Introduction

Spain became the bastion of Catholic Europe in 1492 when King Ferdinand (1452-1516) of Aragón and Queen Isabella (1474-1504) of Castile conquered Córdoba, the last remaining Islamic stronghold in the Iberian peninsula. Also in 1492, contracted and funded by Isabella and Ferdinand, Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) made his historic voyage to The New World – a land the majority of which would thereafter be securely in Spanish hands in the span of less than half a century. In 1521 Hernán Cortés (1484-1547) consolidated his power over the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Almost precisely three hundred years later Mexico declared its independence from Spain. Thus, for three centuries motivations of God, gold, and glory ensured Spain’s hegemony over the New World and ongoing influence over The Old, until it’s ultimate imperial unraveling during the Napoleonic Wars of the first years of the 19th century.

In his book The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, Tzvetan Todorov quotes the noble Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas (1486-1566) who, after spending the majority of his lifetime energies defending the native peoples of Mexico from abuses by Spanish conquistadors, prophesied:

“I believe that because of these impious, criminal and ignominious deeds perpetrated so unjustly, tyrannically and barbarously, God will vent upon Spain His wrath and His fury, for nearly all of Spain has shared in the bloody wealth usurped at the cost of so much ruin and slaughter”. (Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, Harper and Row, New York, 1984, p. 245)

Whether or not Las Casas’ divination was correct, what is indeed true is that when Spain lost its territories in Central and South America it did so as quickly as it had secured them. Just as the sun still had not set on the British empire, it had glowed eternal over Spain’s since the time that country first occupied the Philippines in 1565. What is equally true, however, is that some two hundred and fifty years after having been stripped of its American colonies, those very lands are nevertheless responsible for Spain’s religion being the most practiced in the world today and its language one of the most commonly spoken. What also endures from Spain’s dominance of Central and South America is a treasure trove of art and architecture, often unheralded, more often unknown, and globally overlooked either by the hermeneutics of its Pre-Colombian antecedents or the focus on contemporary Latin American cultures.

This web site is not intended as a pedantic, prolix history lesson of Colonial Mexico, nor an in-depth architectural survey, as I am neither historian nor architect but merely enthusiast of both, especially in how they magically combined in time and place to yield the results which I so love and choose to illustrate. Nor is this site a bold venture into apostolic doctrine and its intriguing, often impenetrable, web of resultant Christian iconography. One could, after all, devote endless study to any number of fascinating ecclesiastical subjects such as the many dramatic interpretations in Mexico of St. James the Apostle, let alone of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or to something as subtle yet pervasive as the varying depictions of the Franciscan cord which frames from the most humble to the most grand ecclesiastic structures of that order’s eponymous saint.

Rather, the purpose of the site is to illustrate and describe as many wonderful examples of colonial Mexican architecture as I can, always with the intention of divulging and sharing as much as possible with as many as possible the splendors of that country. Given the quality and quantity which remains in Mexico of this three-hundred-year period, it is a stunning and tragic reality that so few have ever heard of or seen any of it. Many a time have I held up an image of some fantastic structure or artifact to friends of mine (whether American, South American, or European) and questioned them as to its whereabouts, only to then amaze them with my correction to their answers that the work of art actually lies in central Mexico rather than in Western Europe!

When considering the site’s composition, I decided to organize it by century (i.e., the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth) rather than by more conventional geographic considerations, as in a tourist guide. A spattering of architecture from the American states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas is included since this dates to when the respective territories belonged to Spain, subsequently Mexico, and hence prior to their annexation to the United States. However, the extraordinary Dominican colonial structures of what is present-day Guatemala, opulent architectural neighbor to the South of the Mexican state of Chiapas, are reluctantly left to future study. I state this merely because Guatemala also remained part of the newly formed Mexican Empire until the abdication of Agustín de Iturbide in March of 1823, nearly two years after his signing of the Treaty of Córdoba (in the state of Veracruz, Mexico) which guaranteed Mexican independence from Spain.

