Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Architecture since 1400$

Kathleen James-Chakraborty

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780816673964

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816673964.001.0001

Show Summary Details

Spain and Portugal in the Americas

Spain and Portugal in the Americas

(p.141) 10 Spain and Portugal in the Americas
Architecture since 1400

Kathleen James-Chakraborty

University of Minnesota Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the impact of Spanish and Portuguese colonizers on the architecture of the Americas. By the mid-sixteenth century, the two most important plazas of the Americas—the Zócalo in Mexico City and its counterpart in Cuzco, Peru—were dominated by Christian churches. The success of European conquerors can be attributed to their ability to learn enough about the local societies to determine what aspects of their own culture could best be paired with indigenous ones in order to convince the native inhabitants to become loyal subjects and good Christians. The conquerors also believed that they had to match the scale and splendor of the buildings their new American and Asian subjects had already erected.

Keywords:   architecture, Spain, Portugal, colonizers, Christianity, imperialism, religion, Christian churches

Bernini’s piazza fronting Saint Peter’s is the most imposing of the European public spaces whose design may have been unconsciously inflected by an awareness of the great plazas of the Americas. By the middle of the sixteenth century the two most important of these, the Zócalo in Mexico City and its counterpart in Cuzco, were dominated by Christian churches. The European conquerors of the Americas were most successful when they learned enough about the local societies to sense what aspects of their own culture could best be paired with indigenous ones in order to convince the native inhabitants to become loyal subjects and good Christians. Although an ocean separated the new colonies from the motherland, new design ideas traveled quickly across it. The American-scaled Plaza Mayor in Madrid was first projected in 1560, although it was not completed until much later.

In 1494, Pope Alexander VI divided the non-Christian world, finally understood to be part of a spherical Earth, between the Spanish and the Portuguese. The Portuguese had initiated the voyages of discovery by finding a sea route to Asia around the coast of Africa, which they dotted with outposts along both African coasts and across to Goa in India and Macao in southern China. The pope also gave them the right to Brazil. The Spanish got everything from the Philippines to the rest of the Americas. Of course, the two Iberian countries were not in a position to control these vast and largely uncharted territories completely. But both, relative upstarts to the community of European powers, gave it a very good try, especially before the British, Dutch, and French began to mount their own convincing challenges in the seventeenth century.

Sixteenth-century Spain and Portugal sponsored the first empires ever to control significant amounts of noncontiguous territory (various Italian cities, most notably Genoa, had in the Middle Ages colonized the lands bordered by the Adriatic and (p.142) Aegean Seas, as well as the coast of the Black Sea). They were also the first European empires to rival and at times even surpass the size of their ancient Roman predecessor. Architecture was a crucial component of this new imperialism. The conquerors felt that they had to match the scale and splendor of the buildings their new American and Asian subjects had already erected. This was not always easy.

The immediate task of many colonizers was resource extraction. Mining and the production of cash crops provided ways of enriching themselves, often at the expense of the native or imported labor assigned to do the real work. Nonetheless, religious architecture was crucial to these colonizers. The conquerors justified their invasions to themselves and to other Europeans in the name of spreading what they regarded as the one true faith, Christianity. This was often only a transparent cover for greed, especially on the part of military figures, but it was heartfelt in the case of many of the friars who settled far from home in the hope of saving American souls. Just before dispatching Columbus across the Atlantic, the Spanish monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had completed their conquest of formerly Muslim-controlled territories in Spain. Granada had for centuries been an island of cultural tolerance where a majority-Christian population under Muslim rule coexisted with a Jewish culture renowned for its philosophy and medicine. The Spaniards forced their Muslim and Jewish subjects to convert or emigrate. Many conversions were only superficial, and some Jews were among the earliest immigrants to the Americas, settling in what was then extremely remote territory in present-day New Mexico in order to preserve remnants of their faith, far from the feared Inquisition. Religion offered the colonial state a culturally sanctioned means for controlling the population, whether immigrant or indigenous. Although colonial architecture featured many building types—houses, palaces, government buildings, warehouses, and so forth—churches were the buildings that represented the empire’s understanding of itself.

