Murals Triumph Over Time at Casa del Deán
Although many of Mexico’s best-known muralists — Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Juan O’Gorman — made their marks in the first half of the 20th century, muralism in Mexico began more than a millennium ago. Long before the Spaniards arrived, pre-Hispanic civilizations painted pictures on walls to express their beliefs and rituals: For example, the 180-foot-long mural Bebedores de Pulque inside the Great Pyramid of Cholula depicts masked figures drinking pulque, the fermented nectar of the maguey plant, during a feast or ceremony. During and after the Conquest, murals were used to evangelize Christianity to the natives. Today these paintings provide fine, lasting examples of Colonial art.
Some of the most important murals left behind can be found inside the Casa del Deán in Puebla. Aside from their artistic value, the 400-year-old frescoes are the oldest non-religious murals registered in Mexico.
The Casa del Deán originally belonged to Don Tomás de la Plaza Goes, who was dean of Puebla from 1553 to 1589. As such, Goes was second in command to the bishop — and held the keys to the Cathedral. Having to live close to the church, he built his home right around the corner. The house, which historian Enrique Cordero y Torres classified as the city’s oldest still standing, remained intact until the 1950s, when it was sold and largely converted into a movie theater. During the renovations, however, elaborate murals were uncovered in two outlying rooms and, after much lobbying from artists and intellectuals nationwide, the space was preserved and turned into a museum.
The building, designed by architect Francisco Becerra, features a Renaissance-style façade with a coat of arms above wrought-iron balcony. Inside, a grand stone staircase leads to two rooms decorated with murals. The murals were created by artists called Tlacuilos (a Nahuatl word), whose names are unknown. Their work has been restored twice, most recently in 2009. Before entering the first room, visitors can view a set of photographs that show the murals as they were found and the restoration process, providing a fair before-and-after comparison.
The first room, called La Sala de las Sibilas, contains a wrap-around mural of a parade of sibyls — female prophets from Greek mythology — who narrate the passion of Christ. Each sibyl wears 16th-century clothing and carries a banner depicting a different moment of the final hours of Jesus’ life. “The central scene on each of the four walls is flanked by borders demarcated by a cord, a method that was used to frame the content of murals in Franciscan convents, evoking the habit of St. Francis of Assisi and underscoring the strong influence of the Order and natives in the region,” an INAH sign tells visitors. “Note that the definition of the formal design with a black line is a style that has its origins in pre-Hispanic mural painting techniques.”
Despite its Christian imagery, the mural is considered to be nonreligious because it features heretic themes (i.e., Greek Mythology) and non-Biblical metaphors, even though it was ordered by a Catholic dean. The mural also mixes European symbols with indigenous ones, such as the regional animals, insects, flowers, birds, and fruits that adorn its friezes.
The second room, called La Sala de los Triunfos, could be considered downright blasphemous, given that it narrates “The Triumphs,” a poem written by Italian humanist Petrarch in 1352 and banned by the Church in 1575. The murals depict the nature of human life, proving its weakness in matters of love, chastity, time, death, and fame (or divinity). This room is believed to have been Don Tomás’s bedroom, and the murals were supposedly constant reminders of his mortality. —Vica Amuchastegui
The Casa del Deán is located a short walk from the zócalo at 16 de Septiembre #505. Hours: Tuesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is 31 pesos.