Thursday, September 18, 2014

San Luis Potosí Part 3: The Metropolitan Cathedral of San Luis Rey

La Catedral Metropolitana de San Luis Rey glows in the late afternoon sun. The Catedral stands on the southeast corner of the Plaza de Armas, also known as the Plaza Principal. In this posting we'll first take a look at the Baroque decoration of the exterior. Then I'll show you the interior, which was remodelled in the Neo-classic style in the late 19th Century. Of San Luis Potosí's many architectural jewels, I found this church to be the most outstanding.

The south steeple and the clock tower. In 1593, the newly-arrived colonists erected a rather humble adobe and shingle parish church on this spot. That early primitive structure was later replaced by a much larger church, owing to the town's rapid growth as the nearby silver mines boomed. The wealth of the mine owners, merchants and hacendados rapidly grew during the 17th Century. By 1670, these men felt that the town deserved a truly spectacular church. That year, the parish church which had replaced the first rustic structure was itself demolished and first stone was laid for the grand new church.

Solomonic columns frame the openings in the bell tower. This kind of spiralling column, decorated profusely with floral designs, was typical of Late Baroque architecture. There are twelve Solomonic columns on each of the three levels of the steeple. Between 1670 and 1701, construction was delayed repeatedly. In 1701, master architect Nicolás Sánchez took over direction, but work still proceeded slowly. The church would not be officially blessed until 1730. At that time, there was only one steeple, the south bell tower you see above. The north steeple was not added until 180 years later, in 1910, to celebrate the Centennial of the War of Independence. The second steeple exactly copied the design of the first, except for the grey stone the architects used.

Bell-ringing the old fashioned way. The large bells in this church are rung by sheer muscle power, the same method used for hundreds of years. The man seen above grabs the base of the bell and pushes until he achieves a swinging motion. The great bell is carefully balanced on its shaft, and as it swings in a wider and wider arc, less force is required. If bell-ringers like this don't wear ear plugs, I imagine they will end up with serious hearing problems.

Between the two steeples, a small cupola stands over a clock. Within the cupola are three bells, placed one above the other, hanging over an unidentified statue of a woman. The figure, which may be one of the many versions of the Virgin Mary, holds a bundle of flowers over one arm with her hands clasped in prayer. The bells above the statue may be connected to the clock, which was installed in 1866. Between the statue and the clock is a niche containing a bishop's miter (pointed hat) set over a shepherd's crook. Just below the clock is an oval plaque commemorating Pope Pius IX's elevation of the church to cathedral status in 1854. By this act, it became the headquarters of the diocese and the seat of the Bishop of San Luis Potosí.

The main entrance of the church is designed as a stone imitation of a retablo. Retablos are tall structures, often made of intricately carved wood, which contain niches for statues or paintings. They are usually found behind altars, but Baroque churches sometimes use the retablo format for the facade of a whole church, as in this case. There are a total of twelve niches on the two levels of the main facade. Each niche contains a statue of one of the Twelve Apostles. The two statues facing outward on the bottom level are each framed by two spiralling Solomonic columns, another typically Baroque feature.

The marble statues were elegantly carved. The original statues installed in 1730 had been made of a softer, more easily weathered stone. By 1896, they were worn and broken. As part of San Luis' celebration of its Jubilee, Bishop Montes de Oca ordered the statues replaced. The Biaggi brothers modelled the beautiful carrera marble statues on the images found in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. In addition to the twelve figures in the niches around the facade, there are twelve additional Apostles lining the roof, making this is the only church in the world with a total of 24 Apostle statues.

The winged bust of an angel stares down from atop a window.  Each of the four windows framing the facade contains a similar angelic figure. I was impressed that even relatively unimportant features like these windows would be so richly decorated. But, then, that's Baroque for you.

The interior of the Catedral

View the rear of the main nave. There are three naves in the Catedral. The main one runs down the middle of the church from the entrance to the altar, with another on each side. The naves are separated by lines of tall Doric columns joined at their tops by semi-circular arches.

Statue of San Sebastian, the only Catholic saint who was martyred twice. The figure stands at the base of one of the two Doric columns which frame the entrance of the main nave. The statue was sculpted in France at the Maison Raffi. San Sebastian (256 AD - 288 AD) was born in Gaul and became a captain of the Praetorian Guard, Emperor Diocletian's bodyguard. After he converted to Christianity, Sebastian refused to make sacrifices to the Emperor, who was considered a god. This resulted in his arrest. He converted his jailor, who promptly released him. However, on the Emperor's orders, he was re-arrested, tied to a stake, and archers shot him full arrows. After a woman named Irene retrieved his body, she discovered he was still alive and nursed him back to health. During his recovery, Sebastian began to perform miracles. Finally back on his feet, he denounced Diocletian as the Emperor was passing in a procession. Determined to finish the job, Diocletian ordered Sebastian clubbed to death and his body thrown in a privy. This second martyrdom proved more successful than the first. San Sebastian is the patron of soldiers, those afflicted with plague and--ironically--archers.