From the beginning Mexico City was the centerpiece of Spain’s American empire. Because of the capital’s enormous growth over the course of the twentieth century, the monastery of San Agustín in Acolman offers better evidence of early colonial architecture (Figure 10.1). In this rural location, the buildings erected between the 1520s and the 1560s survive intact. The monastery in Acolman was one of an impressive number of monasteries that Spanish missionaries established quickly across the original Mexica empire and beyond.

The cultural dislocation endured by the Mexica and their subjects was traumatic. Millions of natives died of disease, often without ever having encountered Europeans, or gave way to what seems to have been depression. Others were slaughtered outright or forced to work in conditions that all but ensured their early death. Across the course of the sixteenth century the native population of the Americas fell by as much as nine-tenths, down to five or six million. From the beginning, local colonial authorities found their ability to harness the natives as slave labor hindered, if seldom entirely prevented, by the voices of fellow European advocates of better treatment. The friars, who came from throughout Catholic Europe, were charged (p.143)

Spain and Portugal in the Americas

Figure 10.1. Monastery of San Agustín, Acolman, Mexico, 1520s–60s.

with converting Amerindians. In many cases they were genuinely interested in the material as well as the spiritual welfare of the natives. That they offered the indigenous peoples access to a religion understood by all involved to be extremely powerful (after all, the Mexica gods had not been able to protect those who believed in them) helped enormously. Locals quickly and reverently accepted the new faith, while often retaining elements of the old one.

Two extraordinary stories come together at Acolman. The first has to do with native labor. The monastery complex was built and decorated entirely by Mexica workers. From a technological standpoint, this should be no surprise, as it arose practically in the shadow of the monumental structures at Teotihuacán, not to mention Tenochtitlán. Nor, considering that the Spanish colonists were relatively scarce and given to certain social pretensions, is it startling that they were not willing to engage in the necessary manual labor. The second story concerns the way that the friars and the natives integrated indigenous elements into the Christian faith in order to enhance its familiarity and encourage its acceptance. The vast walled patio in front of the church replicates, for instance, the plazas that fronted Mesoamerican temples at the same time that it provided a space vast enough to accommodate the peasants who attended open-air masses here. Familiar iconographic and stylistic elements also smoothed the transition to Christianity. A Virgin Mary resembling a Mexica goddess sits at the base of a crucifix situated in this forecourt, which also (p.144) followed indigenous iconography by showing Christ as a tree integral with the cross rather than as a crucified figure affixed to it.

If assimilation is one feature of cross-cultural interchange, aesthetic excellence is often another. Architectural historians have often assumed that the farther one is from an intellectual center of architectural discourse, the more provincial the result will be. At Acolman, however, distance seems to have encouraged unusual sophistication. Renaissance architecture in Spain is usually described as Plateresque. Unique to the Iberian Peninsula, Plateresque architecture often featured lingering Gothic and Islamic elements. Acolman’s builders applied a recollection of a Roman triumphal arch to the facade, which also features two motifs never found in a Spanish church. They are the Mexica glyph naming the place and the image of the pierced heart, here the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The popularity of this imagery in Counter-Reformation devotion in Europe may have been encouraged by its meaningfulness to the Mexica.

Inside, one finds the introduction of two different aspects of contemporary Flemish more than Spanish architecture (many of the friars came from the Low Countries, which were ruled by Spain) (Figure 10.2). The first are Gothic vaults. At first glance these may seem provincial, although they were still being constructed in much of Europe. What is astonishing about their presence here, however, is that Mexica craftsmen, to whom these forms had been entirely unknown just a few years earlier, were able to realize them with skill. Equally impressive is their assimilation of European representational traditions, undoubtedly taught to them by Spanish or Flemish friars. Imported prints served as the sources for the grisaille (black-and-gray) paintings that decorate the apse interior.

Nor was the interface between Spanish and Mexica architecture the only one addressed in colonial Mexico. One of the most remarkable characteristics of several sixteenth-century Mexican colonial churches was their resemblance to the mosques that the Spaniards had converted into churches in cities such as Córdoba. Such buildings were much broader than basilican churches and featured not only multiple naves but also large entry courtyards. This form may have been inspired by the assumption that the mosque of Al-Aqsa on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was the Temple of Solomon, the oldest recorded religious structure erected by the Jews, and thus venerated as well by Christians and Muslims.

