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Colonial Architecture — Oaxaca City, 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.

Oaxaca City

In 1529, the Spanish finally established, after a couple of aborted attempts, a permanent settlement in what was to become the city Oaxaca, initially naming it Antequera and designating it the regional capital. And although it remained, for the most part, a quiet farming center far removed from the centers of imperial power, the city grew slowly but steadily throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. During this time, the Dominicans’ influence dominated the city’s religious life, as well as its architectural style.

By the early 18th century, however, the city had become a center of commerce for Spain, driven by the textile industry and trade in cochineal and grains, the cochineal trade, in particular, starting in the 1740s, booming spectacularly, eventually becoming the empire’s second most important product after silver. And yet, because of the near feudal economic arrangements underlying its creation, the newfound wealth of the city, and the empire, concentrated in the hands of a few private individuals and imperial administrators, along with the Catholic Church and its associated religious orders. Their coffers full, the newly wealthy and the churches, not surprisingly, began constructing edifices for their own private and religious benefit, sparking a boom in the construction of churches, monasteries, and mansions, attracting to the city the region’s finest architects and artists, who in turn created the distinct architectural and artistic innovations seen in the city’s colonial buildings in the 1700s.


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.


Linda Martin leads walking tours of colonial churches in the city on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 10 a.m. A donation of Mex$100 is requested, with the proceeds going to charity. Contact her via email at ridgecliff@hotmail.com.


NotesPickCheckMark.png Iglesia de Santo Domingo   Colonial Church     (I)

Iglesia de Santo Domingo — Oaxaca City, Oaxaca

Graced with one of the finest baroque interiors in México, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo is the city’s premier historical attraction and the one church in the city every visitor should make a point of seeing. Dominican friars founded the church in 1529 after first arriving from México City, hastily erecting a small, poorly constructed mud-brick chapel near the Zócalo. By 1569, the chapel had begun to crumble and was quickly becoming unusable, so the order, in dire need of a larger, more permanent church and a monastery, acquired the land for the current site.

Construction of the church and monastery got off to a slow and shaky start, financial problems impeding progress on both for decades, work on the monastery finally getting underway in 1569, the church sometime in the 1570s. And then, as fate would have it, just as the monastery was being completed in 1603 and the friars were getting ready to move in, an earthquake struck, severely damaging the monastery and the uncompleted church.

Reconstruction on both buildings began almost immediately, work on the monastery proceeding quickly, the friars’ residence opening in 1610, the church taking another fifty-six years to complete, finally opening in 1666, ninety-some years after the start of construction. Both buildings remain standing to this day.

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, much of the interior ornamentation and most of the original furnishings of both buildings were heavily damaged or destroyed, including the destruction of the church’s original retablos, a particularly egregious loss.

In the 1890s, the government turned the church over to the Catholic Bishops, who held on to it until the 1930s before giving it back to its original owners, the Dominicans. The order then embarked on a decades-long program of restoration, which was mostly completed by the 1970s, though some work continues to this day.

The Exterior

Facing west, like all Dominican churches, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo overlooks a spacious cut-stone plaza, slightly elevated from the traffic-free cobblestone streets below, its tall, narrow retablo façade recessed and ascending between two massive tower bases topped with belfries.

As with all retablo facades, this one is laid out in horizontal tiers, in this case four, arranged vertically, stacked one on top of the other, the lower three tiers each divided into three rectangular sections, the sections lining up vertically across all three tiers, classical columns dividing the sections horizontally within a tier. The central sections of the facade are filled with an arched main portal on the first tier, an ear frame relief depicting St. Dominic and St. Hippolytus holding the church on the second tier, and a window on the third tier, while the outside sections of all three tiers are filled with statues of saints set in deep shell niches, the façade culminating in a wide, pediment-shaped fourth tier filled with figures in relief.

The Rosary Chapel, an early 18th-century addition, juts off to the south of the main entrance to the church, resting over the chapel's portal another ear frame relief, this one of the Virgin and Christ child giving the rosary to St. Dominic.

The Interior

Inside the tunnel-like main portal, the earliest surviving piece of art in the church awaits: the painted relief of a vine sprawled across the length of the vaulted ceiling, its curved, interlaced branches sprouting — as if they were flowers — the busts of thirty-three brightly colored human figures. At the base of the vine rests the figure of Don Félix de Guzmán, founder of the Dominican order; at the other end sits the Virgin and Christ child, surrounded by a halo of angels. Opinions differ as to the precise meaning of the iconography of the vine and some of the other figures. Whatever their meaning or original inspiration, the artists created a unique piece of early Spanish colonial art.

