Tuesday, August 28, 2012

San Gabriel de Cholula

This is the first in a series of occasional pictorial pages on the great 16th century monasteries of Mexico.  Our focus will be on special aspects of each location and features outstanding photography.
   This initial post focuses on the impressive buildings at San Gabriel de Cholula and their fine stonework as photographed by my favorite Mexican photographer Felipe Falcón.

San Gabriel de Cholula

When the Spaniards first glimpsed Cholula in 1519 they could scarcely believe their eyes, "Temples and shrines rise like lofty towers above the city" wrote an awed Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the renowned chronicler of the Conquest.
This was the great temple of Quetzalcoatl, sacred to the Aztecs and famous throughout Mesoamerica.
San Gabriel, church gable
When the dust and bloodshed of the Conquest had subsided, the Franciscans started to build the grand monastery of San Gabriel on the site of the razed temple precincts.
The formidable fortress church, arcaded chapel and convento are enclosed in a spacious atrium by battlemented walls and imposing gateways.
Sculpted atrium cross in front of the Capilla Real
The domes of the Capilla Real (Carolyn Brown)
One of the first structures to be completed here was the great open chapel of La Capilla Real, a vast building to the north of the monastery church, designed to accommodate the vast numbers of Indian converts.
Capilla Real interior
Travelers who have seen the famous mosque in Cordoba, Spain experience a sense of deja vu on entering this unique space, which is reputed to stand atop the site of the former sacred dance floor of the lost Aztec temple. 
Its nine aisles are divided into seven colonnaded bays creating a forest of columns. Each bay is now capped by its own lanterned dome.
Capilla Real, baptismal font
The majesty of the architecture is matched by the magnificence of the stone carving. The most striking artifact inside the Capilla Real is the monolithic baptismal font, carved with rosettes, acanthus leaves and the knotted cord of the Franciscan order. *
Choir window arch (detail)
In addition to the baptismal font and the atrium cross, the circular choir window of the main church is delicately sculpted with urns sprouting flowers and prehispanic song scrolls, proclaiming to Spaniard and Indian alike that, despite all the changes, the church, and indeed the entire monastery, remained a sacred place, as it had been for centuries. 
Keystone with lamb
* Look for our forthcoming blogs on the crosses and murals of Cholula
Text ©2012 Richard D. Perry    Photography © Felipe Falcón A.

for more details see our guidebook Mexico's Fortress Monasteries

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