Colonial Architecture of Oaxaca – Part I
Posted on November 30, 2018
I boarded a plane to Oaxaca de Juarez, Mexico, in the summer of 2016 to work for an architecture firm, Broot Studios. Joao Boto Caeiro, the principle architect of the firm, had given a lecture at my school, Texas Tech University, a year prior, and after I approached him about the idea of working at his firm.
While there, I learned about the vernacular architecture of Oaxaca, but I also discovered much more about the language, history, culture, traditions, and the people of Mexico.
Oaxaca de Juarez, Mexico, is located along the southwest coast of the Pacific Ocean between Puebla and Veracruz to the north, Chiapas to the east, and Guerrero to the west. Situated between two plate tectonics, the Cocos Plate and the North American Plate, it is the most earthquake prone state in Mexico. The terrain of Oaxaca is rugged and mountainous with a vast array of different climates in the inland areas, along the coast, and in the valleys.
Indigenous cultures settled between the mountains, resulting in 16 unique cultures—each with their own language and traditions. Dating back to 2000 B.C., the Zapotecs—“The True People”—and the Mixtecs—“Place of the Cloud-People”—were the two most prominent cultures in Oaxaca. The Aztecs inhabited Oaxaca in the 15th century, but their rule was short lived. In 1521, the Spaniards conquered Mexico. The Spanish peninsula itself had only become fully Christian thirty years prior. The Reconquista, which ended in 1491, marked the end of Moorish rule and the beginning of a new era of Spanish exploration and colonization.
The Spanish occupation of Mexico, introduced a new language, culture, and religion to the region. They built churches across Mexico and converted the indigenous people to Catholicism. In Oaxaca alone, 1,250 churches were built. The architecture blended medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque elements, with Mesoamerican motifs and symbolism. A new and distinct Mexican architecture—combining European and Moorish influences from Spain with local Mesoamerican forms—emerged.
In the center of Oaxaca de Juárez sits the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán. The plan was drawn by a little-known Dominican architect named Fray Francisco Marín in 1547. Construction of the cathedral then began in 1575. The initial years of Santo Domingo were tumultuous. An earthquake destroyed the cathedral in 1603, but the church reopened in 1610 and would be completely finished 50 years later. The architecture is distinguished by Italian Renaissance elements combined with Hispano-Moorish and Oaxacan Baroque ornamentation on the interior.
The façade is tripartite with “fluted Corinthian columns in the classical tradition [that] divide the four main tiers, and Renaissance inspired friezes of cherubs and acanthus foliage [that] enliven the cornices.” Two bell towers with ornamental pilasters, pointed merlons, and high tiled domes frame the entry portal.
The Rosary Chapel lies to the south of the cathedral. There above the entry portal, a stepped frame surrounds a relief sculpture of the Virgin Mary handing a rosary to St. Dominic, the patron saint of the church. Interior columns divide the single nave church into six rectangular bays and form six chapels on each side for smaller celebrations of the mass.
The cross vaulting in the entry portal is ornamented with stucco multi-branch vines that trace the lineage of the founder of the Dominican order. The remaining walls, vaults, domes, and niches are encrusted with unique Oaxacan Baroque ornamentation. The altarpiece is divided into tiers of rectangular compartments and framed by gilded spiral Solomonic columns carved with intricate open-work vines, paintings of religious figures, and statues in shell niches.
Colonial architecture in Mexico during the 300-year Spanish occupation fused the local indigenous cultures and their symbolism with the typical forms of Spanish architecture. Across Mexico, indigenous imagery appeared in relief sculptures and ornament in plaza and cathedrals—in rare occasions they can be found in the sanctuary itself. The architecture and heritage of the region is a blend of civilizations and influences, and this forms what we know today as Mexico.
To be continued…