To most people Mexico evokes images of pristine beaches, towering volcanoes and varied landscapes peppered with magnificent Mesoamerican archeological sites. Few envision a country abounding with some of the greatest ‘Western’ architecture ever constructed, namely the ecclesiastical and secular Spanish colonial constructions of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

A labor of love, this website is the reflection of my travels, photography and study of a vast body of human creativity so often overlooked. Possibly it will serve to whet the palate of some who have an appetite for history, architecture and travel. Certainly it represents my undying, personal interest in Colonial Mexico as an endless source of discovery and joy.
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The Sixteenth Century: Age of the Convento The Sixteenth Century: Age of the Convento
(Contains 351 photos)
The Evangelization and conversion of the indigenous peoples began in earnest with the arrival of “The Twelve” Franciscan friars in Mexico City in 1524, followed soon thereafter by monks from the two other great mendicant orders, the Dominicans and the Augustinians. During the fervent and frenetic years between 1524 and 1572 these three monastic orders were not only responsible for New Spain’s great early architecture but for over one hundred manuscripts on the subject of evangelization. These publications were disseminated to the Indians in the native languages of Nahuatl, Tarascan, Otomí, Mixtec, Zapotec and others which certain polyglot friars such as Motolinía, Bernardino de Sahagún, Andrés de Olmos and Alonso de Molina had quickly and remarkably learned to read, write as well as speak. As the Spanish humanist Antonio de Nebrija (1441-1522) had already adroitly and famously stated in the prologue to his 1492 publication Castilian Grammar, “Language has always been the perfect instrument of Empire”.

The construction of monasteries directly paralleled the route of evangelization. Instead of the word monastery I often use the word convento (from the Latin words “con” and “venire”, meaning to “come together”), commonly used in Spanish to refer to such a place occupied either by a society of men or women. As much as they may recall their European antecedents, these conventos represent a unique adaptation, by the religious who oversaw their building, to both time and place.

“Surprisingly independent of Spain in the campaign of conversion, the Mexican friars were equally independent in their architecture. Their buildings are never replicas of buildings in Spain, nor often clear provincial echoes, any more than renaissance churches in Spain are replicas or echoes of renaissance churches in Italy. In addition to the divergences brought about by different needs, the Mexican buildings show several other dissimilarities: first, from the independence of the Mexican regulars; second, from the remoteness from Spain; third, from their nearness to old local building traditions; fourth, from the unfamiliarity with Spanish architecture and their native workmen.” (The Churches of Sixteenth-Century Mexico: Atrios, Posas, Open Chapels, and other studies by John McAndrew, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1965, p. 130)

Many of these early complexes actually resemble medieval fortresses. Hence the term ‘iglesias–fortalezas’, extensively used by Pablo de Gante in his 1954 publication La arquitectura de México en el siglo XVI. Uprisings from resistant Indians were in fact rather rare, occurring more in the Western territories as with the Chichimecs in Guanajuato and Michoacán or during the 1541 rebellion of the Cascane tribe in New Galicia (present-day Jalisco), known as the Mixtón Wars. These awe-inspiring fortresses certainly aided in dissuading such attacks, although their battlements appear to have been largely decorative instead of defensive: a curious relationship between protection and proselytism.

“The massing of the mid-century churches suggests military architecture. The bare surfaces of massive walls were a necessary result of untrained labour and of amateur design. Furthermore, the friars needed a refuge, both for themselves, as outnumbered strangers surrounded by potentially hostile Indians, and for their villagers, who were exposed, especially on the western and northern frontiers, to the attacks of nomad Chichimec tribes after 1550”. (Kubler, George and Soria, Martin. Art and Architecture in Spain and Portugal and Their American Dominions: 1500-1800, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1959, p. 71)

Though with varying designs, the 16th century Mexican convento is usually an immense complex, consisting of a large, walled atrio, squared or L-shaped, with a central gate usually on the West end, from which a path leads past an atrial cross directly to the church façade’s main portal. A single, concrete, barrel vaulted nave runs towards the East end where a gilded wood retablo rests beneath and usually covers entirely the wall of the vaulted apse. Rarely the ceiling is of the artesonado, or more complex alfarje type, consisting of coffered wood with interlacing patterns.

The lack of the Latin cross lay-out precludes the possibility of cupolas, which were to abound in 17th century Mexico, many of which represent later additions to 16th century churches. From the apse, the main altarpiece faces back to the church’s main West entrance and choir loft, with a side door to the North (in Franciscan churches called the portiuncula door) leading outside to the atrio. Another door opens off the nave to the South, also leading out to the atrio or into a cloister. The cloister can also be accessed through a doorway beneath a multiple arched portería outside and to the right (South) of the façade.

Despite the loss of many over the centuries, some beautiful open-air chapels (capilla abiertas) still remain. Usually but certainly not always situated just to the North of the church, they run adjacent to the East end of the atrial wall. At times a capilla abierta is found imbedded directly into the actual façade (as with San Agustín in Acolman, DF, or more obviously at San Francisco at Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo), if not incorporated into, or in lieu, of a portería. Some times built prior to the completion of the church itself, these chapels replaced temporary pre-church and thatched roof huts known as xacales used to protect the outdoor placement of altars or aras. These capilla abiertas were a direct response to The Church’s unprecedented situation of suddenly and literally having tens of thousands of catechumens in need of immediate spiritual addressing.

