of the 16th-century Plateresque style (a style unique to the Iberian peninsula), where large vaults of great architectural highlight trace elements, such as reliefs carved by indigenous people. Coal, sand, nopal, and egg white mixed together were used to construct the walls and ceiling.
The complex has an appearance of strength, showing battlements around the perimeter, as it was built with the intention of being a defense against possible attacks, especially from the Chichimec tribes (tribes of nomadic people living outside settled, agricultural areas).
The monastery complex consists of a temple (church) and the adjoining convent which was the home of the religious order. The temple is facing west and showcases carved reliefs which were the work of the natives. One can see this around the doors and at the tops of the columns. On top of the complex you can see a series of round holes which were the battlements. Near the front on the south side is a thick bell tower, which is topped by battlements and a small belfry.
Inside the temple there is a Latin cross, showing a neoclassical altarpiece that was placed in the 19th century as the original baroque altarpieces were destroyed by arson in 1813. At the time of the War of Independence (1810–1821), the convent was a military base and Agustin de Iturbide was fighting the insurgents. (Later he would join them and achieve national independence.) The rebel priest José Antonio Torres set fire to the temple and part of the convent, which destroyed much of the historical heritage. You will see barrel vaulted ceilings and ribbed vault ceilings that are late Gothic style, which comes from Europe.
Inside the convent are two patios; the main patio corresponds to the main cloister. In the center of the courtyard is an old water well that was used to catch rain water. The corridors around the cloister have rooms off them (refectory, chapter, etc.) and are on the ground floor. Another outstanding feature of the enclosure is the monumental main staircase, which is covered by vaulted ceilings. The handrails are made of hand carved mesquite wood and are over 400 years old. The property retains very few fresco paintings but there are still parts to see. The monastery is surrounded today on the west side by a public square. On the north and east sides are gardens that correspond to the old convent gardens. The south side is limited by a street and another public plaza.
Currently the temple maintains its religious function as a Catholic church. The annex building, which corresponds to the former convent, was among the assets seized by the government in the 19th century. Since 1926 the site has functioned as a museum and is governed by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Among this collection are archaeological pieces of pre-Hispanic cultures, Chupicuaro Purépecha (Tarasco), and a collection of colonial religious art. This includes oil paintings, some representing the holy Mexican martyrs who died in the Far East, plus relics, sculptures, and wooden crosses. The museum also has a library containing old books from the 16th to 19th centuries. The Lerma River is one of the most important rivers in the state of Guanajuato and in the country of Mexico. The ex-Convento, or cathedral, is probably the most important architectural structure in Yuriria and in the state as well. Its construction, its massive size, and dazzling structure have captured the attention of generations and ultimately put Yuriria on the map. Yuriria’s market, which formerly housed Congress, sells small sculptures made from tree roots, pottery products, candies made from milk or pecans, corn on the cob, and carnitas.