The Mexico City Cathedral, which stands adjacent to the central downtown Zócalo (public square), is a structure that is rich in history and reflects the many socio-political forces that shaped its construction. (Fig.1) Modeled on the likeness of great Spanish Cathedrals such as the Seville Cathedral (Archdiocese), the structure was highly ambitious in its planning and undertaking. While the beginning structure (envisioned by missionary evangelists and commissioned by Spanish Authorities) was initiated in the mid-16th Century by architect and sculptor Claudio de Arciniega, as well as Alonso Perez de Castañeda, construction and completion took almost three centuries and the resulting structure takes on the juxtaposed qualities of several stylistic variations, from neoclassical to churrigueresco.1
There are unusual beginnings to the initialization of the cathedral’s construction, as the location for the present-day edifice was originally occupied by a pyramid built by the Aztec.2 This pyramid was eventually demolished to make way for a new cathedral - and a small remnant of this original structure was used as a corner stone - in what appeared to be a nod to the importance of the original sacred site.
A primitive, three aisled cathedral also existed before the Metropolitan Cathedral replaced it. This cathedral, which was built in 1526, had a wide nave with side aisles, contained 10 bays of structure approximately 80 yards long, and was built with stone exterior walls and interior columns which supported a flat armadura de media tijera (trabeated wood substructure with a layer of earth over the top). (Fig. 2, 3) There is evidence to suggest that a gabled roof also existed on this original structure (as it was renovated many times), and records that show that at some point, this structure had semicircular pediments at the end facades which were flanked by turrets.3 (Fig. 4,5)
This trabeated style ruled Mexican construction until after 1540 and was derived from early medieval and indian technologies. Early colonists were limited by the structural ideas of pre-conquest technologies. In an effort to exceed known indian architectural achievements, they made the length over 250 feet, and heightened the structure to over 20 yards, which was a gesture intended to inspire conversion of faith through inspirational achievement and to mark a distinction between indoor and outdoor worship.4
In 1528, when Juan de Zumárraga was appointed as archbishop to Mexico City, it was decided by him that a new cathedral should replace the primitive one. (Fig. 6) The cornerstone for the present Cathedral of Mexico was laid in 1573 based upon Claudio de Arciniega’s plans. (Fig. 7) Construction proceeded slowly, with many changes. Although a major portion of the Cathedral was built in the 17th century, the vaulting was not completed until 1667. Additionally, the belfries were not finished until 1791. Furthermore, the façade as of that point remained incomplete and was eventually finished in the early 1800s by Manuel Tolsa, a Spanish architect and proponent of the neoclassic style which was en vogue during this time.5 Therefore, a cumulative effect is represented in several places as far as an ability to stylistically interpret the entire project.
In general, the timing of the cathedral’s primary construction and fundamental structure corresponds to a Mannerist movement in Mexico. These principles coincided with other major episcopal projects during the same period, following some trends established by Merida Cathedral in the Yucatan. However, the Mannerist movement presented contradictions for the design of the Cathedral. The belief that a Cathedral was designed to fulfill specific functions of the bishop was prevalent before the 16th century. Many of the European cathedrals followed this example and were already completed by the onset of the construction of the Mexico Cathedral. Claudio de Arciniega sought to design a structure that would be consistent with both a mannerist creed, as well as prevailing cathedral tradition. He established a Latin Cross plan with a wide central nave, two processional aisles, and two more chapels. The proportions of the spaces were influenced by a Renaissance Ideal of unity, as opposed to a compartmented approach of a Gothic Cathedral. One interpretation of the result is that the plan meets the necessary conditions of a cathedral but it has been further simplified. It avoids a traditional ambulatory headwall, but leaves a semi-octagonal apse to accommodate the major chapel.6
Mexico City’s Cathedral was planned in a similar way to other important cathedrals of the time: as terraced-roofed without differentiation among various nave heights. (Fig. 8) This concept has been attributed to the Iberian Peninsula, where, as a response to the sun’s harshness, apertures are discouraged. It may also be valid to question whether some the form of the Cathedral is based partly on the work of Northern European masters: it is possible that the principal façade copies elements from the Italian Renaissance (for instance, the Cathedral at Pienza by Bernardo Rossellino), as well as the fashionable affinity for Flemish (Antwerp Mannerism) and German influences (Passau Cathedral) among European architects.7
In general, the main form of the new structure was originally intended to mimic the four towered massing of the cathedral at Valladolid, Spain, based on the Renaissance design of Juan de Herrera. It also derives some forms from Jaén Cathedral in Spain, which was influential on the development of other Mexican cathedrals in locales such as Puebla, Merida, and Guadalajara.8 The plan could have drawn some inspiration, from the unrealized project for St. Peter’s Basilica by Bramante, which more than likely influenced the concept of four towers at the corners which is implied in the plan.9
Mexico City’s Cathedral follows a basilican structural layout, typical of other Cathedrals erected in the 17th century. The design was based upon proportions and the geometries of the circle, square, and equilateral triangle (Fig. 9), but the stylistic tendencies prevalent in the Renaissance determined the sculptural essence of the façade. (Fig. 10) The porticos on the north face of the Cathedral demonstrate a rigorously geometrical mannerism while the lower portion of the South elevation, designed by Luiz Gomez Trasmonte, corresponds to a mannerism of Italianate elegance. High baroque is later represented in the upper level of the portico and of the crossing.10
Classical orders – Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, - are articulated in an ordered and compartmentalized manner.11 The lower rectangular portion of the cathedral’s facade is modeled after a strict Renaissance style introduced into Spain by Juan de Herrera in his design for the Escorial. Massive tower bases of precisely cut grey stone are pierced with square openings illuminating stairwells. The tower bases frame a slightly recessed façade composed of three vertical zones separated by buttresses. The central portal is wider and higher than the other two and each portal is framed by paired fluted columns with Doric capitals and entablature. (Fig. 10)
The aesthetic of this lower part of the façade derives from a consistent precision of proportion. The façade and towers conform to a square, with the height of the towers equaling the base length. (Fig. 11) It was only later during the completion of the upper tier between 1672 and 1689 that the Spanish Baroque made its debut in “Neuva España.”12 The cathedral was originally intended for east-west orientation but was changed to north-south, so that the south face could respond to the large colonial structures that were already built on the adjacent Plaza Mayor.13 (Fig. 12)
A particular innovation from Arciniega is his division of the naves with composite pillars, four half columns that are attached to a central pillar. The cruciform plan would later impact other pieces of Mexican architecture. The pillars are deep grooved doric columns that are elongated without respect to the original formal language, representing a Manneristic implementation.
The Baroque influence on the completion of the cathedral was a separate phase that was dependent on local artisans and building traditions, and therefore, Mexico’s Baroque cannot be compared in an exacting way to the architecture of Spain. European architects saw Mexico as a place where they could use exceedingly flamboyant sculptural decoration, in conjunction with bold colors. The skills of the local carpenters and stonemasons (which were rare in Europe) helped achieve a further blending of styles. While the main body of the Cathedral is influenced more purely by Spanish architecture, the qualities that place the Mexico City cathedral into a Baroque category are the embellishments that were added– adornments such as twisted columns, curved tympanum and volutes.14 The completion of the upper tiers between 1672 and 1689 set a “new” stylistic pace for the country as Spanish Baroque had then made an influential debut in “Neuva España”.
Elements were added to the design as a way of promoting this change of style favoring the Baroque. Broken cornices relax rigid horizontal lines while segmented arches lighten the third tier. (Fig. 13) The mass of the buttresses is relieved by their shortened height, which is also topped with curving scrolls. There is even a relief that was added on the South that appears as if it were “hung” like a painting on the façade with a square frame. (Fig. 10) This appropriation of the dynamic qualities of the Baroque, alongside the static elements (such as the neo-classical pilasters and entablatures), epitomizes late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century façades most everywhere in Mexico.15
The cathedral’s interior is bathed in a soft lighting due to clearstory windows which hold translucent slabs of onyx. The Doric and Tuscan orders were used to express the interior columns, similar to the simplistic elegance of Jaén Cathedral’s columns, but with a different engagement of springlines. Groined vaults close the five-bay nave; while domed vaults, supported by engaged columns, enclose the side aisles. (Fig. 14) The continuity of the five naves and aisle bays is interrupted by the crossing and transept, which delineates the Latin cross in the plan. An octagonal dome set on a windowed drum covers the crossing. (Fig. 15) The main altar area is terminated in a polygonal apse, which is filled with a gilt retablo (wood carved altar) known as the Altar de los Reyes, completed in 1736.16
The Ultra-Baroque style, which the Mexicans call churrigueresque, was brought in by a designer from Seville, Jerónimo de Balbás: for nineteen years he labored on a huge new retablo for the Cathedral. This lustrous, gold leaf faced altar was completed in 1737, and was considered a true masterpiece that ushered in a new artistic era. Architectural lines were obscured by the deeply-cut ornamentation that covered every surface. Balbás dared to create the estípite, a “column” square in plan with tapered bottom and formed of several sections, giving the appearance of stacked parts. On the lower half of the Cathedral, estípites are squared, tapering at the base like an inverted obelisk, and with capitals located about midpoint. On the upper half, there are a series of cubes with capitals, abstract motifs, foliage, and putti (Cherubs). The placement of a projecting cornice divides the main retablo from the apse dome. This element “signaled the start of a new era in Mexican colonial architecture that many consider the most brilliant flowering of the Andalusian retablo style.”17
The highly detailed central altar was the immediate inspiration for the façade of the Sagrario, the adjacent, interconnected Cathedrals’ parish church. (Fig. 16) This church existed in some form next to the cathedral since at least 1603, but the present structure was built between 1748 and 1768 by an Andalusian architect, Lorenzo Rodríguez. The interior forms a Greek-cross plan (Fig. 9), but in creating the façade they set out to accomplish in stone what Balbás had created in wood.18
An array of tightly compressed estípites (with recessed columns between them) is placed on the façade, in addition to three vertical zones and three horizontal tiers. Rodríguez ornamented every inch of his façade, and set a new precedent. Paired estípites replace paired classical-order columns. (Fig. 10, 16) Figures and faces cover over the façade, some so small that they are barely visible. The façade is daringly contrasted with tezontle (red, porous volcanic rock) side walls, which appear bronze-like. With this design a bold, new, and provocative façade had been created. For the time this was the ultimate in sculptural virtuosity – pure exuberance in stone. A new architectural style had emerged, and for the rest of the century, the estípite became the dominant motif in Mexican church architecture.19
As a piece of architecture, the Mexico City Cathedral is an example of a project that represents a trajectory of evolutionary continuum, and a mélange of stylistic influences. It is also a study in contrasts. The stripped-down and simplified plan and understated nature of the interior columns and vaulting belies the exterior façade and additional baroque addendums. The main reason for this is simply the long delay between the planning and development and the ultimate completion of the project. Artistic tastes changed during the process, and perhaps there was an eventual “overcompensation” by later architects in an attempt to correct this problem, especially during the churrigueresque period. However, it would be incorrect to say the design is perfectly harmonious in nature - in fact, the contrasting textures of style are more like a collage than a unified architecture. Perhaps it was ego at play that led to this jumble of styles – both of the viceroys and the numerous architects. It is safe to say that each wanted a piece of glory to be remembered by, and to please regal desires. However, what makes this cathedral a curious oddity is not necessarily the addition of the churrigueresque, because on the whole, those pieces are added more overtly to the composition, either dropped in on the more serious interior bombastically or expressed independently on the newer Sagrario façade. The real curiosity is the subtle interplay of Renaissance, Gothic, and Baroque, and how they manage to co-exist in the same building. Indeed, it is a feat that the design maintains a sense of clarity even though it is difficult to classify categorically. It avoids confusion because, for the most part, the Renaissance “master plan” of Claudio de Arciniega laid out a canvas for other architects to “paint” on. The exterior is a different “dress” for a skeletal structure than what was originally intended, but the framework was there to guide the process.
Because of the dynamic nature of the history and development of the Cathedral, it continues to play a major part within Mexican heritage. Due to the slow development of the construction, the hybridized form is a virtual catalog of architectural historical ideas. Given this, it is doubtless going to persist as an icon of not only architectural form, but also of the cultures and socio-political structures that shaped its development.
- Catedral Metropolitana de Mexico. (translated from web)
- Ministry of Education, Page 2
- Kubler (Vol. II), Page 296
- Ibid, Page 298
- Mullen, Page 92
- Fernandez, Pages 20-21
- Kubler (Vol. II), Page 308
- Ibid, Page 307
- Fernandez, Page 22
- Ibid, Page 24
- Mullen, Page 85
- Ibid, Page 118
- Ibid, Page 90
- Zanlungo, Tarabra, Page 53
- Mullen, Page 118
- Ibid, Page 93
- Ibid, Page 168
- Ibid, Page 168
- Ibid, Page 168
- Lemerle, Frédérique and Pauwels, Yves. Baroque Architecture 1600-1750. Paris: Flammarion, 2008. Print.
- Norberg-Schulz, Christian. Baroque Architecture Italy: Electa Editrice, 1971. Print.
- Zanlungo, Claudia and Tarabra, Daniela. The Story of Baroque Architecture. New York: Prestel, 2012. Print.
- Fernandez, Martha. La Catedral de México - Problemática, Restauración Y Conservación en el Futuro. Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1997. Print.
- Sanford, Trent Elwood. The Story of Architecture in Mexico. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1947. Print.
- Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico. Mexico: Ministry of Education, 1953-1962. Print.
- Kubler, George. Mexican Architecture of the Sixteenth Century (Vol. 1 and 2). New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948. Print.
- Ward, Peter M. Mexico City New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998. Print.
- Mullen, Robert J. Architecture and Its Sculpture in Viceregal Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997. Print.
- Haas, Antonio. Mexico. New York: Scala Books, 1982. Print.
- History of the Cathedral of Mexico. Catedral Metropolitana de Mexico. Web. 2013. February 11, 2014.
- Description of the Monument. Arquidiócesis de México. 2011. Web. February 11, 2014.
- Manrique, Jorge Alberto. Manierismo en México. Textos Dispersos Ediciones. 1993. Print.