The tight geometry of Acolman, almost certainly in part a response to local traditions, fused in Spain itself with the Italian Renaissance to create a new image of Hispanic kingship. This happened during the rule of Philip II. Philip was the son of Charles V, who as the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella on his mother’s side and of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian on his father’s ruled over central Europe and the Low Countries (modern Belgium and the Netherlands) as well as the Spanish Empire. Philip inherited Spain, its empire, and the Low Countries, to which he temporarily added England, during his childless marriage to Mary I, the daughter of England’s Henry VIII and elder sister of Queen Elizabeth I. His (p.145)

Spain and Portugal in the Americas

Figure 10.2. Interior, monastery church of San Agustín.

(p.146) unpopularity in England, where he and his wife sought to reimpose Catholicism, contributed to Elizabeth’s determination not to marry, as there were no other rulers she could have married who practiced the Anglican faith.

Philip, a devout Catholic with relatively unostentatious personal tastes, considering the scale of the empire over which he ruled, presided over the creation of the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de el Escorial (Figure 10.3). Built between 1563 and 1584 by Juan Bautista de Toledo, who had worked under Michelangelo on Saint Peter’s, and Juan de Herrera, the complex brought together an unusual array of building types: monastery, royal palace, library, college, and royal burial church. Its plan was intended in part to be a re-creation of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, which Toledo and Herrera presumed had been a classical building. The fusion of sacred and secular purpose featured at the Escorial was characteristic of the sixteenth-century Spanish state, which derived much of its authority at home and abroad from expressions of piety.

According to the Italian Renaissance precepts by which it was strongly influenced, this was an austere architecture, in which the orders, for instance, are almost entirely absent. And yet the ashlar masonry of these long facades was extremely expensive. Not surprisingly, the one part of the building that features what contemporaries at the time would have recognized as “architecture”—that is, the conscious attempt to

Spain and Portugal in the Americas

Figure 10.3. Juan Bautista de Toledo and Juan de Herrera, Royal Monastery, San Lorenzo de el Escorial, Spain, 1563–84.

(p.147) elevate building into art—was the facade of the church, decorated with figural sculpture as well as applied Doric columns. The most novel aspect of this facade was the integration of medieval bell towers into a Renaissance church. Monumental retablo altarpieces, distinctive features of Renaissance and baroque art in Spain, dominate the interior (Figure 10.4). During the seventeenth century, retablos would be transformed into central elements of Spanish and Spanish colonial sacred architecture.

Some idea of Philip’s relative modesty comes through in the location of his bedchamber (Figure 10.5). Early medieval emperors had often viewed the Mass from an elevated position at the opposite end of their palace churches from the altar. At the Escorial Philip could glimpse the sacrament from the relatively private position of his bed. From here he also enjoyed a privileged view out over the landscape. This demonstrates the distinctly private approach to worship characteristic of sixteenth-century piety on both sides of the Alps.

Spain and Portugal in the Americas

Figure 10.4. Interior, chapel, Royal Monastery, San Lorenzo de el Escorial, Spain.


Spain and Portugal in the Americas

Figure 10.5. Plan, chapel and Philip Ii’s bedchamber, Royal Monastery, San Lorenzo de el Escorial, Spain.

Philip’s interest in ideal space manifested itself as well in the Law of the Indies. Proclaimed in 1573, it codified the way in which towns had been sited and organized throughout the Spanish empire for nearly half a century. It prescribed a grid plan and a central square, called in Spanish the plaza mayor, which was to be scaled to the number of inhabitants and was to provide a training and parade ground for local troops. The most prominent site on the square was reserved for government buildings; a secondary one was allotted to the church.

The standardization of Spanish colonial planning had no peer in any European culture since the ancient Romans. The text of the Law of the Indies emphasized that these towns were new foundations, designed to impress the region’s indigenous population:

While the new settlement is being completed, the settlers should as far as possible try to avoid communication and trade with the Indians, and should not go to their villages, nor should they amuse themselves nor disperse themselves about the country, nor should they let the Indians into the confines of the settlement until it is completed and fortified, and the houses built, so that when the Indians do see it they are amazed, and they understand that the Spaniards are settling there permanently and not temporarily, and they will fear them and will not dare offend them, and they will respect them and wish to have their friendship.

