Saturday, August 24, 2013

Chiapas Part 10: The ornate art and architecture of San Cristóbal's Templo de Santo Domingo

Detail of a retablo on the side wall of Templo y ex-Convento de Santo Domingo. A small figure wearing a straw hat and carrying a basket of flowers peers out from the middle of a fantastically ornate retablo made of carved, gilded wood. The floor-to-ceiling retablo was just one of eight that line walls of the main nave and a side chapel of this 17th Century Dominican church. Templo Santo Domingo is located on Avenida 20 de Noviembre, about five blocks north of the Zocalo (main plaza).  Because it has become such a landmark in San Cristóbal de las Casas, I decided to devote a whole posting to this one church. By the end, I think you'll see why. For a Google map to locate Templo y ex-Convento de Santo Domingo, click here.

External features of the Templo

The stone facade glows as it is bathed in the warm sunlight. The facade was carved to imitate a retablo, with the statues of eight saints set into niches framed by Solomonic columns and esoteric designs. In my experience, the Dominican Order has produced the most elaborate and ornate churches in Mexico. The cliche "over-the-top" isn't sufficient to capture the overwhelming intricacy of Dominican church decoration. I have mixed feelings about this because most of the resources to produce it came, directly or indirectly, from indigenous people who occupied the economic bottom of the colonial society. Above, in the center, Carole mounts the stairs to the broad platform on which the Templo stands. On either side of her, Maya vendors have set up semi-permanent craft stalls which nearly surround the building and occupy much of the flat space on the platform. The presence of the stalls makes photography of the church exterior difficult, but the wares and people are interesting. Perhaps this is just the Maya way of getting back a little of their own.

Detail of one of the two saints whose niches bracket the main entrance. The figure shown above is San Pedro Martir (St. Peter the Martyr), a Dominican friar who was active in suppressing heresy in the 13th Century. Both this statue, and that of San Jacinto on the right side of the door, are missing their heads. This vandalism may have occurred in the anti-Catholic repression of the mid-19th Century Reform War or during the 1926-1929 Cristero War following the Revolution. Ironically, the actual St. Peter was assassinated when the top of his head was cut off with an ax by Cathar heretics in 1252. The Solomonic  columns on either side of the statue are typified by their spiral shape and lush floral decoration. The columns get their name from the columns that Emperor Constantine the Great brought to Rome in the 4th Century AD as a gift for St. Peter's Cathedral. Legend has it he got his columns from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, hence the name. However, it is much more likely he salvaged them from a pre-Christian building in Greece. Solomonic columns did not become widely popular until the Baroque period of the 17th and 18th Centuries, when they became one of the signature elements of an architectural offshoot known as Spanish Churrigueresque.

A bald, jug-eared, and bearded man wears a mustache which becomes luxuriant foliage. Baroque architecture in general, and particularly Spanish Churrigueresque, tends to decorate every surface with countless little details like this. The effect can be overwhelming, but also mesmerizing as the viewer's eye is drawn from one fascinating little detail to another. The Churrigueresque style is named after Spanish Basque architect and sculptor José Benito Churriguerra (1665-1725). Early influences on the Churrigueresque style were the Moorish Mudéjar architecture of Southern Spain, as well as 15th Century Italianate. Churriguerresque is basically Baroque on steroids.

Double-headed Hapsburg eagles frame a statue of Santo Domingo de Guzman. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was member of the House of Hapsburg. Charles became King of Spain in 1516 and three years later became Holy Roman Emperor. This occurred just shortly before Hernán Cortéz conquered the Aztec Empire in 1521. Cortéz' exploits radically increased the power and wealth of Spain. In turn, Charles exerted a powerful influence over Nueva España for the crucial first 35 years after the Conquest. The Hapsburg double-headed eagles can also be found on the facade of San Cristóbal's Catedral, and their appearance in both places demonstrates the intimate relationship between Church and State in Nueva España. As to Santo Domingo (St. Dominic), he founded the Dominican Order in 1217 as an order of preachers. Dominic was an ascetic and wore old robes and walked with bare feet on stony ground. When he died, he asked his followers "to guard their humility and to make a treasure out of poverty." I can't help but wonder if he would have approved of the lavish decorations typical of Dominican churches.

A pair of cherubs tends to a sacred flame or sunburst. I confess that, as a non-Catholic, some of the imagery is pretty obscure to me. In fact, much of the imagery of Mexican Catholicism is heavily influenced by pre-hispanic indigenous beliefs, as well as styles adopted from the Muslim Moors of Spain. The wire netting you see above covers nearly all the facade to protect it from pigeons and their inevitable droppings. Carole, who has a distaste for pigeons, calls them "rats with wings."

