Guanajuato has been in the news recently because of internecine cartel violence, further discouraging visitors to the state. Here and in forthcoming posts we offer armchair travelers an insight into some of its outstanding colonial monuments.
On September 16 1810 Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla made the first call for Mexican Independence from the steps of the parish church of our Lady of Sorrows in Dolores Hidalgo, Known as the Grito de Dolores, it is reenacted every year by Mexico’s President from the balcony of the National Palace in Mexico City.
The parish church dominates the plaza and the town. So it is easy to understand why Father Hidalgo, then the parish priest, chose its elevated porch for his momentous proclamation.
Founded in 1712 by Alvaro de Ocio y Ocampo, one of Hidalgo’s predecessors, the church was not completed until 1780. In its dizzying verticality, this handsome structure perfectly exemplifies the 18th century Mexican church, and represents one of the high points of the Churrigueresque or barroco estípite style in Mexico.
The imposing facade rises at the head of a broad flight of steps, flanked by blank towers with ornate triple-tiered belfries—the tallest and most complete in this region of unfinished towers.
Although its designer is unknown, stylistically it has been linked to Francisco Bruno de Ureña, a scion of the eminent family of Mexican designers and architects*.
The exuberantly carved facade is fashioned from cantera rosada, a locally quarried, fine-grained brownstone. Narrow estípites, outflanked by larger ones, frame the scalloped porch. All the decorative architectural elements—scrollwork, lambrequins, cut cornices and capitals—are carefully modeled and intricately layered. Curves predominate over geometrical lines in a proliferation of sinuous relief sculptures, cherubs and curling foliage.
Projecting from their twisting shell canopies, the figure sculptures are disappointingly lackluster. Exceptions are the statue of the Virgin of Sorrows in the upper facade, splendid in her triangular gown with puffed sleeves and elaborate flared skirt, and the truncated figure of Christ Crucified set in a cross-shaped frame at the apex of the facade—a regional motif also seen at San Agustín in Salamanca, San José in Irapuato and San Agustín in Querétaro.
The interior follows the classic cruciform plan, with its crossing and transepts illuminated by a lofty dome. Although the main altarpiece was later replaced by a neoclassical altar, the two magnificent original retablos in the transepts have fortunately survived.
The altarpiece of Guadalupe in the left transept is especially opulent. Estípites of exaggerated proportions enclose niche-pilasters richly hung with lambrequins and divided scrolls. But the most complex ornament is reserved for the center pavilion that carries through both tiers of the retablo with multi-layered swags, volutes and spirals.
Despite its rococo extravagance, the apparent decorative excess of the retablo is nevertheless carefully controlled, the power of the whole successfully withstanding the seductive profusion of luxuriant detail.
The unfinished retablo of San José, opposite, is somewhat more restrained. Complex niche-pilasters again dominate the design, emerging from decorative estípites on either side. But the overall effect, although still dazzling, seems less voluptuous, partly because of the absence of paint and gilding—perhaps omitted for lack of funds.
However, this lapse allows us the unique opportunity to appreciate the high quality of the original wood carving. The seasoned cedar wood retains its own special texture and lingering fragrance after more than two centuries. (see an earlier post for another example)
* to see our other Ureña related posts search our blog with this name.
text © 1997 & 2020 Richard D. Perry
color images by the author.