Thursday, March 21, 2013

From Pyramid to Church

The landscape of Mexico had always been a sacred one, dotted with the pyramids and temples of its inhabitants.  The ruins we have left to see are magnificent tributes to cultures that once thrived and that live on in the unique Christianity that evolved from the encounter between the indigenous beliefs and the Spanish Catholic church.  I would like to point out that the ruins were originally all vibrantly painted (as were the ruins of Greece and Rome). They were not the white/gray color that we now see. There are some books available that through transparencies show their very different original appearance.

Uxmal, Yucatan 

After the Conquest, the landscape was refurbished with conventos (churches plus living quarters for the friars) and churches springing up in large numbers in Central Mexico as well as in the Yucatan.  These convent/churches tended to be mammoth structures and were home to the friars who were  evangelizing the indigenous, as well as being worship spaces.  The very first one of these I visited was St. Nicolas de Tolentino in Actopan.

St. Nicolas de Tolentino, Actopan, MX

The first time I saw this convent,  my jaw dropped.  It loomed massive, stony and imposing in front of me,  It’s vertical stone walls crowned with jagged parapets, standing next to it I felt dwarfed.  These "fortress churches" were huge, overwhelming structures and as  we shall learn shortly, this effect was not lost on their audience.

Seen below is San Bernardino de Siena, in Coyoacan near Mexico City, one of my favorite conventos which has an elegant and beautifully restored interior.

San Bernardino de Siena, Xochimilco, MX

In the Yucatan, the early convents were similarly large, but tended to be different in style largely because of the needs of the different physical environment and kinds of building materials that were available.   Here are two of my favorites.  Directly below is San Antonio de Padua in Izamal, Yucatan.  This convento has the largest enclosed atrium (patio or courtyard) in the Americas and for this reason has been dubbed "the Vatican of the Yucatan".

San Miguel Arcangel, Mani Yucatan
It was here in Mani, in 1562, that the infamous Bishop Diego de Landa ordered the burning of all the Mayan codices (books).  Only three fully-authenticated Mayan codices survive and all are now located in Europe.  Notice the horseshoe-shaped opening to the left of the entrance. This is the "Indian Chapel", an out-door chapel where religious services were held
at first for the indigenous, newly acquainted with the church, and not yet used to worshipping in an indoor space.

The question remains why these buildings resembled huge fortresses.  It was not for protection of the friars who lived and worked there; this was not an area with any ongoing physical threat.  By the time that they were constructed, at least in Central Mexico, the conquest had been finalized.  True, some of their mammoth scale was functional- there were large numbers of indigenous to be evangelized and space was needed.  But there was an even more important reason.  These new buildings, symbolic of the new religion, had to compete with the structures of the old religion.  They had to be every bit as impressive and monumental as the temples and pyramids, the Templo Mayors, the Chichenitzas that spoke religious power to the indigenous.  These were people from  complex and ancient religious traditions. If the Christian god, the god who had defeated the old gods was indeed the most powerful, he needed an impressive house. The architectural marvels that the Spanish built, as we shall see with much indigenous assistance, were exactly this. 

1 comment:

  1. Always is a great pleasure to find a blog like this one,then just in the beginning I have to congratulate you for work.I'm starting to read the posts following the dates of them,thinking it is the best way for me to enjoy what I like so much,the Mexico's Colonial Architecture and Art.
    I will also make comments hopping to add little value to the general acknowledge.
    And now looking the photos the one about San Bernardino de Siena COYOACAN is wrong,the photo belongs to the XVI Century Church and Convent of San Bernardino de Siena in XOCHIMILCO.
    Kindly regards.