Saturday, June 1, 2013

Chiapas Part 3: La Catedral de San Cristóbal

La Catedral de San Cristóbal de las Casas occupies one whole side of the Zócalo. Oddly, it was built to face its own Plaza Catedral rather than facing the main plaza. Other cathedrals I have seen were built with unpainted volcanic rock or limestone. By contrast, the one in San Cristóbal is brightly painted. Not long ago, the Cathedral was restored to its original colors of yellow, white, and red.  The red and yellow colors of the original church imitated the colors of the clay streets then existing in San Cristóbal and the nearby Maya village of Chamula.

The original church, built in 1528, was dedicated to the Virgin of the Assumption. That church was small, simple, and constructed of adobe and thatch, as many were in those early days. In 1536, the church was re-dedicated to San Cristóbal (St. Christopher), although it retained a connection to the Virgin of the Assumption. In the 17th Century, the old Conquest-era church was torn down and construction on a bigger, more imposing structure was begun. The architect/builder was Fray Juan de Ordoñez. The facade of the new church was finished in 1721. A few more details were added in the early 20th Century, but the structure you see above is essentially the one completed in the early 18th Century.

The facade

The facade's styles include Baroque and Moorish with Oaxacan and Guatemalan influences. The facade was constructed to resemble an altarpiece, or retablo, with three vertical and three horizontal levels separated by Solomonic columns. There are niches for various saints, including St. Peter and St. Paul. Their niches were placed on either side of the main entrance on the ground level. Those two saints represent the dual nature of the town, with the Spanish colonials in the center surrounded by the indigenous neighborhoods. The positions of the other saints are oriented toward the various neighborhood churches with which those particular saints are affiliated. The yellow surface above the entrance is decorated with alfeñique, a white stucco laid down in intricate floral designs. The alfeñique shows the influence of Oaxaca and Guatemala. The main entrance of the Cathedral is topped by the arched window seen above. It is bracketed by two double-headed eagles also of white alfeñique. The eagles are the symbols of the House of Hapsburg. That was the family of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who ruled Spain and its colonial possessions during the middle of the 16th Century. Above the window is a niche containing a relief carving of Santiago Matamoros.

Santiago Matamoros, sword in hand, tramples his enemies. The relief work is worn and broken, so it was difficult to get a good photo, but the main elements are still visible. At the time San Cristóbal's Cathedral was being built, Chiapas was a part of Guatemala which had adopted Santiago Matamoros (St. James, The Moor-Slayer) as its patron. Since many of the sculptors and other artisans who worked on the Cathedral came from Guatemala, it was natural that this saint would be given a prominent place in the design.

James, son of Zebedee, was one of Jesus' original 12 Apostles. James became Santiago Matamoros, the patron of Spain, after the battle of Clavijo in 842 AD. Christians and the Muslim Moors had been struggling for control of Spain since the Moors invaded in 711 AD. The night before the battle of Clavijo, the Christian King Alphonso dreamed he saw Santiago leading the fight. The next day, the Christians defeated the Moors with great slaughter. In grateful recognition of the role Santiago supposedly played, the Christians added Matamoros ("Moor Slayer") to his name. Subsequently, Santiago Matamoros became the symbolic leader of the Reconquista, the 700-year-long Christian crusade to expel Spain's Moors. The Reconquista finally succeeded in January, 1492. Shortly after this victory, Spain's rulers, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, approved the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. He sailed in October of that same year. The Conquistadors under Hernán Cortéz soon followed up Columbus' discoveries by invading Mexico. Naturally enough, they adopted Santiago as their patron during their long, bloody struggle to break the indigenous resistance. Thus, one of the chief Apostles of the Prince of Peace was portrayed as a bloodthirsty warrior in both the New World and the Old. I somehow doubt he would have approved. 

The Main Nave

Massive Corinthian columns line both sides of the main nave. The high ceiling and tall windows give the interior a light and airy feel. At the far end is the altar, backed by a large and elaborate retablo. Maya women often crawl on their knees up the entire length of the nave to the altar while praying audibly. 

