The Bishop and his cathedral: Juan de Palafox’s ideal Christian Republic (c. 1600s–1650s)

Juan de Palafox’s ideal Christian Republic (c. 1600s-1650s)

On the early morning of Sunday, April 18, 1649, Bishop Juan de Palafox у Mendoza (1600-1659) began the consecration ceremonies for the new city cathedral. The recently finished structure was the result of over seven decades of work, which started in 1573. Puebla, which had been the seat of the Tlax- cala Bishopric since 1543, required a regal cathedral worthy of its status as the viceroyalty’s second most important urban center. When Palafox arrived in New Spain in 1640 to take up his post as Bishop of Puebla, the new cathedral project was unfinished and delayed.1 One of Palafox’s principal objectives as bishop was to finish the construction of the new edifice. He tried to resolve any cases of misappropriation and pilfering of funds that he came across, which had contributed to the delay in the cathedral’s construction.2

Upon his arrival in Puebla, the bishop, according to himself, led a successful fund-raising campaign.5 Palafox himself allegedly contributed a considerable part of his funds to the construction efforts.4 After nine years of pushing forward the construction works, by 1649, the new cathedral structure - namely, the walls, the vaults, and the domes - had been completed (see Figure 4.1). The main facade, the side faqades, the bell towers, and most interior decoration would be carried out over the following decades until the early nineteenth century (see Figure 4.4). Nevertheless, completing the building’s fabric sans ornamentation and bell towers and supplying it with the essential interior elements needed to make the building act as a temple - the main altar screen, known as the Altar de los Reyes (Altar of the Kings), located at the apse, and a baldachin that marked the main altar - was by any measure an admirable feat.5

This chapter starts by providing a short description of the cathedral’s consecration ceremony.6 It continues by recounting the cathedral’s construction history up to Palafox’s tenure, shifting to a discussion of Palafox’s overall plan for converting Puebla into his concept of an ideal Christian Republic. This chapter describes some of his architectural and institutional patronages, namely, the San Pedro Hospital, the Colleges of San Juan and San Pedro, several Indigenous parishes, and the San Miguel del Milagro Shrine in nearby Tlaxcala. Overall, this chapter’s discussion extensively focuses on Palafox’s admirable contribution to Puebla’s architectural and social fabric.

An aerial view of Puebla Cathedral. Source

Figure 4.1 An aerial view of Puebla Cathedral. Source: Courtesy of Ruben Olvera.

It is fair to claim that Puebla’s seventeenth century would be impossible to conceive without addressing its most memorable bishop and his political, religious, and architectural aspirations.

When Palafox arrived at the cathedral’s atrium the morning of that Sunday of 1649 for the consecration ceremony, a large multitude had already convened despite the early hour, along with a congregation of essential clergymen. Puebla’s Bishop, along with a retinue of guests, entered the empty cathedral and lit twelve candles, each accompanied by a cross, each of the twelve nailed to a different wall of the cathedral building. After lighting the candles, they exited the temple, and, once again, in the atrium, Palafox engaged in personal prayer. After finishing, the bishop, together with a large contingent of guests, clerics, and acolytes, entered the cathedral, and the ceremony thus began in earnest with the chanting of an antiphon. After the bishop pronounced the litany, he exited the cathedral again and began the ritual of blessing the lower, middle, and upper parts of the exterior walls.7 Palafox then began the consecration and exorcism of the temple’s interior, traversing the building in its entirety.8 After having completed the ceremony, Palafox exited the temple again. At the atrium, a large crowd awaited. After a series of psalms and antiphons were chanted, the bishop preached to the crowds on the uses and special significance of having and using a temple.9

On Tuesday, April 20, two days after the consecration rituals, a final ceremony sealed the whole ritualistic cycle: the Holy Sacrament’s transferal into the new cathedral. The consecration was thus considered complete.10 Together with the subsequent celebrations, the consecration ceremony was rhe last public ritual led by Palafox as Bishop of Puebla. According to one of his biographers, that same Friday, Palafox decided that he could no longer delay returning to his native Spain.11 It was the end of his brilliant career as a statesman and a high dignitary of the Catholic Church. Forced to return to Spain, much against his will, his career ended in disgrace.

Palafox left Puebla in May 1649, forced by the Spanish Crown due to a series of convoluted political confrontations with, among others, the Society of Jesus, the Archbishop of Mexico, and the then-viceroy, Don Diego Lopez Pacheco, Duke of Escalona (1640-1642). These confrontations eroded his political reputation to the point that he was finally recalled to Spain. These troubles occurred in parallel with Palafox’s role as Bishop of Puebla and were decidedly a result of his political and reformist zeal.12

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