Friday, June 27, 2014

Aguascalientes Part 5: Templo San Antonio, an architectural jewel

Templo San Antonio is almost jewel-like in appearance. Begun by the Franciscans, the church later came under the control of the Augustinian Order. I considered combining this set of photos with those other sites but decided to let Templo San Antonio stand alone because it is so spectacular in architecture and in its interior decoration. When Carole and I stopped by here on our way back from the Railroad Museum, we were dazzled.  The church has been described as architecturally indefinable because it mixes the styles of Gothic, Neoclassical, Baroque, Moorish, and Russian. Another writer called it a perfect expression of the Porfirato, the 35-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1876-1911). That was Mexico's "Gilded Age," when lavish constructions like this could be financed out of the pockets of the wealthy elite.

The Temple's exterior

View of the Templo looking north along Calle General Ignacio Zaragoza. This area used to be full of orchards and was at the very edge of the city when it was originally laid out in the 17th Century. In the later years of the Porfirato, the city expanded and this site was chosen for the new church. The work on the Templo began October 22, 1895 and it received its official blessing in 1908, only two years before the start of the Revolution. The years of construction were the glory years of the Porfirato. In 2008, the church and the surrounding neighbourhood were refurbished for the 100th anniversary of its original opening. When we visited, the street was very attractive, with a border of potted plants and trees and a broad brick sidewalk.

Bronze statue of a man reading a newspaper. As we strolled along Calle Zaragoza, we encountered this fellow. Statues like this, seated on public benches, are popular in Mexico. It's all part of the country's quirky sense of humor. Often, I have seen a man sharing a bench with such a statue, apparently unaware that he was mimicking the activity portrayed by the artist. The style of wrought-iron furniture seen above is also universally popular. It can be found in the parks and plazas of the biggest cities and the smallest towns. Usually, the coat-of-arms of the municipality is displayed on the backrest of the bench.

Three towers decorate the roof of the Templo. The tallest tower is in the center and contains a clock which--surprisingly--shows the correct time. The exterior of the church was built with yellow cantera, which nicely picks up the glow of the morning sun. The stone was quarried in Cienega Grande, also located in the State of Aguascalientes. The electric lamps extending out from the onion-dome are among many which brilliantly illuminate the church at night. The small cupola on the very top contains a lantern. The only bells are those which hang in the central tower. They were imported from the United States. The Franciscans originally entrusted this project to the architect José Noriega, but he showed a lack of interest. They then turned to a young man named Refugio Reyes Rivas (1862-1945). This involved a considerable leap of faith because the new man was self-taught, held no formal degrees in architecture, and this was his first big project.

The huge dome was considered unsupportable and some authorities predicted disaster. The dome is reminiscent of St. Paul's Cathedral in London and is massive and immensely heavy. The engineer Camilo Pani predicted a collapse as soon as the scaffolding was removed. Young Refugio Reyes was confident in his calculations and methods of construction, He had good reason. Between the ages of 14 and 19 he had worked for the railroad in Zacatecas. The rail officials thought he was a promising young fellow and taught him how to calculate the strength of materials, a very important factor in building railroad bridges. It was also important for building churches, as it turned out. In the end, when the supports were removed, the building stood firm and the dome was unscathed. Lining the railing below the dome you can see a series of decorative stone urns. My architectural expert, Russel Versaci, tells me that these are called finials.

The Interier of the Templo

While the exterior is dramatic, the interior is truly spectacular. It seems that every inch of available space is covered with paintings, carvings, or other decorative arts. There is a sense of lushness here that definitely recalls the Gilded Age. Lining the walls on both sides of the nave are a series of large portraits of San Antonio (St. Anthony) painted by Candelario Rivas, one of Mexico's great religious muralists. They show San Antonio performing various of his many miracles. Each painting is contained within a circular frame, itself highly decorated.

San Antonio and the Miracle of the Mule. St. Anthony of Padua (1195 AD-1231 AD) was known as the Saint of Miracles because he is said to have performed so many. He was particularly compassionate toward heretics and greatly desired to convert them. The story goes that one heretic set him a test, saying he would convert if St. Anthony could get the man's mule to bow before the Eucharist. The heretic tried to rig the test, however, by starving the mule for three days and then tempting it with a bucket of food to distract it from the saint. The mule ignored the food and went to bow before St. Anthony who is shown holding the sacrament. The frame of the painting contains  leafy floral decorations and, at the top, a small face peers out. This is typical of the Baroque style.

San Antonio and the Christ Child behind the altar. The tall columns surrounding San Antonio are topped by Corinthian capitals and show a definite Neoclassical style. Anthony of Padua was born Fernando Martins de Bulhóes  in Lisbon, Portugal. His family was wealthy and sent him to study in the Cathedral school. That led to further studies with the Augustinians. However, Anthony found himself attracted to the simple life and evangelism of the Franciscans, an Order that had only just been established. He joined them and devoted himself to study and reflection. After he distinguished himself through his preaching, Anthony came to the attention of St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order. Francis assigned him the job of teaching promising new friars. His wonderful voice and deep understanding of the scriptures led to many speaking assignments over his brief life. After he died at 35, his tongue was preserved as a relic to commemorate his preaching gifts.

