The history of the Jesuits in Oaxaca has been a tumultuous one of conflicts with other religious orders, property disputes and seizures, and frequent earthquakes.
The priory of La Compañía, with its rambling precincts, has occupied its present city site since 1579. On account of several destructive temblors, the church itself only dates from the 1760s—just a few years before the expulsion of the Order from Mexico in 1767.
Facing east, the church front deftly combines elements from many styles, lending it a complex air of sophistication. Classical, Plateresque and baroque details contribute to the mix, as do the variety of openings, niches and outsize relief medallions that animate the intervening spaces.
From the polygonal corner buttresses—intended as tower bases although no towers were added—the facade bulges outward and upward, outlined by giant candelabra 3/4 columns set on tall, decorative pedestals. Overhead, stepped scrolls lean inward to the pedimented gable which is pierced by triple arched openings.
The convex north portal echoes the facade, enlivened by fluted Ionic half-columns, flowering urns set at an angle on the corners, and a battlemented parapet overhead. Above the sinuous, Moorish inspired lobed doorway, serpentine swags flank an octagonal monogram of the Virgin.
The Main Retablo
While side chapels and niches lend interest to the dim and cavernous nave, the principal focus of the church interior is on the imposing altarpiece filling the apse.
Colored in faded red and gold, the retablo is framed in a confident Churrigueresque style, with powerfully projecting estípites. Although its author is unrecorded, the altarpiece may be based on a design by Felipe de Ureña, the architect of the nearby church of San Francisco, who is also thought to have worked here.
Flanked by statues of St. Joachim and St. Anne, the entire center pavilion takes the unexpected form of a giant recessed archway. Possibly containing other sculptures at one time, currently it is home to a single image of La Purísima, to whom the church is dedicated. Ignatius Loyola stands at the top of the retablo, clutching a copy of his Spiritual Exercises.
La Casa Fuerte
Originally, the Jesuit convento and seminary extended south along Calle Flores Magón from La Compañía. Much of the vast complex has now been converted into storefronts and apartments, including the down-at-heel main patio which retains part of its original arcading. However, the block long exterior wall facing the market remains, its formidable ashlar stonework punctuated by giant pilasters, amply justifying the building’s popular name of La Casa Fuerte.
Of its four patios only the smallest one, beside the church, now belongs to the Jesuit fathers. This intimate cloister, currently under restoration, is graced by a fine, Moorish inspired, arched inner doorway, framed much like the north portal of the church. The precinct also houses an art restoration workshop of national repute.
text © 2005/2021 Richard D Perry
photography by the author.