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

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