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Architecture and Its Sculpture in Viceregal Mexico

Architecture and Its Sculpture in Viceregal Mexico

A much-needed overview of Mexican colonial architecture and its attendant sculpture.

November 1997
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279 pages | 6 x 9 | 172 halftones, 20 line drawings, 5 maps |

From monumental cathedrals to simple parish churches, perhaps as many as 100,000 churches and civic buildings were constructed in Mexico during the viceregal or colonial period (1535-1821). Many of these structures remain today as witnesses to the fruitful blending of Old and New World forms and styles that created an architecture of enduring vitality.

In this profusely illustrated book, Robert J. Mullen provides a much-needed overview of Mexican colonial architecture and its attendant sculpture. Writing with just the right level of detail for students and general readers, he places the architecture in its social and economic context. He shows how buildings in the larger cities remained closer to European designs, while buildings in the pueblos often included prehispanic indigenous elements.

This book grew out of the author's twenty-five-year exploration of Mexico's architectural and sculptural heritage. Combining an enthusiast's love for the subject with a scholar's care for accuracy, it is the perfect introduction to the full range of Mexico's colonial architecture.

  • Preface, Conventions, Acknowledgments
  • 1. Overview
  • 2. Urban Beginnings
  • 3. Sixteenth Century: The Formative Era
  • 4. Cathedrals: Symbols of Authority
  • 5. Transitional Phase: From the Static to the Dynamic (Mid-Seventeenth to Mid-Eighteenth Century)
  • 6. The Age of Fulfillment, 1730-1800: Estípites, "Silver" Churches, Santuarios, Residences
  • 7. Frontier Mission Architecture
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

The late Robert J. Mullen was Associate Professor of Latin American Art and Architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the author of The Architecture and Sculpture of Oaxaca: 1530s-1980s.


In Mesoamerica—the region from central Mexico to Guatemala—at least a dozen cultural entities arose, peaked and faded away over a period of 2,500 years before the arrival of Europeans. Each culture is readily identifiable through characteristic architecture and relief sculpture. This architecture generally consisted of compact structures, at times quite tall, massed around an open ceremonial court. Large interior spaces were not constructed, and the vault was unknown. The dynamic forces that engendered these distinctive cultures and their ceremonial centers had, by 1000 AD, largely run their course. Abandoned, these great sites reverted to nature to await their discovery centuries later. In 1519, when the Spaniards came ashore, only a few ceremonial centers were active. One of these was Tenochtit1án, the seat of power of the Aztecs, who controlled most of central Mexico until they were overpowered by the Spanish. Today the excavated ruins of Tenochtitlán's great ceremonial court lie in the heart of Mexico City.

Spurred by the immense profits gained from trade with Asia, the result of Portugal's discovery of an all-water route, Europe was gripped with "colonization fever." After the discovery of the Americas, every European nation with the means and the money sought to acquire foreign lands. Power and wealth were the driving forces. Spain and Portugal, however, had an additional objective—to convert and to acculturate. Conversion would transform new subjects into Christians and acculturation would, in due course, produce citizens for Spain and Portugal. In the early 1520s, Spain's monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, sent friars as missionaries to the area that is now Mexico to help realize that objective. Soon thereafter the Viceregency of Nueva España was established.

In just over 25 years a small group of friars, filled with an apostolic zeal, converted the population of central Mexico and much of that of the Yucatán. By the 1550s, itinerant missionaries had become settled pastors with parish churches in long-established "Indian" communities they called pueblos. Now the need arose for an architecture unknown to Mesoamerica—large volumes enclosed with vaults.

The rapid conversion of millions gave rise to unprecedented demand for churches. Relatively sudden and overwhelming spiritual needs were met with open-air churches. The "temporary" sanctuary was covered, but the populace attended Mass in an outdoor area designated for worship. Although meant to be used only until a "proper" church could be constructed, many stone sanctuaries have survived. They constitute Mexico's unique contribution to the history of architecture. By constructing these open-air churches the friars unwittingly assisted in the successful transition to the Catholic faith of peoples long accustomed to religious ceremonies in the open.

Only a few pastors had any formal training in architecture or sculpture. Fortunately, they settled among skilled native artisans and masons. Ideas and technical processes common to Europe were transmitted to indigenous peoples whose language lacked the vocabulary for such ideas and techniques. In this halting, often confusing process, began that fusion of cultures that produced "Mexican" art and architecture. As a result sixteenth-century pueblo churches are a unique blend of European and Mesoamerican values, traditions, and techniques.

Many pueblo churches are adorned with distinctive sculpture. Mesoamerican images were cut in a flat, two-dimensional relief, like dough shaped by a cookie cutter. Symbolism, not realism, was the objective. This was the heritage of the indigenous sixteenth-century sculptor totally unfamiliar with Renaissance ideals of three-dimensional realism. The vocabulary of the Renaissance was used, but seldom was its syntax mastered. In this blending of traditions a new form of relief sculpture was created, one so distinctive and powerful it has a special name—tequítqui.

Thus began the "Columbian exchange," the transfer of plants, animals, peoples, cultures and diseases from one continent to another. The introduction of chicken pox, measles, smallpox and influenza into the New World had devastating results. Epidemics caused great loss of life among the native peoples. Expansion slowed drastically in the seventeenth century. Missionary zeal was replaced by power struggles between the religious orders and the bishops, who won. New construction was no longer concentrated in the pueblos but focused instead on bishoprics and their city cathedrals. Only toward the end of that century had economic and social conditions improved to a level that could again foster growth and expansion.

The eighteenth century in New Spain witnessed a remarkable transformation. Wealth, public and private, accumulated rapidly. Churches, convents, colleges, town houses and other civic structures blossomed. This was the era of the "silver" churches of north-central Mexico. Styles became fanciful and florid, surface decoration profuse. Densely sculptured altarpieces sheathed in gold, and wall surfaces covered with gold-trimmed white stucco dazzled the eye. After 1750, altarpieces with slender, tapering squared columns (estípites) became the reigning style. In the facade estípites of stone replicated the intricate carvings of wood altarpieces. Brilliant but evanescent, this "Churrigueresque" style lasted scarcely fifty years.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries missionary efforts were concentrated on Nueva España's northern rim, extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. By the mid-seventeenth century, Franciscan missionaries had founded twenty-four missions in New Mexico. Meanwhile, Jesuit missionaries were active in northern Sonora, not becoming active in southern Arizona until the eighteenth century. In that same century it was the Franciscans who evangelized the natives of Texas and California.

The end of the colonial period, artistically and architecturally, was signaled even before 1800 by the return to the strict canons of neoclassicism. Politically, the Viceregency ended in 1821 when Mexico achieved independence.



“The late Robert J. Mullen has written a reliable, readable, and well-illustrated book that covers, in six chronological chapters, a selection of the major monuments of Mexican colonial architecture during the period from 1521 to independence.”
Hispanic American Historical Review

“This book is the first I know that addresses this architecture in one concise, readable volume.... It will be useful to students and travelers or simply people interested in the architecture of Mexico—a vast group.”
Hal Box, W. L. Moody, Jr., Centennial Professor in Architecture, University of Texas at Austin


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