Thursday, December 4, 2014

San Luis Potosí Part 8: The ornate Templo del Carmen

Inside the great dome of the Templo del Carmen. Any visit to San Luis's Plaza del Carmen should include a look at this ornate church. Of the great complex built by the Orden de Carmelitas Descalzos (the Order of the Barefoot Carmelites), the Templo is the only remaining structure still used for religious purposes. This view of the dome's interior provides a sense of the intricate ornamentation that distinguishes the Baroque style, particularly the version called Churrigueresque. To locate Templo del Carmen on an interactive map, click here.

The Templo's Exterior

The facade and tower of the Templo, with the main dome on the left. The Plaza del Carmen, in front of the church, was once occupied by various structures that were part of a large religious complex. The area that formerly served as the convent's orchard is now a huge park called Alameda Juan SarabiaMuseo del Virreinato (Museum of the Viceroyalty), the building to the right of the church, used to be the Carmelite Convent where the friars lived, prayed, and worked.

The two-tiered steeple is supported by spiraling Solomonic columns. Solomonic columns are a typical Baroque feature. The Carmelite Order originated in the early 13th Century among hermits living a life of poverty and contemplation on the slopes of Mt. Carmel in the Holy Land. Their name comes from their adoption of the Virgen del Carmen (Virgin of Mt. Carmel) as their patron. As a result of Christian military reverses during the Crusades, the Carmelitas were forced to leave for Europe. There, they traded their hermetic life for that of friars and nuns. However, faced with the Hundred Years War, the Black Plague, and the Renaissance, the Order became worldly and somewhat demoralized. In 1562, an extraordinary woman named Santa Teresa attempted to revive the Mt. Carmel tradition of isolation, contemplation, and prayer. She founded the Convento de San José for nuns in Ávila, Spain. Since poverty was a key element of the tradition, the nuns were called Carmelitas Descalzos (Barefoot Carmelites). Santa Teresa worked closely with a man called San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross), who founded a convent for friars with a similar orientation. In 1580, Pope Gregory XIII recognized the Carmelitas Descalzos as an independent unit of the overall Carmelite Order.

The exuberance of Churrigueresque Baroque can be seen in the facade of the Templo. The facade is designed with three sections, one above the other. The section on the bottom and middle are rectangular, while the one at the top is triangular. Each section is filled with intricately decorated columns, floral ornamentation, and niches containing saints. The first Carmelite convent in New Spain was founded in Mexico City in 1586, followed by several more in other parts of the country over the next few decades. When, exactly, the first Carmelites arrived in San Luis Potosi appears to be a matter of some dispute. Various sources cite the  dates of 1735, 1738, and 1743. There is some agreement that Friar Nicolas de Jesus Maria and Friar Joseph of the Assumption were the first to arrive. They managed to obtain a license for a Hospice in San Luis three years later. In 1747, King Philip V of Spain gave the Carmelites permission to found a convent. The first stone for the present church was laid on February 23, 1749.

The triangular top level is filled with religious figures and symbols. Along the roof line are six ornaments called finials. At the peak is a statue of the Arcangel San Miguel. Just below the roof line, cherubs lift a veil to reveal the face of God. Below that, in the center, is a niche containing the statue of the Virgin with the Christ Child. Four pilasters carved in the estipite style are on either side of her. A pilaster is a kind of false column. It functions as an architectural decoration and doesn't support any weight. Between the pilasters are Santa Magdelena de Pazzi on the left and San Angelo on the right. The construction of the Templo and its convent were greatly assisted by funds from the estate of Nicolas I. Fernando Torres, a Spaniard from Seville who married a rich woman named Dona Gertrudis Maldonado Zapata. Using her fortune as a base, he became even wealthier and eventually acquired the Haciendas del Pozo and Peotillos. The marriage produced no heirs and, upon his death in 1752, Fernando Torres left a will dedicating his fortune to the Carmelita Convent and Templo, and also to found Colegio de San Nicolas, a school for girls.

The middle section of the facade centers on the stained glass choir window. Once again four pilasters surround the window, two on each side. Between each set of pilasters is a niche containing the two founders of the Carmelitas Descalzos, Santa Teresa on the left, and San Juan de la Cruz on the right. Notice the intricate designs on the pilasters and the area around the window. Construction continued from 1749 until 1763, when the church was officially blessed. However, the steeple wasn't completed until 1768. The blessing of the church that year was a huge event in San Luis Potosi. Attendees included all the other religious Orders, the civil officials, and the people of the city. In particular, the neighborhood of San Sebastian was invited, because the masons who did the extraordinary stonework lived there. Chief among them was an illiterate--but very skilled--indigenous artisan named José Lorenzo. Today, when viewing a masterful work like the Templo del Carmen, it is all too easy to forget that humble people like José Lorenzo were its actual creators.

The bottom section is centered on the main entrance of the Templo. At the base of a towering Solomonic column, a vendor squats, hoping for a sale to an emerging worshiper. Once again, there are four columns, two on a side, each bracketing a niche. The niche to the left of the door contains San Elias and the right holds San Eliseo, his disciple. Those two are Old Testament figures associated with Mt. Carmel that the Carmelites claim as early founders. Unlike the pilasters on the upper two sections, the Solomonic columns are load-bearing. In 1758, while the upper sections were still under construction, a master architect named Miguel Espinosa de los Monteros visited the site. He was famed for his work on Mexico City's great Cathedral and the Royal Palace (now the Palacio Nacional). He used estipite pilasters in those projects and it is thought that their use on the Templo del Carmen was due to his influence.

Two huge, carved, wooden doors guard the main entrance. On the left door, the figure of the Virgen del Carmen holds the Christ Child. The right door contains the image of San José, her husband. San José is the patron of workers and ordinary people. The convent next door to the Templo did not have a long life. At the beginning of the 1810 War of Independence, two of the key friars supported the insurgent side and had to flee. By the end of the war there were only four friars left and the convent was effectively abandoned. The 1859 Reform Laws of Benito Juarez resulted in the seizure of the convent building and grounds. The orchard, which once produced food for the inhabitants of the convent, became Alameda Juan Sarabia, a public park. The convent building underwent a succession of uses, including barracks, warehouse, jail, gunpowder depot, Palace of Justice and, eventually, the Museo del Virreinato. Teatro de la Paz, situated next to the Museo del Virreinato, was also once part of the convent. Through the efforts of Bishop Montes de Oca, the Templo was recovered by the Church in 1886. It was finally returned to the Carmelitas Descalzos in 1923, and they have administered up to the present day.

The Main Nave

The main nave of the Templo contains more than a dozen carved and gilded retablos. Above, Carole inspects the retablos lining the sides of the main nave. Because there are so many, I will only show a selection. In the 19th Century, the interior of the church was remodeled with many Neo-classic features. Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras was the architect responsible for those changes. Several years before he worked on this Templo, he rebuilt the Carmelite church in Celaya. All over Mexico, examples of his work can be found. In addition to being an architect, Tresguerras was also an accomplished painter and sculptor. He was also a political activist and was jailed briefly by the Spanish during the War of Independence.

The richly decorated pulpit stands next to one of the tall, gilded retablos. Raised pulpits evolved from acoustical needs of the Church. From the earliest times, churches were constructed to amplify natural acoustics. The raised position of a pulpit, allows the speaker to be heard and seen clearly by the congregation. The elaborate decoration of the pulpit is intended to emphasize the importance of what is said, just as its positioning enhances the sound level. To the right of the pulpit is the retablo of Santa Teresa.

The altar designed by Tresguerras shows a strong Neo-classical influence. The four tall Corinthian-capped columns are typical features of Neo-classical design. As its name implies, this style imitates that of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The old altar was destroyed and replaced by this one in 1824-25. The lines of its Neo-classic replacement are clean, with far less adornment and detail than the Baroque altar contained. The figure in the center of the sunburst is, once again, the Virgen del Carmen.

