Monday, November 21, 2011

Puebla Part 11: Convent of Santo Domingo & its fantastic Baroque-style Capilla del Rosario

Retablo behind the main altar of the Church of Santo Domingo. This old Dominican monastery is one of the must-see places in Puebla. Much of the monastery, or convento, was expropriated during the period of the Reform War in the 1850s. However, the church and its Baroque-style Capilla de Rosario (Chapel of the Rosary) were so spectacular in their time that they were once considered the 8th Wonder of the World. There are many beautiful old colonial churches in Puebla, and I could use weeks of postings to show them all. However, I will settle on this one as the finest example of Baroque architecture in Puebla, and probably in Mexico.

Calle Cinco de Mayo runs along the east side of the church. This is one of several lovely pedestrian-only streets in Puebla. The church is behind the iron fence on the right. Notice the man with the crutch. I see many people in Mexico with missing limbs who don't possess prostheses, probably due to the cost. Convento Santo Domingo is located about 2.5 blocks north of the Zócalo on Calle Cinco de Mayo (5th of May Street). For a map showing the area, click here. The complex is open daily from 7:30 AM to 2 PM and again from 4 PM to 10 PM. On Saturday and Sunday, it is open from 10 AM to 12 Noon and 4 PM to 6 PM. There is no admission fee.

Market day at the church plaza. On the day we visited, there were a number of crafts booths in the plaza area that forms part of the property. In the background you can see the dome that covers the Capilla del Rosario. The church of Santo Domingo was begun by architect Francisco Becerra in 1571 and finally finished (not by him, of course) in 1659.  

Closeup of the Capilla's dome. The dome is in the shape of the crown of the Virgen del Rosario.  The Dominicans were among the first of the Friars to arrive in Mexico after the Conquest. The Order was founded in 1216 AD by Spanish Friar Domingo de Guzman. The Dominicans were known for the opulence of their temples and conventos, and they firmly opposed the constitutional changes sought by Mexico's President Benito Juarez. These included seizure of much of the vast church properties in Mexico, and the establishment of secular education. Juarez' efforts set off the Reform War of 1855. When he won, the losers invited the French to invade in 1862 and install Austrian Duke Maximilian as Emperor. The French were finally ousted in 1867, Maximilian was executed, and the Dominicans and other elements of the Catholic Church lost their economic stranglehold on Mexico. While the Santo Domingo property is still large today, before expropriation the Convento complex stretched for several blocks.

Grey cantera stone gives the entrance a rather stern aspect, masking the splendor within. The Mannerist-style entrance has three tiers of doric columns. The bottom two tiers have 4 pairs of columns each, while the top tier has 2 pairs. Between the pairs of columns on the top is an image of San Miguel, a patron saint of the church. Above San Miguel on either side are two dogs with torches in their mouths, along with two others just above the main door. The dogs are heraldic emblems of San Miguel, who is also knowns as "the Archangel". Oddly, St. Michael is considered holy not only by Christians, but also Jews and Muslims. Catholics identify him as the leader of God's armies, so he had a special appeal for the Spanish Catholics who conquered New Spain with much blood and fire. 

White and lacy, this area contrasted wonderfully with the grey cantera. As I approached the main entrance, I happened to glance to the upper part of the wall on the right and saw this delicate plaster work. It somewhat resembles the work on the Casa del Alfeñique (Meringue House) I showed in Part 3 of this Puebla series.

Soaring main nave leads to the intricate retablo behind the main altar. The windows at the top of each wall flood the ceiling and lower parts of this nave with soft light, illuminating the painting and gold leaf work. Without the windows, much of the beauty would be lost in gloom. Since no flashes are allowed, I would have had a terrible time photographing the interior.

Retablo behind the capilla altar to the right of the main altar. This retablo is made of intricately carved wood covered by gold leaf. The Spanish word retablo means "board behind" in this case behind an altar. Retablos typically contain images, either flat paintings or statues, and both are used above. Typical images may of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or one of the almost countless Catholic saints. 

