Thursday, October 21, 2010

Oaxaca Part 9: The Spectacular Church and Convent of Santo Domingo

Templo y ex-Convento de Santo Domingo de Guzman. The photo was taken from the roof terrace of the Hotel Aitana, where Carole and I stayed during our visit to Oaxaca. My good friend Judy King, of the Living at Lake Chapala-Mexico Insights website, gave me some astute advice about this spectacular example of Spanish colonial architecture. Judy told me to make Santo Domingo the last church in Oaxaca to visit rather than the first, since this church is so gorgeous that it might spoil my experience of the other 26 colonial-era churches of the city, even the grand Catedral de Oaxaca. She was absolutely right.

A scale model of Santo Domingo shows its size and complexity. Actually, the smallest part of the complex is the church itself, seen above as the darker structure with the two steeples. Connected to the church are a warren of cloisters and courtyards where, for centuries, members of the Dominican Order lived, worked, and performed religious activities. The convent area is no longer used by the Dominicans, but now houses the Regional Museum, also called the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures. In the upper left corner is an open area which is now part of the Botanical Garden where many of the State of Oaxaca's native plants are grown and displayed. The Santo Domingo complex thus provides a visitor with a variety of delightful experiences. It is a good idea to plan for more than one full day to visit its various attractions. If there is one site to put in your "do not miss" category during a visit to Oaxaca's Centro Historico, this is it. For a map of the Centro Historico on which you can locate the Santo Domingo templo, convent, and Botanical Garden, click here.

Steeples of the Santo Domingo church rise above a broad plaza. The two arches to the left of the steeples form the entrance to the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures. The plaza in front of the church is the only area of Oaxaca that rivals the zocalo for activity. Every time we came by, day or night, there was something going on. We saw artists painting or drawing the scene, wandering musicians and jugglers, vendors selling crafts and food, and--several times--encountered weddings in progress. The church is built on an east-west orientation, with the altar on the east, the direction of the rising sun. The rays of the sun symbolize the divine light. This and other elements of the architecture are similar to Dominican edifices built in Europe during the Middles Ages. The front of the church was constructed using Oaxaca's famous green cantera stone and shows a strong Renaissance influence. The two 35 meter (115 ft.) towers are unusual in this area of high seismic activity. Many churches in the area which were built before or during the construction of Santo Domingo suffered greatly from earthquakes. Building such high towers must have been a real act of faith.

Faith, Hope, and Charity at top of the front entrance of the church. Faith is symbolized by the figure on the left, holding the cross. Hope is the figure on the right. Charity is in the middle, over the emblem of the Dominican Order. The Dominicans were invited by Hernán Cortéz to New Spain to evangelize the indigenous people, whose allegiance to their old gods was disconcerting to the conquistadors. The Dominicans were famous for their ability to convert the heathen of Spain and North Africa, and the first of them arrived in New Spain in 1526, only five years after the defeat of the Aztecs. Frays Gonzalo Lucero and Bernardino de Minaya were the first two in Oaxaca, arriving in 1529. Somewhere between 1570-1575, the Dominicans began work on their church and convent in Oaxaca, a project which continued for almost 200 years. From 1608 to 1857, the Dominican Order used Santo Domingo de Guzman as the seat of the Province of San Pedro Martir, an area that comprised the modern states of Oaxaca, Morelos, Tlaxcala, and parts of Campeche, Chiapas, and Yucatan.

The Family Tree of the Founder. As you walk into the church, the ceiling immediately above contains this incredible decoration. It is the family tree of Santo Domingo de Guzman, the man who founded the Dominican Order in 1215 AD. The tree spreads in all directions with scores of lifelike representations of de Guzman's relatives and ancestors. This is one of the finest examples of artwork of its time. The Family Tree is much larger than what I was able to capture in one photo and is stunning in its complexity.

The main nave of the church, ending in the gilded altar area. Every inch of the surfaces before you, including walls, ceilings, and archways are intensely and minutely decorated in the Baroque style popular in the 17th Century. At the top of my photo is an arch forming the last portion of the Family Tree. Then begins a long arched ceiling covering the main nave, supported by columns and portal arches along each side. Each of the portal arches leads into a separate chapel devoted to a particular saint. Just after the main ceiling ends is the concave interior of the main dome, followed by a golden wall, called the retable, at the back behind the altar. Note to fellow photographers: don't attempt to photograph this during the day. It will be dark and shadowy, and flashes are not allowed. However, in the evening after the last service there is a window of about 15 minutes when the entire area is illuminated just before the church is closed for the day. It's not much time, but it will be your best chance to capture some of this splendor.

The barrel vault arch of the main nave ceiling. This section of the ceiling is about 1/2 of the total area. Once again, it was so huge I couldn't capture it in one shot. The actual architect of Santo Domingo is not known, but a Dominican friar may have drawn up the original plans.

Closeup of the main nave ceiling. The ceiling contains dozens of oil paintings like this, portraying various biblical scenes, richly framed with intricate gilded stucco designs. I am always amazed that so much exquisite detail is used on areas difficult to view without the assistance of a telephoto lens. I suppose it was about rendering adulation to the divinity, rather than just for human appreciation. A detailed contemplation of all the paintings of this ceiling would take hours.

