American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
Church design and construction in Spanish
New Mexico

Marc Treib


CHURCH PATTERNS

When the missionaries began evangelical work in Mexico in the early 1500s, they carried with them the architectural prototypes of the churches of Spain. The centuries of Moorish occupation had precipitated there the development of fortified religious architecture, particularly in those areas of southern Spain in proximity to the lands of the “infidels.” Even though the traditions of Spanish Romanesque and Gothic architecture continued in the New World, military uncertainty caused their modification. Walls were thick, penetrated by few openings, and buttressed by masonry piers. According to George Kubler and Martin Soria:

The massing of mid-century [sixteenth] churches suggests military architecture. The bare
surfaces of massive walls were a necessary result of untrained labor and of amateur design.
Furthermore the friars needed a refuge, both for themselves, as outnumbered strangers
surrounded by potentially hostile Indians, and for their villagers, who were exposed,
especially on the western and northern frontiers, to the attacks of nomad Chichimec tribes
after 1550.1

In their simplicity, their single nave, and the relation of the convento to the church, the monastic churches neatly presaged the later religious sanctuaries erected in New Mexico.

Vestiges of these prior concerns remained in Mexican church architecture into the seventeenth century, but their prominence was undermined by an expenditure of accumulating wealth and the exuberance of the baroque attitude toward form and space that countered the Protestant Reformation. Splendor and light became the foremost vehicles for reasserting the power of the church, and an enthusiasm for architecture paralleled religious ecstasy. The single-naved church, perhaps extended by transepts, served as the basic form in Andalusia and later in the New World; but with the development of a facility in central Mexico for working stone, an elaboration in both size and complexity followed suit.

Early builders restricted areas of ornamentation to the facade, doors, and window surrounds. With the ultrabaroque, however, the ornamental field exploded.2 Decoration focused the celebrants’ attention on the facade and the altar. At the extreme, the building’s mass merged with its ornamentation and virtually dissolved in luminous illusion. The physical limits of the space admitted no visual bounds, and the light that flooded through

-51-

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