Bishop Juan de Palafox’s ideal Christian Republic

Toward the mid-seventeenth century, the City of Puebla was a diverse and multiethnic society that needed to remain loyal to the King, to the Viceroy of New Spain, and to itself as a patria chican: a city inhabited by peninsulares (Spaniards), criollos (persons of pure Spanish descent), and numerous racial groups including mestizos (persons of mixed ethnic origin) and Blacks, and by Indigenous peoples, the largest, fastest-growing, and one of the most neglected groups in the city. Palafox, in his role as shepherd of Puebla’s society, firmly believed it was his responsibility to reconcile all of these communities’ interests, both spiritually and earthly. Bishop Palafox’s tenure is thus tightly linked to what will be defined here as the “ideal Christian Republic,” a Palafox political-religious project for the City of Puebla and its diocese, which identified Palafox as a central architectural and artistic patron for the city. The argument at hand is that Palafox employed architecture to articulate this ideal Republic, starting with the city cathedral and continuing with the sponsorship of other public institutions, such as a hospital, a diocesan seminary, and an arrangement of Indigenous parishes.

Furthermore, the ideal Christian Republic concept also seeks to acknowledge Puebla as an urban republic composed of a series of corporations that articulated the city’s body politic. Flowever, beyond this, the term attempts to extend the notion of the urban republic into the specific territory of Juan de Palafox’s political philosophy and his expectations for political life:14 namely, his political philosophy balanced the marriage between good governance, which sought the individual and communal good, with Catholic piety, which sought the individual’s eternal salvation.15

During his tenure as Bishop of Puebla, art and architecture were prominent concerns for Palafox. Flowever, his figure as an architectural and artistic patron has been understudied. This is not surprising, given that Palafox scarcely wrote anything concerning these two subjects, apart from a few ideas scattered in his correspondence and in his political, ethical, and theological writings.16 It becomes evident that he was not interested in writing on the subject of artistic or architectural creation from a theoretical standpoint. This is indicated by the lack of any significant piece of writing addressing architecture or art directly. However, art and architecture - in Bishop Juan de Palafox’s universe - not only served the Catholic, post-Tridentine role of enlightening and spiritually educating the devotees’ imagination but also served to reaffirm his role as shepherd or guardian of his flock, acting as a guide in the articulation of the ideal Christian Republic. In short, architectural and artistic sponsorship was a primary obligation to fulfill his role as bishop.17

Palafox drew much of his insight on a bishop’s duties from the Council of Trent. However, Palafox took these precepts to heart, and his architectural endeavors are a testament to this idea. For him, architecture served to articulate the res publica (commonwealth); in other words, it served to define the notion of the ideal Christian Republic. Through architecture, the bishop would carry out his mission as a representative of human and divine institutions and, therefore, reshape the Christian Republic of Puebla based on a completely different model from that on which it had initially been founded. This is quite an essential point because it demonstrates the flexibility and potential of an early modern city in New Spain to refashion, reinvent, or reconfigure itself according to a changing political and social agenda.

The feat of consecrating the cathedral’s structure, for Palafox, resided in the act of providing a regal city with a splendid temple, an act that can be interpreted as a case of bishopric magnificence, as argued elsewhere.18 The argument in this chapter instead puts forward the idea that the cathedral’s construction and consecration were, in reality, more closely related to the act of urbanization. In other words, the cathedral, as an architectural work, possessed the agency to play out a symbolic function of utmost importance for the City of Puebla - establishing a concrete form and concurrently sealing, symbolically, the bond between God, Viceroy, King, and Puebla’s citizenry.

 
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