Friday, November 27, 2015

Zamora Part 5: The soaring Sanctuary of Guadalupe

Santuario de Guadalupe is located four blocks east of Zamora's Plaza de Armas. After my break to cover Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, we'll now return to my series on Zamora. The church above was built in Gothic Revival style, also referred to as Neo-Gothic. Literature about Zamora de Hidalgo nearly always mentions the Santuario as a major point of interest and it truly is spectacular. At 107.5 m (352.7 ft), the twin steeples hold the record for the tallest in Mexico. The figure of the person walking in the right foreground helps provide a sense of scale. For a Google map showing the location of the Santuario in relation to the main plaza, click here.

Juan Diego spreads his tilma (cloak), showing the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe. The church is dedicated as a Sanctuary of the Virgin of Guadalupe. According to the legend, she was first encountered in 1531 by an Aztec whose baptismal name was Juan Diego. One day he happened to pass by the ruined temple of the goddess Tonantzin, located on the Hill of Tepeyac, near Mexico City. Suddenly, a mysterious, dark-skinned, female apparition appeared. Speaking in Nahuatl, his native language, she identified herself as the Virgin Mary and asked that a church be built on the hill in her honor. When Juan Diego went to Archbishop Juan de Zumárraga with the story, he was instructed to ask the apparition for a miracle to confirm that she was, in fact, the Virgin. The Aztec man dutifully returned and related the Archbishop's request. The Virgin told Juan Diego to gather the Castillian roses growing on the hill in his tilma and bring them to the Archbishop. Juan Diego assumed the miracle involved the existence of the roses themselves, which were blooming completely out of their normal season and were not native to Mexico. When the Aztec poured the roses out, the Archbishop was duly impressed. What really wowed him, however, was the image of the Virgin that miraculously appeared upon the surface of the tilma. A Basilica was later built on Tepeyac Hill in honor of the Virgin and the cloak is still on display there.

A Zamora resident strides toward the entrance of the Santuario. Because of her dark skin and fluency in Nahuatl, and the fact that she had first appeared to an indigenous person rather than a Spaniard, the Virgin of Guadalupe became a cult figure to the country's poor and downtrodden native people. Over the centuries, she came to be considered their special patron. However, there was bitter resistance, at least in the early years, to the acceptance of this version of the Virgin. The Franciscans denounced the rapidly growing cult as a sham. They viewed the Virgin of Guadalupe as a cover to enable the continued worship of the pagan goddess Tonantzin. Church leaders expended great effort over the centuries to stamp out any vestiges of the old religions, but with only partial success. Even today, some of the old pagan ways survive. In opposition to the Franciscans, the Dominicans and Augustinians pointed to the thousands of new converts pouring into the churches as a result of the Virgin of Guadalupe's popularity. Their attitude boiled down to "why look a gift horse in the mouth?" After all, the church had accepted the Christmas tree as a legitimate Christian symbol, even though it originated with tree-worshiping Germanic pagans. The bitter argument went on for nearly a hundred years before the practical approach finally prevailed. The Virgin of Guadalupe has since become one of the national symbols of Mexico. She even played a political role when her image was chosen as the battle flag of the insurgent army during the War of Independence against Spain.

Twelve niches adorn the facade of the church exterior, one for each of the Apostles. The Bible briefly mentions San Bartolome (St. Bartholomew)  as an Apostle. He may have been a farmer since his name translates as "son of the furrows." Later non-biblical stories allege that San Bartolome  evangelized in India, Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Parthia (Persia), and finally Armenia, where he was martyred. The evangelist had apparently converted the King of Armenia, displeasing the King's brother. According to some accounts, the Apostle was flayed alive and then crucified upside down.

Interior of the church, looking toward the altar. Carole can be seen in the lower right. The altar area of the church is bathed in ethereal blue light. The dimensions of the Santuario are extraordinary. The total complex of buildings exceeds 5 acres. Within that area, the footprint of the Santuario itself covers 5,415 square meters (17,766 sq ft). The thirty-six columns of the nave soar 34 meters (111.5 ft) above the floor. Not only are the steeples the tallest in Mexico, the church is also the largest Neo-gothic religious building in the nation, with a capacity of more than 4000 people. Further, it is the fourth largest Catholic church in all the Americas, the ninth largest Neo-gothic cathedral in the world, and the fourteenth largest of any religious complex in the world. Needless to say, it is an impressive structure.

