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Colonial Architecture — Oaxaca

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Hundreds of churches and monasteries and mansions constructed in the state of Oaxaca during the Spanish colonial era remain standing to this day. Ensconced for hundreds of years in even the smallest of villages, they exude an ancient weariness, having endured earthquakes and wars and abandonment and neglect, their survival a testament to the skills of the people who built them, many of whom were indigenous. And nowhere in the state is this architectural legacy more apparent than in the Centro Histórico of the city of Oaxaca, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, where dozens of historical colonial buildings are concentrated. Many of these buildings have been restored and are still in use today, the churches providing daily services, the monasteries and mansions home to, among other things, museums, galleries, artisan shops, and hotels, while many others have been left to crumble and are in dire need of repair.

The 16th Century — Here Come the Dominicans

In 1529, the Spanish Crown rewarded Hernán Cortés, fresh off his success in conquering the Aztec Empire, with a vast stretch of the newly conquered land for his own personal fiefdom. Known as the Marquesado del Valle de Oaxaca, it covered, despite its name, large portions of the present-day states of Michoacán, Morelos, Oaxaca, and Veracruz.

The Spanish viewed the conversion of indigenous people from their pagan ways to Catholicism as an important step in the process of pacification and successful colonization. Skeptical of the Spanish priesthood’s mettle in such matters, Cortés enlisted the Dominicans instead, who he thought had a real zeal for missionary work. His thinking quickly proved correct, and by the end of the 1530s, the Dominicans had a large number of newly converted to show for their efforts.

To accommodate the influx of converts, the Dominicans went on a building spree in the 1540s, constructing churches in nearly every settlement of any size, often to lavish scale, which was their trademark. The construction boom was financed by the silk and cochineal trades, cochineal a red dye produced from a small, scaly insect that lives on prickly pear cactus, while the heavy lifting was provided by — what else? — a large pool of cheap, newly converted indigenous labor.

After peaking in the 1550s and 1560s, new church construction began to taper off as the century progressed, a result of worsening economic conditions and fewer recruits for conversion due to soaring indigenous mortality rates. So as the century wound down, so did the construction of new churches. Nevertheless, the bulk of new church starts during the colonial period began in the 16th century.

The 17th Century — Earthquakes, Fortifications, and Embellishments

Lying on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the state of Oaxaca, like much of the rest of México, is one of the most seismically active places on earth. (See the article Earthquakes — México.) Ever since the Spanish first arrived here in the early 1500s and began constructing buildings, earthquakes have been destroying them, creating a cycle of almost instantaneous destruction followed by long periods of reconstruction. With these capricious forces always lurking right below the surface, buildings had to be redesigned, hardened, evolving over time into large, fortress-like structures, featuring immense buttressed walls constructed of heavy stone blocks, laid with just enough space between them to accommodate shocks from even the most powerful earthquakes.

During the 17th century, the Dominicans constructed few new churches and monasteries, the order turning instead to the repair, reconstruction, and fortification of their existing buildings, as well as their architectural and artistic embellishment. By the end of the century, the embellishments had taken on their own distinct and elaborate style of baroque, perhaps best exemplified by the ubiquitous gilded altarpieces, known as retablos, which were the centerpieces of the interior of every church, no matter its size, and by the exterior facades, referred to as retablo facades, which usually covered the main and side portals of churches, their design, and name, inspired by the interior altarpieces.

The majority of colonial-era retablos were constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries, although a few date back as far as the late 16th century. Their designs usually followed a distinctive and elaborate pattern of horizontal tiers that were arranged vertically, stacked one on top of the other, the tiers divided into rectangular sections that were aligned horizontally and vertically across all tiers, the sections bracketed by columns and filled with large religious painting, projecting reliefs, and carved statues set in shell niches, a myriad of intricate decorations covering the spaces in between. Retablo façades of that period usually had many of the same design elements as the altarpieces — vertically arranged tiers, rectangular sections aligned vertically and horizontally, columns and pilasters bracketing the sections, and projecting reliefs and statues set in shell niches filling the sections.

