Preferred Citation: Treib, Marc. Sanctuaries of Spanish New Mexico. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.

Church Patterns

Church Patterns

When the missionaries began evangelical work in Mexico in the early 1500s, they carried with them the architectural prototypes of the churches of Spain. The centuries of Moorish occupation had precipitated there the development of fortified religious


architecture, particularly in those areas of southern Spain in proximity to the lands of the "infidels." Even though the traditions of Spanish Romanesque and Gothic architecture continued in the New World, military uncertainty caused their modification. Walls were thick, penetrated by few openings, and buttressed by masonry piers. According to George Kubler and Martin Soria:

The massing of mid-century [sixteenth] churches suggests military architecture. The bare surfaces of massive walls were a necessary result of untrained labor and of amateur design. Furthermore the friars needed a refuge, both for themselves, as outnumbered strangers surrounded by potentially hostile Indians, and for their villagers, who were exposed, especially on the western and northern frontiers, to the attacks of nomad Chichimec tribes after 1550.[58]

In their simplicity, their single nave, and the relation of the convento to the church, the monastic churches neatly presaged the later religious sanctuaries erected in New Mexico.

Vestiges of these prior concerns remained in Mexican church architecture into the seventeenth century, but their prominence was undermined by an expenditure of accumulating wealth and the exuberance of the baroque attitude toward form and space that countered the Protestant Reformation. Splendor and light became the foremost vehicles for reasserting the power of the church, and an enthusiasm for architecture paralleled religious ecstasy. The single-naved church, perhaps extended by transepts, served as the basic form in Andalusia and later in the New World; but with the development of a facility in central Mexico for working stone, an elaboration in both size and complexity followed suit.

Early builders restricted areas of ornamentation to the facade, doors, and window surrounds. With the ultrabaroque, however, the ornamental field exploded.[59] Decoration focused the celebrants' attention on the facade and the altar. At the extreme, the building's mass merged with its ornamentation and virtually dissolved in luminous illusion. The physical limits of the space admitted no visual bounds, and the light that flooded through cupolas and lanterns dramatically illuminated the theater of belief. In some New World colonies, this extremity of architectural expression waited for decades, if not centuries, to achieve a near parity with the churches of the homeland. In certain Mexican churches, in contrast, the architectural exuberance at times surpassed that of contemporary Spain. In New Mexico, to the contrary, exuberance never really arrived.

The native building technology of the sixteenth century was limited primarily to stone implements; the vast majority of tools and ironware needed to construct the new churches was imported by Europeans. At first churches were small, particularly the rural missions set in the mountain country or jungles of Mexico.[60]

As late as the close of the sixteenth century, decades after the Conquest of Mexico, these outlying churches remained simple affairs: single rectangular halls with neither the transepts nor side aisles common to the Romanesque or Gothic religious architecture of Spain. Built of stone, mud, or a combination of the two, the churches employed wooden beams, rather than masonry vaults, to support the roof.

Even in the most isolated areas the church grew correspondingly with the size of the community, and for these rural missions the church and the village were nearly synonymous. Building came under the priest's supervision, and he no doubt based his plans on memories of Spanish or central Mexican ecclesiastical prototypes. Military engineers or civilian builders probably contributed critical construction expertise. In one documented instance, Padre Nicolás Durán brought to Lima a scale architectural model of the Casa Professa in Rome to serve as an object lesson for Peruvian religious architecture.[61] Few records of such formalized transmission of architectural ideas as this one remain, however, and by the mid-sixteenth century Mexico was producing noteworthy architecture by resident designers.[62] The sophistication of an architectural idea and its methods of realization varied with the period and the place in which the church was built.

In Peruvian towns, architecture developed from the beamed, single-nave structure of the vaulted form more reminiscent of the Iberian Peninsula. At times the vaults were more ornamental than structural, built of plaster over wooden lath rather than carefully fitted stone. In the hinterland, however, in mountain districts such as those around Lake Titicaca, vestiges of the primitive church remained, the closest parallel forms to those of the religious architecture of early New Mexico. And like the New Mexican churches, these buildings were tempered by necessity in their isolated locations; their fabrics avoided the elaborate formal play of urban religious architecture and more directly addressed the exigencies of their sites and religious programs.

The combination of the reducción and the tremendous number of rapid conversions exerted insistent pressures on both the clergy and the physical fabric of their churches. As a result, hundreds or perhaps even thousands of new or would-be Chris-



Hypothetical Plan of a New Mexican Church
with Transepts

tians waiting to receive conversion required religious accommodation. Because the diminutive church structures allowed by rural construction methods could not embrace all these converts, a new form of open-air chapel known as the atrio was developed to serve this purpose.

Even though it was common practice to enter the Hispanic church through a walled burial ground called the campo santo , the conversion of this enclosed but unroofed space to ceremonial use was a Mexican contribution. This development was not wholly without precedent, however. Faced with similar programmatic demands, the churches of early Christiandom and many of the great pilgrimage churches of Europe had included an outdoor altar from which mass could be celebrated. But the adaptation of the sanctuary's form to strengthen the prominence of the entry and the slight reorientation of the focus of the church toward the atrio represented a development of historical precedent.

Although permitted to enter the cemetery, Indians were forbidden to enter the church until they had successfully completed catechism. Certain devotions were performed by the priests on the front steps of the church, however, the congregation having gathered within the walled enclosure of the campo santo. In time a rudimentary chapel directed toward the exterior was integrated into the front or side of the church to accommodate these new uses.[63]

Church Patterns

Preferred Citation: Treib, Marc. Sanctuaries of Spanish New Mexico. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.