Almost immediately after he defeated the Mexica (Aztec) Empire in 1521, Cortéz sent parties of Conquistadors in every direction, looking for gold and other riches. An early expedition to Chiapas under Captain Luis Marin, was repulsed in 1524, but Cortéz sent another under Diego de Mazariegos in 1527. This time the Spanish were successful. They defeated an army of indigenous warriors in a bloody battle near modern-day Tuxtla Gutierrez. After their defeat, 4000 of the indigenous people leaped to their deaths into the Sumidero Gorge rather than surrender to the Spanish. The Spanish colonists continued to encounter resistance from Chiapas' native people for the next several centuries. The Mexican authorities, who replaced the Spanish in 1821, have had similar difficulties right up into the 21st Century.  

The Corinthian captials topping the columns show a Neo-classical influence. This form of column, with its typically ornate, flower bedecked capital, was invented by an architect named Callimachus in the 5th Century AD. Ironically, although it was named after the ancient Greek City of Corinth, it actually came from Athens. A further irony is that it was little used in Greece, but was extensively employed by the Romans. While the Neoclassic Movement in architecture began in the early 18th Century, these columns were part of the reconstruction of the Cathedral following the 1902 earthquake. Columns of this style are among the most readily identifiable Neoclassical forms.

After his suppression of the initial indigenous resistance, Diego Mazariegos selected a lush valley named Hueyzacatlán, high in Chiapas' central mountain range, to found a new city. Although the town's original name was Villa Real de Chiapa, it was later renamed San Cristóbal, after St. Christopher, the town's patron. The Spanish kings were notably ungrateful to their conquistadors, and Diego de Mazariegos was replaced as governor of Chiapas in 1531. His successor, Judge Juan Enriquez de Guzman, was not much of an improvement. De Guzman was even greedier than Mazariegos and his depredations caused mass indigenous uprisings that took years to suppress. The native people began to call the town Villa Vicious. 

San Cristóbal, carrying the Christ-child on his shoulder. San Cristóbal is the patron saint of travelers. The Pope demoted him in 1969 and took his official saint's day off the calendar, but he is still revered in many local areas. The demotion may have had something to do with the considerable confusion over who San Cristóbal really was. His legend is very similar to that of St. Menas, an historical Egypitan martyr, and they may have been the same person. In addition, the ancient Greek legend about Jason, the famous Argonaut, contains a story very like that of the Christian legend. San Cristóbal is described as a huge man, standing 2.3 m (7.5 ft) tall, with a fierce appearance. Seeking to serve "the greatest king there was," he sought the advice of a hermit. San Cristóbal was told to go to a particularly perilous river and to use his size and strength to help people cross it. While engaged in this activity, a small child approached him. He carried the child across on his shoulder, but was puzzled at the great difficulty he encountered. Upon reaching the other side, San Cristóbal was exhausted. He told the child that it felt like he had the whole world on this shoulder. The child identified himself as Christ the King and said that San Cristóbal had been carrying the Creator on his back. The saint had found his "greatest king." The name Cristóbal, or Christopher, means "Christ-bearer." He converted thousands to Christianity before his later martyrdom by decapitation in either 251 AD by Emperior Decius or 313 AD by Emperor Dacian, take your pick. 

An intricate wood parquet ceiling runs the length of the main nave. The tile-like appearance of the parquet shows the influence of the Moorish/Islamic style called Mudéjar. Each of the squares contains a flower which, upon closer examination, becomes a cross. At the corner of each square are other, smaller crosses.

In 1542, the Barcelona Ordinances severed Chiapas from New Spain. It became part of the neighboring Guatemala province, which encompassed most of Central America at the time. The terrain, climate, Maya population, and pre-hispanic history of Chiapas were and are much more closely related to Guatemala than to the rest of what is now Mexico. The province remained part of Guatemala until after the 1810-1821 War of Independence. Following the war, there was considerable jockeying among the insurgent leaders of Chiapas over whether it would remain part of Guatemala, join the new nation of Mexico, or become an independent nation. In 1824, Chiapas became one of the 31 Mexican states.

