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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.

Museo de la Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad   Museum     (S)
Over the centuries, a large following of devotees has grown up around the Virgin of the Solitude, the patron saint of Oaxaca, her image embodied in the rigid, triangular statue residing in the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad. And over these centuries, many of the faithful have brought ex-votos, or offerings, to her — which include a wide-ranging assortment of small treasures, strange concoctions, and worthless rubbish — some of which have been saved and exhibited in the small museum located behind the Basilica. A visit to the museum is definitely worth it, if only to get a sense of the oddity and the variety of the offerings.

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 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.

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.

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 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 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.

Casa Bohórquez   Colonial Architecture     (L)
Not yet reviewed.

Casa Magro   Colonial Architecture     (M)
Not yet reviewed.

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.

Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños   Museum     (L)
Set in a lovingly restored late 17th-century colonial mansion, the museum exhibits, against bright white walls and shiny hardwood floors, the rotating works of some of the region’s finest artists, usually displaying only a couple of artists at a time.

Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca   Library, Museum     (N)
Founded in 1988 by the renowned Oaxacan graphic artist Francisco Toledo, the institute exhibits the work of talented artists from throughout the state and country, as well as housing one of the most extensive libraries of art books in México.

Centro Fotográfico Álvarez Bravo   Museum, Library     (M)
The renowned Oaxacan graphic artist Francisco Toledo founded the center to promote the art of photography and to support aspiring photographers in the state, dedicating it to the acclaimed Méxican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. To these ends, the center, installed in yet another beautifully restored colonial mansion, exhibits the work of prominent and emerging photographers, supports an extensive collection of books on photography, and conducts seminars in photography.

Museo de Filatelia de Oaxaca   Museum     (O)
Set in a beautifully restored colonial mansion, the museum houses, somewhat inexplicably, the largest public collection of stamps in México, with printings dating back as far as the 1830s, as well as an assortment of postal paraphernalia on permanent display and a library full of books about stamps and all things postal. Even the not so philatelically inclined will probably enjoy this place.

Museo Belber Jiménez   Museum     (Q)
Founded in 2008 by Ellen Belber and Fredrico Jiménez, the museum exhibits the couple’s impressive collection of Méxican gold and silver pieces, jewelry, textiles, and popular art, which spans the three major eras of México’s history — pre-Columbian, colonial, and Independence. But the piece on display that usually excites visitors the most is the necklace that Frida Kahlo wore when she died, a gift from her husband, Diego Rivera.

Museo Casa de Juárez   Museum     (P)
The modest colonial home where Benito Juárez lived from 1818 to 1828 has been restored and turned into this small museum. The story of Juárez’s life and his place in México’s history is an impressive one. He was born on March 21, 1806 in the small Zapotecan village of San Pablo Guelatao in the mountains north of the city of Oaxaca. His parents, who were poor peasants, died when he was only three years old. His grandparents took him in, but they both died soon after. He then went to live with an uncle and spent most of the rest of his preteen years working in the cornfields and as a shepherd.

And then, at the age of twelve, illiterate and speaking only Zapotecan, Juárez walked down out of the mountains and into the city of Oaxaca to live with his older sister, who was working for a family as a cook. He soon found work and residence with Antonio Salanueva, a bookbinder and lay Franciscan. Salanueva and a local teacher taught Juárez to read and write in Spanish, which he took to quickly. Impressed with Juárez’s intelligence, Salanueva, by then acting more as a benefactor and less as an employer, arranged for Juárez’s study in a seminary.

After graduating from the seminary in 1827, Juárez decided against becoming a priest, opting instead for law school. That fateful decision would put him on a path to becoming the nation's first indigenous president and the leader of the Liberal movement, which defeated the country’s Conservative forces in a protracted and bloody civil war, 1857–1861, and expelled the opportunistic French occupiers a few years later, 1861–1867.

With all that in mind, other than the modest colonial home of Antonio Salanueva — which, by the way, is nicely restored — there really isn’t much to see here. This may leave some visitors feeling disappointed, having expected so much more from a museum in Juárez’s name. (Indeed, that was this writer’s first reaction). But on further reflection, it’s clear that this simple museum was never meant to encompass or pay tribute to his entire life. Rather, it was meant to capture the period of time when he worked as a domestic servant and studied for the seminary, the period of his life when he transformed himself from an illiterate peasant boy into an educated young man who would go on to become the nation’s most important historical figure. And so, on second thought, maybe this simple museum gets it just about right.

Casa de la Ciudad   Museum, Library     (T)
Installed in a beautifully restored 18th-century colonial mansion, the museum is dedicated to the research, preservation, and promotion of the architectural heritage of the state of Oaxaca. To these ends, it displays permanent and rotating exhibits, supports independent research, hosts conferences, and houses an extensive library of books and papers on the subject, including the forty thousand volume personal collection of the Oaxacan writer and politician Andrés Henestrosa. Be sure to view the aerial photos contrasting the Centro Histórico of today with fifty years ago.

Jardín Etnobotánico   Botanical Garden, Library     (V)
Not yet reviewed. The gardens can only be viewed through a guided tour.

Macedonio Alcalá   Pedestrian Corridor     (W)
A traffic-free pedestrian corridor, paved with locally quarried green stones, stretching about half a mile from Independencia Avenue (north-side of the cathedral) to the northwest corner of the botanical garden, Jardín Etnobotánico. Most places of interest in the Centro lie within a few blocks of this street or the other major traffic-free zone, the Zócalo, so naturally, most travelers find they gravitate there. The street is named after the 19th-century Oaxacan composer Macedonio Alcalá, remembered primarily for his waltz "Dios Nunca Muere" (“God Never Dies”).

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