In and of themselves centuries do not delimit stylistic movements but at the very best help to classify and characterize them. The first examined century and gallery, that of the sixteenth, is titled The Age of the Convento -- this despite the fact that the years of great convento building truly span only from ca. 1525-1585. The unlikely combination of clerical secularization and uncontrollable pestilence brought this period of building to an early close. Still, dotting the landscape today are some of the most beguiling buildings of the Western world – vast, fortress-like monasteries whose appearance never cease to bewilder and awe.

The three monastic orders responsible for convento building were the Franciscans (the first to send friars to Mexico, in 1524), the Dominicans, and the Augustinians. These brave and stalwart priests, dedicated to sacerdotalism, met and studied the indigenous peoples, often befriended and protected them, and ultimately converted them, forcibly or not, and by the millions. Never before faced with the task of such massive indoctrination, and usually untrained in architectural principles, the friars nevertheless oversaw the construction of these grand religious complexes. They even devised and implemented an ecclesiastical architectural adjunct, adscititious in form and function, known as the open-air chapel (capilla abierta) and not seen in any other part of the world. From the purity of European design blatant in the façade of San Agustín in Acolman (Mexico) to the allover presence of the indigenous hand in that of San Pablo in Yuriria (Guanajuato), the conventos of the sixteenth century mark the first architectural meeting ground between The Old World and The New.

The imprecision of segregating style by century is also evident in our second gallery, devoted to the seventeenth century. Titled A Popular Baroque it could actually date from the early seventeenth century to well beyond the onset of the churrigueresque style some 150 years later. Whereas the sixteenth century is remembered for Spain’s bloody conquest of Central and South America and the eighteenth for the steady decline of that country’s New World hegemony at the hands of growing economic and military problems at home, the seventeenth century truly represented Spain’s dream-come-true: a Neo-Medieval empire unified by an orthodox Catholic theology and controlled by indisputable military might.

The Baroque architecture of this period ranges from what architectural historian and authority Manuel Toussaint described as ‘sober’, to ‘rich’ to ‘exuberant’. For instance, whereas the church of La Cruz (1680-90) in Morelia bears a façade which conveys the harmonic simplicity of Baroque churches one finds in Rome and certainly falls into our ‘sober’ category, that of La Purísima Concepción de María in Jolalpan (Puebla) is ‘rich’ in its decorative qualities while that of Santa Monica in Guadalajara downright ‘exuberant’. Though all three types adhere to a formal, structural Baroque design, what the latter two have in common is the magical hand of the ‘popular’.

This popular, indigenous interpretation, style, fashion, or shall we say ‘touch’, should be viewed as more than simply heroic achievements of manual dexterity outside of academic canons. As unorthodox a curiosity as the indigenous Mexican hand may appear to the architecturally trained, Euro-centric eye even of today, this ‘touch’ is as much if not more a wonderfully valid form of human and artistic expression. On a large and small scale respectively, both Santo Domingo in Puebla, city, and Santa María de Tonantzintla in the Puebla, state, have Baroque façades and interiors. While the exteriors of each are more easily digestible within a European Baroque canon, the marvels which truly awe are the respective interiors.

Once again we find that in our third gallery, devoted to the eighteenth century, came to know its own signature style quite late, and also saw it decidedly truncated before the century’s end. It was the unveiling of the Altar of the Kings by renowned Spanish architect Jerónimo de Balbás in Mexico City’s cathedral in 1737 which augured in a new, irrepressible style that rapidly disseminated throughout Mexico. It lead directly to the construction twelve years later of the South and East façades of the cathedral’s parish church, the Sagrario, the masterpiece of Balbás fellow Andalusian, Lorenzo Rodríguez (1704-1774). Known as churrigueresque, or ultra-Baroque, this manner of design and construction represents a fanatic melding of religiosity and craftsmanship, and dominated the second half of the 1700s, whose chapter title I have ascribed the equally fanatically sounding Repeat or Die, An Artist Culmination.

Though an underlying hierarchy of form and classical sense of order remained, the replacement of the Salomonic column with the estípite in these later Baroque structures yielded a complexity and dynamism unseen in the Renaissance and earlier Baroque. Daring and dramatic interactions of sculptural elements were generated beneath mesmerizing and allover panoplies of gilding. As the movement progressed towards the so-called Anastyle phase, façades and retablos became even more decorative and less weighty in appearance, with increasing emphasis on the space between the estípites which was continuously widened and made to house pilasters upholding sculpture.

Possibly the three greatest, or grandest, façades of this type in Mexico are those of the churches of Santa Prisca and San Sebastián in Taxco, Nuestra Señora de Ocotlán in Tlaxcala, and the Jesuit establishment of San Martín in Tepotzotlán just North of Mexico City. However, there are many, many fabulous churrigueresque churches and altarpieces which have miraculously survived and which I illustrate.

The last gasp of Mexican architecture prior to its independence is characterized by a mostly uninspired Neo-Classicism, ushered in by the Royal Academy of San Carlos of New Spain established in Mexico City in 1783. This small, separate, chapter is given the name of Sobriety before Revolution, underscoring the ironic twist that as Mexico came closest in imitating current European architecture it prepared for its ultimate separation from that very continent. Some of the buildings illustrated in this section, ecclesiastic or secular, date as late as the 1820s, precisely three hundred years after European building in Mexico began.

Most striking here is the work of famed architect Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras (1759-1833), whose output in his native Celaya and the Bajio region is certainly less prosaic in its formulation than his contemporaries. As optically unchallenging as some of these buildings may be when compared to the previous two centuries, it cannot be underscored what a consciously violent reaction Neo-Classicism in Mexico actually was to the ultra-Baroque. In much more recent art historical times, one might care to compare it to the vitriolic and sudden artistic and intellectual reaction which monochromatic Minimalism of 1960s represented to the gestural individualism of 1950s Abstract Expressionism.

The issue of categorizing by date is even more troublesome when considering the length of time which the construction of certain buildings took. The construction of most of the great Mexican cathedrals, such as those of Mexico City, Puebla, Guadalajara, even Morelia, spanned more than a single century, with architectural plans being discarded for others on an almost ongoing basis. In the Yucatán, moreover, some early open-air chapels of the 1500s were actually erected prior to that of the adjoining church, as in the case at Maní where the two marvelous structures, though part of the same Franciscan complex, date from different centuries (the sixteenth and seventeenth).

Also not to be overlooked is the fact that styles usually do not evolve in different geographical areas within the same time-frame. Northern European Renaissance painting, for instance, lagged well behind that of Italy, as did Northern frontier architecture in Mexico when compared to that being achieved at the same time in the capital. Even more compromising are the innumerable cases in which several architectural components from the same building establishment pertain to different time periods and styles. How often one finds a sixteenth century plateresque façade hiding an eighteenth century churrigueresque retablo, or a bell tower added to a church over a hundred years after its cloister was finished! In these cases I usually separate the elements into their respective centuries or, for the sake of some geographic conformity, catalogue the majority of the complex under the century which encompasses the majority of its features and thus defines it most.

Since few secular buildings in colonial Mexico reach the insuperably creative heights of religious structures, my first thought was to separate the two, designating an entire section simply to palaces, haciendas, aqueducts, etc. However, the issue is complicated by the inseparable qualities of many secular and religious structures. For instance, countless church cloisters, convents, and rectories have been transformed into schools, public administration offices, museums, even, as in the case of the church of El Carmen in Atlixco (Puebla), military barracks. On the grounds of most haciendas one finds a lovely chapel, often located not far from the “tinacal” building where the fermentation of the intoxicating “pulque” beverage would take place! The sixteenth century hospitals, which the Franciscans and Augustinians erected mostly in the states of Michoacán and Guanajuato to care for the indigenous sick, were often the very places where one would be administered the sacraments of penitence and supreme unction, beclouding their temporal usage.

