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.
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.
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.
- Northeast corner of Alcalá & Gurrión; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Daily 7 a.m. - 1 p.m. & 4 - 8 p.m..
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.
- Northeast corner of Alcalá & Gurrión, north of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Tue - Sun 10 am - 6:15 pm; Mex$51, free for children, students, seniors; Sundays and holidays free for everyone; phone 951-516-2991, 951-516-3721.
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.
- Independencia, 5 blocks west of the Zócalo; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico.
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.
- North side of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico.
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.
- Corner of Independencia & Tinco y Palacios; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico.
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.
- Northeast corner of Trujano & Flores Magan, across the street from the southwest corner of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico.
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.
- Armenta y López, corner Guerrero, one block east of Zocalo; South of Independencia, Centro Histórico.
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.
- Calle del Dr. Pardo, between Bustamante & Armenta y López; South of Independencia, Centro Histórico.