The Via Crucis of Puebla: the ritual architecture of an imagined Jerusalem in New Spain

If the Holy City of Jerusalem presented itself to St. John

descending from the skies . .. being that glorious city such in the likeness

to this one of Puebla, and has been the same [angels]

who traced its streets none others than those who,

by order of the Mighty One, traced those of the Sacred Zion

we can, with careful discourse, infer the resulting beauty of this Angelic City.

Diego Bermiidez de Castro Theatre Angelopolitano (The City of Angels’ Theater), 1746.59

As noted earlier in this chapter, Heavenly Jerusalem, the revered model that stood at the center of various urban mythological narratives both in Europe and in the New World, was symbolically represented through urban and architectural elements that attempted to evoke the ideal city'.60 The most quoted element that staked a claim for a city’s resonance with that model was its urban form.61 However, another closely related urban-architectural feature seen as an embodiment of the Heavenly Jerusalem was the Temple of Solomon. This mythical building was aspirational for architects in the early modern period, as Alberto Perez-Gomez has demonstrated via the marvelous treatise on this building by the Jesuit scholar Juan Bautista Villal- pando.62 In Puebla, and in other cities in New Spain for that matter, such as Mexico City, the Heavenly Jerusalem paradigm was invoked through their cathedral buildings (which made references to the Temple of Solomon as an architectural model) and through their rectilinear urban layouts.63 However, many cities in the Spanish world of the early modern period possessed another urban-architectural element that confirmed their bond to the Heavenly Jerusalem. These were urban-architectural complexes known as the Via Crucis or the processional and devotional Way of the Cross, and Puebla de los Angeles’ Via Crucis, as it were, represents an outstanding case study of its type in the whole Iberian American context, as will be discussed in the pages that follow.

The Via Crucis was a popular ritual with especially designated processional routes present in New Spain’s main cities, whose establishment often involved a topography that evoked Jerusalem’s. Put differently, the Passion’s ritual recreation involves the act of walking up a slope or hill for a distance that is, ideally, similar to that of Jerusalem’s own Via Crucis. A relevant characteristic of Puebla’s Via Crucis is that it continues to be used by the city’s inhabitants, as the ritual has been reenacted every Easter to this day since the sixteenth century, continuing to fulfill the complex’s purpose: namely, to bridge the relationship of the city’s symbolic “body” with the body of Jesus Christ himself.

Another relevant aspect of Puebla’s Via Crucis is that it has preserved most of its chapel-stations - twelve out of thirteen chapel-stations remain - while

60 The grid and the hill

the first station stood in the interior of the Franciscan monastery, which still exists today. The existence of most of its original elements allows for a more rational analysis of the complex, as it remains legible to no small degree, even though its site was initially designed and built in what was the city’s periphery at the time. However, given the city’s growth, the Via Crucis is now located in a central part of the city, in an area with a high population and building density. Still, compared to other similar complexes, such as the one Mexico City once possessed, and of which only one chapel exists today, Puebla’s Via Crucis is one of the best preserved - and probably one of the least researched - of the viceregal period in Mexico (see Figure 2.6).64

The Passion of Christ has been a central element of the Christian faith since its early days.65 The devotional practice of the Via Crucis is the physical and spiritual commemoration of Christ’s ordeal on Good Friday, which, over time, took the form of a processional ritual in which a group of faithful, following an entourage of priests, Church representatives, and well-known members of a community, would follow along an established path marked by stops or “stations.” At each station, the tradition narrates the events that presumably occurred, from Christ’s death sentence by Pontius Pilate to his death by crucifixion at Mount Golgotha, located outside Jerusalem’s city walls at the time.66

The origin of the ritual practice of the Via Crucis was born from the popularity and interest that the faithful placed on the episodes and details surrounding the Passion of Christ. In Europe, that interest is evidenced by

A visual breakdown of the existing chapel-stations in Puebla’s Via Crucis. Source