So extraordinary are features of certain open-air chapels -- such as the vault breadth of San Nicolás de Tolentino in Actopan (Hidalgo) or the intricacy of tequítqui detailing of that of San Luis Obispo in Tlalamanco (DF) -- that John MacAndrew devoted an entire study to these unique edifices in his Open-Air Churches of Sixteenth Century Mexico. Whereas the axis of nearly every capilla abierta is perpendicular to that of the main church, with its bays opening out onto the atrio, the open-air chapel known as the Capilla Real in Cholula is a fascinating exception. Its axis actually parallels that of its church, San Gabriel, with its naves opening out to the atrio, though these portals have long since been closed off by three sets of doors.

“At Cholula it probably began as a stoa, enlarged repeatedly in depth until its plan resembled that of a mosque. Other open chapels are like theatre stages, with a proscenium and with diagonal side walls funneling the attention of the crowd upon the liturgy. The unfinished chapel at Tlalmanalco is of this kind, with Plateresque reliefs on medieval supports, by Indian sculptors.” (Kubler, George and Soria, Martin. Art and Architecture in Spain and Portugal and Their American Dominions: 1500-1800, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1959, p. 70)

The closest conceptual equivalent in Europe to the capilla abierta might be the open-air pulpits one sometimes sees on the sides of Gothic cathedrals. Such pulpits, as the ones on the sides of Perugia’s and Prato's duomos, Italy, or that of Nôtre Dame at Saint-Lô, France, allowed for outdoor sermons to be delivered to hundreds of worshippers. Such structural aids to Christian evangelization are, however, practically non-existent in present-day Europe since, no matter how rapidly the expansion of Christianity had occurred there it did so surreptitiously as a persecuted, cult religion. In New Spain immediate and vast proselytization was protected and ensured by a mighty military power overtly focused on the task.

Another unique trait of 1500s Mexican Christian architecture is the posa chapel. Relatively small edifices and open on two sides, these were placed at the corners of the atrio and usually used as processional passageways during mass. Generally speaking, one would exit from the West-facing main portal, turn right and pass through each posa chapel starting with the Northeast one and ending at the one in the atrio’s Southwest corner. Situating an altar and liturgical equipment in the portería, under the open-air chapel as well as in the actual church’s chancel, priests were able to give the sacraments virtually to thousands of natives on a daily basis, with an estimated 9 million converted as early as 1543!

“The few converted the multitude. Fray Martín de Valencia, leader of the Twelve, asserted that each had baptized over 100,000 Indians. On one day 15,000 Aztecs were reported to have been baptized by two friars who would have gone on to baptize more had they not become so tired that they were no longer able to lift their arms.” (Early, James. The Colonial Architecture of Mexico, First Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, 2001, p. 13)

Despite consistencies in climate, Indian population, and time-frame of evangelization, it is curious indeed that the convento, including the open-air and posa chapels, remains largely a Mexican phenomenon, rarely seen in Portuguese and Spanish South America.

In their architecture, the Franciscans tended to adhere to a humble simplicity, intrinsic to the nature and teachings of their founder; the Dominicans were at times grander in their constructions, and the Augustinians were by far the most grandiose builders in Mexico as well as the most adherent to European design modules, often referencing the 1540 publication The Third Book of Architecture by the Bolognese architect and theoretician Sebastiano Serlio (1475–1554).

“The amount of work that these orders did was truly prodigious. By the end of the sixteenth century, only seventy-five years after the Conquest, there were four hundred monasteries, built by these brotherhoods, scattered throughout New Spain. Almost half of them had been built by the Franciscans, with the Dominicans and Augustinians close to a tie for second place, followed by the Carmelites and Jesuits still far in the rear.” (Sanford, Trent Elwood. The Story of Architecture in Mexico, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York, 1947, p. 156)

By 1559 missionaries in New Spain numbered over 800, with almost half of them Franciscan and just over 200 each belonging either to the Dominican or Augustinian order. Whereas the Franciscans quickly expanded throughout most of Central and Northern Mexico, as well as the Yucatán, the Augustinians were generally active in the states of Hidalgo, Morelos, Guanajuato and Michoacán, while the Dominicans focused their efforts in the Southern regions of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Throughout the 1500s the general dominant façade type of these ‘iglesias–fortalezas’ is plateresque, a term as easily applicable to fashion as to style.

“The term Plateresque means ‘silversmith-like’, but does not specify a metalwork origin; it is descriptive only of appearances, occurring first to Cristóbal de Vilallón in 1539 to describe the Gothic cathedral of Leon. {…} Plateresque ornament is ‘adjectival’. It fits loosely upon the structure it adorns. No clear necessity determines location, context, or scale.” (Kubler, George and Soria, Martin. Art and Architecture in Spain and Portugal and Their American Dominions: 1500-1800, Penguin Books, Inc., Baltimore, 1959, p. 2)

Few records exist of professional architects working in Mexico during this early period. Mostly the conventos and churches were conceived by local friars assigned to a specific pueblo who held little if any formal architectural training. They oversaw the constructions but placed the actual labor in the hands of the local Indians. The Flemish nobleman and distinguished Franciscan Pedro de Gante (1486-1572), arrived in Mexico in 1523, a year prior to The Twelve, establishing that same year the first school of the New World in Texcoco, just outside of Mexico City. Two years later, in 1525, de Gante’s esteemed colleague father Martín de Valencia (?–1534) organized another school in the Mexico City itself; soon thereafter in 1531 the Franciscan father Alonso de Escalona established the first one in Tlaxcala, a hundred kilometers to the East of the capital.