The interior of the dome seen in the first photo of this posting. Catholic churches are often laid out in a cruciform (cross-like) design. The long rectangular room where the congregation sits is called the nave because it resembles Noah's Ark and the Barque of St. Peter.  The nave typically has an altar at one end and a raised choir loft at the other. The transept is a shorter rectangle which crosses the nave just in front of the altar area. The arms of the transept are often used as side-chapels devoted to the Virgen de Guadalupe or other saints. The main dome is situated directly above the point at which the two rectangles cross. The base of a dome is often octagonal, and framed by four triangular spaces decorated with portraits or scuptures of the four most important Doctors of the Church. The windows around the base of the dome help illuminate the area in front of the altar. In addition, they throw light upward onto the elaborately decorated interior of the dome itself. As you can see, the effect can be mesmerizingly beautiful.

The Retablos

Retablo de Santa Teresa was created between 1777-1780. It forms part of the right transept, just around the corner from the pulpit and the main altar. Elaborately carved and gilded retablos are another signature element of the late Baroque style.

Retablo de San Juan de la Cruz was created at the same time as the one for Santa Teresa. It stands in the left transept, with the altar area to its right. Thus, the two founders of the Carmelitas Descalzos were given positions of great honor. They not only bracket the main exterior door, but flank the main altar itself.

Retablo de los Arcangeles was created in 1790. It has been described as "the most exuberant work of Baroque art in the world." In the three niches on either side, and one at the top center, stand the seven principal Archangels. They are Michael, Gabriel, Rafael, Jehudiel, Azrael, Uriel, and Baraquiel. I found the size and incredible detail of this work to be simply overwhelming.

The Archangel Michael is placed at the top center, clearly the most important position. Michael is seen as the commander of the armies of God. He is revered among Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. In addition to Michael, this one small section of the retablo is populated with a host of cherubs and other figures. The amount of work required to create this rebablo boggles the mind.

Retablo de la Divina Providencia was also created approximately 1790. Some of the figures appearing in its niches include St. Albert of Sicily (lower left), Santa Teresa with the Christ Child (lower right), and San Juan de la Cruz (upper center).

Detail of Retablo de la Divina Providencia. Again, the incredible detail is almost more than one can absorb, even when focusing on just a small section of the retablo.

Camarín del Virgen del Carmen 

Camarín de la Virgen del Carmen. A camarín is a ceremonial dressing room where the clothing of the Virgin Mary or another saint is changed. This gilded retablo is in three panels, covered by a huge scalloped shell. The glass case in the center panel holds the Virgen del Carmen. Above her, looking down, is San José.  The right and left panels, respectively, contain Santa Ana and San Joaquin.

The scalloped ceiling of the retablo is rich in symbolism. The scallop shell is the symbol of St. James, or Santiago the Moorslayer, patron of the Conquest. The origin of the symbol relates to the transport of the body of Santiago to Spain after his martyrdom. According to legend, as the ship approached shore a great storm washed the body overboard. However, it later washed ashore intact, covered with scallop shells. The lines in the shell, meeting at a central point, also denote the many routes that pilgrims take on their way to visit the tomb of Santiago in Compostela, Spain.

The Virgen del Carmen forms the centerpiece of this magnificent retablo. While the original retablo was destroyed in a fire in 1957, the one above is a faithful replica. In reviewing the photos for this posting, I was struck by the contrast between the ideas of poverty and simplicity upon which the Carmelitas Descalzos were founded, and the incredible wealth it took to build this ornate edifice. One wonders how they reconciled it. I suppose it had something to do with celebrating the "glory of God." But still...

This completes Part 8 of my San Luis Potosí series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, you take the time to leave a comment either in the Comments section below or directly by email. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Jim,
    Very nice piece on this wonderful church and its treasures. You may be interested in my take on the Retablo de Los Angeles:



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