(p.149) There was a huge gap, however, between theory and practice. Most towns were on the sites of previous settlements and were constructed exclusively with indigenous labor. The order prescribed by the law, which may have been inspired in part by the form of the original indigenous settlements or by idealistic schemes for a New Jerusalem, lacked any clear Spanish precedent, although it may have been influenced by late medieval bastides, or fortified towns, in the South of France. Certainly the rigorous design ideals embodied in the Law of the Indies were more rarely implemented in Spain than in its colonies. Possible indigenous precedent did not imply respect for local populations. Completion of the conversion of existing American settlements into Spanish colonial ones was typically accompanied by the expulsion of the native labor force into the countryside. Until relatively recently, in many former Spanish colonies a characteristic ethnic division placed peasants of mostly indigenous stock on the land, while town dwellers were the descendants of European settlers.

The confluence of indigenous Mesoamerican urbanism and its ideal Renaissance counterpart was exported far to the north. One of the last places developed along these lines was Sonoma, California (Figure 10.6). Sonoma was founded in 1823, not by the Spanish, who by this time had lost most of their American empire, but by Mexicans, from whom the United States was soon to seize present-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California. Sonoma features a central plaza that is much larger than the courtyard squares one finds in county seats in the American Midwest. The church is in one corner of the plaza, and government buildings line one side.

Spain and Portugal in the Americas

Figure 10.6. Plaza, Sonoma, California, 1823.

(p.150) Although Sonoma was provincial, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Spanish and Portuguese colonial cities were the richest and most urbane settlements in the Americas. Mexico City was by far the biggest city in the Western Hemisphere. In comparison, Quebec, Montreal, Boston, New York, and even Philadelphia were little more than overgrown towns. Today oil is the most valuable natural resource—in the eighteenth century, the most valuable resources were precious metals. Much of the wealth of Mexico City came from the silver fields that lay to the north. The Mexican baroque reached its peak in buildings like the church of Santa Prisca in the silver-mining center of Taxco (Figure 10.7). Located in the state of Guerrero, it was built between 1751 and 1758 and probably designed by Diego Durán Berruecos.

Acolman illustrates the fusion of indigenous and imported practice. Two centuries later, however, Santa Prisca is little different from what one would have found in contemporary Spain. Mesoamerican references are entirely absent in what was before the mining boom a lightly settled area without its own history of monumental architecture. Instead one finds a full-fledged example of the Spanish baroque, or Churrigueresque, the most prominent feature of which is the way it fractures and elaborates the classical orders, perhaps influenced by lingering medieval and Islamic

Spain and Portugal in the Americas

Figure 10.7. Attributed to Diego Durán Berruecos, Santa Prisca, Taxco, Mexico, 1751–58.

(p.151) sensibilities or by contemporary central European architecture. The prime location for this rich decoration is the retablo, whose form is repeated on the facade of the church. The framing bell towers are equally ornate. Tiles ornament the dome over the crossing. This kind of tile work, which had Mediterranean origins, became in the eighteenth-century deeply ingrained in Mexican culture.

Two hallmarks of Churrigueresque are visible on the interior (Figure 10.8). One is the elaborate and monumental high altarpiece. Only slightly smaller counterparts were located as well in adjacent chapels. As was true of eighteenth-century Spanish architecture around the world, there is none of the ebb and flow of architectural space present here that was so important to the Roman baroque. In plan, this is a simple hall church whose basic volume is no more complicated than that of Acolman.

The greatest eighteenth-century boomtown of all in the Americas belonged not to the Spanish but to the Portuguese, who found gold in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. Mining activity was centered on the city of Ouro Preto. Half of Portugal’s adult male population left their homes for the gold fields. They were assisted there by the victims of one of the most horrific aspects of European colonization of the Americas, slaves imported from Africa. The Portuguese, with extensive African colonial holdings of their own, quickly followed the lead established by the Spanish in importing slaves to the New World in order to raise cash crops for sale on the European market. Slavery was hardly new, but the conditions of slavery in the Americas

Spain and Portugal in the Americas

Figure 10.8. Interior, Santa Prisca.

