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HISTORY - Unesco Site: The Sanctuary of Atotonilco

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

The small village of Atotonilco is most famed for the Sanctuary of Atotonilco. A Nahuatl word, Atotonilco means “Place of Hot Waters,” which is in reference to the hot mineral pools here. It is said the Chichimeca peoples would come here to make sacrifices as penance, puncturing their skin with thorns and letting it wash away in the thermal waters for purification. When Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro arrived here, he was dismayed by what he felt were heathen and sinful practices, despite the fact that he himself was a proponent of self-mortification in the form of flagellation and fasting. In his journal, he wrote: “The barbarous Indians did make use of this place in heathen times as a center for their idolatries.....this has been a place of lawlessness and sensuality. Under the pretext of assembling for the medicinal baths, there have been contests, music, feasts, games and sinful practices induced by these disorderly gatherings.” A pious man, Father Neri founded the Sanctuario de Jesus Nazareno in 1740 with full intention of converting the local natives.

Legend has it that Father Neri, who was preaching at missions in Dolores Hidalgo, was resting under a mesquite tree and dreamed of Jesus bearing a crown of thorns, and carrying a cross. Another legend claims Father Neri was in Atotonilco due to an illness, and learned of medicinal rituals taking place at the hot springs by indigenous locals, and was horrified by sexual acts deemed to be against God.

Father Neri blessed the first stone of the Sanctuary of Atotonilco on May 3, 1740. On that morning, it is purported that Father Neri traced the layout of the church, then saw three rainbows – one in the east, one in the north and one in the south, with none in the west. The main altar faces the west, towards the Holy Land. There were different phases of construction, including 1740 to 1748 when the central structure, tower and Purisisma Chapel were built. The second phase lasted until 1776, and saw the construction of many chapels and annexes. Father Neri lived at the site until his death in 1776, so never got to see the Santa Escuela Annex, and other various structures, nor sculptures, altars and paintings that were added in the following 100 years.

The Sanctuary de Jesus Nazareno is Baroque style architecture, with Mexican Folk Baroque murals covering the walls, from the floors and across the ceilings. These murals were mostly painted by Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre, with some by Jose Maria Barajas. For art historians, one might observe a Flemish influence, due to Belgian prints the Spanish brought with them, and which these artists studied. One will also notice signs of indigenous influence in the murals – and the fact that the entirety of free space is covered with imagery is why this Sanctuario is fondly called “The Sistine Chapel of Mexico.” Protected under the same UNESCO designation as San Miguel de Allende, the Sanctuario de Jesus Nazareno remains an important destination for pilgrims during Semana Santa celebrations, and draws approximately 5000 visitors per week.

Celebrated martyr Ignacio Allended married Maria de la Luz Agustina de las Fuentes in 1802 in the church, followed by the banner of the insurgent army depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe being delivered here on September 16, 1810. Following the War of Independence, Atotonilco became part of the municipality of San Miguel de Allende.

Sadly, the humidity from the hot springs have caused extensive damage to this Sanctuary, deeming it necessary to restore it. Restoration began in 1994, and the church was listed in World Monuments Watch in 1996. Further restoration work continued in 2010, including work on the drainage system. There was a chapel that had been built much later called Sagrado Corazon Chapel, which was demolished due to its blocking one part of the complex. An arch was uncovered, and a tree planted in the courtyard there in memory of Father Neri. The courtyard was also reconstructed to assist with the light and drainage, to keep the complex dry.

When we visit Atotonilco, we will visit the hot springs, which though very modern today, are still flowing with the ancestral medicinal waters that were once enjoyed by the Chichimeca. Please remember to pack your bathing suit!

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