Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary in Cuernavaca

There were 14 monasteries built in the 16th century by the Spanish Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians to evangelize the natives south and east of the Popocatepetl Volcano ("Popo") in what is now Central Mexico (11 are in Morelos State and 3 are in Puebla State). They were recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1994. One distinguishing feature of these 14 monasteries is that they have a capilla abierta or open chapel, a distinct Mexican construction form. It was basically an open apse, with an altar, which opened onto a large atrium or plaza. We were told they were constructed this way because the natives were afraid to enter the confines of European style churches. However, I've read that it is more likely that it was to allow the holding of masses for very large numbers of people in an arrangement similar to the sacred precincts of pre-Hispanic temples that the natives were familiar with. 

The Cuernavaca monastery was started in 1525 by the first 12 Franciscans in the new Spanish colony. This was shortly after Hernan Cortez captured Tenochtitlan in 1521 and ended the Aztec Empire. The purpose of the monastery was to evangelize and subdue the native inhabitants and then later to house and train missionaries going to other parts of New Spain, which eventually included what is now Mexico, Central America, the Southwestern and Central U.S., Spanish Florida, the Philippines, Marianas and Caroline Islands. 

The church is within a walled compound, with several other chapels or smaller churches inside the compound. The walls are thick and topped by merlons, which were used for defensive purposes against the hostile natives. The complex was built in stages and developed over the years. 
The wall at the northwest part of the complex is being repaired. The Tercera Orden Chapel is immediately on the other side. The tower of the cathedral is to the right. 
Another view of the defensive wall and the pointed merlons on top. The Tercera Orden Chapel, which I thought was the most beautiful part of the compound, is decorated with the pink lines. 
Looking inside the main gate. the main door to the cathedral is ahead at the end. 
The Santa Maria Chapel is visible inside the walls. 
One of the earliest elements of the compound was a rock base with a sandstone cross on top of it. It is believed that the base was the equivalent of a stone altar used for human sacrifice and was meant to show the triumph of Christianity over native beliefs. 
The capilla obierta, or open chapel, is on the south side of the cathedral and was dedicated to St. Joseph. It was much larger than what is there today and it is now closed, whereas it was originally open. It was used for mass, but also plays, dances and other events used to reinforce beliefs. 
We were unable to go inside the cathedral because of damage by the earthquake on September 19, 2017. It was elevated to a cathedral in 1895 when Pope Leon XIII established the Diocese of Cuernavaca. The skull and crossbones above the door on the north side is the symbol of the Franciscans.  
The main entrance.
The belltower.
The Franciscan emblem above the front door. 
The early monasteries, in addition to a large atrium in front of the church, and an open chapel, had four chapels, one in each corner of the atrium, called capillas posas. They were used during processions. In Cuernavaca, the four atrium chapels have been enlarged into churches of significant size. One of those enlarged atrium chapels is the Tercera Orden Chapel which is in the northwest corner of the complex and built (or enlarged) in 1722. It was built in a style called popular Baroque and the facade has angels and saints, some of them with indigenous headdresses. Inside it has a Latin cross layout and a Baroque altar constructed by indigenous craftsmen. When we visited there was a mass going on and we did not have much opportunity to move around inside. I did love a large painting of the Trinity on one wall of the chapel showing three images that all look like Jesus: Jesus, on the left, has an image of a lamb on his chest; the Holy Ghost, on the right, has an image of a dove on his chest; and the Father, in the center, has the image of a sun on his chest, perhaps for the natives who worshiped a sun god as the most powerful of their gods. 
The Tercera Orden Chapel.
The bells which are so familiar with our Spanish Missions in California. 
A view from the cathedral shows the dome behind the front facade of the chapel. 
View of the altar.
Painting of the Trinity.
The Chapel of Santa Maria, another of the enlarged atrium chapels, is in the northeast corner of the compound. 

Inside the Santa Maria Chapel.

Looking toward the front of the chapel and the stained glass. 


  1. I loved this complex of churches. It is so sad to see the damage six months after the last big quake. I wonder how many more temblors these old buildings can take. It takes so long to repair them.

  2. Those churches have withstood many an earthquake will be continued to be repaired. Funny thing to me is the catholic church wanted the natives to come and worship but then they built big defensive walls.