Santo Tomás de Aquinas is framed by four more Solomonic columns. This statue is located on the right side of the second level of the facade. Its height apparently helped it escape the vandalism suffered by the statues on the first level. Notice that the spirals of the pairs of columns on each side move in opposite directions from each other, and that only the middle part of each column uses floral decorations. St. Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274) was another illustrious Dominican friar. He is considered the greatest theologian of Catholicism and one of the greatest Medieval philosophers.  He wrote and taught on matters of ethics, natural law, metaphysics, and political theory. Much of modern philosophy is based on his ideas, or was developed to refute them.

Only the tops of the steeples are decorated.  In many churches, steeples are the most prominent features, often soaring high above the rest of the building and visible for many miles. At Templo Santo Domingo, the bell towers on the corners of either side of the facade are almost an afterthought. The facade itself is the dominant feature of the exterior of the church. The Dominican friars who built the first version of the church reached San Cristóbal in 1545. A year later, they persuaded Spanish authorities to provide them with six lots for their church/convent complex. More importantly, they were assigned the labor of 16,000 local Maya to build their religious establishment. Bishop Francisco Marroquin of Guatemala laid the cornerstone of Templo Santo Domingo in 1547. Chiapas was then part of the Spanish colony of Guatemala, and much of the architecture of colonial Chiapas was heavily influenced by Guatemalan styles, as well as those of neighboring Oaxaca.

A Maya woman and her son set up shop by the side door with their three baskets of goods. Notice the ancient wooden doors. Usually these are kept shut and the smaller doors set into them are used for day-to-day purposes. The work on the first version of the church proceeded very slowly because a lack of funds, or possibly due to Maya resistance to forced labor. The Spanish Crown finally intervened in 1550 and ordered that the cost be shared, with 1/3 from Royal funds, 1/3 from the Spaniards, and the remaining 1/3 from the free labor of the province's Maya inhabitants. This intervention, along with the Royal 1/3, may account for the double-headed eagles on the facade. The first modest adobe-and-thatch buildings were finished in 1551, but the church has gone through several reconstructions since then. 

View of the Templo's domes from the rear.  The mountains surrounding San Cristóbal rise in the distance. The Dominican complex apparently prospered. By 1555, the friars were back petitioning the authorities for more land to expand. Disaster, in the form of a lightning strike, occurred in 1563, but the damage was repaired, and in 1582 dormitories were built to upgrade the friars' formerly modest living quarters. The 16th Century Convento dormitories are now part of a museum that adjoins the Templo. Sometime between 1660-1670, the old flat roof of the church was replaced by barrel vaults and the domes you can see above. It is believed that the main body of the present church was completed in 1698. The facade around the main (west) entrance, including the Hapsburg eagles, was completed sometime during the 1700s. In 1863, a battle during the French occupation of Mexico left the facade in a mutilated state. The Dominicans sought to restore it in 1872, but had to sell many of their valuable artifacts and retablos to raise the funds. In 1902, an earthquake shook the entire length of the Templo and the Capilla del Rosario (Chapel of the Virgin of the Rosary) was severely damaged. As a result, the Templo was closed for many years, but it was finally restored in 1975.

The Templo's main nave

The focus of the main nave is not the altar at the far end but the side walls. The main altar, seen in the distance, is rather simple and sparsely adorned. In contrast, the intricately carved and gilded retablos on the side walls are filled with paintings and statues. Oddly, although I was able to gather a great deal of information about the history and exterior style of the church, I could find very little about the history or designers of  the retablos or other interior decorations. San Cristóbal's Templo Santo Domingo is thought to be one of the most highly decorated Dominican churches in the Americas. Its only rival in ornate splendor was destroyed in the massive 1773 earthquake that left most of Guatemala's old capital at Antigua in ruins. 

The left wall of the main nave contains three massive retablos. A retablo typically has at least one central niche in which a statue of a saint is exhibited. This niche is usually surrounded by others filled with more statues or paintings of religious scenes. The niches and statues are usually surrounded and framed by intricate floral designs carved in gilded wood. Often, small faces peer out from the foliage. In Templo Santo Domingo, even the pillars set into the walls--called pilasters--are highly decorated. With all this splendor on each side, I wondered how people could focus on the ceremonies and rituals conducted at the main altar. 

The pulpit was carved from a single piece of oak. It is considered one of the special jewels in an already overflowing treasure box. The pulpit is entered from the right, and the priest stands under the canopy, with the painting behind him. The pulpit itself resembles a rich, gold chalice. The effect is breathtaking.