However, it was de Gante who most contributed to the education of the natives, founding a great school behind the chapel of San José de los Naturales, the remains of which are present-day San Francisco in Mexico City. Never returning to his homeland, it was there that de Gante trained thousands of native artisans over forty years, incorporating into their craft the previously unknown Christian ingredients. Apparently his love and concern for the natives knew no bounds. In fact, his boundless devotion to them is most poignantly documented by Robert Ricard in his The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, An Essay on the Apostolate and the Evangelizing Methods of the Mendicant Orders in New Spain: 1523-1572. Possibly sensing his own forthcoming death, de Gante is said to have pleaded with fellow Flanders countryman and King of Spain, Charles V, to send other friars from Ghent to Mexico City so that the natives would not miss him too much upon his demise!

The Franciscans Juan de Alameda and Juan de Zumárraga, both of whom had extensive knowledge of ecclesiastical European architecture, arrived together in Mexico in 1528. Juan de Alameda is very probably responsible for the layout of the first Franciscan convento in Huetjotzingo (if not also the current structure) as well as that of Franciscan Huaquechula and Tula. Juan de Zumárraga had the distinction of becoming the first archbishop of Mexico and completed the original cathedral of Mexico City between 1524 and 1532, soon to be supplanted by designs for a new structure. Francisco Becerra contributed to the Franciscan order by designing the massive convento in Cuernavaca (begun as early as 1525 and much later elevated to cathedral status) and for his work on the cathedral of Puebla, before traveling on to Peru where he designed the cathedrals of both Lima and Cuzco.

Friar Diego de Chávez y Alvarado, relative of the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, oversaw the lay-out and construction of the sumptuous Augustinian convento in Yuriria (Guanajuato), erected by his fellow Estremaduran, the master-builder Pedro del Toro. The two might have worked together as well at nearby Cuitzeo (Michoacán), where del Toro is credited with the building of the convento of Santa María Magdalena. Both of these magnificent religious complexes date between 1550 and 1570. The Dominican friar Francisco Marín is probably responsible for three remarkable conventos, Yanhuitlán, Teposcolula, and Coixtlahuaca all built in the 1540s and 50s in the Southern state of Oaxaca. Hernando Toribio de Alcaraz was another early professional architect to come to Mexico, best remembered for his direction over the construction of the never completed cathedral of Pátzcuaro (Michoacán), the visionary if not impractical concept of Bishop Vasco de Quiroga. Later in the century Claudio de Arciniega (ca. 1526-1592) became the most acclaimed Spanish architect in Mexico for his academically influenced work on the cathedrals of Mexico City and Puebla.

Devastation of the indigenous populations by plagues and secularization of the clergy by the diocese brought the most intense period of monastic architectural construction to a close some twenty years before the end of the century. Whereas the population of Mexico was estimated to be somewhere between 15 and 30 million at the time of the conquistadors’ arrival, imponderably enough at century’s end only an approximate 2 million indigenous remained. Along with European-introduced Smallpox, famine, and war the general harshness of the Spanish imposed encomienda system and the severity of interminable labor in the silver mines all contributed to the genocide. It appears that even more 16th century deaths resulted from certain hemorrhagic fevers vigorously spread by the rodent population, with the Cocoliztli epidemic of 1547 alone killing an estimated 12-15 million. The subsequent Cocoliztli plague of 1576 brought the frenetic portion of 16th century architectural production to an early close.

The 1500s had seen symbolism in architecture parallel the systematic acculturation of the natives through an eclectic assortment of styles ranging from the neo-Mudéjar, Isabeline and Manueline Gothic, Italian Renaissance and Mannerism. These were all flavored by the infusion of tequítqui, a term later coined by the Malagan painter-poet José Moreno Villa (1887-1955). Itself a syncretism of Indian motifs and Christian symbolism, the linguistic origin of tequítqui is the Aztec Nahuatl word meaning ‘tributary’. The overall aesthetic result of such plateresque variants is one of decorative, naive clarity. Though the church façades of the 1500s are often richly ornamented, like the intricate workings of chased silver from which the architectural term derives, they appear sober when compared to the Baroque ornateness that was to come in the subsequent two centuries.
The Seventeenth Century: Great Cathedrals and the Rise of a Popular Baroque The Seventeenth Century: Great Cathedrals and the Rise of a Popular Baroque
(Contains 276 photos)
The seventeenth century in Mexico was a long siesta of relative peace and stability for the Spanish Hapsburg crown. Marked not by conquest but hegemony, it was for the most part devoid of outright warfare, social upheavals and religious disaffection. By the century’s advent Spain had pacified most of mainland Mexico, converted the majority of its many distinct indigenous peoples, and established and maintained order through the brutal encomienda system.

Only along its expanding Northern frontier did missionaries and settlers struggle to defend themselves. From Sonora and California to East Texas intrepid Jesuit priests such as Eusebio Kino (1644-1711) and Franciscan friars like Alonso de Benavides and Damián Massanet ventured into the unknown to set up mission outposts. Creole settlers followed while garrison captains endeavored to defend these fledgling communities, with often tragic results, against ferocious local Indian resistance ranging from the Pima of the Southwest to the Comanche of The Plains. Additionally, from the time Sieur de La Salle (1643-1687) navigated down the Mississippi from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico in 1682, Spain was also forced to stave off French intrusions from the East.