The left transept contains this door, set into one of the earliest sections of the church. The ornate, door was carved from mahogany. The rough stone surrounding the door indicates that this section of the wall was probably built between 1898, when the foundation stone was laid, and 1914 when construction was suspended due to the chaos of the Revolution. In that year, the half-built Santuario became the property of the federal government and was not restored to the Catholic Church until 1988. During the intervening 74 years, the structure was used as a military barracks, then impromptu housing for poor people, still later a school, and then a parking area for Zamora's garbage trucks.

Eerie blue light bathes a statue of the crucifixion, located in the altar area. Behind the statue is one of the massive columns that support the ceiling of the nave. More of the original construction of the church wall can be seen in the background.

This stained glass rosette is one of several that decorate the high walls of the main nave. These stained glass creations were installed in 2008, the 110th anniversary of the placement of the foundation stone. The Santuario de Guadalupe now functions as co-Cathedral of Zamora, along with the Templo de la Concepción (see Part 3 of this series). In 1898, the Church authorities intended for the Templo to function as the "temporary" Cathedral until the Santuario could be finished. As it happened, this took a little longer than originally planned. In 2008, the Church officials decided to create co-Cathedrals rather than demote the Templo, which had faithfully served its function all that time..

View from the right side of the altar area back toward the rear of the Santuario. Each column is four-sided, with a niche for the statue of a saint on each of the sides. As you can see, some of the niches are empty. Apparently not all of the statues have yet been created, or perhaps some were taken down for cleaning.

A brass bell hangs from one of the columns with a pull cord ready for use. I am always pleased when I find a bell that is actually intended for manual use, rather than just for decoration. In some churches, the sounds of bells are recordings broadcast from loudspeakers, a practice I find disconcerting and anachronistic..

View of the rear of the main nave showing the church's large pipe organ (top center).  The organ was brought over from the factory of Alexander Schuke in Germany. Like the rosettes, the organ was installed in 2008.

A grim reminder of the violent Cristero War of 1926-1929. A section of the wall to the left of the altar still shows pockmarks from bullets. Prisoners brought to the military barracks were executed while standing against this wall. Some of those executed, at this church and others around Mexico, were priests who had supported the Cristero rebels. The wall was preserved in this condition to commemorate the faithful who lost their lives here.

This stained-glass image fills a window near the bullet-pocked wall. On the left, the artist has created a scene showing a pile of burning bodies at the WWII German concentration camp called "Dachau". On the far right are the bodies of hanged Cristeros. In the center sits a group of heavily armed Cristero fighters. The artist's message, repeated in a nearby sign, is that the Mexican Revolutionary Government's repression against the Cristeros should be viewed as equivalent to the Holocaust. There were, indeed, human rights abuses, including summary executions, committed by the Revolutionary Government. However, the Cristeros were hardly innocent victims like those at Dachau. They were an armed, counter-revolutionary movement actively fighting the regime. The artist and his Church sponsors leave unstated the many abuses and murders committed by the Cristero fighters themselves. Cristero groups were often employed as death squads by hacienda owners against landless peones who were seeking to exercise their rights under the government's land reform laws. A sign near the stained glass window speaks of "the murder of the innocents", and there was much of that during the Cristero War. However, many of those murdered were killed by the Cristeros themselves. There was enough innocent blood shed during that conflict to stain the hands of everyone involved.

The true height of the steeples can only be appreciated from a distance. As we walked away from the Santuario de Guadalupe, I turned to take this parting shot. The human eye and that of the camera can play odd tricks. When standing near the church, as seen in the first photo of this posting, the steeples look tall, but not extraordinarily so. Here, we can appreciate their true dimensions.

This completes Part 5 of my Zamora series. I hope you have enjoyed visiting the Santuario with me and, if so you will leave any comments or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Hi. Jim,
    Fascinating post. You're such a good photographer.
    Thanks for all the effort you put into researching and recording places most of us won't get to see.

  2. Hi, Jim Do you know where in ajijic we can buy a hiking map of the area. Thanks. Kelley


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