Religious architecture in Puebla: 1660s-1770s

Public festivities had as a backdrop the rich array of religious architecture present throughout the city. In Puebla’s historic district, it is difficult to walk more than two blocks without encountering a religious building, and the majority of them date from the 1600s and 1700s. Indeed, traces of religious architecture in Puebla before 1600 are scarce, given that most of these buildings suffered remodelings or transformations, which accounts for the city’s identification as Baroque. Perhaps the only religious architectural landmark that preserves integral elements dating from the 1500s is the Church of the San Francisco Monastery, whose single-nave plan design is characteristic of the sixteenth century’s Franciscan monasteries of Central New Spain. San Francisco’s choir loft in the narthex, with its groined vault and depressed arch, attributed to architect Francisco Becerra, and the church nave with its groined vaults, and the church’s northern gate, also attributed to Becerra, are the most concise late Gothic architectural idioms left in the city.

The religious architecture of Puebla in the 1600s and 1700s, instead, is based on the replication, improvement, and mastery of several architectural elements and construction techniques that, albeit reduced, managed to spawn an astonishing number of variables, producing one of the most vibrant architectural traditions in New Spain.

Religious buildings in Puebla are, most of the time, cruciform or three-aisled plans with domes at the transept with a barrel and cross vaulting to allow side windows (sail vaults were also standard, as in the lateral naves of the cathedral) as well as choir lofts at the narthex. An exception regarding plan typologies was female monasteries or convents. In New Spain, they generally had single-nave plans, and entry into their temples was lateral, as opposed to frontal, and usually possessed twin portals. Generally, they also possessed one single bell tower. Further, female convents possessed cloisters with two stories attached to the temples, where the rest of the architectural program unfolded. In the seventeenth century in Puebla, some female convents acquired a great

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deal of financial power, as the dowries of novices entering these religious communities compounded great fortunes that got reinvested in real estate or other economic ventures. Some religious communities acquired such fortunes that they acted as financial lending institutions.42

These structures, invariably built in masonry, required buttresses to counter the lateral forces of such massive volumes. These were mostly attached buttresses, but, in a few cases, as in the cathedral, we find examples of flying buttresses. Buildings were usually finished in lime stucco and painted in colorful palettes employing mineral pigment, lime-based paint. Quarried stone was employed for ornamentation in facades and gates and rarely would a building be wholly finished in stone - a sumptuous building such as the cathedral is an exception. The most common stone employed in Puebla for relief ornamentation and sculptures is a local dark gray basalt stone, such as the one employed to finish the cathedral externally.

Domes came in all sizes and with many variables. Often, domes possessed drums, usually pierced with windows, while lanterns, with pierced windows, were quite common as well. As in Santa Clara (c. 1714) or San Cristobal (c. 1687), some domes were square in plan and inscribed within polygons, usually octagons, but domes on pendentives were quite common too. Examples of the latter are El Carmen (c. 1650) and the Holy Trinity (1673) Churches. Elliptical-plan domes were less common, and the dome that crowns the main altar at the cathedral is an example of that typology. The dome at the Jesuit Church of the Holy Spirit, popularly known as La Compania (c. 1767), possesses an exceptional cimborrio or lantern tower roofed with a cloister dome due to its rectangular, elongated plan (see Figure 5.2). Dome exteriors were

An aerial view of the Church of La Compania de Jesus, c. 1760, Puebla. Source-. Courtesy of Ruben Olvera

Figure 5.2 An aerial view of the Church of La Compania de Jesus, c. 1760, Puebla. Source-. Courtesy of Ruben Olvera.

decorated with an array of Pueblan ceramic glazed tiles, known as Talavera. An example is the cathedral’s central dome (see Figure 4.1).

When it comes to roof typologies, timber, hipped roofing for religious buildings might have been a solution for some sixteenth-century structures, such as the first cathedral building. However, by the first half of the 1600s, masonry vaulting was the most widespread and universal solution for religious buildings in Puebla, and flat slabs supported with timber beams were employed for all other building typologies. No ceilings in the Mudejar tradition, which is to say coffered with polygonal panels, termed artesonados in Spanish, or the alfarje type, a wooden ceiling of intricate interlacing decorative panels, have survived in Puebla.

Overall, the reproduction and exploitation of these architectural features - the cruciform plan, dome, and mass in scale and volume - produced structural shells, characterized by a set of orthogonal, predictable spatial arrangements, which were ornamented principally at the entry and sometimes at the lateral gates. Similar to European Romanesque or early Gothic church architecture, the iconographic and ornamental elements were concentrated at the temples’ portals, where the faithful would find a series of iconographic messages that merged with an ornamental profusion that would beckon them and generate anticipation prior to entering the building.

