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.