Sanctuary of Atotonilco

A sleepy pueblo of winding, bougainvillea lined lanes and red tiled villas, the central Guanajuato town of Atotonilco El Alto is the last place on earth you'd expect to find Mexico's answer to the Sistine Chapel. For visitors unfamiliar with the extravagance of Mexican neo-Gothic architecture, the imposing, domed fortress flanking the North of the Plaza will present a delightful photo opportunity for its exterior alone. Sculpted from the sandy brick and white stucco uniform to Mexican places of worship, El Santuario de Atotonilco (Sanctuary of Atotonilco) commands attention for its distinctly medieval facade.

Formally known as the “Santuario de Dios y de la Patria” (Sanctuary of God and Country), Atotonilco's infamous church dates back to 1740. Tradition alleges the church to have been commissioned by Father Neri - a well known preacher from Dolores Hidalgo, and subsequent leader of the Hacienda de Atotonilco. Prior to 1996, the exuberant interior of Atotonilco Sanctuary was riddled with dust, damp and decay - the effects of several decades worth of neglect. In 1996, the W.M.F (World Monuments Fund) answered the plight of locals, securing money from the America Express Bank and Guanajuato government for a complete restoration effort.

Today, you'd little know the Sanctuary had ever fallen into such deplorable decline – its ambient murals still as colorful and lifelike as when they were first painted. Vaulted ceiling portions of the main nave are divided according to books of the Gospel, depicting famous scenes such as the moment Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus. Local artist Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre is accredited with much of the oil work completed here; his style said to have been a merging of both Flemish and “folk Baroque”. Moving forward to the altar, the anguished faces of the damned can be made out alongside an alarming representation of the devil himself. Portrayed with glaring eyes, bared teeth and horns, his representation is enough to send a chill down anyone's spine.

Venerated by nearly every visitor to Atotonilco, the “Virgin of Sorrows” altar is a marvel to behold. Gracing a small podium that juts out from the masterpiece, the florid-cheeked Virgin Mary stands with arms outstretched, as if to welcome the congregation into her arms. Offset by intricate gold leaf frames of intertwining vines, birds and leaves, the mirrored murals surrounding the “Virgin of Sorrows” feature scenes handpicked from the Bible by Father Neri himself – including one of Jesus praying at Getsemani. Set atop a golden pedestal to the East of the altar stands “Our Lord of The Column” - a sculpture of Jesus bloodied and broken, leaning upon a water jug. A number of miracles have been attributed to the statue, including the healing of terminal illness and the banishment of drought.

Miracles abound at Atotonilco, not least because the Santuario was built upon the site of hot springs. Of the 27 once feeding the immediate grounds, only one remains – the Balneario La Gruta. Now housed within an artificial cavern, visitors too can experience the healing properties of these spirited waters at the Gruta Spa – a relaxing climax to a fascinating afternoon at the “Sistine Chapel of The Americas”.

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