Above the altar is a stained glass window depicting the Crucifixion. Jesus is surrounded by a sunburst. Gathered about him are legions of angels and saints painted in postures of adoration. The cornices around the altar area are another example of Neoclassicism. During the first year of the Templo's construction, a funding crisis occurred. Into the breach stepped Antonio Morfin Vargas, a landowner and industrialist. His factories produced tobacco and cigarettes and he managed the profitable Hacienda La Cantera. All this made Morfin Vargas a very wealthy man. He picked up the $200,000 peso cost of the project, a very considerable sum in those days. A pious man, he felt his financing of Templo San Antonio was a way to give thanks for his good fortune. And, of course, he would have seen it as an excellent way to cement his place in Aguascalientes' society.

The interior of the dome shows the same intense level of decoration. The huge chandelier hanging from the dome seems a bit dwarfed by its surroundings. The Templo was officially blessed in a ceremony held December 8, 1908. During the ceremony, an odd and uncomfortable situation suddenly arose. The pews were packed with politicians, including the current and several former governors, the mayor of Aguascalientes and several members of the national legislature. All of them were members of the ruling Liberal Party. More than thirty years before, Benito Juarez and the Liberals had stripped the Mexican Church of much of its lands. This deeply angered Catholic officials who, at the time, controlled as much as half of the arable land in the nation. That same Party still ruled the nation under Porfirio Diaz. Although the Juarez era's anti-clericalism had been dropped, the lands had not been returned. Some in the Church felt they still had a rather large bone to pick with the Liberals. The politicians trapped in the pews cringed as the priest lashed out at Juarez and his Party for seizing those lucrative Church properties. Everyone pretended not to hear, but there must have been a lot of squirming in those seats.

Not only the walls, but the ceiling of the nave are covered by paintings and ornamentation. Light is provided by windows above the cornices and in back of the organ as well as from the large, multi-level chandeliers suspended from above. After the Blessing Ceremony, the Templo was celebrated in the press as a great achievement. Morfin Vargas was extolled for his role in bankrolling it. The unschooled Refugio Reyes was immediately established as a major figure for Aguascalientes' architectural future. However, even before the completion of Templo San Antonio, Refugio Reyes did not lack for work. As he was supervising work at the Templo, Reyes was also constructing another building for the Franciscans. Additionally, in 1902 he began work on Aguascalientes' Church of the Immaculate Conception. It was a work that broke with Catholic architectural tradition by not using a design where one nave crossed another with a dome in the center of the cross. Reyes seems to have been something of an iconoclast.

Detail from the ceiling of the nave.  Other work by Refugio Reyes includes the National Bank of Aguascalientes in 1905, and the Bank of Zacatecas in 1906. Also in 1906, he completed the towers of Aguascalientes' Sanctuary of Guadalupe and took steps to reinforce the Sanctuary, which had threatened to tip over on its side. In 1910 he built the Hotel Paris which is now the site of Aguascalientes' State Congress. These are only a few among the long list of the works through which this self-taught master left his mark upon Aguascalientes.

The loft in the rear of the nave contains the pipe organ. The ceiling above the organ is also packed with floral designs and religious scenes. The arches, except for the crosses contained in the series of small squares, show a Moorish influence. We left the Templo San Antonio somewhat overwhelmed by the experience. Anyone visiting Aguascalientes should make it a point to visit this remarkable church, created by an even more remarkable man.

This completes Part 5 of my Aguascalientes series. I hope you have enjoyed visiting this jewel of a church. If you would like to leave a comment, please use the Comments section below or send me an email. If you see "no comments" below, it just means no one before you has commented. Click on that and it will take you to the Comments page.

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Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Those ceilings are just mesmerising! What an absolutely stunning looking place.

  2. My grandmother and great-grandmother took refuge in catholic convent in Aguascalientes around 1901. Do you know further history of this cathedral around this time? All I know is she used to sweep a water fountain in front. Thanks in advance for any info.

  3. I recently came across your blog about "Aguascalientes Part 5: Templo San Antonio, an architectural jewel." Don Refugio Reyes Rivas, the illustrious architect and builder of this marvelous treasure was my great-grandfather (and my dad's maternal grandfather). I totally enjoyed your photos and commentary. However, I would like to clarify/add three things. The bronze statue you show in your third photo is that of Don Refugio looking over design drawings of the Templo San Antonio. Secondly, the muralist who did all of the interior paintings, Candelario Rivas, was Don Refugio's cousin. He also painted many other religious murals in the interior of other churches my great-grandfather built in Aguascalientes, such as the Templo de la Purisima. Thirdly, Don Refugio was honored posthumously by the Architecture Faculty at the University of Aguascalientes in 1984 with the honorary degree of "Arquitecto Honoreis Causa" for his outstanding architectural achievements during his lifetime.

    Edward Esparza, P.E.


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