Puebla de Los Angeles’ cathedral
As early as 1573, native Tlaxcalans traveled to Puebla to construct the city’s new cathedral, as reported by the sixteenth-century Tlaxcalan chronicler, Diego Munoz Camargo, who specifies that some 60 to 70 people were employed in the cathedral’s works every week.19 However, the works officially started in 1575, when Viceroy Martin Ramirez de Almansa appointed the architect Francisco Becerra as maestro mayor or master builder for the cathedral works, together with Francisco Gutierrez as aparejador or building supervisor and Juan de Cigorondo as obrero mayor or administrative supervisor for the works, as stated in a viceregal edict dated January 24, 1575.20 Becerra traces the cathedral’s layout, which, with slight alterations, will be the architectural plan that will inform the cathedral’s design until its completion in the early nineteenth century. Becerra and Cigorondo presented this layout to the Cathedral Chapter council members and its dean in November of 1575.21 It is essential to mention that there was an “old” cathedral that existed previous to the start of the new one, which, according to the chronicler Veytia, was finished in 1539, had three longitudinal naves, and occupied the area where the Tabernacle Chapel, the Altar de los Reyes, and the Chapel of the Ochavo (octagon plan) are located within the current cathedral layout. It faced onto the plaza piiblica or main square.22 By 1544, the old cathedral appeared to be experiencing damage to its fabric, which indicates its probable low construction quality. The deterioration advanced into the 1570s.23 By 1576, the city’s civil and religious authorities decided to build a new cathedral, demolish the old one, while a temporary cathedral church building, which the Cathedral Chapter in the council minute refers to as “xacal,”24 was built in order to host the city’s religious festivities temporarily.25
Becerra’s plan was rectangular, approximately 110 m in length and 80 m in width (361 by 262 ft, approximately). It possessed three longitudinal naves and two naves at each end occupied by lateral chapels. The central nave was slightly wider in proportion to the other two, as it was the nave that accommodated the chorus, the main altar, and the main retable. The whole plan was divided into ten transversal modular units, with the transept module being wider than all others, in order to match the width of the central nave’s width to allow an octagonal drum, inscribed in a square, to sit on the transept, which is crowned, in turn, by the church’s central dome. Another dome crowns the Altar de los Reyes altar screen and chapel at the building’s apse (see Figure 4.2).
Becerra’s Puebla Cathedral plan bears a particular resemblance to Andres de Vandelvira’s layout for Jaen Cathedral in Spain, which follows a similar modular and spatial organization scheme as its Pueblan counterpart. Becerra was in charge of the cathedral works until his departure to the Viceroyalty of Peru in 1580, but during the five years he was in charge of Puebla Cathedral, he kept in contact with his colleague, Claudio de Arciniega, who was the maestro mayor of the Mexico City Cathedral works.26 This fact has placed doubt on Becerra’s authorship of Puebla’s layout, attributing it to Arciniega instead, although it is now more widely accepted that Becerra authored the plan but was likely advised by Arciniega, who had been in New Spain since 155 5,27 twenty years before the Puebla Cathedral works started. Ultimately, Arciniega’s professional experience in New Spain in the construction field greatly surpassed Becerra’s, and his advice most likely proved quite beneficial to Becerra.28
After Becerra’s departure to Peru, Francisco Gutierrez (1582-1586) and then Luis de Arciniega (1589-1599), Claudio’s brother, became instrumental in Puebla Cathedral’s progress as maestros mayores in charge of its construction. During the sixteenth century, the works appeared to advance steadily, but in 1610, signs of trouble appeared. From that year, a royal document requested that New Spain’s viceroy inform the Spanish Crown as to why the works were not advancing as expected. The document singles out the
Figure 4.2 Plan of Puebla Cathedral. Source: By Trevor Wood.
