Sunday, December 4, 2016

Yucatán Then and Now: the lost monastery of Mérida

We begin our year end posts on Yucatán with a glance back at a lost colonial monument. 
   Every visitor to Mérida knows the iconic Cathedral and the sculpted facade of the Casa de Montejo—both early colonial monuments dating from the 1500s—but few know about another 16th century building, the first major Franciscan foundation in Yucatán.
San Francisco de Mérida
Although today nothing remains of this great monastery, it was for 300 years the hub of Franciscan mission activity in Yucatán. It was founded in 1547 atop of the largest pyramid of the ancient Maya ceremonial center of Tihó, which underlies Mérida, a temple known as Pocobtok (Shining Flint Knife). 
   The conquistador Francisco de Montejo the Younger had at first planned to build a fortress here, but instead decided to grant it to the Franciscans as a token of his esteem. The flagship monastery was designed and built by the Franciscan architect, Fray Juan de Mérida, using the standard mission plan of a two-story cloister adjoining a substantial stone church. However, sections of the ancient temple structure were incorporated into the new monastery, and early visitors often remarked on the corbeled Mayan arches that spanned some of the long corridors of the convento. 
monastery sketch from Diego de Landa: Relación de las cosas de Yucatán (1566)
Bishop Diego de Landa described the early appearance of the monastery atop the pyramid: 
" The first building, with the four apartments, was given to us by the Adelantado Montejo.  Since it was much overgrown we cleared it and using the stone built a fair monastery of masonry and a fine church that we named for the Mother of God. There was so much stone there that the buildings on the south side and opposite were still whole..."
plan of San Francisco de Mérida in 1751. 
Other buildings in the elevated precinct included a large infirmary, as well as a monastery school in which the sons of Maya nobles were instructed in Spanish ways and Christian doctrine.  
San Francisco de Mérida, the ruined church front around 1900

In the 17th century, a lofty retablo-facade was added to the church, complete with spiral columns and rows of stone statuary. One side chapel was expanded into a second church dedicated to San Cristóbal (St. Christopher), to serve a local parish.   

   Fearing pirate raids and Maya uprisings, in 1667 the governor insisted on fortifying the mission in spite of the vehement protests of the friars, and thereafter it was known as La Ciudadela (The Citadel). 
   The tenure of the Franciscans came to a sudden and violent end in February 1821, when the friars—who never hesitated to get involved in politics—fiercely opposed the new Spanish liberal constitution, which mandated closure of the monasteries. The monastery was sacked by an angry mob and in a few hours the treasures accumulated over 300 years, including the historic archives, were destroyed. The friars fled for their lives to the smaller convento of La Mejorada, and the Franciscans lost forever the enormous power that they had wielded in Yucatan since the conquest. 
the convento arcades before demolition
San Francisco began to deteriorate, serving first as a military barracks and then as an infamous prison, called La Ciudadela de San Benito. When the American traveler, John Lloyd Stephens, climbed up to view the monastery in 1843, it was already in a deplorable state. He was dismayed to find the interior ruined, with “altars thrown down and walls defaced. It was mournful to behold the destruction and desecration of this noble building.” 
   The ruins of the former monastery and the underlying Mayan pyramid were eventually taken apart piece by piece to provide building stone, and later to accommodate the municipal market, the post office and in recent years a new city museum
   After the Revolution, what remained of the massive ancient pyramid was finally razed and its stone ground into gravel to pave the city streets. 
   Today no visible trace survives of this historic monument that uniquely fused Spanish and Maya elements and played a central role in the evolution of colonial Yucatán.
please review our earlier posts on Yucatán, Then and Now: Umán; Yaxcabá; Ticuch; Nohcacab;
text © 2016 Richard D. Perry
Planning to visit Yucatán?  Take our guidebooks along

No comments:

Post a Comment