Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Rosary Chapels of Mexico: Golden Houses

When it was finished in 1690, the Rosary Chapel or Capilla del Rosario in Puebla, Mexico was proclaimed as the eighth wonder of the world and ten days of celebration accompanied its opening. It is still considered a preeminent example of  Mexican Baroque architecture.  The chapel was the inspiration of Friar Juan de Cuenca and was meant to promote the Dominican order's cult of the rosary, and to be a tool of conversion for the indigenous. 

The Domincan order was begun by Domingo de Guzman (St. Dominic) in 1216 as part of the Church's ongoing struggle, at that time, with a heretical group known as the Cathars.The legend goes that at a point when he felt he was losing the struggle to convert this group  he went to pray alone in the forest and fell into a coma in which the Virgin Mary came to him and presented him with the rosary as the device to convert the unbelievers. The Dominicans have since had a special connection with the rosary. The devotion of the rosary was begun in the 15th century combining the prayer to Mary, the Ave Maria, with meditation on the Passion of Christ. The rosary is a series of Ave Marias divided into groups of ten interspersed with other prayers (including Apostles Creed, Our Father, Glory Be) focusing on the Passion.  The rosary is seen to be like a chain or garland of roses, hence rosary.     

The Rosary Chapels are dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the rosary and the mysteries that are evoked through praying the rosary.   In Latin American countries, there is a specific Virgin figure that is shown with a rosary and has come to be know as the Virgin of the Rosary. The Rosary Chapel in Puebla, (Puebla is about 2 1/2 hours south-east of  Mexico City)  is located within Santo Domingo, the Dominican Church and former convent there.  This church was built between the years of 1571 and 1659 and the Rosary Chapel, located within the complex, was completed later in 1690. 

Santo Domingo, church and convent, Puebla, MX

Below are photos of the "Golden House" as the Rosary Chapel of Puebla has been called.  The entire interior of the chapel is white with textured stucco covered with gold leaf and around 8 am the light streams in at such an angle that the whole place seems suffused with gold light.  To be present at this time is an amazing experience. All photos will enlarge if you click on them.

Rosary Chapel,  Puebla

Virgin,  Rosary Chapel, Puebla

Dome of Rosary Chapel, Puebla

Dome detail

Wall detail

Ceiling detail

Puebla chapel looking toward rear 

Amid the guilding sculpted stucco of the walls and ceilings are many figures, each of which has a relationship to the Virgin, the life of Jesus or the Dominican order.  The incredible profusion and complexity of the decoration is difficult to take in at one sitting.

The idea has been set forth that Santa Maria Tonanzintla (built in the early 1600's) in nearby Cholula and  the topic of my May 28th post, was an indigenous interpretation of Puebla's Rosary chapel.  The resemblances are unmistakeable- take a look for yourself.  

Santa Maria Tonanzintla, Cholula, Puebla

The Rosary Chapel of Santo Domingo, Oaxaca, (Oaxaca City is about five hours south-east of Mexico City) built in the 1720's, was modeled on the one in Puebla which had been built some thirty years earlier.  It is housed within the magnificent church-convent of Santo Domingo.

Santo Domingo, Oaxaca, MX

The Rosary Chapel of this church, along with the rest of the interior, has been refurbished within modern times because of previous damage due to earthquakes and general neglect. The altar of the chapel is not the original one, which was destroyed, but actually is modeled on an altar of the Virgin of the Rosary in Santo Domingo,  Yanhuitlan, Oaxaca, another Dominican church/convent complex. 

Rosary Chapel, Oaxaca, Altar

The ceiling and walls of this chapel are ornate and resemble those in the Puebla Chapel, but the overall effect is different.  There is more color used in Oaxaca and the chapel is beautiful, but is less of a "gold house" than Puebla.

Rosary Chapel, Oaxaca, altar seen from doorway


Facing back of chapel and choir loft

Choir loft 

Choir loft ceiling detail showing Virgin 

Chapel wall 

I was fortunate to attend a morning mass at the Rosary Chapel in Puebla, because It is during worship that these spaces really come alive. The Baroque style of architecture with its opulence was intended by the Church to draw people in by the sheer beauty and extravagance of the surroundings. In Europe this was important because of the threat of the developing Protestant movements and the competition for worshippers that they posed.  In Latin America the Baroque also served as a magnet  for new indigenous converts helping to keep them within the fold of the Church.  In places like the Rosary Chapels or Santa Maria Tonanzintla, literally ever square inch of the walls and ceilings are encrusted with symbols of the faith that draw the viewer in.  As I looked at these places for the first time, feeling overwhelmed by the profusion of color and forms surrounding me, I felt compelled to return for yet another look; perhaps this was the reaction of the new converts centuries ago.  I can only imagine the stories that must have circulated in the indigenous communities about these golden houses that were filled with images of the new gods and goddesses.  

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