Figure 2.6 A visual breakdown of the existing chapel-stations in Puebla’s Via Crucis. Source: Google Maps.

pilgrimages that the faithful undertook to Jerusalem, recorded as early as the fourth century BCE. The itineraries in these visits would focus on visiting the sites linked to the story of Christ’s Passion, such as Calvary Hill, the Holy Sepulcher, the Mount of Olives, and the Garden of Gethsemane, among others.67 These pilgrimages continued to occur throughout the Middle Ages. However, the Via Crucis as a processional ritual acquired its present form in the early modern period due to pilgrims traveling to terrae sanctae (The Holy Land) and recording their experiences in writing and producing along the way a literary genre of pilgrimages to the Holy Land. These written accounts contained architectural, urban, and topographical descriptions, sometimes transmitted through maps as well - however fictional the information conveyed in the maps was - which disseminated the tradition of recreating Jerusalem and the sites associated with Jesus’ life in Europe. One of the most famous instances of a written account of the Holy Land is that by Christian Kruik van Adrichem (1533-1585), published for the first time in the late sixteenth century. In it, the author provides a detailed description of the Holy Land, together with a significant number of maps, including one of Jerusalem and its periphery, which is outstanding for its attention to detail. Topographical landmarks, the city’s walls, and, in general, the different shrines and places that played a role in the narrative of the Passion of Christ are all represented in the map.68

It is worth noting that a significant event prompted the articulation of the Via Crucis as a central ritual in the Christian faith. In the mid-fourteenth century, the Franciscan Order, which had had an active presence in the Holy Land, was officially declared by Pope Clement VI as the Holy Sites’ custodian in Jerusalem.69 In this way, those pilgrimages to the Holy Land and the Holy Sites’ custodianship by the Franciscan Order triggered a shift that led to the Passion’s recognition as the symbol of the triumph of life over death. In short, it was an event in which the faithful were encouraged to adopt an embodied, personal role in which to invest their own emotions. In effect, the believers would mentally place themselves in the role of Jesus, or the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, or other characters, borrowing from and exploring the whole range of emotions and reflections experienced by them throughout the ordeal, by way of immersing themselves in the biblical narratives as they took part in the procession.70

However, there were other forms of manifestations regarding the Passion’s popularity, and those were the spatial or architectural manifestations of Jerusalem’s holy sites in Europe. An outstanding, early example is a group of seven church buildings that comprised a whole architectural complex constructed as part of the Monastery of Saint Stefano in Bologna in the fifth century by the bishop of that city at the time, Saint Petronius. The bishop intended to mimic the most important shrines associated with Jesus’ Passion in Jerusalem in Bologna.71 According to legend, Petronius traveled to Jerusalem and used a cane and counted his steps to survey Jerusalem, later reproducing some of its architectural and urban terms in Bologna.72 This idea of reproducing the Holy Land sites in Europe found its most sophisticated expression centuries later in the famed Sacri Monti (Sacred Mountains) in the Italian Regions of Tuscany, Piedmont, and Lombardy. The Sacri Monti were several architectural complexes made up of a string of chapels that commemorated Christ’s life and the saints, located in carefully chosen sites reminiscent of Jerusalem’s topographical characteristics.

In the case of the Sacro Monte at Varallo and as David Leatherbarrow suggests, the chapels that make up the complex were carefully laid out to function similarly to the mnemonic techniques employed in certain devotional Catholic practices, such as the spiritual exercises designed by Ignatius of Loyola in the sixteenth century. According to Leatherbarrow, the layout of the chapels, the processional routes employed to navigate from one chapel to the next with trees lining the trails to guide the visitors’ gaze on perspectival views, and the theatricality of the whole complex, including the chapels’ decorative programs with realistic sculptures of Jesus and the saints, are designed to impress a series of powerful images on the faithful’s mind - prompting reflection and meditation.73 That is how topography, space, architecture, and artistic expressions such as sculpture and paintings all came together to evoke Christian spirituality’s urban and architectural center, the City of Jerusalem. The successful formula of the Sacro Monte in Varallo extended to the rest of Europe within a century and eventually to the New World.74

