Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Aguascalientes Part 2: The Cathedral and the Government Palace

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, Plaza de la Patria, Aguascalientes.  The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption is a very attractive example of Mexico's 18th Century religious architecture. It occupies the northeast corner of Plaza de la Patria, which is the main plaza of the city. In Part 1 of this series, I provided a general survey of the Plaza and its surroundings. In Part 2, I will give you a detailed look the two most important colonial-era structures--the Cathedral and the Government Palace--so that you can appreciate their extraordinary beauty. One of the nicer aspects of this broad plaza is that the most important structures sit right on it and are not separated from it by a busy street. This makes the Centro of Aguascalientes a great place for strolling.

The north steeple of the Catedral is decorated with colored banners for Fiesta de la Asunción. Fiesta participants paraded right in front of our hotel during our visit (see last post). This neo-classical steeple was added in 1764 and is the one of many changes to the church over the centuries. Its twin to the south wasn't added until 1946. There are three levels to each steeple, and each level has four bells, giving the two towers a total of 24 bells of various sizes.  The earliest religious structure built on this spot was a rustic chapel put up by evangelising Franciscan friars in 1575, the year the city was founded by Juan de Montoro. He created Aguascalientes as a postal and rest stop on the route between Guadalajara and the booming silver mines of Zacatecas to the north.

The main facade also has three levels, each framed by columns and statues. The facade was constructed with pink cantera, a popular colonial building stone. The large, carved wooden entrance door is centred on the bottom section. Above the door is an opening known as a choir window, surrounded by angels and decorative flowers carved into the stone. The third section, above the choir window, is framed by two columns. In the centre is a stone plaque showing the Virgin of the Assumption. On top of the third section, between the two steeples, is a high relief carving of the Trinity.

In a niche between two columns stands one of the Doctors of the Church. According to my good friend Richard Perry, of the website Exploring Colonial Mexico, four Doctors are displayed. They include Saints Ambrose and Gregory on the bottom level and Saints Augustine and Jerome above. The title "doctor" denotes a saint who is considered special for making a significant contribution to Catholic theology. Each niche is supported by a pair of pelicans which are shown pecking at their breasts to draw blood. This related to the blood sacrifice of Jesus. The columns are decorated by spiralling floral vines in a style called Solomnic, which originated in the Eastern Mediterranean. Legend has it that the Roman Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Emperor) brought three spirally-carved columns to Rome from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Since Solomon's temple was destroyed almost 1000 years before Constantine's time, this is unlikely. The original "Solomnic" columns probably originated in Greece.  There are four of these niches in the facade, two on the first and two on the second levels, each framed by the columns.

The great carved wooden door also has three levels. Two smaller doors are inset on either side of the bottom level. The capstone of the arch above the doorway is St. Michael the Archangel. Framing the doors are two  stone columns carved with flowers. These bear a striking resemblance to carvings I saw at the House of Eagles, the headquarters of the most important Aztec warrior cult at Mexico City's Templo Mayor. Each of the four petals of the Aztec flowers  represents one of the sacred cardinal directions and each direction has a special god assigned to it. For example, the east was assigned to Tlaloc, the god of rain, life, and fertility. Indigenous craftsmen who built churches like this all over Mexico often included the old designs as a subtle way of keeping their religions alive. Church leaders directing the construction would probably not have understood the symbolism. The indigenous workers who provided the forced-labor used to construct these great edifices would have had the last laugh.

Detail from the center section of the entrance door. The intricate flower designs surrounding a central face are typical of the Baroque style popular in the 17th and early 18th Centuries. The eyes of the face are closed and the tongue hangs down the chin. The features are almost simian, like those of a sleeping monkey framed with jungle foliage. Thirty years after the first chapel was constructed, it was replaced by a second one in 1605. Those 30 years were tough for the Spanish settlers. The fierce nomadic tribes in the area were generically known as Chichimecs. They deeply resented the Spanish occupation of their territory and their attacks were unrelenting. At one point, Aguascalientes' Spanish inhabitants were reduced to one officer, 16 soldiers, and two civilians. The last attack occurred in 1593, although the Chichimec War officially continued until 1600. The Spanish authorities finally gave up trying to militarily suppress the Chichimecs and let Church officials negotiate a peaceful settlement. The conquistadors had managed to overthrow the powerful and sophisticated Aztec Empire in only three years, but the war against the naked nomads of the north lasted for fifty.  