Retablo in the nook to the left of the main altar. Everywhere I turned in Santo Domingo, I seemed to run into another fantastically elaborate retablo. The purpose of a retablo's images is to allow a personal connection between the worshiper and a holy figure. Such a connection was especially necessary in New Spain because of the need to evangelize the vast numbers of only-recently-conquered indigenous people. As impressive as the main church was, with its many retablos, the main attraction was still ahead.

Entrance to the Capilla del Rosario. The entrance is just to the left of the main altar. The Capilla was built between 1650 and 1690, at the height of the Baroque architecture movement in Mexico. The Capilla is packed with symbolism. The three main themes are the mysteries of the rosary, its virtues, and the Virgin Mary herself.  

Upper view of the Capilla del Rosario. The visual impact of the Capilla is overwhelming. One simply does not know where to focus, and I found it difficult at first to take photos. Where to start? This photo is of the upper part of the chapel, looking toward the altar.

Lower view of the Capilla del Rosario. Here, I captured the lower part of the same view as the previous photo. The walls are covered by huge paintings of scenes related to the rosary. The paintings are separated and framed by intricate carvings and plaster work, covered with gold leaf. As you can see, the dimensions of the Capilla are not large, but he cumulative effect of its decorations certainly are.

Inside of Capilla del Rosario dome. This photo shows the inside of the dome seen in photos 3 and 4 of this posting. Every inch of its surface writhes with gold leaf-covered scrolls and squiggles and other designs. I can only imagine its impact on an unsophisticated indigenous person. Of course, those who created the incredibly complex art work found in some prehispanic indigenous temples no doubt had the same impact in mind. 

Ceiling of Capilla del Rosario. Everywhere one looks, in this case the ceiling, intricacy abounds. I half-imagined the architect and his workers consuming large quantities of hallucinogenic peyote before setting to work each day. 

Ceiling detail of Capilla del Rosario. This detail from the ceiling should give you a sense of the intricacy of the work. The figure in the center is dressed as a Spanish nobleman of the early 17th Century. He holds a large cross. I would have loved to get up on the balcony you can see above, but that was not allowed.

Retablo behind the altar of the Virgen del Rosario. The retablo of the Virgin was almost overwhelmed by the Capilla around it. The Virgin is placed, like an exotic butterfly, in a glass case framed by corinthian-capped pillars. Above her are several more figures, including one on top who may be Jesus. I have found that figures of the Virgin are often more common, and more central, in Mexican Catholic churches than those of Jesus. 

Virgen del Rosario, within her retablo. The Virgen del Rosario wears the crown from which the dome of her chapel is shaped. With her left arm, she holds the Baby Jesus, also crowned. She carries another child with her right arm. Her dress is adorned with roses, symbolizing the rosary. At the base of her dress is a crescent moon, which has both biblical and Aztec religious connotations. Catholic religious symbolism in Mexico often contains a subtext of prehispanic religious meanings. The focus on the Virgin of the Rosary (also known as the Virgin of Victory) began with a call by Pope Pius V for an annual feast to commemorate the Christian victory over the Muslim Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The Mediterranean naval battle saved Italy from Ottoman invasion, and was the last battle ever fought completely by oar-powered galleys.

This completes Part 11 of my Puebla series. I hope you were as impressed by this extraordinary example of Baroque architecture as I was. If you would like to comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. 

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

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. In Mexico, we find ourselves endlessly fascinated by churches...though we are not religious and do not visit churches in the US! Small or large, churches in old Mexico are endlessly varied in art and design. They surely achieve their aim to touch and awe visitors, even us.

  2. That church makes even the most ornate Baroque churches we've seen in Italy look as plain as a jehovah's Witness church by comparison. Amazing! Between that architeture and the food a trip to Puebla is now high on our wish list. Thanks as always for your incomparable blog!

  3. WOW! What a Beautiful Gift on my Thanksgiving Day! Love it! Thank you very much for your blog, Your Love for Mexico and the Beautiful Post and pictures! love to travel with You! Have a happy Thanksgiving day !


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