Inside, the abundance and exhilaration of ornamentation became coupled with the flooding of natural light on the main altar and materials such as gold leaf on retables would glitter, increasing the perceptual and sensual intensity of the religious experience. The solemnity, the flickering of candlelight, and the smell of incense must have enshrouded the space with a religious aura and elevated the congregation’s spirits during rituals. In the typical poblano church’s interior, the apse would be furnished with the main retable, as would the naves and the lateral chapels.

During the first half of the seventeenth century, the most crucial element incorporated into poblano church architecture was stucco ornamentation on walls and vaults. It would be an understatement to say that stucco came to be, in the latter 1600s and the 1700s, one of the defining features of poblano Baroque architecture. Puebla was, in fact, one of the first places where strap- work on vaulting, at the Santo Domingo Monastery Church, first appeared, probably introduced by Spanish, perhaps Andalusian, artisans, brought to New Spain by the Dominican friars to work on their monasteries in Puebla, Oaxaca, and elsewhere.4’ However, Santo Domingo’s stucco ornamentation paled in comparison to the wonderful strapwork carried out in the interior of the Church of San Cristobal Orphanage, inaugurated in 1687, surpassed shortly after by the Rosary Chapel in 1690. There, the stucco strapwork would testify to the unimaginable possibilities of this craft.

Interestingly, for a style that came to define a city’s architecture, the emergence of the Baroque in Puebla was initially met with resistance by a Classical, sober tradition that was well established in the city. In effect, Puebla’s Classical tradition, which originated around the 1570s (see Chapter 3), persisted beyond the 1650s. An excellent example of Classical sobriety early in the seventeenth century is the main facade of the Santo Domingo Monastery (see Figure 5.3). The facade, finished in 1611 and manufactured in the local basalt gray stone, is composed of two horizontal sections and a crowning, while a double set of paired, attached Doric columns flank the main arched entry. The columns turn into attached, rectangular-sectioned Ionic pilasters on pedestals in the following section, with a rectangular framed choir window in the middle. Crowning the ensemble is a set of paired Doric, relatively flat, pilasters that frame a sculpture in relief, in local onyx stone, of St. Dominic.

A sober Mannerist style characterizes the facade of San Pedro Hospital Church, completed in the 1670s. Also manufactured in local basalt stone, the half-arch entry is flanked by paired, rectangular-sectioned Doric attached pilasters. In the middle section, two finials flank a frame made of Ionic pilasters, and a sober frieze and cornice that might have displayed a seal of arms, probably of the Spanish Crown, is now gone. The top section displays an oval window flanked by a pair of caryatid-like pilasters. A pair of ascending

S3 A view of Santo Domingo Monastery’s main entry, c. 1611, Puebla. Source

Figure S3 A view of Santo Domingo Monastery’s main entry, c. 1611, Puebla. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Victhor, CC BY-SA 4.0.

162 Decline and splendor

cornices-volutes make space for a bell gable located in the facade’s mid- section, an unusual architectural element in the city (see Figure 5.4). San Pedro’s Church facade introduces some Mannerist idioms, which, only timidly, anticipate the Baroque explosion that was just around the corner. Other sober, Classical facades of this period, more restrained than San Pedro’s, are found in the St. Agnes of Montepulciano Church (c. 1663), a female monastery found in present-day 3 Sur Street, and right across the street, in the facade of St. Philip Neri Church (c. 1680). Both constitute examples of the persistence of sober Classicism in the city’s architectural culture during the late 1600s.

The irruption of explicit Baroque expressions in the poblano architectural repertoire became visible around the mid-1600s in buildings such as the facade of the Carmelite Monastery Church. The facade is a Mannerist composition that features a Roman arch entry with an odd-fitting semicircular pediment above it, and two oversize Carmelite seals in the middle section, flanking the choir window. The top section, however, was covered in colorful Talavera tiles, including parts of its triangular pediment that crowns the whole facade, probably in the late eighteenth, or in the nineteenth century. The employment of colorful glazed tiles, dull red brick, gray basalt stone, and white stucco as the formula for poblano Baroque became more explicit at the San Jose Parish Church (1653-1693), where the walls of the building are covered with red brick in a herringbone pattern, with a plinth made of gray

San Pedro Hospital Church facade, Puebla, seventeenth century. Source

Figure 5.4 San Pedro Hospital Church facade, Puebla, seventeenth century. Source: Courtesy of Ruben Olvera.

basalt stone lining the lower part of the walls. The portal, articulated with a Roman arch, is flanked with a pair of Corinthian attached columns at each side, on pedestals, and a niche in the middle of the paired columns on each side bearing sculptures probably of St. Peter and St. Joseph (see Figure 5.5). Similarly, the upper section of the portal displays a pair of attached pilasters of rectangular section, Ionic, which flank a panel with a sculpture in relief of St. Joseph holding the hand of Jesus as a young child. The outstanding element at San Jose is the way the column and pilaster shafts are covered with colorful Talavera glazed tiles, while a thin, white stucco cornice and a pair of finials crown the portal, thereby fulfilling the red brick, glazed tile, gray basalt, and white stucco quartet of poblano Baroque.

