Atotonilco (the village) is dominated by a church, El Santuario de Atotonilco, one of the more extraordinary places in Mexico. In 1740, Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro undertook to build it: a monument to the life of Christ.
As an example of colonial architecture, the exterior of the Church of Jesus the Nazarene, as it is sometimes called, isn’t significant. It’s what’s inside that counts. The walls are covered with incredible murals created by a local painter, Miguel Antonio Martínez Pocasangre—like this one, visible above the main altar.
The church contains more art than one could imagine. This chapel is hung with gilt frames holding exquisite glass paintings of scenes from the life of Christ. The images focus on violence, blood and pain.
Guanajuato woodcarvers contributed many sculptures, including this unidentified figure with hands outstretched in benediction.
The most famous of Atotonlico’s treasured carvings is called El Señor de la Columna, a tortured depiction of scourged Christ.
Every year at the beginning of Holy Week, Our Lord of the Column is carried in a torchlit procession from its niche at Atotonilco to San Miguel de Allende, where it remains until after Easter. Over the years, El Santuario de Atotonilco fell into neglect. Parts of the edifice crumbled, the roof developed leaks, and frescoes deteriorated. Portions of this ceiling have become completely obliterated.
Some murals have become so washed out that their subjects are now lost.
In 1996, funds were raised for conservation and restoration. Parts of the church were repaired and some of the frescoes renovated. But the work was underfunded and progressed slowly. Last year, UNESCO recognized El Santuario de Atotonilco as a World Heritage Site, and everything changed. Suddenly the sanctuary has become filled with scaffolds bearing restoration experts. Crumbling stonework is being patched and plastered. White-suited conservationists painstakingly repair murals.
The ceiling shown below was restored during the 1986 effort. The transformation is astounding. Subject matter retains its original grimness, but bright color dispels some of the gloom.
Tourists have begun arriving. No longer can I sit in one of the old pews on a Tuesday morning, the sole occupant of this place. Milling crowds from Mexico City and San Luis Potosi wield cameras, ignoring signs asking them not to use flashes. Restoration of the exterior awaits. The head of the Virgin here has eroded away completely. But given UNESCO recognition, funding for such work at last is assured.
Atotonilco is being saved in the nick of time. I don’t think it would have lasted another ten years without intervention. Its salvation is a blessing, but it may also be a curse. The sanctuary will be preserved for generations of pilgrims and visitors, but it is being transformed into a tourist destination. The paintings have been saved, but I’m afraid the sleepy country church placidly baking in the sun may be lost.