Once past Celaya’s unprepossessing industrial outskirts, the visitor finds a spaciously laid out historic center of parks and plazas, fronted by many elegant colonial buildings. Although the monastic churches of San Francisco and San Agustín date back to the 1600s, Celaya’s main architectural heritage belongs to the neoclassical tradition of the late colonial years, in particular the work of its native son, Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras (1759-1833).
Tresguerras was among the best known exponents of the neoclassical style in Mexico. A painter and musician as well as an architect and sculptor, he was also a polemicist, whose vilification of the Mexican Baroque, and especially the practitioners of the Churrigueresque, precipitated the mutilation of many colonial buildings and the destruction of their magnificent baroque altarpieces.
Ironically, his architecture is now viewed as more a hybrid style, in which neoclassical forms blend with many of the very baroque elements he so vigorously attacked.
Nuestra Señora del Carmen
This imposing structure, designed and built by Tresguerras, is his best known building and a major landmark in Celaya.
Rebuilt atop an earlier 17th century Carmelite conventual church gutted by fire in 1802, the church was rapidly completed in 1807, and is considered to be his finest work. But far from being a model of the neoclassical style, it is eclectic, which lends it considerable native charm and confirms its truly Mexican character.
A single central tower surmounts the Greek entry portico and narthex, a common Carmelite feature. Reputedly based on James Gibbs’ church of St. Mary-le-Strand in London, this idiosyncratic tower, with its giant scrolls and broken pediments, remains more baroque than correctly classical.
Similarly, despite its zigzag decoration in yellow tile, the high dome recalls Michelangelo’s design for St. Peter’s in Rome.
The south porch too, arrayed with stepped columns, an interrupted pediment and curving balustrade, pays greater homage to the Italian high baroque than to the classical canons of antiquity.
The vast white and gold interior, lined with colonnaded marble altars, appears at first glance to follow neoclassical edicts more faithfully, but even here scrolls and broken pediments intrude, testifying to the irrepressible influence of the baroque. Tresguerras also painted the striking frescoes of the Last Judgement and the Raising of Lazarus in the adjacent Capilla del Juicio.
text © 1997 & 2020 Richard D. Perry
In addition to his masterpiece, the church of El Carmen, Tresguerras' work can be seen in many other Celaya churches. He also designed the Independence monument in the main Plaza de Armas, and a bridge over the nearby Río Laja.
graphic by the author
color images © catedrales e iglesias