A year after La Salle’s expedition, in May of 1683, the pirate Lorencillo, thought to be a renegade Spanish mulatto slave, sacked the port city of Veracruz and made off with some 150 hostages and booty estimated at 7 million pesos. Viceregal Mexico was shocked by the news at Veracruz especially since this entrepôt, guarded by the mighty island fortress of San Juan de Ulúa, had been a veritable symbol of Cortés’ conquest and of Spanish invincibility.

“Cortés, pleased with the manners of the people and the goodly reports of the land, resolved to take up his quarters here for the present. The next morning, April 12, being Good Friday, he landed, with all his force, on the very spot where now stands the modern city of Vera Cruz. Little did the Conqueror imagine that the desolate beach on which he first planted his foot was one day to be covered by a flourishing city, the great mart of European and Oriental trade, the commercial capital of New Spain.” (Prescott, William Hickling, History of the Conquest of Mexico, Phoenix Press, London, 2002, p. 142; first published by Harper & Brothers, New York, 1843)

For Spain such brazen piracy hearkened back to the previous century when in 1568 British pirate John Hawkins (1532-1595) first raided San Juan de Ulúa while his countryman Francis Drake (1540-1595) terrorized both Mexico’s Pacific and Gulf coasts, pillaging at will and with astounding stealth and celerity.

While ports and frontiers intermittently demonstrated vulnerability, the heartland remained stable, arrested in its development. A form of Russian serfdom had evolved, in which the indigenous peoples were permanently indentured to great landed estates. These latifundia, originally allotted to conquistadors and their cohorts, were maintained through encomienda, whereby landowners held rights to the tributes of a native community presumably in exchange for protection and a Christian education. Encomienda established repartamiento, saw the precipitous rise of cattle production later in the sixteenth century and the growth of the estancia, and finally itself mutated into the more commonly known great hacienda.

This feudal system had succeeded in fending off intense royal and ecclesiastic criticism. As Silvio Zavala enlightens us in his essays New Viewpoints on The Colonization of America and The Defense of Human Rights in Latin America: Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries, this virgin land populated by a people who had never known let alone rejected Christ, had intensified a profound philosophical discourse over issues of Christian freedom versus natural servitude. Brought to an apogee at Valladolid, Spain, in 1550, two powerful Dominican theoreticians of opposing viewpoints met face to face. Scholar Ginés de Sepulveda (1494-1573) and Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566), Bishop of the Mexican state of Chiapas (after whom its beautiful capital city is named) rigorously debated historical and pagan notions of human evolution before a jury of theologians.

Believing that hierarchy and not equality is society’s natural state, Sepulveda was eager to secure the rights to publish a treatise he had written on ‘just war’. In his diatribes at Valladolid, he leaned heavily on Aristotle’s notion of natural servitude and the Christian equivalent of that theory found in De Regimine Principum -- once thought to be by the hand of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225?-1274) but actually written by Tolomeo di Lucca (?-1326-7) -- which asserted that certain men were naturally defective of reasoning powers and therefore better suited to servile work. This document also maintained certain antediluvian notions that constellations and climate are greatly responsible for racial inequalities. Sepulveda additionally raised the teachings of “the Ostian”, Enrico da Susa (?-1271) who had claimed that not only did the Pope have authority over all Christians but over all non-Christians as well, with the convenient result that all non-Christians’ territories were therefore forfeit, even if held prior to the arrival of Christ.

Ultimately, the authorities at Valladolid hued to Las Casas’ humanity and reason, denying Sepulveda his publication rights, and affirming what Las Casas himself embraced, namely St. Paul’s belief that people of all generations, race and language are to be included in the predestined members of the mystical Body of Christ. The papacy itself had already revealed itself to be of Las Casas’ inclination, as evidenced in Pope Paul II’s Bull of 1537.

“The serene confidence with which it is stated {in the Bull} that all men are capable of receiving the teaching of the faith and that they should not lose their freedom or their possessions, surpasses any notion founded on experience, for it applies both to the Indians already discovered and to ‘all peoples who from now onward may come to the notice of Christians’ “(Zavala, Silvio. The Defense of Human Rights in Latin America: Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries, Unesco, Belgium, 1964, p. 42)

King Charles V (1519-1556), sympathetic to this curious new body of multitudinous subjects, had claimed it unlawful to enslave, purchase, sell or barter any Indian whether in times of peace or war. This was reflected in the New Laws of 1542 and much to the chagrin of Creole landholders. It is, in fact, truly remarkable to reflect upon the Church and Crown’s liberal mid-sixteenth century stance towards Mexico’s indigenous.

Indeed, for certain scholastics, as well as for some New World Franciscan friars, New Spain represented a veritable opportunity to create the world afresh in harmony with Christ’s egalitarian message. For that matter, the Augustinians, in whom Saint Augustine’s (354-430) City of God had been indelibly inculcated, considered the state of Michoacán to be their personal new Thebaid. Sadly, lofty ideals and humanitarian rhetoric from afar failed to be implemented in any meaningful manner in the Spanish colonies. One need only consider the astonishing fact that never once during its three hundred year reign did a Spanish King visit Mexico.