The main nave of the church shows a neo-classical influence. Notice the people kneeling in the center aisle toward the front. They traveled all the way up the aisle on their knees, stopping periodically to pray. The windows lining the top of the nave walls and surrounding the inside of the dome provided considerable natural light, making my photography easier. The current cathedral was begun in 1704 by a Spanish priest named Antonio Flores de Acevedo. Construction continued for 34 more years until the building (minus its steeples) was substantially completed by the priest Manuel Colon de Larreategui in 1738. Another 208 years would have to pass before the second steeple was erected and the Cathedral was finally complete.

The arched ceiling of the nave is dazzlingly decorated. The cap of each arch along the nave is a small face surrounded by plaster foliage covered by gold leaf. The numerous chandeliers provide light in the evening. Almost all surfaces are decorated by painted floral patterns, plaster carvings, or other decorations. In 1889, Pope Leon XIII created the diocese of Aguascalientes and made this church the cathedral, or seat of the bishop. Interestingly it is also a basilica, which means that it has been given a special status by a pope. In this case, it is the site of pilgrimages honouring the Virgin of the Assumption.

The ceiling above the main entrance. Notice how the inside of the frames of the windows on either side are also beautifully decorated. I am often surprised to find exquisite work done on obscure surfaces that are difficult to see and probably go unnoticed by most passersby. The corinthian capitals on the tops columns seen at the bottom of the photo show the neo-classical style. It is not unusual to find a variety of styles used in a single edifice like this. Constructed over the course of centuries, and often remodelled, centuries of architectural history can be seen in a single building.

View of the altar area from a side chapel. The Virgin of the Assumption can be seen in front of the small, white-topped cupola on the right. The interior of the main dome, and some of its light-providing windows, can be seen at the upper right. Numerous floral bouquets are arranged at the foot of the Virgin.

View of the dome and surrounding ceiling area over the altar. The top of the Virgin's cupola can be seen at the bottom of the  photo. The shapes and designs overhead are mesmerising. The centerpiece is the mandala-like interior of the dome.  The dome is framed by four triangular areas, each with a human figure engaged in some symbolic religious activity. This is my favorite shot of the inside of the Cathedral.

Each of the figures surrounding the dome is different and involved in a different sort of activity. The one above is a bald, bearded man who appears to be writing on a tablet with a quill pen. Hovering behind him is a large bird, probably an eagle, which may be whispering in his ear, or perhaps pecking at his head. I am not familiar enough with the symbolism to say for sure. These old churches are packed with mysterious little details like this, making them fascinating places to visit.

The Government Palace

El Palacio Gobierno occupies the southwest corner of the Plaza de la Patria. Like the Cathedral, this building opens directly on the Plaza, without the intervention of a busy street. The large, two-story Baroque building was originally constructed as a late 17th Century palace, but now contains the executive offices of the state government of Aguascalientes. The architect created a visual contrast by using deep red tezontle for the walls and creamy pink cantera to frame the windows and doors. Tezontle is very strong but, like most volcanic rocks, is light. The Aztecs used it in their building projects and believed it to be the remains of a previously destroyed world. Cantera is also of volcanic origin, but softer and easier to carve. Because of this, and because it can absorb air and moisture without expanding, cantera was favored by colonial architects for fine exterior work.

The balcony above the main entrance of the Palacio has a coat-of-arms and a brass bell. The coat-of-arms belongs to the Rincón Gallardo family, one of whose members began construction of the palace in 1665. The bell is used to commemorate the beginning of the War of Independence. Seats of government at all levels possess similar second-floor plaza-front balconies with similar bells. These are rung by the local chief executive as a part of the re-enactment of Father Miguel Hidalgo's famous bell-ringing and grito (cry) for revolt against the Spanish in 1810. Notice also the beautiful talavera tiles that extend all along the roof line. Puebla was the early source of most of this kind of tile, and these may have been transported from there by the same mule trains that took the silver south from Zacatecas.