The main altar, at the far end of the nave from San Sebastian's arrow-riddled statue. Gold-painted Corinthian columns enclose a statue of San Luis Rey. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, a new generation of architects reacted against the florid emotionalism of the Baroque style. They were influenced by the political and scientific rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment. These new architects created a style called Neo-classic, which imitated many of the features of classical Roman and Greek buildings. The altar above is clearly of the Neo-classic style. Enclosed by the blue curtains around the cupola on top is the Virgin of the Expectation. She represents Mary while pregnant with Jesus.

San Luis Rey, shown inside the cupola of the main altar. Louis IX of France (1214 AD -1270 AD) was a French king sainted because of his exceptionally pious and just reign. It seemed strange to me, at first, that a Spanish colonial church would have as its patron saint a French king. However, it should be remembered that the Catholic Church has always been an international institution. That is not to say that the Church doesn't take on certain characteristics of the nations in which it is established. Even so, saints from any number of lands might be venerated in the churches of a particular country.

The choir loft and pipe organ are set behind the altar, an unusual placement. In many Mexican Catholic churches, the choir and organ are placed on an upper level at the rear of the church. The pipe organ comes from Guadalajara, where it was built in 1866 by the Fermin Francisco Orriza brothers.

The tops of the great pillars that seem to open out like blossoming flowers. The columns and their graceful arches create a feeling of soaring space. The interior of the Catedral was originally constructed in the Baroque style of the 17th Century but these were largely eliminated and replaced by the Neo-classic features when the church was remodelled in 1896. Bishop Montes de Oca ordered the remodelling and selected the Italian Giuseppe Claudio Molina as the project's architect. Molina's previous work included beautiful palaces in Constantinople, Russia, and Alexandria, Egypt. Unlike the interior, the Baroque features of the exterior of the Catedral were left largely intact.

View of the ceiling of the left nave, looking toward the back of the church. The triangular spaces created by the arches feel like windows looking out onto a galaxy-filled universe.

The interior of the dome provides a mesmerising, mandala-like effect. Notice the four Doctors of the Church in the triangular panels at the corners of the dome. They are St. Gregory the Great, St.Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.  In their own times, they were each great scholars who had a large impact on Catholic theology. Their work earned the name Doctors of the Church.

Feast of the Assumption

We encountered a religious procession when we first visited the Catedral. The band is passing in front of the Palacio Municipal, which was the Episcopal Palace of the Bishop before the Revolution. We had arrived during la Fiesta de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.

The Virgin of the Assumption is carried on the palanquin by the faithful. She is shown with a group of cherubs under her feet, lifting her toward heaven. It is Catholic Church dogma that the Virgin Mary, at the end of her life, was assumed (raised) to heaven with her body intact. La Asunción (the Assumption), celebrated every August 15, is a major event on the Catholic calendar.

This completes Part 3 of my San Luis Potosí series, which I hope you have found interesting and enjoyable. Your comments and questions are welcomed and you can leave them either in the Comments section below, or you can email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, September 8, 2014

San Luis Potosí Part 2: The magnificent Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas is the most beautiful of San Luis Potosí's several lovely plazas. In Part 1 we visited Plaza de los Fundadores. Plaza de Armas is one block east of it on Avenida Venustiano Carranza. The kiosco (bandstand) just behind the small fountain in the foreground was constructed with pink cantera, a building stone very popular in old Mexican buildings. In this posting I will treat you to some of the plaza area's outstanding architecture and lively activities. To locate Plaza de Armas on a Google map, click here.

The view east on Calle Francisco Madero toward Plaza de Armas. This calle (street) is typical of several pedestrian-only passageways in the Centro Historico. Notice the wonderful old balconies that overlook the street on both sides. The activity on streets like this is lively, including fellow strollers, street musicians, jugglers, clowns and more.

Plaza de Armas from its northwest corner looking toward the Cathedral steeples. Carole stands on the left, surveying the action. It is hard to overemphasize the positive effect of removing traffic from an area like this. The entire atmosphere is different from an area where motor vehicles dominate, rushing by, spewing exhaust and honking their horns.