The decoration of the interior of the main dome was also incredibly intricate. Here, the artists not only used paintings, but also stucco sculptures of saints. No square inch was left undecorated. A great deal of the interior church was destroyed during repeated occupations by troops in the years after the Independence War ended in 1821. Then, in 1857, the Reform Laws of Benito Juarez forced the Dominicans to vacate the convent. The church itself was closed for religious purposes from 1866 to 1902. During that period, this magnificent building was used as a cavalry depot, and in 1869 much of the finery was looted or vandalized.

Left side of the main dome shows saints in various poses. Finally, in 1902, the Catholic Church re-opened the templo, or church area, for religious purposes. However, portions of the convent area remained in the hands of the Mexican Army as late as 1994. The Dominicans, who did not have a good relationship with the bishops of this period (a problem they had with many bishops over the centuries) did not regain control of the templo until 1938 and never got the convent area back. In 1972, the Army turned over about 1/2 of the old convent to the University of Oaxaca for a Regional Museum. This finally became the Museum of Oaxacan Culture in 1994 when the Army turned over the last part of the convent, along with the area which became the Botanical Garden.

Retable of the High Altar. The Retable is the gilded area with saints in their niches behind the altar. This was one of the areas destroyed in the mid-19th Century. It was restored, along with much of the rest of the beautiful old templo between 1959-1961.

One of 10 chapels along the sides of the main nave. Each chapel is entered through an elaborate arched portale such as the one seen above. Although it shows Jesus on the cross at the top, the main focus of the chapel above is the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. She is surrounded on all sides with other religious figures and angels.

Closeup of the Virgin of Guadalupe. She is always shown in the same pose, dressed in exactly the same manner. Each element of her pose and clothing has complex religious and symbolic meaning. Her painting is almost overwhelmed by the gold pillars that frame her on either side

Closeup of a gilded pillar next to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Notice the tiny wreathes of what appear to be roses spiraling up the pillar. A bouquet of roses was one of the items provided by the Virgin to Juan Diego in 1531 to prove to his skeptical bishop that this humble indigenous man's vision was real. Just another of the innumerable little details built into this architectural triumph.

The architecture of the convent area echos Europe of the Middle Ages. Above, the two towers of the church rise above the arched portales surrounding the main courtyard. The convent is composed of several long, two-story intersecting cloisters, built around multiple courtyards. Movement was generally directed along open-air passageways. A friar could look down through one of the arches into the courtyards below.  

Austere but beautiful, a fountain rises above the cobblestones of the main courtyard. The feeling in the convent area is very different from that of the church, for the most part. Unlike the intensely detailed decorations of the church, the convent lines are smooth and simple. The fountain symbolizes Grace or the Living Stream.

Gothic-style galleries use high barrel-vault ceilings. After the rich, vivid colors of the church, the convent seems monochromatic, but pleasingly so. Above, Carole beckons me on to another gallery. She often finds it necessary to gently prod me when I get too preoccupied with my photography. I have a distressing tendency (at least to her) to go wandering off into the maze of galleries and side chambers in a place like this.

16th Century fresco decorates an otherwise unadorned wall. Above, a Dominican friar communes with two young angels, while other friars peep in the door. The convent used to have many such frescos, but most have apparently deteriorated, been painted over, or were simply destroyed by vandalism during the military occupation of the building in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Partially restored fresco imitates the shape of a column. The Dominicans were apparently not without humor. Near the top of the column, a face with a silly grin holds the folds of a cloth in its teeth. The face reminded me of the Alfred E. Neuman character of Mad Magazine whose motto was "What? Me worry?" 

The one heavily decorated area of the convent is the main staircase. This monumental staircase was apparently modeled after one found in the famous Escorial monastery in Spain. 

The ceiling over the monumental staircase is decorated with saints. The figures and the decorations were made from stucco. The stucco surfaces which were not painted were gilded, a technique applies gold in a leaf or powdered form. This technique is very old, and the ancient Greek historian Herodotus mentions the Egyptian use of it in his time.

The Botanical Garden was originally the garden of the Dominican friars. They imported and acclimated many European plants useful for food and materials. In contrast, the plants grown here today are those natural to the Oaxaca area. In the foreground of the picture above are several cactus and succulent plants. Unfortunately, we were unable to visit the Botanical Garden during our stay in Oaxaca. There are only a handful of English-language tours during the week. You cannot just wander through, but must take one of the tours before going off on your own. The timing was never right for us, so--like the Abastos market--this is something we will save for another visit.

This concludes Part 9 of my Oaxaca series. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or by emailing me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. This marvelous 16th century temple rivals in magnificence and interest anything you can find in Europe of the same century; it also holds a collection of pre-Colombine objects that are amazing. The Renaissance and Baroque architecture you find in Mexico is more elegant than its European counterpart, more sober in lines, more interesting in materials (basalt, jade green stone), and it combines two cultures: the western colonial, and the zapotec and mixtec. The beaches of Huatulco are as good as any Caribbean beach (I was born in the Caribbean of Spanish parents). Oaxaca is pretty safe; its peoples are strong, honest and generous.

  2. Jim, why don't you and your wife visit beautiful art colony Tepozotlan and its Villa Bonita for a wonderful meal?


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