Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Oaxacan Baroque: Environment and Architecture

I just returned from Oaxaca, Mexico which is about five hours southeast of Mexico City.  Everything about this diverse region- churches, customs, handicrafts, is phenomenal.  It is an area of Mexico in which the indigenous peoples, largely Zapotec Indians, but Mixtec, as well,  have kept their customs and identities alive.  These are the same groups that Cortes encountered during the conquest.  

Apart from seeing all of the unique churches in Oaxaca City and the nearby valleys, there was one thing I wanted to clarify on my trip. This was, what exactly was  "Oaxacan Baroque"?  It was a term I had come across in my pre-trip reading and for some reason it  intrigued me.  

 The Cathedral of the Virgin of the Assumption in Oaxaca is a prime example of Oaxacan Baroque architecture.

Oaxaca Cathedral

There is nothing delicate about this building or any of the churches you will see below. Oaxaca is not a land of tall elegant bell-towers or spires.  The Oaxaca Cathedral is robust, almost stocky, with wide short towers.  Compare it to the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City below.  The architectural difference is dramatic.

Metropolitan Cathedral, Mexico City

Take a look at two more examples of Oaxacan Baroque style:

Convento of Santo Domingo, Oaxaca

Teotitlan de Valle, Oaxaca

Teotitlan del Valle, side view

In all Oaxacan churches bell towers, if they are present, are short, broad and connected for all or most of their length to the main body of the church.  All have significant side buttresses, a feature designed to support the church nave's vaulted ceiling.  The buttresses in Oaxaca are not the delicate flying buttresses of European medieval churches, but are solid, functional affairs.  Some Oaxacan churches, such as San Augustin seen below, do not have bell towers at all.

San Augustin, Oaxaca

The greenish cantera stone, a volcanic rock,  seen in the above photo is characteristic of Oaxaca's churches. The side view of the same church shows the solidity of the buttress work. 

San Augustin, Oaxaca, side view

I learned that another name for Oaxacan Baroque is "Earthquake Baroque".  Oaxaca is an area, with a considerable amount of seismic activity and the robustness of the church design is an adaptation to the needs of building in an area that is subject to fairly frequent earthquakes.  In the 17th and 18th centuries there were severe earthquakes that required rebuilding in many churches including both the Oaxaca Cathedral and Santo Domingo,which you saw above.   While I was there, one of the churches I had wanted to see, La Merced, was closed for repairs from a recent earthquake.  Advances in engineering have made the churches more earth-quake resistant, but their capacity to survive these has depended upon the basic design features.  

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