The pulpit was carved and gilded in the intricate Baroque style. Baroque originated in late 16th Century Italy. It uses light and shadow to create dramatic intensity. Baroque is also characterized by the amazing intricacy of its designs, often covering every square inch of a surface. Art is often closely related to politics, and Baroque was no exception. It was used to express hope for the ultimate triumph of the Catholic Church over its Protestant enemies. Baroque also celebrated the emergence of absolutist states. Of the various colonial churches I have visited in Mexico, those associated with the Dominican Order are almost always the most flamboyantly Baroque, and the first bishop who occupied the Cathedral was Dominican. However, San Cristóbal's Cathedral is bit more restrained than many Dominican churches, perhaps because so many different styles were used in its various reconstructions. 

Pope Paul III decided to make Chiapas a bishopric in 1538. He designated the town of San Cristóbal as its seat, but did not immediately choose a bishop. Oppression of the indigenous population was rampant when Chiapas' first bishop, Bartolomé de las Casas, finally arrived in 1545. He was a Dominican friar, an historian, and a social reformer. He was also one of the very small number of Catholic officials in the Spanish New World colonies (or at any later time, for that matter) who objected to the mistreatment of the indigenous people. De las Casas' efforts to help the native people caused an uproar among those who benefited financially from their oppression. His enemies brought about his recall to Spain in 1547. 

A detail of the pulpit shows the fine 17th Century woodcarving. Baroque typically uses an exuberant floral theme, but also incorporates human faces in the design. I find I can almost get lost while viewing Baroque art like this, as I discover patterns within patterns.

Three years after his return to Spain, de las Casas participated in a famous debate before the Council of the Indies. The issue raised in 1550 was whether indigenous New World people were indeed human beings and whether enslaving them was a just act. The decision by the judge was inconclusive and both sides claimed victory. While he never returned as Bishop of Chiapas, de las Casas continued to exert influence over Spanish policy toward the New World's indigenous population. This included writing several influential books, including "A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies," a graphic description of the atrocities committed during the Spanish Conquest and the early colonial period. It makes grim reading, even today, after all the genocide committed in the 20th and early 21st Centuries.

On the pulpit's handrail, the face of a long-haired conquistador gazes up into eternity. The worn face is topped by a helmet with a luxurient plume. Everywhere I turned in the Cathedral, I found fascinating little details like this. In a dark, musty corner nearby sat a large, cracked bell dated 1792, one year after the Cathedral was finished. I wondered how it came to be cracked, and how long it had been sitting in that obscure niche.

De las Casa convinced Holy Roman Emperor Charles I (who was also King of Spain) to order the gradual abolishment of the encomienda, the legal mechanism that allowed the enslavement of indigenous people in return for the colonists' promise to Christianize them. Resistance by the Spanish colonists delayed the implementation of these reforms until well into the 17th Century. By that time, due to overwork, abuse and disease, the native population had crashed by 90% and the encomienda no longer made economic sense. It was finally abolished in favor of the hacienda system which used wage slavery to ensure a stable, docile workforce. In spite of his limited successes, Bartolomé de las Casas was one of the earliest forefathers of the modern human rights movement. In 1848, "de las Casas" was added to San Cristóbal's official name in honor of his work for justice.

Retablo behind the main altar

A huge retablo, one of several in the Cathedral, fills the wall behind the main altar. Some of the most stunning features of the Catedral de San Cristóbal are its several elaborate retablos. They were installed during the period between 1754-1767. The word retablo has its origin in Latin and means "board behind." A retablo is a large structure, usually carved and gilded, that rises to fill the wall behind an altar. The various niches typically contain paintings and religious statues. The main retablo shown above was made in the Churrigueresque style, a Spanish offshoot of Baroque with Moorish influences. There are three niches with a statue of San Cristóbal on top, Christ in the center, and the Virgin of the Assumption on the bottom. In addition, there are twelve other niches containing a variety of painted religious scenes.

The Virgin of the Assumption stands in a glass-enclosed niche at the bottom of the main retablo.
The Virgin appears in many guises in Catholicism. This one refers to the belief that, at the end of her life, both the soul and actual body of Mary, Jesus' mother, were taken up into heaven. It is viewed as a victory over both sin and death. During the early history of the church, there was considerable uncertainty about what had happened to Mary following Jesus' crucifixion. In 377 AD St. Epiphanius of Salamis stated that no one knew whether she had died or not. Despite that, a tradition grew up over the centuries that she had been gloriously "assumed" up to heaven still in her living earthly body. 