A walk through the ziguan (entrance corridor) leads to the first of two courtyards.  The graceful staircase leads up to a landing and then continues up further staircases to the left and right. From the landing, a similar staircase leads down into the second courtyard. This complex arrangement of staircases reminded me of an Escher painting. The staircase arrangement forms both the centrepiece of the palace's interior and nicely divides the courtyards. During the 17th Century, the descendants of the original conquistadors, along with many who arrived later, grabbed huge chunks of land in Mexico. The forebears of the Rincón Gallardo family began to accumulate great estates through land grants from the King of Spain in 1601. Some of these properties were vacant because of the native population crash following the Conquest. Between the fall of the Aztecs and the end of the 17th Century, as much as 90% of the indigenous population died because of disease and mistreatment.

View from the bottom of the staircase back through the ziguan. Arcades with arched portales border the courtyards on both the ground and second floor levels. The interior walls of the arcades are covered by an extraordinary set of murals detailing the history of Aguascalientes. I will devote a later posting to these murals. Throughout the 300 years of the colonial period and the 100 years separating the War of Independence and the Revolution, land-hungry Spaniards and Mexicans often used less-than-legal means to secure new holdings. They sometimes seized property legally belonging to surviving indigenous communities. This often ignited disputes that were not settled until after the 1910 Revolution. The bitterness of that conflict was in part due to the often centuries-old memories of the seizures.

The scores of columns supporting the second floor form natural space dividers.  The rows of columns channel movement while maintaining a sense of openness. Whether legitimately or otherwise, over a period of about 200 years the Rincón Gallardo family assembled one of the largest estates of New Spain, containing many haciendas with vast amounts of land. Their properties extended from Guanajuato in the south to Zacatecas in the north. At one time, their lands included over 1/3  of the territory of the present State of Aguascalientes. From the riches produced by these holdings, the Rincon Gallardos were able to build this great palace.

View down the arcade on the west side of the ground floor, looking south toward some murals. The cantera of the columns, arches, doorways, and windows is beautifully carved. The work was probably done by indigenous craftsmen. However, they may have had to be brought in from Mexico City, Cholula, or Tlaxcala to the south, all areas where stone sculpture had an ancient pre-hispanic tradition. The nomadic Chichimecs in the areas around Aguascalientes had no use for stone carving and therefore no tradition of sculpting. When you move constantly and must carry everything by hand, a talent like stone carving would be superfluous.

View of the staircases from the 2nd floor, looking east to west. From the landing below, the main stairs lead down to the first courtyard on the right and the second on the left.

View through the portales to the murals on the south wall of the 2nd floor. It has been noted by some that the colors of the interior of the Palacio Gobernio mimic those of the Mexican flag: green, white, and red. Certainly this was not the work of the original architect back in 1665, since the Mexican State and its flag would not come into existence for another 150 years. The color scheme is no doubt a post-Independence creation.

View of the 2nd courtyard from the south side of the 2nd floor arcade. The stairs seen in the center mimic those seen previously when we entered through the building's ziguan. The sense of open space, divided by columns, comes across clearly in this photo.

Chichimecs mix it up with Spanish troops in the Battle of the Nopals. The battle gained its name because of large groves of nopal cactus in the area. This is a detail from one of the murals found in the ziguan. In the painting, the Chichimecs fight in the nude, which is probably historically accurate. Their warriors attack the armored Spanish (upper right) with arrows, spears, and the macuahuitlan obsidian-edged broadsword carried by the mounted warrior at the top left. Meanwhile, the women steal the horses of the fallen Spaniards. This was classic guerrilla warfare, with hit and run tactics by light, highly mobile war parties against a heavy, slow-moving enemy. In addition to being encumbered by armor, the Spanish were reluctant to leave the silver caravans unprotected to chase  their attackers. This is one reason the war lasted 50 years. In my next posting, I will show many more of the wonderful murals of the Palacio Gobierno.

This completes Part 2 of my Aguascalientes series. I hope you enjoyed it and can sometime visit Aguascalientes and see the Catedral and Palacio Gobierno for yourself. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below. If no one has previously left a comment, it will say "no comments" at the bottom of the page. Just click on that and it will take you to the Comments section.

If you leave a question, PLEASE include your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim