Baroque Architecture Blends with Aztec Prints in Mexico’s Colonial Churches

  In 1521, the Spaniards captured Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, and a large number of missionaries followed the army to Mexico. The Spaniards not only used force to control the actions of the aborigines, but also used religion to control their thoughts, in an attempt to take over everything in the New World in an all-round way. The priests spared no effort to obliterate the culture of the aborigines, burning their books (so that there are only 4 Mayan manuscripts left); destroying their temples, and pressing the entire Great Temple of Tenochtitlan under the newly built church under; prohibiting their beliefs and preventing the aborigines from holding rituals to worship their gods. Even after suffering such a huge catastrophe, the culture of the native Mexicans was not completely wiped out by the Spanish colonists. They can always survive in the cracks, and even gradually invade the spiritual palace of the Spaniards, leaving their mark in the church.
  It is true that churches were originally the tools of the colonists, but they also witnessed the amalgamation of Aboriginal and colonist cultures. After five or six centuries of entanglement, the two cultures have become inseparable in Mexican architecture. As the most carefully constructed buildings in every city and small town, the church represents the highest level of Mexican colonial architecture, and has also become the primary material for exploring the history and culture of the Mexican colonial period.

In 1325, the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was founded on a series of islands on Lake Texcoco. After the Spaniards arrived, they razed it to the ground and built Mexico City on it.
replica of a spanish church

  The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was originally founded in 1325 on a series of islands in Lake Texcoco. The Spaniards razed it to the ground and built Mexico City on it. After Mexico City was built, it was hit by floods, and the Spaniards simply emptied the entire Texcoco Lake. Now Xochimilco, southeast of Mexico City, still has a small wetland and canal. Aboriginal people still practice here the artificial floating field agriculture known as Chinampa. Lake Sochimilco is inhabited by water birds, and the canals are driven by colorful cruise ships, making it a paradise in Mexico City, which is severely polluted and water-scarce. Mexico City was built on artificial Aztec islands and drained riverbeds on shaky foundations. You can often see crumbling churches in the city, tilting and crumbling as the foundation sinks, which was dubbed “the curse of the Aztecs” by later generations.
  The Spaniards began building the Cathedral of Mexico City on top of the Great Temple in 1573, representing the conquest of the Aztec culture. This church, now located north of Constitution Square in the center of Mexico City, is also the largest and oldest cathedral in Mexico. After several reconstructions and extensions, it was not fully completed until 1813. Most of the churches in the Mexican metropolises served the Spanish colonizers and thus are more like direct copies of Spanish churches. The prototype of Mexico City’s cathedral is Jaén Cathedral in Andalusia, built in 1249, reflecting the compact layout popular in Spanish churches in the late 16th century. The main style of the church is Baroque and Neoclassical, and the altar of the king inside imitates the Seville Cathedral built in 1401. The church’s large pipe organ was built in 1736 and is the largest pipe organ in the 18th century in America. The metal railings surrounding the organ and the choir seats were made in Macao in 1722.
  Compared with the old and conservative main part of the church, the Sagrario, which is located on the right side of the church and built in the mid-18th century, is more native to Mexico. The tabernacle is used to house the bishop’s archives and sacrificial vestments. The south façade, carved out of white volcanic stone, contrasts sharply with the supporting background of red volcanic stone. The two-story Estipite crowned with Corinthian capitals on the facade is also a common decoration in Spanish and Latin American Baroque architecture in the 18th century.
Aboriginal prints

  Compared with the cathedrals in the cities, the monasteries and churches in the villages and towns on the front line of the mission were more original in style. The buildings directly face the indigenous people and required many structural changes tailored to the site. Aboriginal influences inevitably permeated the architectural style.
  On the slopes of the Popocatepetl volcano, less than 100 kilometers south of Mexico City, there are a series of monasteries that were first built by the Spaniards to preach to the aborigines. The changes made by these 16th-century monastery buildings when they faced the aborigines were also adopted by later Mexican church buildings and became a paradigm. For example, in order to resist the attacks of hostile aborigines, these monasteries often have extremely high and thick outer walls, built like Romanesque military bunkers.
  Open chapels are another great innovation in Mexican church architecture. In the cathedral of Cuernavaca, built in 1534, there is a typical open chapel. The altar, where the priest performs the ceremony, faces the open square, not the interior. In this way, on the one hand, more aborigines can receive missions in the square, and on the other hand, it can simulate the religious tradition of aboriginals performing sacrificial activities in the open air, reducing their strangeness in the church.
  During the renovation of Cuernavaca Cathedral in the mid-20th century, the exquisite frescoes covering almost the entire inner wall of the nave were accidentally exposed. The content depicted in the murals is very interesting. The fish swimming in the background represent the ocean, and the floating boats are full of people. These people are Spanish missionaries who traveled across the ocean to Japan to preach. The mural on one side shows the scene of missionaries landing in Kyoto, and the mural on the other side depicts the execution of 26 Catholics in Nagasaki ordered by Toyotomi Hideyoshi on February 5, 1597. However, because the Mexicans who painted at that time had never seen Japanese, the image of Japanese on the mural was not accurate.
  Below the altar cross next to the chapel, there are 4 cone-shaped decorations like Aztec pyramids, which may symbolize Christianity’s conquest of aboriginal culture. There is a skull on the top of the cross, and human bones and skulls are also decorated above the side entrance of the church. These decorations, which now seem quite terrifying, may on the one hand reflect the sacrificial rituals in aboriginal culture, and on the other hand reflect the obsession with death and repentance of Christianity itself in the 16th century. After experiencing the Black Death in the 14th century and the social unrest in the 15th century, Europe began to think about the meaning of death and its connection with religion. Christianity links death with redemption, making it artistic and noble, so that believers no longer fear death. The romanticized treatment of death in indigenous culture and Christianity is finally reflected in the most famous Day of the Dead in Mexico today. The activities of paying homage to the dead are no longer mourning, but have become a carnival with a warm atmosphere. Everyone puts on heavy makeup and costumes, holds parades and celebrations, sings and dances, lights candles at night, and spreads marigolds to guide the way home for the dead.

Baroque into Mexico

  If the monastery on the slopes of the Popocatepetl volcano in the 16th century represented the architectural style of Mexican churches in the early days of Spanish missionaryism, and the Franciscan monastery built in the Sierra Gorda, northwest of Mexico City, in the middle of the 18th century, then It represents the architectural style of the church in the late missionary period. At this time, the conflict between the aborigines and the Spanish colonists was no longer fierce, the Mexican Baroque architectural style was perfected day by day, and the local style of the church building was gradually revealed. In 1750, the Spanish missionary Junípero Serra came here and presided over the construction of five largest monasteries in the mountains.
  Jalpan Monastery, built from 1751 to 1758, is the earliest of the five monasteries. Both the façade and the bell tower are painted in bright red and yellow colors, full of enthusiasm of aboriginal culture, and covered with exquisite reliefs of various icons and animal and plant patterns, so as to more intuitively preach to the aboriginal people. The pillars on the facade are baroque inverted obelisk columns popular in Spain and Latin America in the 18th century, and the eagle holding a snake is carved below it, which is also a symbol of aboriginal culture. This image can also be seen on the Mexican national flag. See. In the legend of the founding of the city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs, the place where an eagle with a snake in its mouth rests on a cactus is a place suitable for settlement. The Landa Monastery, built from 1760 to 1768, is the latest one, and its façade reliefs are also the most exquisite, full of various statues, allowing missionaries to teach illiterate people more intuitively. The preaching of the aborigines has a similar effect to the statues of Jataka stories on Buddhist buildings.

In order to resist the attack of the hostile indigenous people, the cathedral of Cuernavaca built a thick and towering outer wall like a fortress.

Built in Lanta Monastery from 1760 to 1768, the exquisite reliefs allow missionaries to preach to illiterate aborigines more intuitively.

The interior of the Ato Tonilco Sanctuary in San Miguel, Guanajuato, houses some of the finest mural art in the entire New World and has been dubbed the “Sistine of Mexico.”

The austere exterior of the Sanctuary of Atotonilco.

  However, the monastery in the Gorda Mountains did not bring the gospel to the aborigines. The radical methods used by the San Franciscan missionaries to destroy the original way of life of the aborigines and the plague they brought led to a sharp decline in the local aboriginal population. reduce. The colonists and missionaries did nothing to save the lives of the natives, and even welcomed their demise. The monastery in the Gorda Mountains had to close because of the disappearance of the aborigines after only 20 years. In 1770, Junipero Serra came to California, USA, and continued to preach to the local aborigines. He was known as the “California Apostle” for spreading Christianity to California. Today’s two major cities in California, San Francisco and Los Angeles, are named after the missionary monastery he opened there.
  After hundreds of years of development and integration, Mexican church architecture has gradually formed a localized Mexican Baroque style from the imitation of European architecture at the beginning. The pinnacle and most dazzling achievement of this development can be seen in the sanctuary of Atotonilco in San Miguel, Guanajuato. This church has a tall and straight but unusually simple appearance. But as soon as you step into the interior of the church, you can see all the colorful murals and resplendent bas-reliefs, making people feel like they are in heaven and linger on. This building built in the 18th century is known as the “Sistine of Mexico” because it preserves the most exquisite mural art in the entire New World. The murals cover every corner of the church, leaving almost no gaps. Most of them were completed by the Spanish painter Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre over 30 years.
  On September 16, 1810, the flag painted with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe waved by the new rebel army led by Ignacio Allende, a hero in the Mexican War of Independence, also came from here. This ancient church is thus associated with the beginning of Mexico’s independence.

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