obrero mayor of “defrauding” the building’s construction29, and an audit of the books determined a fraud of 34,000 pesos,30 which, as Molero Sanudo notes, was nothing short of a scandalous amount of money.31
The next major event in Puebla Cathedral’s construction history came in 1634 when the Viceroy of New Spain charged the architect Juan Gomez de Trasmonte, one of the most renowned architects in New Spain at the time, who was in charge of Mexico City’s Cathedral since 1622 as apa- rejador,n to visit Puebla Cathedral and produce a technical report on the structure’s state of conservation, as the works had stalled since 1626, despite its high-costing payroll.33 Gomez de Trasmonte’s detailed report described the building’s state, indicating how the lateral chapels were practically finished, with the vaulting needing only an outer-roof brick finish, while the Chapel of the Kings, which constituted the apse, was also finished and ready to be vaulted. Trasmonte recommended raising the central nave’s height and maintaining the lateral naves at a lower height to allow light to flood the structure through clearstory windows. Despite Trasmonte’s visit, from 1635
until 1640, the year Bishop Juan de Palafox arrived in New Spain, Puebla Cathedral had not advanced significantly, while a stratospheric amount of money had already been dispensed, by some accounts, more than a million- and-a-half pesos.34 As Tamariz de Carmona wrote in his chronicle of the cathedral’s consecration, Puebla Cathedral was known popularly as the “Silver Temple,” given the exorbitant amount of money spent on it.35 An overpriced, delayed, and apparently interminable construction site was what Palafox found on his arrival in Puebla.
When, in 1649, Palafox finally managed to consecrate the cathedral, the overall aspect of the building was of a massive masonry shell, with no exterior ornamentation on its facades and no bell towers, finished with the gray basalt stone quarried from the hills of San Cristobal and Manzanilla in the city’s outskirts, which must have provided it with a cumbersome appearance. Contrastingly, inside the shell, the most refined artistic and religiously meaningful objects in the building were the main retable, known as the Altar de los Reyes, and the baldachin, placed on the main altar at the building’s transept. The altar today exists in an altered form, after a Neoclassical renovation by the sculptor Jose Manzo in 1855, while the baldachin was replaced by a Neoclassical one at the turn of the nineteenth century by famed sculptor - architect Manuel Tolsa.
The Altar de los Reyes is set against the apse’s back wall, the apse constituting the so-called Chapel of the Kings, today crowned by the famed dome decorated with the oil paintings by artist Cristobal de Villalpando from 1688. The altar, initially built in green jaspers, with a base and four horizontal bodies, is divided into three vertical bodies. This retable’s outstanding feature was the employment of the Solomonic column in its design, making the introduction of this Baroque order the first of its kind on this side of the Atlantic, or at the very least, one of the first instances of it.36 The retable was designed, according to Palafox himself, by a known Spanish sculptor, Juan Martinez Montanes, although historians now believe it was Pedro Garcia Ferrer, the preferred sculptor, painter, and architect at the service of Palafox, who designed it (see Figure 4.3).
The pictorial program, dedicated to the Virgin of the Floly Conception, is articulated with a series of oil paintings by Garcia Ferrer and also features a cadre of sculptures of saints associated with the Flapsburg family, such as St. Louis, King of France, and St. Leopold, made by Diego de Folch and Francisco de Gandara, replaced sometime in the nineteenth century. The artist-architect Pedro Garcia Ferrer deserves a special note. Fie came from Spain as part of Bishop Palafox’s retinue and acted in many of the bishop’s architectural and artistic projects as a most trusted collaborator - working closely with Palafox and following his instructions diligently in all artistic and architectural decisions. Garcia Ferrer was also in charge of overseeing the works at Puebla Cathedral during Palafox’s tenure, although the bishop and he were also advised by the architect Juan Gomez de Trasmonte in charge of the Mexico City Cathedral project.37
Figure 4.3 A view of the Altar de los Reyes at Puebla Cathedral, c. 1649, by Pedro Garcia Ferrer, with important modifications in the early nineteenth century by Jose Manzo.
The baldachin, also designed by Garcia Ferrer, only survives in a description provided by Tamariz de Carmona, the author of the cathedral’s consecration ceremony cited earlier. Thanks to his description, Joaquin Lorda carried out a hypothetical reconstruction that highlights the unusual trait of having had four altars, one on each side, and it was dedicated to the Virgin of the Holy Conception, too, as was the retable. This way, the baldachin established a theological dialogue with the Altar de los Reyes. Lorda also believed Puebla’s baldachin, probably influenced by the baldachin at San Isidro’s Chapel in the Church of San Andres, in Madrid, also featured Solomonic columns, just like its Madrid counterpart did. In that sense, it is relevant to cite how Palafox viewed his cathedral as an artifact resonant with the notion of Solomon’s Temple as representative of an idealized architecture revealed by God, a popular topic in the Hispanic world, and exemplified by the treatise of Juan Bautista Villalpando and Jeronimo de Prado, In Ezechielem explanations, et apparatus Urbis ac temple Hierosolymitani (Rome, 1604), dedicated to reconstructing the Temple of Solomon.38 In that sense, Palafox’s cathedral continued to perpetuate the notion of Puebla as the embodiment of a city that resonated with the Heavenly Jerusalem.