Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Colonial City: Spanish Urban Planning

Main Plaza, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

When visiting Mexican cities and towns, it seems that all are built according to the same plan- the central square (the zocalo) with the main church on one side and streets branching off the square, perpendicular to it.  This is not an accident, because the cities of Colonial Mexico were all built according to an ordinance written by the Spanish King Phillip II in the late 16th century.  It was his opinion that many cities in Spain had become serpentine mazes of streets and he did not want the cities of the new world to fall into this disarray; they were to be built according to a plan and orderly and to reflect the power of the Spanish empire.

At a city's center was to be the Plaza Mayor (zocalo), a rectangular main plaza of a width-length ratio of 1:1.5.  Surrounding the square were to be the government buildings, the cathedral and main churches and shops.  The main plaza was not residential, but the homes of the wealthy were built closest to it.  Away from the center various neighborhoods, barrios in Spanish, were built to accommodate the working class and indigenous populations that worked in various occupations.  San Cristóbal is no exception to these rules.

The Center:

The centers of colonial cities were meant to be the seat of religious and political power.  At the heart of each is the cathedral, the most important church in the city because it is the church of the area's bishop.  In San Cristóbal the cathedral, which is dedicated to the Virgin of the Annunciation, has roots that go back to a parish church in the mid-sixteenth century.  The present building dates to the late 16th century and is built in the massive heavy "earthquake baroque" style (see April 16, 2013 post for more on this topic), using the Antigua Cathedral in Guatamala as a model.  Following an earthquake in 1902 it was further remodeled.

Cathedral, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

Across from the Cathedral is the Palace of the Governors that, in colonial times, was the seat of political power in the city.

Palace of the Governors, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

San Nicolas Church, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

In one corner of the Cathedral squares is a little church, San Nicolas, that was originally built to serve a congregation of blacks and mixed-race people.  It is said that its architecture influenced the small mission churches built throughout the Chiapas highlands and this will be explored in future posts.

Santo Domingo Church, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
Santo Domingo was the major church built by a monastic order, the Dominicans.
Although the city had initially been hostile to this order, in 1546 the city offered the friars land to build a monastery as well as promising them Indian labor to build it..  The first church, which was small and made of wood and adobe, was damaged in a lighting strike in 1563 and was rebuilt, being completed by the 1580's.  The present ornate building dates from the 17th century.

La Caridad, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
La Caridad is located next-door to Santo Domingo and its origins  belong to a legend.
In 1712 the miraculous image of an Indian Virgin Mary appeared in the village of Cancuc..
The leaders of the Catholic church did not recognize the cult that grew up around this figure and persecuted its leaders, which led to an Indian uprising and the slaughter of many Spanish.  Within six months the Spanish forces had put down the revolt and the citizens gave credit to the Lady of Charity (La Caridad) for saving them.  The bishop vowed to built a church in her honor.

Main Market, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
This market, mercado in Spanish, is the primary one for foods- fruits, vegetables, meats and the other basic items used in daily life. This market is sprawling and covers blocks and blocks of the area with vendors' stalls. In front of Santo Domingo and La Caridad churches, which are a few blocks away there is a huge crafts market, some of which can be seen in the above photos of the two churches.


The term barrio basically means neighborhood, the areas that developed around the city's center, the zona central.   Each barrio reproduced the structure of the center with a plaza, church and often some sort of market.  Very often a barrio is named after the church that is at its center.

In general, colonial cities grew from the center out, but Barrio de La Merced, which is not in the central zone was one of the first inhabited areas of what was to become San Cristóbal. The La Merced monastery was the first monastery in San Cristóbal and was founded by friars of the Mercedarian order from Guatamala in 1537; it later served as a fortress and barracks for soldiers.  

La Merced Church, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
La Merced, in my opinion, is perhaps the most interesting church in San Cristóbal because of the two unique chapels located within it.  The first is the chapel of Justo Juez, Christ the Just Judge and the other is an outdoor chapel where Mayan healers can be seen at work.  My video of this church is available at: .

Guadalupe Church, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

Guadalupe church is located at the top of a hill that bears the same name.  Constructed in 1854 and dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, its image of the Virgin was crowned in 1931.
Pilgrims from all over Chiapas come here on her feast day which is December 12.

Santa Lucia Church, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas
The barrio of Santa Lucia was founded in the mid-19th century to accommodate the population of the growing city.  The church was built during the same time period and was damaged by earthquake in the early 20th century; the date on the façade of the building is 1909.  The interior of the church, which will be covered in more depth in a future post,  is the same blue and white as the exterior.

There are other churches in San Cristóbal, but it is not possible to cover them all in this
 post. Each, in some way, reflects the unique characteristics of the neighborhood in which it is located and has a personality of its own.  In a way, the barrio churches  are more personal and intimate than the main churches in the cities center which were built to reflect the power of the religious orders to which they belong, as in Santo Domingo with its gold-leafed walls or the stately Cathedral, the seat of religious authority for the city. 

Just as each church evolves a personality of its own based on the inhabitants of its congregation, each city evokes its own personality despite the fact that the basic city plans are similar.  In the city explored in this post, San Cristóbal de las Casas, what creates its uniqueness is the presence of a large Mayan population with their unique styles of dress and customs.

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