As expected, the Via Cruces in the New World had a direct precedent, the traditions found in the Iberian Peninsula. There, the practice of sacralizing mountains and hilltops and linking them to Jerusalem’s holy sites dates back to the precedent of the Via Crucis built by Saint Alvaro of Cordoba in the Monastery of Scala Coeli. Around the year 1425, Saint Alvaro, a Dominican priest who had traveled to Palestine, returned to Spain deeply moved by the sites of Christ’s itinerary during his Passion, to the point of establishing a scaled replica of the Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering) in the monastery where he retired to live as an ascetic and hermit.75 However, the Sacri Monti model never gained traction in Spain, with the notable exception of the Sacro Monte of Granada. Nonetheless, with the influence of the Council of Trent’s ideas for renewed forms of devotional practices, the processional routes that commemorated and mimicked the Via Dolorosa and the Holy Sites in Jerusalem proliferated in the forms termed calvarios or Via Cruces.

In Antonio Bonet Correa’s definition, a calvario or Via Crucis is a processional route outside a city’s limits or periphery. The processions commence at the foot of a slope and end on a topographical promontory, articulated by a series of markers at each stop or station, which could take the form of a tile embedded on a wall marking the station, aedicule-niches on walls, standalone crosses, or in their most sophisticated iteration, chapels (which could be referred to as capillas, ermitas, or humilladeros). Every time, the stops recreate Christ’s path toward Mount Golgotha via fourteen stations.76 Some examples are the calvario in Seville, in Lorca, in the province of Murcia, and the Priego de Cordoba. The Via Cruces in urban settings were much more common, found in practically every Spanish city, and followed a street in an urban setting, sometimes managing to end their processional route at a prominent topographical site.77

The practice of building Via Cruces or calvarios was taken to New Spain and began to appear in cities and rural sites. When it comes to urban environments, Bonet Correa affirms Via Cruces were a mostly Spanish city (republi- cas de espanoles) phenomenon, giving as examples the Via Cruces in Mexico City, Puebla de los Angeles, Cuernavaca, and others. In rural settings in central Mexico, the Via Cruces often appeared linked to the mendicant orders and their monastic complexes, who practiced the Via Crucis procession on Maundy Thursday in their church atriums, with some notable examples of calvarios on sites that were religiously significant before the arrival of the Spanish. In those cases, the missionaries Christianized the sites by establishing places of adoration to Christ, the virgin, and the saints, as well as calvarios, to counter the pre-Hispanic religious significance of those places. A case in point is the calvario in the town of Amecameca on the slopes of the Popocatepetl volcano, a mid-point between an old route between Mexico City and Puebla de los Angeles. In the early sixteenth century, the Franciscan missionary Friar Martin de Valencia retired to a cave to live his last years as a hermit on a site that was previously a pre-PIispanic adoratory. Another example is the sanctuary of Chalma, another pre-Hispanic adoratory, where, during the viceregal period, a sculpture of Christ inaugurated a prevalent pilgrimage cult that continues to this day.78

The Via Crucis in Puebla is a rare example of a Via Crucis or calvario complex, given that, as mentioned earlier, it has preserved most of its chapels. It continues to hold a prominent place in Puebla’s imagination, as many worshippers continue to practice the ritual every year. Moreover, it combines many of the characteristics of a typical Via Crucis, that is, it consists of a collection of buildings instead of only markers. Further, it possesses a well- measured length that is said to be similar to Jerusalem’s. Lastly, it mimics Jerusalem’s topography, making it an outstanding case study in the Spanish American context. Moreover, the Via Crucis in Puebla possesses great significance as an architectural complex, given that its reenactment provides the city’s faithful with the possibility of experiencing the city as a “living body,” an identification that occurs through the remembrance of Christ’s ordeal. Through the participants’ agency, Puebla de los Angeles is symbolically placed, once a year, on an equal footing with Jerusalem.

In Puebla, the Via Crucis establishes an intimate relationship between religious expression and landscape. Through the ritualistic remembrance and physical navigation of the site, the worshipper feels and experiences the city as a “living body,” in other words, carnally. To that effect, Mircea Eliade asserted the idea of how space acquired outstanding characteristics for the religious man, as a sacred manifestation or phenomenon is revealed to participants in that space, thereby providing it with exceptional traits.

“For religious man, space is not homogenous; he experiences interruptions, breaks in it; some parts of space are qualitatively different from others.”79 The fact that the experience does not occur in Jerusalem is of secondary importance. For the poblano (Pueblan) faithful, the processional route, the trails, and the shrines that recreate the Passion acquire qualitative importance that links them directly to the original Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.

As the theologian Thomas Matus argues, topography is an intrinsic element of religious narratives. Christianity and its landscapes are tightly woven together: It was born on the banks of the River Jordan with Christ’s baptism, and it continued with Jesus’ ministry through the barren landscapes of Palestine, with the revelation and temptation in the desert following him as a backdrop to all of his life’s episodes.80 However, a crucial element in a Via Crucis, both the original in Jerusalem and its replicas throughout Europe and later the New World, is topography, namely, how the presence of a hill, mountain, or sloped terrain will frame its development, as mountains are considered sacred topographical features in the Christian tradition.81

From a mystical and religious perspective, mountains and hills bear profound symbolic messages. For one, they are outstanding topographical features representing the place where heaven and earth meet; in that sense, a mountain and a hill are omphaloi, symbolic navels that mark a religiously significant site on the earth. Relatedly, the historian Giovanni Filoramo indicates how this notion repeatedly appears in the literature of the Christian mystics: “Richard of Saint Victor described the degrees of contemplation as the ascension of a mountain; Saint John of the Cross titled one of his most important works, ‘Ascent of Mount Carmel’; and Mechthild of Magdeburg defined God as ‘a mountain.’”82 It is not surprising that the Via Crucis would find at its center the notion of ascent to reach the climax of the story: the crucifixion of Jesus.

The city’s viceregal chroniclers, such as Mariano Fernandez de Echeverria у Veytia, Agustin de Vetancurt, and Miguel Alcala у Mendiola recognized how Puebla’s Via Crucis mimicked Jerusalem’s topography.83 Furthermore, Leopoldo Garcia Lastra and Silvia Castellanos Gomez have recognized other similarities between Puebla’s and Jerusalem’s topography relative to the Via Dolorosa. For one, they claim that two streams of water bordered the east and west sides of first-century AD Jerusalem: the Kidron stream that formed in the valley of that same name and the Hinnom stream that ran through the valley with that same name, joining their streams to the south of the city. In Puebla, there were, strikingly, two bodies of water that geographically enclosed the area of the city’s first founding site - the same site where the Franciscan monastery and the Via Crucis are located. These bodies of water were the San Francisco River and the Xonaca Stream. During his ordeal, the distance presumably walked by Jesus, some 1,321 paces - approximately 1 km - was also observed in Puebla’s Via Crucis, where the devotional procession is approximately 1 km in length.84

In this form, Puebla’s Via Crucis sequentially plays out similarly to the Via Dolorosa’s topographical cadence. In Puebla’s case, the procession starts at the Franciscan monastery, passes through a short topographical descent, to then begin ascending the Cerro de Belen or Bethlehem Hill. The ritualistic procession in Jerusalem follows a similar order; the procession starts close to the Temple Mount (the Temple and the monastery being analogs) and descends to begin ascending again toward Calvary Hill. In Puebla’s mirroring of this topography, the Cerro de Belen - wherein lies the Iglesia del Calvario or Calvary Church - evokes Jerusalem’s own Calvary Hill, where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is located. Correspondingly, the Iglesia del Calvario in Puebla contains the last six stations of the Via Crucis, acting as a proxy for the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which hosts the last five stations of the procession.

 
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