Legends of the City of Mexico | Annotated Tale

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Legend of the Altar del Perdon

THIS painter, Señor, who by a miracle painted the most beautiful picture of Our Lady of Mercy that is to be found in the whole world--the very picture that ever since has adorned the Altar del Perdon in the Cathedral--in the beginning of him was a very bad sinner: being a Fleming, and a Jew, and many other things that he ought not to have been, and therefore straight in the way to pass the whole of Eternity--his wickednesses being so numerous that time would have been wasted in trying to purge him of them in Purgatory--in the hottest torments that the devil his master could contrive. He was a very agreeable young gentleman, of a cheerful and obliging nature, and both witty and interesting in his talkings--for which reason the Viceroy had a great liking for his company and had him often at the Palace to the banquets and the festivals of the court. His name, Señor, was Don Simon Peyrens; and the Viceroy his patron--in whose suite he had come from Spain expressly to beautify the Palace with his paintings--was Don Gastón de Peralta, Marqués de Falces: who was the third Viceroy of the Province, being the successor to the good Don Luis de Velasco when that most worthy gentleman ceased to be a Viceroy and became an angel in the year 1564.

                Well, Señor, it happened some years later--in the time of Don Martín Enriquez de Almanza, the fourth Viceroy, with whom Peyrens remained in favor--that the Chapter of the Cathedral, desiring to make splendid the Altar del Perdon, offered in competition to all the painters of Mexico a prize for the most beautiful picture of Our Lady of Mercy: which picture was to be placed in the centre of that altar and to be the chief glory of it. And, thereupon, all the painters of Mexico, save only Peyrens, entered into that competition with a reverent and an eager joy. And then it was, Señor, that Peyrens made plain the wickedness that was in him by his irreverent blasphemies. At a banquet at the Palace a very noble gentleman asked him why he alone of all the painters of Mexico--and he the best of all of them--had not entered into the competition; to which that sinful young man answered with a disdainful and impious lightness that the painting of what were called sacred pictures was but foolishness and vanity, and that he for his part could not be tempted to paint one by all the gold in the world!

                Talk of that sort, Señor, as you well may imagine, scalded the ears of all who heard it--and in the quarter where the punishment of such sinning was attended to it made an instant stir. In a moment information of that evil young man's utterances was carried to the Archbishop--who at that time was the venerable Fray Alonzo de Montúfar--and in another moment he found himself lodged behind iron bars in a cell in the Inquisition: that blessed constrainer to righteousness, for the comforting of the faithful, that then was proving its usefulness by mowing down the weeds of heresy with a very lively zeal.

                Being of an incredible hard-heartedness, neither the threats nor the pleadings of the Familiars of the Holy Office could stir Peyrens from the stand that he had taken. Resolutely he refused to recant his blasphemies; equally resolutely he refused to accept his freedom on the condition that he should paint the picture of Our Lady--and he even went so far, when they brought him the materials for the making of that picture, as to tear the canvas to shreds and rags!

                And so the days ran on into weeks, and the weeks into months, and nothing changed in that bad matter: save that the Archbishop, saintly man that he was, began to lose his temper; and that the Familiars of the Holy Office lost their tempers entirely--and were for settling accounts with Peyrens by burning his wickedness out of him with heavenly fire.

                As it happened, Señor, a great opportunity for such wholesome purifying of him was imminent: because at that time the preparations were being made for the very first auto de fé that ever was celebrated in Mexico, and all the City was on tiptoe of joyful expectation of it. Therefore everybody was looking forward with a most pleased interest to seeing that criminally stiff-necked painter--properly clad in a yellow coat with a red cross on the back and on the front of it--walking with the condemned ones; and then, on the brasero that had been set up in the market-place, to seeing him and his sins together burned to ashes; and then to seeing those sin-tainted ashes carried to the outskirts of the City and scattered pollutingly on the muddy marsh.

                However, Señor, none of those interesting and edifying things happened: because Our Lady of Mercy--and it was just like the good-nature of her to do so--took a hand in the affair, and by the working of a loving miracle made everything come out smoothly and well.

                On a night, as he lay sleeping on his pallet in his cell in the Inquisition, Peyrens was awakened suddenly he knew not how; and as he wakened he found in his nose a smell so delectable that he thought that he still was asleep and his nose dreaming it: and for him to have that thought was quite reasonable, Señor, because it was the pure fragrance of heaven--to which, of course, human noses are unaccustomed--that filled the room. Then, as he lay on his pallet wondering, a shimmering light began to glow softly in the darkness; and the light constantly grew stronger and stronger until it became a glorious radiance far brighter than any sunlight; and then in the midst of that resplendency--yet the heavenly sparkle of her making the dazzle of it seem like darkness--Our Lady of Mercy herself appeared to him: and he would have died of the glory of her, had it not been for the loving kindness that shone upon him assuringly and comfortingly from her gentle eyes.

                Then said to him Our Lady, in a voice sweeter than any earthly music: "Little son, why dost thou not love me?" And Peyrens--his hard heart melted by that gentle look and by that sweet voice, and all of his wickedness cured by that loving kindness--rose from his pallet and knelt before Our Lady, saying with a deep earnestness: "Queen of Heaven, I reverence and I love thee with all the heart of me and with all my soul!" Then, for a time, a serene strange happiness bemazed him dream-fully--and when his bemazement left him the resplendent presence was gone. But with him still remained the heavenly radiance that was brighter than any sunlight, and the heavenly perfume that was sweeter than spikenard and lilies; and while he pondered all these mysteries, awe-bound and wondering, again sounded in his ears that heaven-sweet voice--coming as from a great distance, but with a bell-note clearness--saying to him gently and lovingly: "Paint now thy picture of me, little son!"

                Quite possibly, Señor, in the hurry of the moment, Our Lady forgot that Peyrens had no canvas--because in his sinful anger he had destroyed it--on which to paint the picture that she commanded of him; but, for myself, I think that she meant to set his wits to work to find the means by which he could obey her command. At any rate, his wits did work so well that even as she spoke he saw his way out of his difficulty; and in an instant--all a-thrill with joyful eagerness to do Our Lady's bidding, and inspired by the splendor of his vision of her--he set himself to painting the portrait of her, just as his own eyes had seen her in her glory, on the oaken door of his cell.

                All the night long, Señor--working by the heaven-light that was brighter than any sunlight, and having in his happy nose the heaven fragrance that uplifted his soul with the sweetness of it--he painted as one who painted in a heaven-sent dream. And when the morning came, and the glimmering daylight took dimly the place of the heaven-light, he had finished there on the door of his cell the most beautiful picture of Our Lady--as I said in the beginning--that ever has been painted in this mortal world: and so it had to be--because, you see, it is the only picture of her that ever has been painted of her by one who has beheld her with mortal eyes!

                As usually is the case with miracles, Señor, the outcome of this one was most satisfactory. The Archbishop and the Chapter of the Cathedral, being brought in haste, instantly felt themselves compelled to adore that miraculous image; and when they had finished adoring it they equally felt themselves compelled to declare that Peyrens by his making of it had earned both his freedom and the prize. Therefore Peyrens was set at liberty and most richly rewarded; and the pictured door was taken from its hinges and, being framed in a great frame of silver, was set upon the Altar del Perdon to be the chief glory of it; and what was best of all--because it made safe the soul of him for all Eternity--the Archbishop formally confirmed to Peyrens his absolution, through Our Lady's loving kindness, from his bad heresy and from all his other sins.

                What became of this Peyrens later, Señor, I have not heard mentioned; but in regard to the accuracy of all that I have told you about him there can be no question: because the miracle-picture that he painted still adorns the Altar del Perdon, and is the chief glory of it--and there you may see it this very day.


Simon Peyrens, a Flemish painter, came to Mexico in the suite of the third Viceroy (1566-1568) Don Gastón de Peralta, Marqués de Falces. If he painted--and, presumably, he did paint--a Virgin of Mercy for the Altar del Perdon, his picture has disappeared: doubtless having been removed from the altar when the present Cathedral (begun, 1573; dedicated, though then incomplete, 1656) replaced the primitive structure erected a few years after the Conquest. The Virgin of the Candelaria on the existing Altar del Perdon was painted by Baltasar de Echave, the Elder; a Spanish artist of eminence who came to Mexico about the end of the sixteenth century. Peyrens certainly had the opportunity to do his work under conditions akin to, but decidedly more unpleasant than, those set forth in the legend: as Señor Obregón has made clear by producing facts which exhibit the afflictions of that unfortunate artist; and which also, incidentally, account for the appearance in Mexico of a miracle-story that in varying forms is found in the saintly chronicles of many lands.

                Señor Obregón's source is an original document of the time of Fray Alonso de Montúfar; a Dominican brother who was the second Archbishop of Mexico (1554-1572), and who also held the office of Inquisitor--in accordance with the custom that obtained until the formal establishment (1571) of the Inquisition in Mexico. It was before him, therefore, as represented by his Provisor, that the case of Peyrens was brought.