Palacio Gobierno, looking west along Avenida Lazaro Cardenas. The Palacio occupies the whole west side of the Plaza. It is the seat of the executive and legislative departments of the State of San Luis Potosí. Construction of this stately Neo-classical building was ordered by Don José de Galvez, Visitador de Nueva España (Inspector of New Spain). Construction began in the second half of the 18th Century. Until the Palacio replaced it, the site had been occupied by the Casa Real (Royal House), the seat of government. The first stone was laid in 1770, during the colonial period. However, ironically the building was never used by the colonial government. By the time it was finished in 1827, Mexico had been independent for six years.

View of the Palacio Gobierno from the left. The building was designed by a military engineer, Miguel Costanzó. He was also a professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Carlos, in Mexico City. Due to the scarcity of architects and engineers, it was common colonial practice for military engineers to design civilian architecture, including religious buildings. The man who initially directed construction was Felipe Cleere, the Royal Treasurer and an amateur architect. Several other architects became involved over the years. The project took so long because funds were frequently unavailable. Another factor was the 1810-1821 Independence War, during which trained engineers were engaged in the war. When the builders of the Palacio finally declared it finished in 1827, and presented the bill for 166,000 pesos, the rear of the building was still incomplete.

An exact copy of the Independence Bell of Dolores Hidalgo hangs over the main entrance. The original bell was the one rung by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla on September 15, 1810 in the Guanajuato town of Dolores. Using the bell to summon the townspeople, he stood on the steps of his church and gave his famous grito (cry) for independence. That original bell now hangs over the balcony outside the office of the President of Mexico at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City. Everywhere in Mexico, from the capital city to the smallest town, a similar bell hangs over the entrance of the most important government building. Late in the evening, every September 15, each bell is rung to cheers of ¡Viva Mexico!  The pealing bells and cheers commemorate Father Hidalgo and the beginning of the great struggle for independence.

A fine old colonial mansion occupies the northwest corner of the Plaza. Today, the ground floor is filled with store-front businesses. I am not sure, but I believe the upper floor is occupied by the State Controller's offices. The original owner of the mansion would have had a fine view of the activities on the Plaza de Armas from the ornate balcony on the second-story corner. The structure on the left of the photo is the corner of the Palacio Gobierno. Notice the statue on the roof pedestal over the corner balcony.

The Roman god Mercury is typical of Neo-classical architectural adornment. The finely wrought bronze figure wears the winged hat and boots common to images of Mercury. He carries the snake-entwined caduceus--symbol of the herald--in his left hand. Mercury was called Hermes by the Greeks. The Romans were great borrowers and began worshipping Hermes as Mercury around the 4th Century BC. He was the patron of financial gain, commerce, eloquence and messages, travellers, boundaries, luck, trickery, and thieves. The Latin words merx (merchandise), mercari (to trade), and merces (wages) all relate to the god Mercury. His presence on this old building is probably very appropriate. While constructed as mansions for the wealthy, many such structures were built with their living quarters on the second floor. Even in colonial times, the ground floors were often devoted to storefronts or other commercial purposes. San Luis itself was founded, and grew wealthy, as a commercial center to provide goods to the mining areas in the adjacent mountains.

A pair of street musicians entertains passersby. Mexican plazas often attract musicians and performers of various kinds and they seem especially prolific in San Luis Potosí. These two were quite versatile, utilizing a small guitar, rattle, and flutes of various sizes. As many street musicians do, they left their instrument case open to encourage donations. I obliged, as I nearly always do.

Kids enjoying a statue of The Birdman. The statue was modelled on the miner José Moreno Diaz who fed the hungry pigeons so regularly that they flocked to him when he arrived in the plaza. The two kids seemed fascinated by him and the little girl couldn't resist playing with his mustache. I love the way such statues are not blocked off by fences and barriers. Touching is encouraged.

The stone kiosco is fairly unusual. I have seen many throughout Mexico and can't recall any others that were constructed using pink cantera. In fact, the original kiosco at this site was of the usual wrought iron and wood design. In 1948, the earlier structure was replaced by this octagonal one, apparently to better fit with the cantera facades of the surrounding buildings. The stone gives it the appearance of a small Greco-Roman temple. Both the kiosco and the fountain in the foreground were the work of the Biagi brothers. Their other work includes the statues of the Twelve Apostles in the nearby Cathedral. The scene above, photographed in the early evening, shows people flocking around the kiosco to listen to a performance by the San Luis Potosí State Orchestra.