Nearly a century after the discord at Valladolid, King Philip IV (1621-1665) sounded the ultimate death knell to Indian liberty, this time in the form of a ‘settlement tax’. Though devastating for many modest if not impecunious Creole farmers of the mid seventeenth century, this special tax was ultimately more meaningful for vastly wealthy landowners and their peon native laborers. In recompense for the royalties incurred, the king re-certified all old and defective estancia land titles.

“The settlement tax constitutes one of the most important events in the seventeenth century. Its consequences were far-reaching. The country was impoverished, to be sure; but at the same time, the great estates attained their definitive boundaries and were ensured continuing, even heightened, predominance. The new title deeds were like a Magna Charta for the rural hacienda; its status had been strengthened and its territory considerably enlarged”. (Chevalier, François. Land and Society in Colonial Mexico: The Great Hacienda, translated by Alvin Eustis, edited, with foreword by Lesley Byrd Simpson, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1970, p. 277)

The legitimization of these deeds officially made hacienda life permanent and was a defining act in assuring social immobilization in an otherwise changing world. This social torpor and atrophy molded a national identify in the form of sustained hopelessness which endured well past Mexican independence, and is visible in the defeated posture of the ubiquitously encountered estofado sculpture of the “Man of Sorrows”, Ecce Homo, who, if not in outright penitential agony, gazes beyond in soulful resignation.

Whether fettered to the land or living in urban centers of some recourse (if not squalor), it can safely be said that by the onset of the seventeenth century religious uniformity existed throughout all but the most remote and inaccessible regions of the country. By 1570 King Philip II (1557-1598) had established in the capital city the Holy Office, known historically as The Inquisition, and overseen by the Dominicans. This accord between The Holy Office and the Dominican order was already long-standing, as Saint Dominic, himself Spanish, had been awarded his rule of the Order of Friars Preachers (from Pope Honorius III in 1217) largely to continue his work battling heresy.

“Dominic (1170-1221), an Augustinian Canon himself at the time, was en route from Spain to Rome when he passed through an area of France particularly bothered by the Albigensian heresy, and realized that very little was being done to combat the spread of this heresy”. (Vidmar, John. The Catholic Church Through the Ages: A History, Paulist Press, New York, 2005, p. 134)

The English soldier and statesman Simon de Monfort (1208-1265), Earl of Leicester, lead the so-called Albigensian Crusade to the South of France in an attempt to eradicate the sect, at one time putting 140 Albigensians to death by fire while handing over countless others to the Medieval Inquisition.

Never as active nor as punitive as its Spanish counterpart (where, as the humanist Luis Vires pointed out one could neither speak nor remain silent without getting into trouble), let alone that of the Middle Ages, the Holy Office’s efforts in seventeenth century Mexico were usually directed towards prosecuting petty crimes having nothing to do with religious disloyalty. Though there were always rumors of apostasy amongst the native locals, it was the overriding dread of Protestantism, product of the Reformation, and its possible fomenting amongst the population at large which drew The Inquisition’s attention.

Nevertheless, the reaction to these fears was manifested less in ritualistic burnings at the stake of professed or suspected non-Catholics than in rigorous efforts to astringently delimit the range of what was acceptable teaching and literature. The well known book collector Melchor Pérez de Soto (1606-1665), for instance, had his vast collection confiscated and himself incarcerated, at one point serving time alongside the Irishman Guillén de Lampart (1615-1659) whose peculiar claims to the throne of a free Mexico as the illegitimate son of royal blood also landed him in The Holy Office’s dungeons. The culmination of The Inquisition’s retribution seems to have occurred at mid-century, when in 1649 thirteen of 109 accused individuals were, in fact, put to death in Mexico City. Today one is reminded of the long and dark history of this institution by Mexico City’s magnificent Palacio de la Inquisición, appropriately located across the Calle Brasil from the church of Santo Domingo.

Despite what appears to have been a reasonably active book trade, so diligently outlined in Irving Leonard’s Baroque Times in Old Mexico and in his Books of The Brave, the newfound logic of René Descartes (1596-1650) and scientific discoveries of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) hardly had disseminated through Mexico. That country’s intelligentsia in such matters was understandably small, with only a handful of scholars able to visualize the increasingly relative place that man held in his universe. Even fewer were there who dared profess such assertions. Still, in this small coterie of individuals there was great erudition and wisdom which occasionally and guardedly blasphemed modernist beliefs, adumbrating the Age of Enlightenment of years to come.

The Creole lay-priest Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700) was such an enlightened and rare individual. Much like a Renaissance Humanist he was man undyingly interested in history, poetry, archeology, astronomy, mathematics, cartography, as well as theology. In 1690 he published the treatise Libra astronómica y filosófica in which he ascribed the origins of the comet of ten years earlier (which had so perplexed and terrified millions of Mexicans) to purely mathematical and scientific principals. Such sacrilege put Sigüenza y Góngora at direct odds with his illustrious fellow Jesuit, the aforementioned Eusebio Kino, who upheld the ancient and unsubstantiated notion that comets represented sinister celestial portents.

With a remarkable empathy for the unfamiliar, Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora was keenly interested in the preservation of pre-Hispanic languages. He came to have a vast collection of books, documents, maps and artifacts referencing the various cultures, and wrote his own Historia de los indios chichimecas which was tragically lost. In Glorias de Querétaro he even intercalated Nahuatl words in his lengthy descriptions of the ‘mascarada’ celebration to the 1680 dedication of that city’s sanctuary La Congregación de Nuestra Señora de la Guadalupe, now simply referred to as La Congregación.

For all the scholastic achievements of this fascinating late seventeenth century figure, Sigüenza y Góngora came to embody the autonomous feeling amongst Creoles towards their own native Mexico. This was a sentiment first felt during the aborted Creole conspiracy of 1566, a boondoggle conceived by the scheming Alonso de Avila and to have been headed by Martín Cortés who, as son of Hernán and La Malinche, was and is considered Mexico’s first mestizo.

“Creoles, invoking Mexican history to legitimate their Mexican nationality, had much recourse to the accounts by sixteenth-century chroniclers, and later ones based upon them. Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos, insurgent leaders, had a historically based sense of Mexican nationality. Their movement, and new seigniorial reaction among landed creoles in Mexico, at length succeeded, and in the 1820s, in capturing the land for Mexican nationals. (Liss, Peggy K. Mexico Under Spain, 1521-1556: Society and the Origins of Nationality, University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1975, p. 156)

It is in this spirit of national identity some 130 years prior to independence that Sigüenza y Góngora wrote in the epigraph of his publication Teatro de virtudes políticas que constituye a un principe (1680) the often revisited words, “Consideren lo suyo los que se empeñan en considerar lo ajeno; es más fácil juzgar que obrar y más fácil mirar desde la seguridad de la forteleza los peligros” {…} {“Those who strive to judge others should first judge themselves; it is easier to judge than act and easier to observe dangers behind the security of a fortress”.}

“For all their apparent irresponsibility, their poor aptitude for action, their serious limitations, the Creoles formed a world apart, a united world of new people whose interests and attitudes were not only different from, but irreconcilably opposed to, those of the Spaniards.” (Benítez, Fernando. The Century after Cortés, translated by Joan MacLean, University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1965, p. 214)

Undoubtedly the most outstanding Creole figure of late seventeenth century Mexico was Sigüenza y Góngora’s dear friend and intellectual confidant, the Carmelite nun Juana Inés de La Cruz (1648-1695), who spent the majority of her life within the cell walls of the convent of San Géronimo in Mexico City and whose daring life is explored in Octavio Paz’s 1982 Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz o Las Trampas de la Fé. Paz’s frequent reference to the word ‘indecible’, here translatable as ‘unmentionable’, is poignantly germane to gaining a glimpse into Juana’s psychological and spiritual essence. Hers was a life of ‘unmentionables’, sublimated through unorthodox modes of emitting and receiving God’s love; an existence of extraordinary ratiocination and innate sensuality forever colliding with church and societal superstructures and yielding a personal, alternative, and certainly unacceptable form of godly devotion. In the vein of Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) and Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) before her, Juana Inés de la Cruz was a Christian mystic.

Nowhere did the interweaving of Sister Juana’s intellectual and corporal sides express itself as movingly as in her conspicuous poetry. Through her Primero Sueño and the many ‘poemas de amor’, some clearly addressed to women, her spiritual paroxysms were played out on the page, and this in a retrograde society in which the free expressions of a woman were most definitely eschewed.

“In the medieval atmosphere of seventeenth century Mexico where women could not dream of independent lives, where it was axiomatic that they possessed inferior intelligence, and where they were scarcely more than chattels of their fathers, brothers, and husbands, intellectual curiosity in Sister Juana’s sex was not only indecorous but sinful. It might, indeed, be the workings of the Evil One and, therefore, imperil one’s salvation, as her superiors in the convent more than once assured her.” (Leonard, Irving. Baroque Times in Old Mexico, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1959, p. 179)

Figures like Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora and Juana Inés de la Cruz certainly colored seventeenth century Mexico, but in no way defined it. They were extrinsic luminaries, whose peripheral confinement precluded their disruption of the long siesta. One need only gaze into the youthful, yet arrestingly sad eyes of sister Juana, as painted in her portrait by the eighteenth century Mexican master Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768), now housed in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle, to realize that she was a person not belonging to her time. After defying the Bishop of Puebla’s censure in 1691 with an epistle known as her Respuesta, Sister Juana in the end renounced all her beloved books and musical instruments, placed herself under extreme penitential discipline and, in renewing her vows, wrote in her own blood and famously signed, “Yo, la peor del mundo”. {“I, the worst in the world”.}

Juana Inés de la Cruz’s ultimate surrender speaks not to her character but to the severity of her time and place. After all, who could in the end stand up to the Manichaean might of Spain, its church and all it represented?

“The belief that truth was one and absolute, and that she held a clue to it, had for a century underlain Spain’s policy and directed all her energies at home and abroad”. (Atkinson, William C. A History of Spain and Portugal, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960, p. 168)

This belief had emptied the royal coffers in the quest for insuperable and interminable empire. Suppressing individualism and ensuring communality, Spain had harnessed the workforce of a new continent and, in a land thousands of miles away, erected cathedrals of such scale and opulence so as to rival its own. Mexico was, indeed, Spain’s crowning achievement, brought to fruition in the sixteen hundreds: a Neo-Medieval unity of feudal dominance and religious order. This unity, moreover, was elegantly shielded behind an architectural splendor which was the very flowering of the Baroque in the New World.

For an historical appreciation of architectural antecedents and their ramifications for seventeenth century Mexico, attention must again be turned to King Philip II.