More gilded carvings and another painting adorn the corners of the nave. Even the ungilded parts of the structure are beautifully carved and decorated. The figure in the painting wears a rich scarlet robe and holds an iron tipped spear. This may indicate a royal status.

Above the main altar sit two metal objects whose purpose is unclear to me. They stand about 30 cm (12 in) high, and each is set with a large yellow jewel in its center. The intricate designs include what appear to be clusters of grapes. In response to a request for information from my blog viewers, I got two replies with three different possible answers. Christina, of the "Mexico Cooks" website, asserts that they are Baroque-period palmatorias, used to decorate altars. My friend Erik from Denmark suggests that the devices may be ciboria, used to hold holy wafers. He sent me a photo of a ciborium that looks quite similar to the objects above. Another possibility is reliquaria, used to hold sacred relics. 

The first of the three retablos along the left wall. Various paintings of the Virgin, Christ, and other religious figures surround the central niche. The paintings on either side and above the niche are framed with Solomonic columns, indicating that the retablo was probably created in the late 17th or early 18th Centuries.

A triumphant angel is framed with gold. The Catholic Church of the Baroque Era found itself embattled with surging Protestantism. Europe was wracked with intense religious wars and the Church pursued the Inquisition with its embrace of torture and the burning of heretics. Nueva España had its own very active Inquisition aimed at keeping everyone on the straight and narrow. Figures like the one above were a sort of war-time propaganda poster meant to inspire confidence in the ultimate triumph of the Church.

The left wall's center rebablo. The child with the straw hat seen in the first photo of this posting can be seen here in the full context of the retablo. The two oval spaces above the child's statue probably contained paintings at one time.

Detail of the floral designs on one of the pilasters separating the retablos. The Maya inhabitants of Chiapas have been skilled carvers of wood and stone for thousands of years. Their richly decorated pre-hispanic cities are witness to this. Apparentl, a good many of the thousands of Maya who were drafted to build the Dominican edifice were gifted craftsmen.

The third retablo on the left wall, nearest the main altar. This one has paintings not only surrounding the central niche and its statue, but on the pilasters on either side. As you may have noticed, the retablos get more and more elaborate as the main altar is approached.

Capilla del Rosario

The Capilla del Rosario is small but gorgeous. Saving the best for last, the Capilla del Rosario (Chapel of the Rosary) has the most elaborately decorated retablos in the whole church. Dominican churches we have visited in various cities also have side chapels devoted to the Rosary. The Capilla del Rosario del Templo Santo Domingo in Puebla is a particularly good example. The Capilla above has two retablos, one at the end of the transept and one on the left wall.

The Capilla's main retablo has ten pairs of Solomonic columns framing its niches. There are five paintings and two statues in seven niches. The central statue is the Virgin of the Rosary. The Dominican Order has a long association with the Rosary and legend has it that St. Dominic himself was given the Rosary by an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the church of the Dominican monastery at Prouille, France.

The Virgin of the Rosary occupies the central niche. The identity of the statue above her is not clear but it is possible that it represents St. Dominic. The Catholic Rosary refers both to a set of prayers and to a string of beads that are used to count them off. The use of beads for similar prayer purposes is very ancient and probably has its origins in India. Some scholars think that such beads were used by Christians as early as the 3rd or 4th Centuries AD. Use of the Rosary did not really catch on until the 15th Century. Legend has it that Alanus de Rupe, a Dominican priest and theologian, received a vision from Jesus directing him to revive the use of the Rosary, which had apparently fallen out of general use since St. Dominic's time. In fact, the first documented mention of St. Dominic's involvement with the Rosary and his encounter with the Virgin are found in Alanus de Rupe's writings. The form of the Rosary used today is essentially the same as the one popularized by Alanus de Rupe in the 15th Century.

A worshiper prays in front of the side-wall retablo. The retablo above is even bigger and more elaborate than the main Capilla's retablo. Pope Pius V officially declared the Church's support for the Rosary in 1589. Not coincidentally, Pius V was a Dominican himself. The Rosary began to appear in Catholic art in the 17th Century, about the time when the Capilla del Rosario was built.

This completes Part 11 of my series on Chiapas. I hope you have been as impressed as I was by the spectacular art decorating both the interior and exterior of this amazing church. If you have any comments, questions, or corrections, please leave them 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. The two unidentified objects are palmatorias, usually used in Mexico as altar adornment in churches. The ones you picture are from the baroque period.

    Mexico Cooks!

  2. Thanks Christina! I appreciate it when readers respond with the background info I have been unable to find.

    Saludos, Jim

  3. Fascinating as always, Jim. Gracias.

  4. Fascinating - with outstanding photography! Thanks Much Shelley E

  5. Wonderful pictures can you share what type of lens you are using


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