However, one of the most accomplished and beautiful churches that employ the poblano material quartet is the Sanctuary of Guadalupe (1694- 1722), on present-day Reforma Avenue at Paseo Bravo Park. Its portal, a Roman arch, is sculpted in gray basalt stone, with fluted, Doric pilasters and with profuse decorations on the arch’s spandrels. The upper sections

A view of the San Jose Parish Church (1653-1693), Puebla. Source

Figure 5.5 A view of the San Jose Parish Church (1653-1693), Puebla. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Isaacvp, CC BY-SA 4.0.

of the portal are finished in white stucco, forming pilasters and a broken pediment that frame two choir windows, a rectangular one underneath and a semicircular one on top. Surrounding the portal is an array of colorful glazed tiles arranged by their color palette and forming an arch at the top of the central section of the facade. The bell tower shafts are finished in red brick and contain a series of vignettes made in glazed tiles, which narrate the story of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The bell towers are incredibly ornate, slim, and tall, with three sections, each adorned with Solomonic columns. An array of rocailles, swirls, and vegetative motifs, all finished in white stucco, render the composition profusely ornamented, yet highly coherent and balanced in its proportions (see Figure 5.6).

Religious Baroque architecture in Puebla sometimes took other avenues, as at the Church of the Orphanage of San Cristobal (1676-1687), one of the most accomplished religious buildings from the late 1600s. The facade and the church’s bell towers are finished in the typical gray basalt stone and are teeming with vines, floral, vegetative motifs, and small sculptures of children - pertinent to the building’s function as an orphanage - that dot the

Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Puebla. Source

Figure 5.6 Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Puebla. Source: Courtesy of Ruben Olvera.

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portal. The entire facade is a beautiful display of a Baroque artifice adorning an otherwise simple set of Classical architectural elements, such as a Roman arch, paired Corinthian columns on pedestals, an entablature, finials, and a framed, rectangular choir window, flooded with an extraordinary array of saturating, moving details (see Figure 5.7)

Another outstanding example of religious architecture that employs an alternative material and spatial solution is the Church of the Jesuit College of the Holy Spirit (1661-1748), designed by the Jesuit priest Juan Gomez and executed by the master mason Jose Miguel de Santa Marfa.44 It has a three-ailed plan and a lantern tower or cimborrio at the transept. The facade’s lower portion, whose main gate is a tri-lobulated arch, forms a loggia and the other two Roman arches flanking it. The loggia is a unique element in the city, which preserves its outstanding ironwork and is wholly rendered in gray basaltic stone, while the upper section of the facade and the bell towers are, contrastingly, finished in stucco. The facade is a vernacular interpretation of a Baroque ornament of outstanding ingenuity, where rocailles, volutes, vines, vegetative motifs, and even estipite45 pilasters on

Detail of the fagade of the Church of the Orphanage of San Cristobal, Puebla

Figure 5.7 Detail of the fagade of the Church of the Orphanage of San Cristobal, Puebla.

the first section of the bell towers coexist harmoniously, thanks to a series of vertical axes that render the ensemble geometrically coherent.

The facade of the San Francisco Church at the Franciscan Monastic Complex, however, is an unusual case among Baroque facades in Puebla. Although initially constructed in the latter 1500s, the church received a significant remodeling c. 1740, which transformed its facade into a veritable and superior example of poblano Baroque. The facade (1743-1767), for one, employed red brick, gray stone, and glazed tiles to produce a central portal section manufactured exclusively out of gray basalt stone and articulated by a series of estipite pilasters. The estipite Baroque was never as extensively propagated in Puebla as in other New Spain cities, such as Guanajuato, so the San Francisco facade remains an outstanding work in Puebla for that reason as well (see Figure 5.8).

The final note on this short and partial survey should go to a lesser known but impressive religious building in the city, the Church of Our Lady of the Light, popularly known as La Luz, in the Indigenous barrio of the same name in the Parish of Analco, across the river from the plaza central. La Luz Church possesses a Greek-cross plan, unusual in Puebla, and embodies the

Fagade of the San Francisco Church and Monastery in Puebla

Figure 5.8 Fagade of the San Francisco Church and Monastery in Puebla.

Facade of the Church of La Luz, finished in 1805, Puebla

Figure 5.9 Facade of the Church of La Luz, finished in 1805, Puebla.

transition from Baroque to Neoclassicism, a style that never enjoyed much popularity in viceregal Puebla. Its facade is a sober Classical composition, in which a Roman arch entry is flanked by paired, attached Doric, fluted columns on pedestals, which on the upper section become Ionic, attached rectangular pilasters, topped by a semicircular pediment crowned with three finials (see Figure 5.9). The bell tower shafts are finished in red brick and interspersed with glazed ceramic tiles in blue and white designs. The interior, dating from the early 1800s, is entirely Neoclassical, with pillars and structural arches made of gray basalt stone, congruent with the exterior’s sobriety.

 
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