“Philip’s personality and the architecture of his reign are bound up inextricably with his interpretation of his religious responsibility. Melancholy and suspicious, but conscientious to a degree, he looked upon himself as God’s field-marshal upon earth to combat the great enemy of mankind, the Reformation; and he was determined to show God where Spain stood in the matter and to show the rest of Europe Spain’s power and his own nobility as the stern judge of man’s expression of religion”. (Sanford, Trent Elwood, The Story of Architecture in Mexico, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, 1947, p. 111)

This illustrious King, son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and inheritor of his vast empire, was the great hero of the naval Battle of Lepanto, when in 1571 his brother Don Juan of Austria lead a Christian coalition to victory over Ali Pasha’s Ottomans in the Levant’s Gulf of Lepanto. Seventeen years later, however, his success over the infidel Moslems was eclipsed by a debacle at the hands of the loathed Protestants, with his great Armada falling complete victim to English naval superiority. Leaving a national debt of some 100 million ducats, ten times the amount required to have assembled the Armada, one of Philip’s last royal acts was to relinquish the Low Countries and his father’s beloved Flanders.

Decades earlier, however, while still a virile man, Philip had left a lasting mark on Spanish architecture by commissioning the Escorial, meant simultaneously as a mausoleum for his father, monastery, court palace and personal summer retreat. Begun in 1557 to the plans of Juan Bautista de Toledo (?-1567) it was completed under the guidance of famed architect Juan de Herrera (ca. 1530-1597) and represented an Italian influenced classical order. Though uninspired in its rigid, gridline geometry (unlike the Palace of Aranguez, a preceding Bautista de Toledo – Herrera cooperation), the Escorial was Spain’s greatest child of the Renaissance and ushered in new sets of design modules which would be implemented throughout the country and its colonies on a scale far exceeding its Italian prototypes.

“The Renaissance was brought to Spain by Italian sculptors, by Italian works of art, and by Spanish, Flemish, and French sculptors trained in Italy. The arrival of Charles V (King of Spain and de facto from 1516 and de jure from 1518; German Emperor from 1520) stirred all of Spain to expectations of imperial splendor. Anticipating a large building programme, artists flocked to the peripatetic court”. (Kubler, George and Soria, Martín. Art and Architecture in Spain and Portugal and their American Dominions: 1500 to 1800, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1959, p. 125)

In Mexico this classical interlude is historically wedged between the medieval, fortress-like convento building of the mid sixteenth century and the highly popular Baroque productions of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It took the form of the erection of great cathedrals, which in some cases replaced earlier, inadequate structures with edifices worthy of the growing urban areas they serviced.

Highly influenced by Juan de Herrera’s severe style, Claudio de Arcienega (ca. 1526-1592) was named Maestro Mayor of Mexico City’s cathedral in 1584, making alterations which would largely lead to what one sees today in the largest church of The Americas. Below the twin towers, its façade, which masks an opulent interior in cruciform, is that of an elongated horizontal rectangle with three portals and matching sets of columns separated by massive buttressing.

Austerity came to the equally segmented façade of Puebla’s cathedral, largely completed in the 1640s after the arrival from Spain of the city’s new bishop, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza (1600-1659). A scrupulous and industrious man close to King Philip IV’s principal minister, Palofax was a staunch supporter of the Counter-Reformation Herreran style. Unlike its cousin in Mexico City, Puebla’s façade forms a vertical rectangle, accentuating its height in a much smaller zócalo.

Morelia’s Cathedral, named La Transfiguración de Cristo (the relief of which is gracefully carved over its central portal) is considerably more dynamic and lively than Puebla’s, though just as grand. A favorite of Trent Elwood Sanford, whose description is that of “the most beautiful of all the cathedrals of Mexico”, it was designed by the Italian architect Vicente Barroso de Escayola (?-1692) and dedicated in 1705. The massive bases of its bell towers are offset by airy belfries above, and its generally restrained classicism is enlivened by the use of light as well as dark stone.

The four other original diocesan cities where cathedrals were erected are Guadalajara (Jalisco), Oaxaca (Oaxaca), San Cristóbal de las Casas (Chiapas), and Mérida (Yucatán). Whereas the façade of Guadalajara’s La Asunción was totally rebuilt in the late 1700s, Mérida’s San Idelfonso is the only cathedral to be completed before 1600, its breathtaking dome bearing the date of 1598 as well as the name of its second architect, Miguel de Agüero, who had come from Havana, Cuba, to complete the project.

“The cathedrals of New Spain were Mexican mainly by geography; they are truly colonial architecture. Moved into position on the main plaza, flanked by the Palacio de Gobierno, the cathedral throws into relief the Mexican quality of other buildings. And they have other messages. They sound a note of temporal authority, reminding us that the king of Spain was also head of the church in the Americas, and that the archbishop was as much his emissary as was the viceroy. They testify to the ascendancy of the secular clergy, and to their orientation to a Spanish congregation.” (Weismann, Elizabeth Wilder. Art and Time in Mexico: Architecture and Sculpture in Colonial Mexico, Harper & Row, New York, 1985, p. 153)

The Escorial was followed by another Italian contribution to Spanish, and subsequently Mexican, architecture and one which in Europe immediately inaugurated the high Baroque style. In 1624 Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) completed the designs for his baldachin in Rome’s Saint Peter’s basilica. Features of this swirling, spiraling structure were widely implemented in seventeenth century Spain in the form of the salomónica, or Salomonic column (so called because of the presumed use of such columns in Solomon’s temple), and exported to Mexico primarily in church façades, retablos, and bell towers.