Retablo to left of the main altar

On either side of the main retablo are two slightly smaller ones. They were made in 1708--the same year as the pulpit--and originally decorated a local Jesuit Church. However, the King of Spain expelled the Jesuits from his New World possessions in 1767 and the retablo above and its mate were reinstalled in the Cathedral that same year. While not as large, they are even more elaborate than the main retablo.

The Jesuit Order was founded by Ignatius de Loyola (1491-1556),  an aristocrat from the Basque area of Spain. As a young man, he was a soldier and, in 1521, he was wounded in both legs by a cannonball. During his recuperation, Ignatius intensively studied religious texts and, as a result, renounced military life in favor of a monastic one. After casting about for the right path, in 1534 he founded a highly disciplined and tightly organized religious organization called the Society of Jesus (Jesuits, for short). Ignatius wanted to be free of bureaucratic entanglements, so he structured the Jesuits as a body of missionaries answerable directly--through himself as the Superior General--to the Pope. 

Standing on the altar below the left retablo is Nuestra Señora de los Dolores. Our Lady of the Sorrows is one of the many ways in which Mary, the mother of Jesus, is portrayed. I had been unable to identify the female figure when I originally placed this photo in the posting and I asked my blog viewers for assistance. My friend Connie came through for me, correctly identifying the figure. She stands at the foot of Jesus cross (see next photo), her face turned up in mourning. I had been confused by the seven (I originally said six) swords in her chest, since I had never heard of Mary being martyred. It turns out that the swords each represent a different sorrow experienced by Mary over the course of her life, one of them being the crucifixion of her son. It is appropriate that she stands at the base of one of the Jesuit retablos. In 1906, a miracle was reported at the Jesuit Collegio (religious school) in Quito, Ecuador. A painting of Nuestra Señora de los Dolores was seen to slowly open and shut her eyes by various audiences over a period of time.

There were complex reasons why the Jesuits were driven out of Spanish possessions, as well as from other European kingdoms. It was all related to the sort of organization Ignatius created and the role it played in Europe's politics and economy during the era when the great absolute monarchies were forming and consolidating. This was also the era of the tumultuous Protestant Reformation. Various Popes often found the Jesuits a useful tool against enemies of Catholicism--and of the Papacy itself. Although most of Europe's monarchs were Catholics themselves, they resented what they saw as Papal interference and were suspicious of an organization operating within their borders but not answerable to them.   

The crucifix in the center of the left retablo is a fine example of Baroque intricacy. Not a square inch of blank surface is left on the gilded carving. The sign above Christ's head reads "INRI". The New Testament says that a mocking sign was tacked to the top of Jesus' cross reading "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum." The initials INRI, in English, stand for "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews."

Resentment also cropped up in Spain's New World possessions. Although Jesuit-owned properties often functioned in the same exploitive manner as those of secular colonists, the Jesuits sometimes stood up for indigenous rights. The secular colonists were duly outraged and regularly complained to Madrid. By the mid-18th Century, the Jesuits' discipline, high levels of education, and sharp business-sense had made their organization very wealthy, in spite of their vows of poverty. Covetous eyes began to take interest in this wealth. Long-held royal suspicions about Jesuit political interference, combined with economic envy, led to a broad movement to expel the Jesuits and seize their wealth. It began in Portugal in 1750 and spread to many other Catholic countries and colonial possessions world-wide. 

More elaborate floral carvings, and another face. This little section is the base of one of the tall, carved columns framing the largest painting on this retablo. The closer you look, the more details emerge. Imagine the incredible amount of time and effort the wood sculptor spent on this one small section. Almost certainly he was an indigenous craftsman, possibly a Maya from Guatemala. Unlike clay or plaster, wood is an unforgiving material. A mistake might well mean starting all over. Still, Maya craftsmen had been carving elaborate religious art in wood or other difficult materials for more than 2000 years before the Spanish arrived.

In 1767, Charles III of Spain ordered the Jesuits to leave Spain and all its possessions. Since many towns and pueblos in New Spain and other colonial areas had been built around Jesuit missions, this had an immediate and profound effect. Other religious orders took over many of the missions, but some were simply abandoned. This was how the Jesuit retablos ended up in a Cathedral founded by a Dominican.