Life in Mexico always comes with a live soundtrack. Mexicans love music and everywhere we go there are live performances, often in free, public venues like this one. Unfortunately, in the US, the days of Woodstock and free performances by famous rock groups in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park are long gone. Today, orchestra performances are usually restricted to those with the funds to pay for expensive tickets. Greed rules. By contrast, the State Orchestra regularly plays in this kiosco, along with many of Mexico's great musicians. Some of their names are inscribed on the walls.

Early morning sunshine warms pedestrians on Avenida Venustiano Carranza. This street runs along the north side of the plaza between the Palacio Gobierno and the Palacio Municipal (county government office). A leisurely, traffic-free, morning amble along streets like this is one of the many pleasures that await visitors to San Luis.

Palacio Municipal and the bell towers of the Catedral. The two buildings fill the east side of the plaza. The site of the Palacio Municipal has had many uses since early colonial times. The first Casa Real (Royal House) stood here and was the office of the colonial mayor. Later, it became the site of both the prison and the headquarters of the Royal Tobacconists (the government monopoly on tobacco).

View of the Palacio Municipal from the right  In the mid-19th Century, the site was changed into the Parián (market). It was converted to the two-story building you see today, with the large arcade in front bordered by the portales (arches). In the later 19th Century, the building was taken over Bishop Montes de Oca and renovated into a Neo-renaissance Episcopal Palace. This was probably due to its proximity to the Cathedral next door. Finally, in 1915, the new Revolutionary City Council seized the building and reconverted into the Palacio Municipal. This sequence is typical of Mexico's old architecture. Instead of simply tearing down one building and putting up another, the same structure will be modified, altered, improved, and reused for centuries. The Oficina de Turismo (Tourist Office) is located in this building and a kind employee led me several blocks through the streets to find a new memory chip for my battery. It's always a good idea to find the Oficina de Turismo early in any visit.

Catedral Metropolitana de San Luis Rey. The Metropolitan Cathedral is the most impressive building on this very impressive plaza. In this posting, I will show you a bit of the exterior, but in the next one you will be able to see the exterior and interior in detail. The original parish church, built in 1593, once stood here. It was constructed only a year after San Luis Potosí was founded. Construction on this great Cathedral started in 1670, using the Baroque style popular in the 17th Century. Sixty years later, in 1730, they finally finished. At that point the Cathedral had only one tower, the rust-colored steeple on the right.

Late afternoon sun lights up the pink cantera of the Cathedral's facade. In the 19th Century, the church was remodelled, with many Neo-classical elements replacing the Baroque. The steeple on the left, built with grey stone, was added in 1910, the Centennial of Mexican Independence. In front of the entrance you can see one of the Omnibuses that pick up tourists here for a ride around the Centro Historico.

The Omnibus loads up. Carole and I decided to take a ride. Although our Spanish was not quite good enough to understand the guide's detail descriptions, the ride gave us a good overview of the area. We were able to identify what to look for when we came back on foot in the following days. If you can position yourself correctly, the upper deck of an Omnibus is also a handy spot for photography.

View down Calle Francisco Madero from Plaza de Armas to the Caja Real.  Another pedestrian-only street, this one leads west from the Plaza one block, along the south side of the Palacio Gobierno (right side of street). At the end of the block on the right is the Caja Real (literally: the Royal Box, or Treasury). Felipe Cleere, who initially directed the construction of the Palacio Gobierno in the late 18th Century, also built the Caja Real. The building served many purposes over the centuries, including treasury office, customs, and a residence for governors and military commanders. In 1854, President Santa Ana gave the building to Bishop Montes de Oca as a residence. In 1935 it was declared a national monument. Two years later, it became the Federal Finance Office. Finally, in 1960, Caja Real was taken over by the University of San Luis Potosí as a cultural center. Today, many artists display their work in the Caja, and there are musical and theatrical performances as well.

The original purpose of the Caja Real was to collect the "Royal Fifth."  During the colonial period, the Spanish King reserved for himself the Quinto del Rey or Royal Fifth. This amounted to 20% of the value of precious metals and other commodities acquired by his subjects through war loot, found treasure, or mining. The concept of the Royal Fifth goes back to the Middle Ages. It had been collected in New Spain from the moment Hernán Cortés landed and sacked his first indigenous city. Not coincidentally, San Luis' Caja Real is located across the street from La Moneda, the old mint. Immediately above the balcony is Bishop Montes de Oca's coat-of-arms. In the niche above the coat-of-arms is a statue of the Immaculate Virgin, a gift from King Charles III (1716-1788). The city's evening lights were just coming on as I took this shot.

This completes Part 2 of my San Luis Potosí series. I hope you have enjoyed it. If so, and you'd like to leave a comment, please do so 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