Early Churches of Mexico

An Architect's View

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Beverley Spears
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico: 
    University of New Mexico Press
    , November
     2017.
     408 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780826358172.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This gorgeous, coffee table-sized book by architect Beverley Spears leads the reader on a breathtaking tour of over one hundred conventos (“monasteries”) and churches that remain from sixteenth-century Mexico. As part of their missionary program in New Spain, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians organized the indigenous construction of hundreds of huge religious complexes replete with churches, courtyards, cloisters, housing, and open-air chapels. With an informative introductory essay concerning church architecture and over three hundred glossy pages of black-and-white photographs, the book more than fulfills the promise of its title. It also provides an understated reflection on the role of space and human creativity in sixteenth-century Mexican Catholicism. 

Spears’s photographs reveal the immensity of the early Mexican conventos, the details of the artisanship that went into their creation, and patterns of ritual usage. Two particularly helpful chapters in the introductory essay are “Anatomy of a Sixteenth-Century Convento” and “Space and Ritual of Convento Architecture.” In these pages, we learn about the typical characteristics of these places, including soaring naves (generally without transepts), cloisters for the friars, and spacious outdoor atriosthat accommodated the large populations of indigenous converts who were accustomed to outdoor worship in the mild climate (17). The corners of the atriosoften contain posas, or small churchyard chapels, that suggest a counter-clockwise movement around the atrioto observe devotional art and the stations of the cross (31). While most of the Mexico’s surviving conventosshare these common spatial features, they vary widely in stylistic elements from Renaissance painting, to Moorish towers, to indigenous-influenced Tequitqui-style carving. Dozens of visual examples and a useful glossary guide even the architectural novice through all this specialized variety.  

The question of Mesoamerican indigenous agency and activity in these churches occasionally emerges in the text of the book and lurks in many of the photographs. Early in the introduction, we learn that one of the main reasons why huge conventoslike these were not built in subsequent centuries is because of the precipitous (genocidal?) drop in indigenous populations during the 1500s. When these populations experienced cataclysmic death rates, there were not enough laborers to build and utilize churches and monasteries at the same monumental scale and rate (12). Nonetheless, traces of indigenous Mexican influences are visible in the old buildings and architectural features. For instance, the pre-Hispanic motif of living trees are found on many of the indigenous-carved atrial crosses that sprout stony leaves from their ends (23). Many of the conventosthemselves were built atop pre-Conquest temple platforms and, in this way, appropriated indigenous sacred space (33). Indeed, in her discussion of the early Mexican churches, Spears begs the question of the sincerity and spread of Native conversions. Students of Latin American religious history will likely balk at her premise that the indigenous construction of these churches is proof of the friars’ evangelistic success (13). 

Acknowledging questions of indigenous influence is important, yet the most salient story told in the book’s photographs is the world-changing and world-shaping power of Spanish Catholicism in Mexico. One of the most stimulating aspects of this book is that it allows the reader to look into the Mexican past as that past is juxtaposed on the present. Some of the best photos display scenes of living churches, ancient in their size and configuration but full of worshippers, flowers, and other modern decorations. Today, even after years of urbanization and population growth, most of these churches remain the largest buildings in their environments. Arranged by state, the photographed churches also demonstrate regional geographic and climactic differences even as they tie the country together under one religious aesthetic. The lush and populous central region showcases grand churches surrounded by greenery; the conventosin arid Oaxaca sit in hilly deserts; and limestone churches with shaded ramadas rise out of the blistering flatness of the Yucatán peninsula. They all, however, embody the basic outlines of Catholic worship: long and high-arched naves full of pews where parishioners face the altar under the crucifix. Statues and paintings of saints and the Virgin line the walls. And the buildings themselves, when viewed in their surroundings, clearly continue to anchor village as well as urban life. The sheer number and size of these early Mexican churches means that these places seem to have their own irresistible gravity, and the reader has little option but to be pulled into their orbit of architectural splendor and colonial dominance. 

Spears’s beautiful photography and informative, vivid descriptions will edify any reader, not just those interested in Christian architecture and Mexican Catholicism. The details of the more than one hundred monasteries and churches profiled in the book demand careful inspection. But the over-all effect—above and beyond the details—is to convey the power and reach of colonial Catholicism in Mexico.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brett Hendrickson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Lafayette College.

Date of Review: 
April 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Beverley Spears is an architect, a landscape architect, and a member of the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects. Her firm in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has won numerous design awards for houses, schools, historic preservation, and community projects. She is also the author of American Adobes: Rural Houses of Northern New Mexico.

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