Retablo to the right of the main altar

The right-hand retablo is even more elaborate than the left. This retablo contains a number of remarkable features. It is known as the Altar of the Kings, because several of the portraits are of monarchs who gained sainthood. Spain, in the era when the retablo was constructed, had been an enemy of England for 200 years. In spite of that, there is a portrait of the English (or, more precisely, Anglo-Saxon) King, Edward the Confessor (1042-1066 AD). He was a very pious and otherworldly man who was a very weak ruler. The Normans conquered England immediately following his death. King Edward's portrait is on the extreme lower left of the retablo, just to the right of the small candelabra. Other non-Spanish monarchs appearing in the paintings include St. Louis of France (1214-1270 AD) and St. Wenceslas of Bohemia (907-935 AD) 

San José, carrying the Christ-child, is crafted in the Guatemalan style. The right-hand retablo was sculpted by a group of artisans from Guatemala. The Solomonic style of the Guatemalans can be seen in the four spiral Corinthian columns. They seem to almost literally crawl with gilded vines and floral decorations. Various faces peer out from the bottom of each column. This retablo has been described by Richard Perry in his website Arts of Colonial Mexico as "one of the most beautiful examples of the genre extant." San José (St. Joseph) was the husband of Mary and father of Jesus. In New Testament, he is barely mentioned and never quoted. He may have died when Jesus was a child since, unlike Mary, he is not mentioned during Jesus adulthood. Even so, he is considered the patron of workers (he was a carpenter, after all) and in 1870 was declared the  patron saint and protector of the Catholic Church.

The figure in the spectacular centerpiece of the Altar of the Kings is Ignatius de Loyola. The King may have ousted the Society of Jesus from New Spain, but the image of its founder has remained ensconced in the Catedral de San Cristóbal to this day. 

North wall rebablo

The retablo of the Virgin of the Assumption is located on the north wall. This retablo, like the one behind the main altar, was made in the Churrigueresque style. While very handsome, tt is much less ornate than the fantastically detailed Jesuit retablos. The only statue incorporated within the retablo itself is the Virgin at the bottom center. The two small figures in front are not part of the original retablo

Closeup of the north wall retablo's Virgin of the Assumption. Over the centuries, various statues and other images portraying the Assumption event were produced, including the one above. However, the Assumption was not "set in stone" doctrinally, but was considered simply a tradition. Then, in 1950, Pope Pius XII declared it to be "infallible doctrine" that the Assumption had occurred as portrayed in legend. The Virgin of the Assumption is usually shown with her face uplifted and arms widely extended, while cherubs cluster about her legs. That is the posture in which she appears in the Cathedral's main retablo, However, in the statue above, the cherubs are absent and the Virgins gazes benignly down upon the devout. Her sumptuous robes were made with the estofado technique, where a fine layer of plaster is applied to the wood surface and then painted or gilded.

Niche containing a painting of a religious scene. The north wall retablo contains eight niches with painted religious scenes. The meaning of this scene is unclear to me, but it portrays a priest or bishop joyously welcoming a child who is mounting flower-strewn steps.

The Chapel of the Virgin of Guadalupe

Chapel of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It is hard to find a church in Mexico that doesn't contain some image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron of Mexico. What is striking about this little chapel is how simple and modestly adorned it is compared to the flamboyant Baroque decor of the other altars and retablos. The Virgin of Gualalupe is, in particular, the patron of poor and indigenous people, which may be the reason for the simplicity of the shrine. 

This completes Part 3 of my Chiapas series. I hope you enjoyed San Cristóbal's Cathedral and its amazing retablos. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly,

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim 

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous pictures and careful research, as with all of your presentations. I've enjoyed reading about Chiapas to the point I'd like to go there again.
    Re: the cathedral -- you might be interested in this info on the miraculous medal. That statue of the Virgin of the Assumption definitely seems newer than the rest of the retablo.
    I was interested to see that gorgeous altar with St. Joseph, who always seems under-represented in Mexican churches, compared to the US.
    Very enjoyable -- thanks!


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim