The Sixteenth Century: Age of the Convento

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.
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