Therefore, I have left the secular structures intermixed with the religious, with the hope that their own significance will not be overlooked. Such gems as the patio of El Palacio de Gobierno (largely eighteenth century) in Aguascalientes, the façade of its counterpart in Tlaxcala (after 1524), the unrivaled Palacio de Montejo in Merida (finished 1549), the awesome Padre Tembleque aqueduct near Zempoala, Hidalgo (mid 1500s), the grandiose Colegio de las Vizcaínas (1734-1753) in Mexico City, the delightful Casa del Diezmo in Celaya or even the small Casa de los Perros in Querétaro (both eighteenth century) are priceless, deserving of discussion, and all illustrated and discussed herein.

The most meaningful decision made regarding the selectivity of this site was what to actually include under the nomenclature umbrella of colonial architecture. I have already suggested that close relationships between the outdoor, stone-sculpted façade and indoor, wood-carved retablo can be seen in many Mexican parish churches of the eighteenth century. Elizabeth Wilder Weissman in her Mexico in Sculpture: 1521-1821 writes of the paramount importance of studying the expressive qualities of sculpture in colonial Mexico, effectively citing the inherent skill which the indigenous people had already displayed in this arena. Their superior skills as craftsmen and builders is evident through any cursory examination of Olmec through Aztec artifacts, if not by the gargantuan complexes of Chichén Itzá, Palenque, even Teotihuacán. James Early writes in The Colonial Architecture of Mexico:

“Aztec craftsmanship attracted the admiration of the Spaniards. Of particular fascination were precious objects which combined in the casting both silver and gold…Indian craftsmen in media unknown in Europe were similarly impressive, the stone smiths splitting and slowing transforming stones into knives.” (Early, James. The Colonial Architecture of Mexico, First Southern Methodist University, Dallas, 2001, p.3)

Robert Mullen, after all, titled his 1997 publication Architecture and Its Sculpture in Viceregal Mexico. In his Baroque and Rococo in Latin America Pál Kelemen admirably and meticulously details such elements as baptismal fonts, pulpits, choir stalls, organs, even confessionals. Thus, I came to loosely consider ‘architectural’ all those elements of eye-catching craft which adorn interiors or exteriors of the constructions themselves. Along with the ubiquitous altarpieces, many exceptional sixteenth century frescoes are here displayed, like those from the small chapel of Santa María Xoxoteco in Metzquititlán (Hidalgo) or others from the cloister walks of conventos in Acolman (Mexico), Actopan (Hidalgo), Atlatlahuacan (Morelos), etc. In my travels I have sought out and photographed numerous atrial crosses, mostly in the state of Michoacán, whose imaginative imagery and superb carvings rival their Celtic counterparts. Occasionally an oil painting may be illustrated in its context of church or palace, or a particularly beautiful fountain, church pulpit or organ.

Lastly, I hope to add images of European, Moorish, even Mesoamerican antecedents and comparables. Only this way can anyone truly see what a unique medley of visual stimulants is the colonial architecture of Mexico. From the onset, a melding of styles led to monastic structures ranging in features from dominant Italian Renaissance, to Spanish Isabeline Gothic, Portuguese Manueline Gothic, Moorish mudéjar, and Mannerism. Undoubtedly, certain iconic architectural models in Spain had an indelible mark in the resultant consciousness of that country and its later colonies. One of the most obvious is the great Mosque of Cordoba, built in 785 by Emir Abderrahman I over the Visigoth Church of St. Vincent. Referring to the Puerta de A-Hakani II on its Southwest corner, designed around 960, John Moffitt convincingly attributes the genesis of the alfíz, an elegant and omnipresent feature of sixteenth century Mexican churches, to the Cordoban mosque. How extraordinary, indeed, it is to witness so many, and splendid, Moorish motifs in geographically and culturally distant Mexico!

