For the churches and cathedrals of the previous eras, it was not uncommon for the construction process to span for centuries. The intricate carvings, planning, sculptures, natural disasters, construction without technologies (that we have today), and many more things altogether led to many years of construction. Due to this reason, it was not uncommon to find various architectural styles in a particular church that was built in a distinct era during the transition of one architecture movement to the other, and hence we today call them masterpieces. The Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City, or ‘The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heavens’, is not an exception to this change. Spanning across three centuries, from 1524 to 1823, this cathedral, with the inclusion of various architectural styles, also has a vast history.
When the Spaniards conquered the city of Mexico, they decided to build a church as the priority in the city and also to show power over the newly conquered region. But the site they chose was over the existing temple of the Aztec empire. The existing Templo Mayor of the god ‘Huitzilopochtli’, an important deity of the Aztecs, in the city of Tenochtitlán, was then demolished completely leaving only the stones, which were then used for the construction of the new church.
The church was then constructed in phases that spanned for around 250 years, leading to the use of many architectural styles of the particular era in various sections of the church. It includes features from Baroque, Gothic, Churrigueresque of Mexico, and most importantly the Neoclassical style which was used in the construction in the last stages during the 1750s. The Neoclassical style was introduced in Mexico by Manuel Tolsa, a Spanish born sculptor and architect, who was also responsible for the completion of the cathedral. The church faces south-north, unlike other churches that face east-west, because of the uneven surface it was built on. The north facade is in the Renaissance style and is the oldest part of the cathedral, the east and west facade in the Baroque style, and the tabernacle adjacent to the main cathedral is also in Baroque style and is adorned with decorations.
Like other churches, the plan of this church is also Latin cross shape, and there are various ornaments, sculptures, and paintings, all of the architecture movement of the respective time. The dimensions of the church are 59 meters wide by 128 meters long and a height of 67 meters to the tip of the towers, making it the largest in America.
The church served as a major religious center in Mexico and has also been a witness to many major events of history, like- the coronation of various emperors, the bicentennial independence celebrations, burial of many independence heroes and former archbishops of Mexico, closure of the cathedral during the Cristero war, etc. It also witnessed the various stages of construction due to political reasons. Initially, between 1524 and 1532, a small church in the Moorish style was built. In 1534, after it was appointed as a Cathedral, it was realized that it was very small for its function to serve the purpose of a cathedral. In 1547 it was then appointed as ‘Metropolitan’. So the construction of a new church on the same site around the existing church began in the 1570s. But the challenges due to soft soil below slowed down the construction process. Later, many such events resulted in the delay in building the church.
The floods of 1629 in the region brought a halt to the construction for several years. The water level had reached 2 meters that destroyed a significant part of the church. The church also survived a fire in 1967 destroying various paintings, church organs, and many artifacts. The reconstruction after the fire also revealed many paintings and documents that were hidden for years.
The entire Mexico city is sinking under the lake bed it is built on that has soft clay soil, and as a result, the cathedral, too, is sinking. Due to this reason, the cathedral was listed in the World Monuments Fund as one of the most endangered sites. But when it was realized that it is sinking unevenly, (as it is built over the uneven surface of the demolished Aztec temple site, the foundation of this new church too, is uneven) they placed shafts of concrete under the cathedral as a solid base for the cathedral to rest on. This will not stop it from sinking, but now it will sink evenly and avoid it from collapsing. After this construction and stabilization, the cathedral was removed from the list in 2000.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico has now been a major tourist attraction for a few reasons—
- As the sacred sites of the Aztecs,
- It is the oldest and largest in the Americas and Mexico, and so various important events of Mexico are conducted here,
- A symbol of the dominance of one culture over another,
- And also to witness the blend of various architectural styles and works of arts and paintings.