The 18th Century — A Second Wave of Building

As the 18th century approached, the Dominicans’ influence began to wane, and the Oaxacan bishops assumed more control over the region’s religious life, undertaking their own ambitious programs of church construction. Meanwhile, other Catholic orders — namely, the Augustinians, the Franciscans, and the Jesuits — began asserting their influences as well, though mostly in the city of Oaxaca, embarking on their own ambitious programs of church and monastery construction, sparking a second wave of building that would last until the century’s end.

The 19th Century — Expropriation and Disrepair

In 1859, in the midst of a civil war between the country’s Liberal and Conservative forces, the Benito Juárez administration expropriated all church properties in México, converting churches and monasteries into government buildings and army barracks. During this time, the interiors of many of these buildings were heavily damaged or destroyed, although Oaxaca’s churches and monasteries, in general, fared better than those in other parts of the country. By century's end, however, most church properties had been returned to church hands or to the orders who built them.


Few travelers have the time or the interest or the stamina to visit the city's dozens of colonial buildings open to the public. Nevertheless, everyone should at least take the time to visit the city’s three premier churches — the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the Basilica de la Soledad, and the Catedral — as well as the former monastery of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, now home to the Museo Nacional del las Culturas de Oaxaca. Each stands out architecturally, aesthetically, and historically, and was trendsetter in its day, helping to set styles for decades to come.

Next, anyone interested in seeing more should visit the La Compañia de Jesús, the San Augustín, and the San Francisco churches, representing the three other principle Catholic orders that evangelized colonial Oaxaca, as well as the San Felipe Neri church, significant for having survived the centuries with much of its interior and exterior intact. And lastly, the brief descriptions of the remaining churches, monasteries, and mansions should help with deciding on which, if any, to visit next.

All the churches listed here have set times when masses are held and they are open for prayers or visits, although the hours are often not posted. If a church is closed, just ask anyone nearby, and he or she will probably know when it’s open. Moreover, church caretakers, if they’re around, will sometimes open churches for visitors during off hours. Also, it's important to remember that most worshippers go to church during open hours to pray, so try to be respectful and unobtrusive when sightseeing — churches are places of worship first and tourist attractions second. And, of course, it goes without saying there is no sightseeing during mass.


Exploring Colonial Oaxaca
by Richard D. Perry

Richard D. Perry is the author of several books on the architecture and art of colonial México. With Exploring Colonial Oaxaca, he offers an in-depth look at the colonial architecture of the state of Oaxaca, unpacking for readers the centuries-long history of the state’s colonial churches, monasteries, and mansions, along with the artistic and architectural styles that influenced them.

Extremely well organized, the book begins with a brief introduction to the Dominican style of architecture and ornamentation that predominated in the state during the first wave of church construction in the 16th century, before discussing the economic, political, religious, and even geological forces driving the evolution in styles of later periods of church construction in the 17th and 18th centuries. The book then goes on to review over sixty of the state’s most important colonial-era buildings. Organized geographically, the reviews begin with the city of Oaxaca, the site of the largest concentration and variety of colonial buildings in the state, before venturing out of the city and into the three long and narrow valleys protruding from it, then turning north and meandering up and into the mountains of the northern Sierra and the Mixteca Alta.

A short 222 pages in length, with dozens of drawings by the author and color photographs by Felipe Falcón, the book strikes the right balance between the too brief and often unsatisfying descriptions found in most travel guidebooks and the too much background and detail of academic tomes. That said, by necessity, the book uses a lot of architectural and artistic jargon that will be lost on many of its readers (this writer included). Expanding the short glossary in the back of the book by just a few pages would go a long way towards making it more self contained, which is important in this kind of guidebook. For anyone getting lost in the jargon, the website www.mexicanarchitecture.org has an excellent glossary of terms relating to the colonial architecture of México, along with clarifying photographs.

The Amate bookstore in the city of Oaxaca (Alcalá 307) usually has a large stack of this book for sale, or it can be purchased online at Amazon.com.

The Colonial Architecture of Mexico
by James Early

Another useful book, albeit with more of an academic bent, James Early’s The Colonial Architecture of Mexico charts the architectural history of Mexico from the time of the Spanish conquest, through the early and late baroque periods, before concluding with the Neo-classical period, which overlapped with Independence. Available online at Amazon.com.

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