“This arrangement may be taken to represent the epitome of certain underlying design principles common to many later Moslem buildings and also to Hispanic neo-mudéjar architecture…. Manifested in both traditional Islamic portal-façades and in many, much later, Latin American fachadas-retablos {which} include a complicated, rectangular and planarized, wall-pattern that is symmetrically flanked by bulky but undecorated buttresses”. (Moffit, John, The Islamic Design Module in Latin America: Proportionality and the Techniques of Neo-Mudéjar Architecture, McFarland & Co., Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina, 2004, p. 33)

An early stylistic syncretism of relief architecture, often referred to as tequítqui, emerged from this cultural intermix, yielding an additional and mercurial architectural flavor. Hence, the illustration of an early Post Classic temple in Xochicalco (10th century AD), just South of Cuernavaca, might serve as an effective backdrop to the genesis of tequítqui motifs on the pilasters of, say, the North doorway of the church of San Francisco in Texcoco (possibly completed as early as 1527-8) East of Mexico City, or the door jambs of the Augustinian monastery at Molango (1540s) in the Hidalgan highlands. The native hand, straightforward yet enigmatic, rough yet exquisite, is always evident in colonial Mexican architecture and sculpture, often successfully sneaking past censorship some subtle pagan symbolism. Certainly the harnessing of this creative Indian energy and physical dexterity, and its reapplication to Christian motifs, that is one of the great stories of world architecture.

“Between Spain and Mexico a rather obvious parallel can be drawn with ancient Rome and the Near East. In each case there were achievements in the “dependent” that paralleled and in many ways went beyond the implications of the “parent”, and at the same time simplifications in the “dependent” that responded to wholly different aesthetic conventions than those imposed by the “parent”. The increased complexities of this relationship between Spain and Mexico are apparent in the fact that Spain was herself both “dependent” (on Rome, the Islamic world, the Gothic North, and so on) and “parent”. ” (Baird, Joseph Armstrong. The Churches of Mexico 1530-1810, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1962, introduction, p. 4)

Various search criteria have or will be implemented, such as an ability to look specifically for geographical names, monastic order, or architectural term. For instance, a search could be done for porciuncula doors of Franciscan conventos in the state of Puebla. Another might be central portals of Augustinian monasteries in Hidalgo. Many key and often used architectural terms, as basic as façade and as obscure as lambrequin, as well as other terms whose definition is not obvious are italicized as such (except when part of a quotation) and defined in the glossary. The bibliography continues to grow with gusto. I have discovered that, no matter how much has been published on the subject, it seems to only scratch its surface.

Ultimately the experience of viewing places, either in person or by way of a web site, is an aesthetic one. The images shown are all mine, taken with the best of my abilities with 35 mm slide film and subsequently scanned and adjusted. Certain shots, however, particularly interior ones of ill-lit altarpieces in church apses, continue to elude me, as do images of artifacts which I divine to be kept behind certain inevitably locked doors the keys to which somebody never seems to have. Yet the spirit of discovery is omnipresent in my Mexico travels. I can only wonder how much greater the excitement in disclosing previously not photographed, even undocumented, places must have been for the young Manuel Toussaint traveling about Mexico on horse-back nearly a century ago.

The colonial architecture of Mexico is an ongoing voyage of such discoveries. For the spiritual person this experience may be an exceedingly moving one whereas for the secular individual it can be one of marvel and erudition. I have come to admire and love many of these structures which have assumed for me a nearly animate quality, each with its own character and evoking its own sentiment. Certain churches are joyous or lively; others melancholy and majestic. Some display agitative qualities; others are still. Still others appear humble and inviting while their counterparts are imposing, even ferocious in their expression.

Robert Mullen estimates that “nearly 100,000 churches and civic buildings were constructed in Mexico between 1530 and 1800” (Mullen, Robert J. Architecture and Its Sculpture in Vireregal Mexico, preface). However, when one considers the devastation wrought upon Mexican colonial architecture by natural causes such as earthquakes and fire, the ravages of war and secularization, the stripping of Baroque altarpieces during the short but intense lived Neo-Classical period, let alone subsequent periods of modernization, it is quite remarkable now much actually remains. Hopefully one will not only take away from viewing this site the acknowledgement of the exquisite quality of these many extant buildings, not only the great variety in their styles and periods, but the shear quantity. An intense fervor to build has always been a Christian trademark, intensified in Catholic Mexico by an undying mission to convert, the result of which is a bedazzlement of imagery which ultimately this site can only poorly attempt to capture. As selective as I have been in furnishing examples, the temptation has been to add rather than subtract -- perhaps in itself an unwitting testimony to Spain’s legacy in the New World.