The biggest church in Latin America, Mexico City’s cathedral is also at the heart of the world’s largest Catholic diocese. Its towers rise 220 ft (67 m) above one of the largest public squares in the world, and it took almost three centuries — from 1573 to 1813 — to complete. This long period is reflected in the multiple styles of its architecture, ranging from Renaissance through Baroque to Neo-Classical. It has five principal altars and 16 side chapels containing a valuable collection of paintings, sculpture, and church furniture.
Like its exterior, the church’s interior decoration is a blend of the three prevailing architectural styles of the colonial period. The Baroque altars and side chapels are particularly ornate, a highlight is the richly carved Altar de los Reyes. A statue of Christ, the Senor del Cacao, which probably dates from the 16th century, is worshiped in the Capilla de San Jose. The statue’s name derives from the donations of coffee beans (a common currency in the precolonial era) made by the local people toward the cathedral’s construction. An urn containing the remains of Emperor Agustin de Iturbide (1783-1824), the champion of Mexican Independence, is located in the chapel of San Felipe de Jesus.
CONQUISTADORS AND CHRISTIANITY
When the Spanish arrived in the Americas in the 1500s, they encountered flourishing indigenous settlements. In addition to their desire for conquest and their greed for gold, silver, copper, and land, the conquistadors also saw themselves as missionaries and attempted to convert the established Mesoamerican civilizations from paganism to Christianity. Franciscan and Dominican friars preached to, converted, and baptized the indigenous peoples. Although the New World was ultimately conquered by Europeans, elements of the indigenous cultures survived and were absorbed into the developing Christian society.
THE SINKING OF MEXICO CITY
When Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes led his army into the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1521, the city stood on an island in Lake Texcoco. After conquering the city, the Spanish razed it to the ground, reused much of the stonework in their own buildings, and gradually filled in the lake. The Metropolitan Cathedral was built on the ruins of the main Aztec temple of worship, whose stones were used in the building’s walls. Like so many of Mexico City’s buildings, the cathedral has been sinking, almost since its construction, into the ground beneath — the slant is quite visible. Restoration work, mostly carried out underground, has prevented its collapse.
Capilla De San Jose
This side chapel is one of 16 dedicated to saints and manifestations of the Virgin, all exquisitely decorated with statues and oil paintings.
This is a block of white marble carved with images of saints.
Kings and Queens
The sculptures adorning the Altar de los Reyes are of kings and queens who have been canonized.
Altar de los Reyes
Carved between 1718 and 1737, the Baroque Altar of the Kings features two oil paintings, the Adoration of the Kings, the Assumption of the Virgin, both by Juan Rodriguez Juarez.
Seventeenth-century paintings and items of carved furniture, including a fine decorated cabinet, can be seen there.
With its gold-alloy choir-rail imported from Macao, superbly carved stalls and two magnificent organs, the choir is a highlight of the cathedral.
This is decorated with statues of Faith, Hope and Charity.
Built in the mid-18th century as the parish church attached to the cathedral, the Sagrario has a sumptuous high-Baroque facade adorned with sculpted saints.
Divided into three parts, the facade is flanked by monumental bell towers.
ALTAR OF PARDON
A figure of the Virgin, by Simon Pereyns, was replaced after the 1967 fire with a black Christ which, legend says, absorbed the poison from a devout man who kissed it on his deathbed.
1573: Construction work begins on the cathedral.
1667: The cathedral is consecrated but its exterior is not finished until 1813.
1967: Fire causes damage to parts of the cathedral.
1985: A powerful earthquake damages the cathedral.
1987: Mexico City is inscribed as a UNESCO Worl Heritage Site.