Jesus Christ the Nazarene church in Atotonilco was restored by Agustín Espinoza Chávez. Professional restorer shares experience
BY RICARDO CASTILLO
Art restorer Agustín Espinoza Chávez spent the past 20 years salvaging the mural works at the UNESCO nominated World Heritage Atotonilco sanctuary.
Last Friday, Espinoza presented a book containing a memoir of 20 years of work edited by the University of Guanajuato and the state government.
The book presentation at the Mayorazgo Banamex building was carried out within the Spanish language side of the San Miguel Writers’ Conference and Literary Festival last week.
Atotonilco, along with San Miguel de Allende, received the World Heritage Site nominations from UNESCO in 2008.
By that time, Espinoza Chávez had already been working on the religious complex for 12 years trying to bring back to cohesion the murals painted for the most part by Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre during the 18th century. The complex was built in 1740 by priest Felipe Neri and Pocasangre spent 30 years completing the 6,000 square meters of religious paintings, the great majority revolved around the life of Jesus Christ. In fact, the religious complex carries the name of Sanctuary of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, and the building is a replica of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The News chatted with Espinoza. A professional restorer, he previously participated in the salvaging of the murals at famed Maya ruins Bonampak in the Chiapas jungle as well as the gorgeous and mysterious murals at Cacaxtla, near the city of Puebla.
Espinoza recalls that when he was offered the restoration of the Atotonilco sanctuary complex, he was hesitant to accept it given the size of the murals, but more so because for more than two centuries they had remained untouched.
“They were in a deplorable state,” he recalls.
“My first impression when I went to the place made (me) shudder. It smelled of bat dung and all the refuse from the school mixed up with the river underneath. It was 1996, during a very cold winter and I wondered ‘What am I going to do there?’ I don’t even like the place. It was extremely deteriorated.”
Still, Espinoza and several archaeologists made what he describes as “a small project” to be financed by the World Monuments Fund.
“I was still very hesitant to take the project but I don’t know what came over me. That was 20 years ago and I’m still here.”
The book called “Restoration of Atotonilco,” reflects “my personal experience as an academic and restorer,” said Espinoza.
He was asked about the content and quality of the work of Pocasangre.
“The mural paintings, which cover about 6,000 square meters (18,000 feet) is tempera painting. This type of painting was brought here by the Spaniards based on organic glue. That’s what most of the murals are made of, but there are oil paintings that were carried out later.”
In a bird’s eye view of what made the work, there are oil paintings framed with plated gold, “there are 11 marvelous retables” along with the works on the painted walls.
During the presentation of his book, Espinoza Chávez compared many parts of his work with before and after slides.
Each of the restorations, he recalled, took painstaking work — given the minute details — to be reconstructed and bring it back as close to the original as possible. Maestro Espinoza defends the paintings of De Pocasangre which have been criticized as a bit coarse and rudimentary.
“Let’s recall that Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre spent 30 years carrying out this marvelous work. He must be acknowledged as a painter because he was not academic, but had a great spontaneity that other painters of that time did not have. His style can’t be compared to anyone else’s and the entirety of murals preserves a unity one doesn’t get elsewhere.”