Beyond the Guzmán vine, though, lies the luscious interior of the church, restored to its earlier baroque grandeur, the entire surface of every wall, every dome, every vault overlaid with paintings, reliefs, statues, or stucco ornamentation, and the gilded retablos, all three of them, overflowing with ornamentation as well. Indeed, the intention seems to be saturation, nothing left untouched, every surface embellished, transformed, the cumulative effect the whole of the interior a work of art.

What to visit

In addition to the church, the priory’s former monastery has been restored and converted into Oaxaca's finest museum, the Museo Nacional de las Culturas de Oaxaca, dedicated to the preservation of the state’s cultural and historical heritage. The museum’s collections and the monastery itself are both worthy of visits, as well as the priory’s grounds, which have been converted into a botanical garden featuring plants native to the state, making it a real delight for plant lovers.

When to visit

Anytime is a good time to visit the church, even in the evening when floodlights illuminate its exterior. And yet, in the late afternoon, as the sun starts to set, there is a moment, if you can catch it, when the light green and beige stone of the church turns golden, the whole of the church suddenly aglow, briefly, as the dusk settles in for the night.

NotesPickCheckMark.png Museo Nacional de las Culturas de Oaxaca   Museum, Colonial Monastery, Library     (A)

Museo Nacional de las Culturas de Oaxaca — Oaxaca City, Oaxaca

The Museo Nacional del las Culturas de Oaxaca is the city’s finest museum. Housed in the former monastery of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the museum is dedicated to the preservation of Oaxaca's cultural and historical heritage, exhibiting many of the state's most important objects of art, artifact, and antiquity, spanning the pre-Columbian to the modern eras.

Among the museum’s extensive collection of exhibits are the priceless Mixtec artifacts of gold and jewelry excavated from Tomb 7 of Monte Albán, considered one of the most important archeological discoveries in México. Another important collection is the Francisco Burgoa Library, an archive of 23,000 historical books and documents dating back to 1484. All the descriptions of the exhibits are in Spanish, although an excellent audio guide in English can be rented for Mex$50 (Spanish Mex$40).

Even if the museum’s exhibits hold no interest for you, the architectural and artistic beauty of the early 17th-century ex-monastery housing them is reason enough to visit. Just north of the main entrance to the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the ex-monastery’s long, tunnel-like main portal opens to a spacious cloister, two stories high, ringed with arcades fronting walks covered with thick, sturdy rib vault ceilings, a robust fountain at its center. On the north side of the cloister, a wide double staircase leads up a vestibule, its surfaces covered in painted reliefs and gilded stucco ornamentation, while upstairs, next to the entrance to the Iglesia de Santo Domingo’s choir loft, the dome and walls of the old friars chapel are covered in painted reliefs and gilded stucco ornamentation as well.

NotesPickCheckMark.png Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad   Colonial Church     (B)

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad — Oaxaca City, Oaxaca

The Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad may have the finest projecting façade in México, a masterpiece, and its sumptuous interior is perhaps second in the city to only the Iglesia de Santo Domingo in its baroque extravagance.

The story of the origin of the church begins as a tale. The details vary, but the gist of it is that in 1543 a mule driver on his way to the city of Oaxaca noticed an extra mule in his team carrying a heavy box. Upon reaching the edge of the city, the mysterious mule collapsed from the weight of the box. Too heavy to be moved, the box was opened, and to everyone’s surprise, the images of the Virgin and crucifix were inside. Interpreting these events as a miracle, church officials pronounced that a church dedicated to the Virgin of Solitude would be built on the site.

Church pronouncements aside, construction didn’t get started until 1582, almost forty years later, and once underway, took over a hundred years to complete, the church finally dedicated in 1690. Soon after, though, in 1696, a powerful earthquake struck, leaving the church in shambles, the original façade destroyed — a familiar story by now.

Reconstruction began almost immediately, the new church redesigned, fortified against future earthquakes with thicker walls and lower domes and vaults, the effort culminating in 1719 with the completion of the church’s masterful façade, a creation of the indigenous sculptor Tomás de Sigüenza.

Most colonial-era baroque church facades are constructed on flat surfaces lying on a plane with — or maybe slightly behind or in front of — their front walls or tower bases. This one, however, facing east, is fitted to a wall with a wide vertical slot cut down the middle, the wall projecting well forward from between two massive tower bases, the façade overlaying the uneven surface of the wall resembling a freestanding folding screen. At the time, strongly projecting church façades were uncommon in México, although church architects did occasionally employ this technique in the late 17th to the middle of the 18th century. The folding-screen-like façade, however, is unique.