In fact, Mexican ecclesiastical architecture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries abound with the salomónica. The bell tower of La Expectación de la Virgen, San Luis Potosí’s cathedral, has three types of Solomonic columns, as does the luscious façade of Santo Domingo in San Cristóbal de las Casas. The lofty bell towers of San Cristóbal in Puebla bear slender salomónicas, whereas the façade of Atlixco’s Capilla de la Tercera Orden manifests on its lower level pairs of bulbous Solomonic columns whose spirals are heavily laiden with vegetal relief. Countless Baroque altarpieces display dazzling salomónicas, including that of the high altar of the Capilla de San José in San José Chiapa (Puebla), unique for it having been cut entirely from alabaster!

Noteworthy is that the same century which gifted us European inspired Baroque cathedrals also saw the rapid rise of a popular style of architecture rooted in the free and innate creativity of the native hand. The term ‘popular’ is itself somewhat cryptic or imprecise. Certainly not ordinary in any way, popular architecture in Mexico of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was folkish, local and completely original.

By 1600 all learned techniques and styles were European. However, as Elizabeth Wilder Weismann points out, and as is highly uncharacteristic in the developement of a conquered nation, as Mexico’s viceregal period progressed, more and more of its resultant architecture actually reflected greater, rather than lesser, pre-conquest traits. In large portion this has to due with the relaxation of an intense suppression (imposed by the early monastics of the preceding century) of native imagery and stylistic individualism.

In the sixteenth century, in fact, one finds few, though beguiling, examples of popular architecture in the form of tequítqui peaking out from behind Spanish censors. In the following century, however, and with the totality of the conversion, strictness subsided, allowing for greater freedom of expression under the umbrella of Christian imagery. In fact, the regions in Central and South America which contained the most advanced pre-conquest indigenous peoples are the same which today vaunt the greatest quality and quantity of post-conquest colonial architecture.

Antithetical to European and certainly Herreran predictability, the popular is a ruggedly rustic, highly decorative, and strikingly authentic form of carving, whose newfound freedom expressed its voice in the use of stucco, a material which can be doctored with greater malleability than stone. Architectural solutions were subordinated to ornamental bedazzlement as structural features evanesced and dematerialized beneath a riotous intricacy of strapwork. Detail upon detail, seemingly microscopic in its subsets, flowed outwards from façades. The mobility of line, a Baroque hallmark, swelled into a frenzy of form as New Testament scenes, related Christian iconography, apostles, evangelists, saints, archangels and an infinite number of cherubs coated church retablos.

Indeed, such a boisterous abundance of cherubs and seraphs thronging about central reliefs begs the question from where did they come. Just as Flemish manuscripts had inspired sixteenth century convento wall frescos, Pál Kelemen suggests that Flanders once again had a hand in the arrival of these tiny angels with impish qualities.

“Flemish emblem books and albums of sketches contain many small engravings featuring a jolly company of baby angels about the child Mary or the Infant Jesus.” (Kelemen, Pál.Baroque and Rococo in Latin America, MacMillan Publishers, New York, 1951, p. 218)

Even more daunting than striving to unveil European source work for popular Mexican Baroque themes is pondering the intrinsic source for such a collective artistic genius. The unbridling of the indigenous hand in Mexico resulted in some of the world’s most sumptuous architecture, fructified by a vast well of repressed creativity which belies the muting effects of elapsed time.

A great concentration of popular Baroque art can be found in the states of Puebla and Oaxaca. Some of the most salient examples are the two Capillas del Rosario in the respective churches of Santo Domingo in the cities of Puebla and Oaxaca, the former rhapsodized by Manuel Toussaint as “the climax of a type of church which represents the Mexican mood of that time in an extraordinary way.”

“When we visit the chapel in the early afternoon, while the light floods through the windows of the cupola, our spirits soar free within its compass and we are transported to the days at the end of the seventeenth century when multitudes gathered in the churches to participate in the splendid ceremonies.” (Toussaint, Manuel. Colonial Art in Mexico, translated and edited by Elizabeth Wilder Weismann, University of Texas Press, Austin and London, 1967, p. 153)

Popular Baroque interpretations continued throughout the following century well past the arrival of the churrigueresque style, with the church of Santa María Tonantzintla (Puebla) completed in 1730, that of Santa Monica in Guadalajara by 1740, Zacatecas’ Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción still incomplete in 1752, and Jesús Nazareno in Tepalcingo (Morelos) finished as late as 1782.

As if often the case when attempting to define a style of building over a span as long as a century, differences outweigh consistencies. In his Colonial Art of Mexico Toussaint distinguishes between Baroque styles adjectivally as ‘sober’, ‘rich’, and ‘exuberant’, contrasting San Diego’s (Churubusco, D.F.) sober, classical main portal with Santa Cruz de las Flores’ (Jalisco) rich yet rough façade and with the exuberant, pronounced detail of that of Atlixco’s (Puebla) church of La Merced.

What is most certainly true of seventeenth century architecture in Mexico is that there existed side by side two unambiguous forms of human expression with neither precluding the other: a self-consciousness of style, grounded in European canons and mostly tailored to grand ecclesiastical structures, and an independence of execution tapped from pre-conquest creativity, silenced for over a century, and unrestrained in its joyous profusion.
The Eighteenth Century: Repeat or Die, An Artistic Culmination
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Neoclassicism: Sobriety before Revolution
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