                As stated in this document, Peyrens had declared in familiar talk with friends that simple incontinence was not a sin; and he farther had declared that he liked to paint portraits, and that he did not like to, and would not, paint saints nor pictures of a devotional sort. His friends admonished him that his views in regard to incontinence made him liable to arraignment before the ecclesiastical authorities; whereupon--seemingly seeking, as a measure of prudence, to forestall by his own confession any charge that might be brought against him--he "denounced himself," on September 10, 1568, to Fray Bartolomé de Ledesma, Gobernador de la Mitra. As the result of his confession--instead of being granted the absolution that he obviously expected to receive--he was arrested and cast into prison.

                Four days later, September 14th, he was examined formally. To the questions propounded to him, he replied, in substance: That he had been born in Antwerp, the son of Fero Peyrens and of Constanza Lira his wife; that he was not of Jewish descent; that none of his family had been dealt with by the Inquisition; that in his early manhood he had gone to Lisbon and later to Toledo, where the Court then was seated, to practice his profession as a painter; that he had come to New Spain, in the suite of the Viceroy, in the hope of bettering his fortunes. In regard to the charges against him, he explained: That what he had said about the sinlessness of simple incontinence had been spoken lightly in friendly talk, and, moreover, very well might have been misunderstood because of his imperfect knowledge of the Spanish tongue; and that what he had said about liking to paint portraits and not being willing to paint saints had been said only because portrait-painting was the better paid. His trial followed: at which nothing more was produced against him--although a number of witnesses, including "many painters," were interrogated--than the facts brought out in his own examination.

                In order to force from Peyrens himself a fuller and more incriminating confession, the Provisor, Don Estéban de Portillo, ordered that he should be "submitted to the test of torture." This test was applied on December 1st--when Peyrens "supported three turns of the rack and swallowed three jars of water dripped into his mouth by a linen rag," without modifying or enlarging his previous declarations. By the rules of the game--he having, in the jargon of the Inquisition, "conquered his torment"--the proceedings against him then should have ended. Mr. Lea, commenting on his case ("The Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies," p. 198), writes: "This ought to have earned his dismissal, but on December 4th he was condemned to pay the costs of his trial and to give security that he would not leave the City until he should have painted a picture of Our Lady of Merced, as an altar-piece for the church. He complied, and it was duly hung in the Cathedral."

                I have not found--seemingly, Mr. Lea did find--a record of the actual painting of the picture. The sentence passed on Peyrens is given in full by Señor Obregón--in archaic Spanish, whereof much of the queer flavor evaporates in translation--and is as follows:

"In the criminal plea now pending before me, preferred by the Holy Office against simon peireins fleming held in the prison of this Arcobispado in regard to the words which the said simon peireins spoke and on which he has been prosecuted, on the acts and merits of this case it is found that for the crime committed by simon peyrens using him with equity and mercy I condemn him to paint at his own cost an altar-piece (retablo) of our lady of mercy for this holy church [the Cathedral] very devout and to me pleasing, and that in the interim while he is painting this altar-piece he shall not leave this city under penalty of being punished with all rigor as one disobedient to the mandates of the holy office, and I admonish and command the said simon peireins that from this time forth he shall not speak such words as those for the speaking of which he has been arrested nor shall he question any matters touching our holy catholic faith under penalty of being rigorously punished and in addition I condemn him to pay the costs of this trial, and this is my definitive sentence so judging and I pronounce and order it in and by this writing.

El D^{or} Estevan de Portillo

*       *       *       *       *

"In Mexico the fourth of december of the year one thousand five hundred and sixty eight was given and pronounced this definitive sentence of the above tenor by the aforesaid sor doctor barbosa (sic) provisor and vicar general of this Archbishopric of Mexico in the presence of me joan de avendaño apostolic notary public and of the audiencia of this Archbishopric of mexico witnesses el bachiller villagomez and juan vergara

johan de avendaño"

                The ancient record ends with the statement that this sentence was communicated to Peyrens on the day that it was pronounced, and that he "consented and did consent" with it--y dixo que consentía y consentió.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Legend of the Altar del Perdon
Tale Author/Editor: Janvier, Thomas A.
Book Title: Legends of the City of Mexico
Book Author/Editor: Janvier, Thomas A.
Publisher: Harper & Brothers
Publication City: New York
Year of Publication: 1910
Country of Origin: Mexico
Classification: unclassified

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