Drive just 15-minutes outside of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and you come to a remarkable Jesuit sanctuary.
It’s the Sanctuary of Atotonilco, dubbed the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico.”
The site is so extraordinary that visiting it is one of the best things to do in Mexico, especially if you love history, architecture and culture.
The Sanctuary of Atotonilco
Dedicated to Jesus, the large church, with several attached chapels, was built in the 18th century.
On the outside, the white church complex is quite plain.
But inside the church?
Talk about an explosion of color and art!
The walls and ceilings are almost completely decorated with oil paintings, poems, sculptures and frescoes in riotous colors (vivid blues, reds, green and black).
You see mythical creatures, flowers, gilded baroque virgins, horned devils, red-robed priests and scenes depicting the life of Christ.
Local Indian artists Miguel Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre and Rodriguez Juárez painted the murals over a period of 30 years in Mexican Baroque style. (The artists painted Spanish conquerors instead of Roman soldiers.)
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
We visited the sanctuary with Italian architect Roberto Burillo Eguia Lis.
In 1996, at the instigation of Roberto and his partner, the World Monuments Fund added the sanctuary to its list of “100 Most Endangered Monuments.”
With seed money from American Express and more than $100,000 US from the state of Guanajuato (home to Guanajuato’s unique mummy museum), the building’s facade and murals were inspected, analyzed and cleaned – and restoration work was started.
In July, 2008, as a result of the efforts of Roberto and his partner, the Sanctuary of Atotonilco was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Images are still being authentically restored under Roberto’s guidance, retaining their centuries-old character.
“We’re restoring in a way that doesn’t kill the ghosts,” Roberto explained as he showed us around.
We also heard pilgrims singing hymns and saw Mexican nuns washing the altars.
After, we wandered around the little souvenir stands outside selling corn whips.
“Pilgrims still come from central Mexico and self-flagellate with corn whips,” said Roberto.
“The town here is totally authentic and nothing has changed in 300 years.”
Apart from its fantastic mural work, the Sanctuary of Atotonilco is also noteworthy from an historical perspective.
It was from this church that heroic Father Miguel Hidalgo galloped off to San Miguel de Allende in 1810, starting the revolt that ultimately led to Mexico’s independence from Spain.
Where is the Sistine Chapel of Mexico located?
The Sanctuary of Atotonilco (Sistine Chapel of Mexico) is located in the small rural community of Atotonilco, some 8.5 miles (14 km) outside the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende.
Photo credits: 2 to 7, 9 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase