The village church of Santiago Tupátaro in Mexico’s Michoacán State was built in 1775. Indian artists painted the entire wooden ceiling with scenes of the life and death of Christ and the Virgin Mary. A simple whitewashed building, standing on old wooden planks, conceals the richness and beauty within.
The evangelization of Michoacán’s indigenous people – the Purépecha – began during the 16th century when Franciscan and Augustinian priests worked with the enlightened and humanitarian bishop of Michoacán, Don Vasco de Quiroga, to create pueblos hospitalarios (“hospital-towns”) along a route through the region’s mountains and valleys. Today, it is still known as “La Ruta de Don Vasco”.
Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, whose seated statue can be found in Morelia’s Plaza de las Rosas, was a student of Thomas Moore’s Utopia. In the lands surrounding the city he saw an ideal place to put Moore’s social theories to work. In Michoacán, Quiroga found a thriving crafts-driven economy and a well-developed and organized community. Although Quiroga had already founded a similar “hospital” in Mexico City, he invested his entire life in perfecting the idea throughout Michoacán.
Michoacán’s hospital-towns were intended to offer hospitality to the stranger as well as religious education and physical care to the sick. Each was built along similar lines, including a convent, a church dedicated to a particular patron saint, a smaller chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and a huatápera (meeting place), which was the actual hospital and travellers’ hostel.
Religious architecture in the Purépecha towns was characterized by the use of adobe brick and mortar walls and carved volcanic stone doorways. The roofs were originally made of tejamanil (thin pine strips) which were later covered with clay tiles. The jewel of the interior of these simple churches was the high wooden ceiling. Curved or trapezoidal, the entire ceiling was hand-painted by indigenous artists and consequently filled with symbols of medieval European Christianity adapted to the perspective of the Purépecha people. Serving as decoration and education in the faith, these churches and their ceilings, along with their finely carved altarpieces, are among the artistic treasures of the region.