Moreover, even though the façade strongly projects and its surface is uneven, the overall design is still retablo baroque. And like all retablo baroque facades, this one’s laid out in tiers, in this case four, arranged vertically, stacked one on top of the other, the bottom three tiers divided into seven rectangular sections, the central sections filled with an arched framed portal on the first tier, a sculpted central relief of the Virgin of Solitude enclosed in an eared frame on the second tier, a window on the third tier, and a relief of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception topping off the façade on the fourth tier, figures in relief and statues in deep shell niches filling the outer sections of the lower three tiers, the sections separated by columns — Doric on the first tier, Ionic on the second tier, and Solomonic (spiral) on the third tier.

Inside the church, the rigid, triangular statue of the Virgin of Solitude, declared the patron saint of Oaxaca in 1909, sits perched above the altar, her crown and robe covered in gold and jewels, reproductions of the originals stolen in the 1980s during a daring daytime raid, the walls and domes and vaults surrounding the Virgin outlined in golden trim, every surface of the interior filled with paintings, reliefs, statues, and stucco ornamentation. In honor of the Virgin, the church was elevated to the status of basilica in 1959.

On December 18, the Virgin’s day of feast, the church and surrounding Plaza de Danza are filled with penitents on pilgrimage from throughout the state, bringing small gifts, ex-votos, to the Virgin. Over the centuries, an odd assortment of the ex-votos have ended up in the museum behind the church, also worthy of a visit.

The church’s former Augustinian convent, opened in 1697, lies hidden behind a high, formidable wall to the north of the church, its small, east-facing portal leading to the first of two cloisters that sprawl west, both cloisters two stories high and ringed with arches, inoperable fountains at their centers. Today, the convent has been renovated and converted into municipal offices, which are open to the public during normal business hours.

This is an aside, but passing through the archway at the far southeastern corner of the Plaza de Danza, there’s a small, shady park where the vendors sell some truly righteous ice cream.

NotesPickCheckMark.png Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción   Colonial Church     (C)

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción — Oaxaca City, Oaxaca

Over the course of more than four centuries, three different cathedrals have been built on the north side of the Zócalo. The latest incarnation of the cathedral, facing west, like all Dominican churches, overlooks the Alameda de León plaza, both plazas bustling with activity from early in the morning until late into the night.

Earthquakes quickly dispensed with the first cathedral, hastily constructed of mud bricks in the 1540s. Work on the second cathedral began in the 1560s and was completed in 1581. This one fared much better, surviving several major earthquakes in the 1600s, until the great earthquake of 1696 finally brought it down. Construction on the third and final cathedral began in 1702 and was completed in 1733.

Set between two massive bell towers, the wide and intricate retablo façade is laid out, like all retablo façades, in rectangular tiers, in this case three, arranged vertically, stacked one on top of the other, each tier divided into five sections. On the first tier, three arched main portals fill the middle and outer sections, two oval windows lying on their sides topping the outer portals. On the second and third tiers, three ear-framed sculpted reliefs fill the middle and outer sections of both tiers. Statues set in deep shell niches are interspersed between the portals and reliefs on all tiers. Interestingly, the outer sections of all three tiers are set back slightly from the front plane of the base of the towers, giving the illusion that the inner sections project out.

The three main portals open to an expansive interior — three long, parallel naves covered in low domes, a dozen side chapels and two side portals lining the north and south walls. A major renovation in the 1890s stripped the interior of most of its original ornamentation.

An interesting aside, entering through the main portal on the right, the first side chapel contains a small wooden fragment that is purported to be from the Holy Cross of Huatulco. As legend has it, when the English pirate Thomas Cavendish raided the port of Huatulco in 1587, he tried to destroy the cross, first by chopping it up with an axe, and then by burning it. Miraculously, the cross proved to be indestructible to him. Other supposed fragments of the cross are on display at the Cathedral of Puebla and the Vatican in Rome.

Templo de San Felipe Neri   Colonial Church     (D)

Templo de San Felipe Neri — Oaxaca City, Oaxaca

Founded in 1661 by the conservative Oratorian Catholic order, the church is noteworthy for being the place where Benito Juárez (the country’s first indigenous president and leader during the Reform War and the war of occupation by the French) married Margarita Maza in 1843. Construction on the present church began in the 1730s and was completed in 1803. Unlike most churches in the state and throughout the country, it emerged mostly intact from the federal government’s expropriation of church properties in 1859.

Facing south, the church’s tall, narrow retablo façade and twin bell towers ascend from a short, wide plaza, slightly elevated above busy Independencia Avenue, appearing to lord over all that passes beneath them. The retablo facade's overall pattern is horizontal tiers, in this case four, arranged vertically, stacked one on top of the other, the bottom three tiers divided into three rectangular sections, the central sections filled with an arched main portal on the first tier, a statue of St. Philip Neri, the order’s founder, enclosed in an eared frame on the second tier, and an octagonal window opening into the choir loft on the third tier, deep shell niches missing their statues (the church is mostly intact, not completely) filling the outer sections of the bottom three tiers, a gable enclosed relief topping off the façade on the fourth tier.

But the real pièce de résistance awaits inside — the church’s original Churrigueresque main retablo, completely intact, dating from the late 1700s, the finest colonial altarpiece in the city. What’s more, there are four other original late-baroque retablos inside, two tucked away in the east and west transepts, the other two resting against the nave walls.

Templo y Convento de la Compañia de Jesús   Colonial Church     (E)

Templo y Convento de la Compañia de Jesús — Oaxaca City, Oaxaca

Arriving in the city in 1576, the Jesuits first constructed a church on this site in 1579. Earthquakes destroyed the original and subsequent churches, until the present incarnation and its adjoining convent, a sprawling complex covering the entire city block southwest of the church, were completed in the early 1760s.

Shortly thereafter, in 1767, King Charles III expelled the Jesuits from Spain and all of its colonies, including México. The Catholic bishops took possession of the church and convent. They held on to the church but promptly sold off most of the convent. In 1950, the Jesuits regained possession of the church, along with a small piece of the convent, the rest of it remaining in private hands. Today, the church is open daily for mass and prayer, while the bulk of the convent is being used as apartments, offices, and retail shops, among other things.

Aesthetically eclectic, the church’s main façade, exuding confidence, projects well forward from between two stout octagonal bases missing their belfries. The real treat, though, awaits inside — the church's original main retablo, circa 1760s, built in the Churrigueresque style that was in vogue at the time.

Templo y Convento de San Augustín   Colonial Church     (F)

Templo y Convento de San Augustín — Oaxaca City, Oaxaca

Arriving in the city in 1580, the Augustinians erected their first church on this site in 1589. Earthquakes destroyed the original and subsequent churches, once again wrecking havoc, until the present church and its adjoining convent were completed in 1732.

Facing west, the church’s retablo façade overlooks a large, slightly sunken stone plaza. Like all retablo facades, this one is laid out in horizontal tiers, in this case four, arranged vertically, stacked one on top of the other, the bottom three tiers divided into three rectangular sections, the central sections filled with an arched main portal on the first tier, a splendid central relief of St. Augustine, the order’s founder, enclosed in an eared frame on the second tier, and an octagonal window opening into the choir loft on the third tier, deep shell niches with statues of saints filling the outer sections of the bottom three tiers, the niches bracketed in pairs of columns, a gable enclosed relief topping off the façade on the fourth tier.

But the real attraction lies inside — three gilded and heavily ornamented baroque retablos, assembled from statues, paintings, and pieces of original retablos from the colonial period.

Templo de San Francisco   Colonial Church     (G)

Templo de San Francisco — Oaxaca City, Oaxaca

Late comers to the early evangelization efforts in the city, the Franciscans wasted no time in erecting a small, though poorly constructed, chapel and monastery on this site when they first arrived in 1592. Lack of resources hampered later attempts at constructing more permanent replacements for these buildings. Perseverance, however, eventually paid off, and a century later a new church and monastery were finally completed in the early 1690s.

And then, as fate would have it, the great earthquake of 1696 struck, soon followed by another powerful earthquake in 1697, both earthquakes heavily damaging the church and monastery, both buildings all but abandoned for the next eighty years, before construction on a new church and monastery, the current ones, finally got underway in 1776. Once undertaken, though, work progressed rapidly, and both buildings were completed a short four years later.

The church’s elegant façade — which is unique in the city — is still intact and has been completely restored. Slightly recessed and set beneath an arch, the façade is carved from gray limestone (not the green stone that is so ubiquitous in the city) and sculpted in the Churrigueresque style that was in vogue at the time. The interior of the church, however, hasn't fared so well, with most of its furnishings and ornamentation having been stripped out over the centuries, the once splendid interior denuded, left barren.

*Zoom out to locate the Templo de San Felipe Apóstol in the San Felipe del Agua neighborhood.

Camino Real Oaxaca   Hotel, Colonial Architecture     $$$$     (C)

Camino Real Oaxaca — Oaxaca City, Oaxaca

Founded in 1568 as a small cottage with four nuns living in it, the convent had grown by the early 18th century into the large compound that still exists today, one city block in size, enclosed by high stonewalls, with a large chapel, the Santa Catalina de Siena, and five arcaded courtyards and cloisters inside.

As it did with most church proprieties in 1859, the federal government expropriated the convent, turning it over to the city, which in turn used it as a jail and city hall. Unlike most expropriated church properties, though, which were eventually given back to the orders that founded them or the Catholic Church, the convent was turned over to private hands, where it was used as a movie theater and a Masonic lodge before being converted into the city’s most elegant and expensive hotel, the Camino Real. During this time, the interior of the convent was subjected to several makeovers and restorations, and even though it is still beautiful, it has, for the most part, been stripped of its original ornamentation and furnishings, save a few fragments of murals on the walls, some old oil pots, a handful of restored colonial paintings, and a smattering of furniture.

Even if a night’s stay is beyond your means, the place is still worth a visit, especially the chapel with its dark, cavernous nave, where reenactments of the Guelaguetza folk dances are held every Friday night. (The price of admission includes a buffet dinner.) But perhaps what is most captivating architecturally about the former convent is the small octagonal-shaped outbuilding the nuns used as a washhouse. Located in the northeast courtyard, the washhouse is ringed with arches and covered with a Moorish dome, at its center a fountain surrounded by a dozen washbasins, its waterworks fully functional.

  • Cinco de Mayo 300, just north of Murguia;  North of Independencia, Centro Histórico;  91 rooms, USD$271/271/311 (s/d/t);  Most major credit cards;  phone 951-516-0611951-501-6100;  fax 951-516-0732;  www.caminoreal.com/oaxaca;  oax@caminoreal.com;  Reservations recommended.  
  • Restaurant El Refectorio, outdoor heated swimming pool, 24 hour room service, safe deposit box, laundry and dry cleaning, two bars: Las Novicias & Las Bugambilias, shop and news stand, taxi stand, doctor on-call.  
  • Room: phone, satellite TV, hair dryer, AC, internet.  

Templo y Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Merced   Colonial Church     (A)

Templo y Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Merced — Oaxaca City, Oaxaca

Mercedarian monks traveling between México City and their missions in Guatemala established a way station here in 1598. It took over a hundred years, but in the early 17 century, the order finally built their first church on this site. Soon after it was completed, though, earthquakes destroyed it. Then, after several more decades of work, the present church was finally completed in 1690.

Facing west, the church overlooks a large, shady plaza, bordered on the north by busy Independencia Avenue. Mostly shrouded in trees, its retablo façade is elegant, though simple of design, lacking the excessive ornamentation of many of the Dominican facades. As with all retablo façades, it is laid out in tiers, in this case four, stacked one on top of the other, each tier a single section, an arched portal on the first tier, a single statue set in a shell niche on the second tier, an oval choir window on the third tier, and another single statue lodged in a shell niche on the fourth tier.

Beyond the simple exterior lies an unexpectedly bright and ornate interior, recently painted. The nave is covered by a series of high domes and lined with lateral arches, buried deep within the aches neoclassical altarpieces filled with colonial paintings and statues, the whole interior aglow with natural light from windows high in the nave and crossing.

Templo y Convento de Nuestra Señora de las Nieves   Colonial Church     (E)
The Jesuits built their first church on this site in 1585. It withstood the numerous earthquakes of the 17th century until the great earthquake of 1696 finally destroyed it. The order immediately turned to rebuilding, quickly erecting a new church. Shortly after its completion, though, another powerful earthquake struck in 1721, heavily damaging the church.

The site was left unused for the next fifty years, until the Catholic Bishops took it over from the Jesuits after they were expelled from the country in 1767. Work on the present church began in 1770 and was completed a short two years later, the Bishops dedicating it to Our Lady of the Snows, the patron saint of Rome.

The church’s plain stone exterior, which of late was really starting to show its age, underwent a restoration in late 2011. Waiting inside, though, is the real treat — five diverse retablos, the main altarpiece neoclassical, the other four a mix of baroque and Churrigueresque, tucked away in side chapels and the transepts.

Templo y Convento de San Juan de Dios   Colonial Church     (B)
The first Catholic church ever built in the city, a makeshift structure of mud-brick walls and straw roof, was erected on this site in 1521. A short time later, a new and what was thought to be permanent church, constructed of brick walls and tile roof, was built to replace it. The brick church stood for over a hundred years until an earthquake in 1662 leveled it. Construction on a new church, along with a monastery and a hospital, got underway in 1699 and was completed a short four years later, in 1703. This one survived for over a hundred and fifty years, a fire destroying it in 1864.

Construction on the present church began a few years later and was completed in 1896. Though unique among churches in the city for its trapezoid-shaped wooden roof, the church is best known for its large 17th-century oil paintings, which line the walls and the angled lengths of the ceiling, depicting scenes from the life of Christ and famous events in the religious life of Oaxaca.

Located a couple of blocks south of the Zócalo, the area around the church is commercial, gritty, the streets lined with vendor stalls and storefronts, including the Mercado Benito Juárez to the north, an entire block of vendor stalls selling just about any item imaginable, and the Mercado 20 de Noviembre to the southeast, with dozens of food stalls serving traditional Oaxacan cuisine.

Templo y Convento de San José   Colonial Church     (F)
The Jesuits built their first church on this site in 1595. It withstood the numerous earthquakes of the 17th century, until the great earthquake of 1696 finally destroyed it. Soon after, the order turned to rebuilding, constructing a new church, the present one, and an adjacent convent housing Franciscan nuns, the church completed in 1728 and dedicated to St. Joseph, the convent finished in 1744.

The church and the convent’s solid but sober exteriors, save a few minor baroque flourishes above their portals, face east, overlooking the wide, sunken Plaza de Danza, as well the Palacio Municipal and Basílica de la Soledad, both lying on the plaza’s western edge.

Little from the colonial period has survived inside either building, renovations having stripped both of their colonial character. That said, the ex-convent, now home to the School of Fine Arts, is the more interesting of the two architecturally, beginning with its main portal, which leads through a long, wide passageway, the ceiling low and vaulted, tunnel like, before opening into a large two-story cloister, ringed with arches, a small, inoperable fountain lying at its center.

Templo y Convento del Carmen Alto   Colonial Church     (G)
Originally the site of an Aztec temple, the Spanish built a small chapel here in the mid 1500s. The Carmelites took the chapel over in 1699, replacing it with a church, their own side chapel, and a monastery, enclosing it all behind a high stonewall, creating a sprawling complex several city blocks in size, the entire complex completed in 1751 still standing today.

Tucked away in a shaded courtyard, the church and side chapel are accessible through two thick gateways, one opening onto García Vigil street to the west, the other opening onto the narrow Plazuela del Carmen Alto to the south. The main portal to the church is covered by an arcaded portico, or narthex, which is standard for Carmelite churches. (The only other narthex can be found covering the main portal to the Los Siete Príncipes church.) As for the interior, it has undergone several renovations, with most of its original furnishings and ornamentation having been stripped out and replaced long ago.

The church and monastery followed the strict racial caste system of New Spain, allowing only persons born in Spain, gachupines, or of pure Spanish descent, criollos, to reside or worship there, while people of pure indigenous and mixed ancestry, indios and mestizos, were segregated to the Carmen Bajo church, four blocks to the south.

Templo y Convento de los Siete Príncipes   Colonial Church     (D)
Although this location was established as a Catholic religious site in 1730, work on the church and the convent of the Siete Principes, dedicated to the seven archangels, didn’t get started until 1755, the church completed in 1764, the adjoining convent in 1782.

The exterior of the church is noteworthy for its arcaded portico, or narthex, covering the main portal, something of an oddity in the city. (The only other narthex can be found covering the main portal to the Carmen Alto church.) On the inside, the church has been completely renovated, stripped of its colonial furnishings and ornamentation, save the seven colonial-era statues of the seven archangels adorning the early 20th-century neoclassical main retablo.

As for the convent, it’s been converted into a cultural center, the Casa de la Cultura Oaxaqueña, conducting classes, workshops, exhibits, and events focusing on all things artistic and cultural, its classrooms, studios, and galleries lining the arched corridors of the ex-convent’s two cloisters, the center alive with artists, dancers, musicians, and writers. The center publishes, in Spanish, a schedule of activities, widely available in restaurants, cafés, and bookstores in the Centro.

Templo de Sangre de Cristo   Colonial Church     (H)
Originally the site of the city’s first cemetery, a church was first built here in the later half of the 17th century. Then, at the century’s end, sometime in the late 1790s, it was replaced by the present church. Facing east, the church’s plain façade overlooks a small plaza, elevated slightly above cobblestone Macedonio Alcalá Street, the busy pedestrian promenade linking the Iglesia de Santo Domingo and the Zócalo. Like many of its contemporaries, repeated renovations and coats of paint have left the interior of the church denuded, stripped of its original furnishings and ornamentation, its colonial character long gone.

Templo de San Matías Jalatlaco   Colonial Church     (J)
The Jesuits originally constructed a small chapel on this site to serve converts in this once exclusively indigenous barrio. In the early 1700s, the order replaced the chapel with a more permanent church, the present one, dedicating it to St. Matthew the Apostle. The church has been the cornerstone of the barrio ever since.

Located at the top of cobblestone Hidalgo Street, the church recently underwent a thorough renovation, inside and out. The south-facing main and east-facing side façades, both originals and both well preserved, have elaborate geometric patterns carved into their surfaces — their design unique in the city. Inside, little remains of the original furnishings and ornamentation, the interior long ago stripped of its colonial character. That said, in the choir loft, above the main portal, there’s a beautiful, old post-colonial pipe organ, which was built in 1866 and has now been completely restored.

Templo de la Defensa   Colonial Church     (K)
Construction of the first church on this site began in 1786 and was completed in 1792. A short three years later, in 1795, an earthquake destroyed it. Work on the present church got underway soon after and was completed in 1798. The church’s east-facing main and north-facing side facades are both classic retablo baroque, their layout elegant, though simple of design. The real treat, however, awaits inside — a gilded Churrigueresque main retablo, probably the original, fitted to the apse, its top rising up and rounded to the low vaulted ceiling. There’s also another, smaller gilded Churriguresque retablo set in a large niche in the south wall of the nave.

Templo de Santa María del Marquesado   Colonial Church     (L)
The Dominicans built their first church on this site in 1727, dedicating it to St. Mary. It underwent several rebuilds because of earthquakes, until the present church was completed in the late 1800s. Set back from the busy Francisco Madero highway, the church faces west, overlooking a broad atrium shaded by large Ficus trees. A simple facade fronts the church, slightly recessed and set beneath an arch, the arch bracketed by two squat towers topped with belfires. The façade is laid out in three horizontal tiers, stacked one on top of the other, each tier diminishing in size, an arched main portal set between two statues lodged in deep shell niches on the first tier, an octagonal window on the second tier, and another statue set in a deep shell niche on the third tier. Inside, nothing remains of the original colonial furnishings and ornamentation.

Templo de Nuestra Señora del Patrocinio   Colonial Church     (M)
The exact origin of this church is a mystery. Historical sleuths date its construction at the end of the 18th century, their best clue a nearby church drawn on a map of the city dated between 1794 and 1797. That church no longer exists — it was likely destroyed in an earthquake in 1795. But another map dated 1803 has the present church on it, the thinking being the destroyed church was rebuilt at this location.

From the 1850s on, the church’s had a rough go of it — it’s been renovated, expropriated, renovated again, hammered twice by major earthquakes, and then abandoned for about fifty years, until finally it was restored to its current condition, which is still pretty dilapidated. Today, it sits across the street from El Llano park, looking hapless, the southern tower missing its belfry, mangled wrought iron left in its place, as if something immense had reached out and ripped it from its moorings.

Templo y Convento de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe   Colonial Church     (N)
A small, brick chapel was originally built on this site in 1644. Work on the present church and convent, both constructed of stone, began in 1650, the church completed in 1707, dedicated to the dark-skin Virgin of Guadalupe, one of the most revered religious figures in México, the convent taking several more years to finish. A side chapel was added a hundred years later, in 1807. The interior of the church has been restored and freshly painted, though little of its colonial character remains, renovations having stripped it of its original furnishings and ornamentation.

Templo de la Santísima Trinidad de las Huertas   Colonial Church     (O)
Many of the Zapotec and Mixtec laborers who were conscripted to build the city after its founding by the Spanish in the early 16th century settled in this area about half a mile southeast of the Zócalo. Over time, the settlement grew into a thriving barrio, its residents constructing elaborate gardens, for which the barrio was named Trinidad de las Huertas, or Trinity of the Gardens.

To serve the converts of this once exclusively indigenous barrio, a small chapel was first erected on this site in 1554. Construction on the first church, built of mud-brick walls and wooden roofing, got underway at the end of the 16th century, the church taking almost a hundred years to complete. Over the course of the next two hundred years, it was constantly being repaired and rebuilt because of earthquake damage, until a couple of early 20th-century earthquakes finally put it out of its misery. The present church was built between 1949 and 1952.

Templo de Nuestra Señora de la Consolación   Colonial Church     (P)
Construction of the first church on this site began in 1656 and was completed in 1661. The Carmelites took over the church in 1679 while their main church, the Carmen Alto, and its adjoining convent, a sprawling complex several city blocks in size, were being built. Constantly under repair because of earthquakes, the church was eventually rebuilt in the middle of the 18th century.

Since then, the interior has undergone a couple of major renovations, stripping it of its original furnishings and ornamentation. Today, the interior is freshly painted and well lit with natural light, though practically barren of adornments and furnishings, except for the pews and the simple neoclassical main retablo tucked away in the apse.

Templo de San Cosme y San Damián   Colonial Church     (Q)
Originally the site of the city’s first hospital, also named San Cosme y San Damián, the first church was built here between 1565 and 1568, constructed of mud-bricks walls and wooden roofing. An earthquake leveled both buildings on New Year's Eve in 1603. A new church and hospital were built between 1610 and 1612, this time of stone. Subsequent earthquakes weakened even these hardened structures, and both were torn down in 1745. Reconstruction on a new church and hospital got underway immediately, both reopening in 1752.

On the eve of the Reform War, in the late 1850s, the federal government expropriated both buildings, the hospital sold off to private hands, the church remaining in government possession until 1890, before reverting back to the Church. By then, however, the church had become dilapidated, its structure unsafe, and so once again, it was torn down and rebuilt from scratch, construction on the new church, the one standing today, taking thirty years to complete.

Of all the churches in the city whose origins date back to the colonial period, this one has perhaps the plainest architecture and the least ornamentation. Shaped like a long rectangular box, as if inspired by a shipping container, the church has no transept, no dome, no choir loft, no façade around its main portal. Indeed, there’s little of interest here, except for maybe the plain neoclassical main retablo and the series of small, lateral vaults undulating along the low ceiling of the nave, creating a rippling effect.

Templo del Carmen Bajo   Colonial Church     (R)
A small church constructed of mud-brick walls and straw roofing was built on this site in 1554, dedicated to Las Lágrimas de San Pedro, the Tears of San Pedro. In the early 1700s, the Carmelites took control of the church, dedicating it to the Virgen del Carmen. Adhering to the strict racial caste system of New Spain, they set this church, the Carmen Bajo, aside exclusively for people of pure indigenous or mixed ancestry, indios or mestizos, while their other, more grandiose church, the Carmen Alto, only allowed persons born in Spain, gachupines, or of pure Spanish descent, criollos, to worship there.

An earthquake heavily damaged the church in 1801. Soon after, a new church constructed of wood was built to replace it. Tragedy struck again in 1862, this time a fire burning the wooden church to the ground. Once again, work on a new church began almost immediately, this one built of stone, though, its structure more permanent, the effort taking a decade to complete, the church still standing today.

Templo de Santo Tomás Xochimilco   Colonial Church     (S)

  • Benito Juárez, between De Progreso and Porfirio Díaz, one block north of Niños Heroes;  Barrio de Xochimilco.  

Templo de San Felipe Apóstol   Colonial Church     (T)


NotesPickCheckMark.png Los Arquitos   Colonial Stone Aqueduct     (A)
In the early 1500s, the first Spanish settlers, needing a reliable source of water, tapped the ample spring at the base of the mountains to the north, now the suburb of San Felipe del Agua, and channeled the water to the city in a crude canal. In mid-1700s, the city replaced the canal with a more permanent stone aqueduct, known as Los Arquitos. The aqueduct supplied water to the city until 1941, when steel pipes were laid to replace it.

Today, long strips of the aqueduct remain wholly intact, along with shorter, partial fragments. The most impressive surviving strip begins three blocks northwest of the Santo Domingo Church, running north along cobblestone García Vigil Street (which turns into Rufino Tamayo) for about three hundred meters, and ends abruptly at the busy six-lane Niños Heroes highway. Here, the aqueduct is a series of arches facing east, hence the name Los Arquitos, its channel inlaid along the top of the arches, well overhead and not easily seen.

Across Niños Heroes lies the tranquil Barrio de Xocomilco, its streets filled with the thumping of wooden handlooms — the rhythmic sounds of weavers working. Here, other, smaller fragments of the aqueduct have survived, mostly for about a kilometer along quiet cobblestone José López Alavés Street (due north of Rufino Tamayo), including the northernmost fragment in the barrio, an intact piece of the aqueduct spanning the Jalatlaco River, held up by a series of arches.

Continuing north along José López Alavés, that’s it for the next kilometer or so until the street ends where Porfirio Díaz turns into the main road to San Felipe del Agua. From there, for the next couple of kilometers, long, intact strips of the aqueduct line the road to San Felipe del Agua, ending just south of the San Felipe Apóstol Church.


NotesPickCheckMark.png Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo   Museum, Colonial Mansion     (J)
Renowned Oaxacan abstract painter Rufino Tamayo founded this museum — a cultural highlight of the city — in 1975 to house his private collection of pre-Hispanic Méxcian art, which he donated to the state and people of Oaxaca before his death in 1991. The museum is installed in a beautiful 18th-century colonial mansion, La Casa de Villaraza, named for Francisco Antonio Villaraza, a prominent Spanish official at the time. Unlike most museums, which treat and exhibit pre-colonial works of art as artifacts, with an emphasis on the archeological, each piece here is treated and exhibited as an object of creative expression, with an emphasis on the aesthetic.

NotesPickCheckMark.png Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca   Museum, Colonial Mansion     (K)
Exhibiting collections from contemporary artists of local, national, and even international renown, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca, or MACO for short, is housed in a stunning 18th-century colonial mansion, named La Casa de Cortés for the famous conquistador Hernán Cortés, even though he never lived here. The quality of the exhibits here is usually high, but because they rotate, it's hit or miss.

Casa Bohórquez   Colonial Architecture     (L)
Not yet reviewed.

Casa Magro   Colonial Architecture     (M)
Not yet reviewed.

Hotel Monte Albán   Hotel, Colonial Architecture     $$$     (Q)
Not yet reviewed.

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