Friday, March 22, 2013

Location, location, location: Churches on top of Pyramids

Nuestra Senora de los Remedios, Cholula, Puebla
This church (first built in 1594-1666) appears to be sitting on top of the crest of a hill and this is both true and not true.  It actually is built on top of a grown-over, immense Pre-Hispanic pyramid,  which was excavated beginning in 1931. Today, visitors can walk through the extensive tunnel system of the pyramid, which was built over the course of 11 centuries (300 BC-900 CE).  

True, at the time of the conquest, this pyramid-temple complex had been abandoned, was overgrown with vegetation and looked like a hill.  Yet, according to my guide in Cholula, even at that time, there were stories going around about the presence of the pyramid within the hill.  Why would the Spanish chose this place, on top of a pagan structure, to locate the church of the very important Virgen de los Remedios (Virgin of the Remedies), an historically significant,  miracle-working image of the Virgin that had come from Spain?

 As we shall later see, there were very good reasons for putting a church on top of a pre-Hispanic holy site and that this was a basic principle of Colonial Mexican church location. Take a look at the following photo:

San Antonio de Padua, Izamal, Yucatan


As you can see, this church complex was built well above street level, in fact, on the foundation of an old pyramid.  It was common practice to re-use many of the stones from the old structure. Re-using the stones was a both a practical matter as well as having additional significance as will be discussed later.  Below, you will see one of these re-used stones with a Mayan glyph in the steps leading up to the convent complex.  

Stone in Izamal staircase showing Mayan Glyph

The Cathedral in Mexico City (Catedral Metropolitana de la Asuncion de Maria)
was built on the grounds of the Templo Mayor, one of the main Aztec temples in 
Tenochtitlan their capital, now known as Mexico City.

Mexico City Cathedral seen from the Templo Mayor ruins

The geology of the Yucatan peninsula was very different than that of Central Mexico.
In the Yucatan the ground was limestone and there were many cenotes, pond-like bodies of water formed by the collapse of the limestone, as well as caves.  These were both considered holy sites, places of communication with the realm of the gods. The friars built shrines on the edges of these cenotes.

Cenote in Yucatan

In any case, the same principles were operating whether the new Christian building was put  either directly on or close to an indigenous holy site, as with the cenotes: 

  • It demonstrated continuity between the power of the old religion and the new
  • The power of the old religion, by the proximity, was absorbed into the new
  • pre-Hispanic buildings were often only partly torn-down and their materials re-used for the church
  • The sanctity of the old site was preserved

As we have seen in this post and the previous one, "From Pyramid to Church",  there was a great deal of intuitive spiritual psychology that went into  the church architecture of Colonial Mexico as well as that of the rest of the Colonial Latin American world.  All of the churches are fascinating just on the level of the way they look, but understanding more of what went into them makes the experience of seeing and being in them even more exciting. 

No comments:

Post a Comment