(p.152) were unprecedentedly ugly. The ancient Romans had kept slaves, and the tradition continued among both Christians and Muslims in the Mediterranean, as well as in many other parts of the world, but seldom were multiple generations born into slavery in these regions, as was to be the case for nearly four centuries in the Americas. Islam, for instance, mandated that slaves not be fellow Muslims and that any Muslim children of slaves be free.

Of Ouro Preto’s population of one hundred thousand at its mid-eighteenth-century peak (more than twice that of the largest English-speaking city in the hemisphere, Philadelphia), half were Africans or their descendants. These new arrivals, like the Mexica at Acolman, almost immediately assimilated European religious architectural conventions. Ouro Preto boasts many sophisticated examples of baroque architecture.

The most celebrated of all the city’s churches is São Francisco de Assis, which was apparently designed in 1764 by Antônio Francisco Lisboa, known as Aleijadinho, or the cripple (Figure 10.9). This architect and sculptor, the son of the Portugueseborn architect with whom he trained and an African slave mother, was himself a slave. This did not prevent him from becoming the local equivalent of Bernini, a talented wood-carver who is believed to have designed as well as ornamented the churches on which he worked.

The exterior of this church is radically different from that of Santa Prisca. Instead of a retablo facade, Lisboa crafted a composition far more in keeping with mainstream European fashion. He built São Francisco out of wood and stucco, popular materials in parts of Europe at the time as well, rather than stone, which was far more expensive. And its plan, like that of many Brazilian colonial churches, features the concave curves characteristic of Roman baroque, but not of its Mexican counterparts. In São Francisco, following a European fashion first established in early eighteenth-century France, ornament breaks free of classicism, instead imitating plant forms. The rococo carving here is of exceptionally high quality. Rococo, an eighteenth-century term derived from the French word for ornament made of shells, describes the nonclassical, curvilinear details, often derived from shells and plants, favored by many late baroque artists.

At São Francisco a half-African artist who had never left Brazil produced an entirely modern work of art, completely in keeping in style and quality with churches in Portugal and in central Europe. This involved assimilating his own artistic taste to something radically different from what either of his parents had grown up with. Leaps into the unknown are especially likely to take place in environments under the pressure of tremendous social and economic change.

Two missions located within the borders of what is now the United States offer less radical evidence of the way in which design ideas traveled and were transformed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Throughout the period, missions continued to be the typical way in which the Spanish colonial empire, in the absence of discoveries of silver, gradually expanded out into the hinterland. Located in what (p.153)

Spain and Portugal in the Americas

Figure 10.9. Antônio Francisco Lisboa, São Francisco de Assis, Ouro Preto, Brazil, begun 1766.

(p.154) are now New Mexico and Arizona, respectively, one of the first and one of the last missions to be built north of the Rio Grande are representative as well of the churches erected in larger numbers in Texas and California.

Acoma is one of the longest continually inhabited places in the United States. The indigenous people who established it had already endured a great deal before they built San Estevan between 1629 and 1664 (Figure 10.10). In 1598 Acoma was the site of one of the most notorious episodes in the history of the Spanish colonization of what is now the United States, a massacre in which the adult male natives were maimed or slaughtered and the entire population enslaved. Nonetheless the locals, like the Mexica before them, eventually embraced the religion of their conquerors.

San Estevan is very different from Acolman. In Acoma the local priests foreswore any attempt to echo European tradition. Only the two bell towers remain as markers of a church as they would have understood the type from their own youth in Mexico or Europe. Instead they challenged the largely female local labor force to produce a more monumental architecture than had previously been realized using the adobe mud brick that had long been the chief local building material. The ceilings, as in the local domestic buildings, were constructed of timber, which had to be brought a considerable distance to this hilltop site. The result, thus, was neither entirely indigenous nor imported; it was a hybrid, in this case leaning so heavily toward the

Spain and Portugal in the Americas

Figure 10.10. San Estevan, Acoma, New Mexico, 1629–64.

(p.155) indigenous that many local commentators have sensed that the building almost grew organically out of the surrounding village. Because adobe is impermanent, the church has in fact changed over time and must be restored at regular intervals.

The interior of San Estevan, like that of many churches on Native American reservations, remains off-limits to outsiders. Not so that of San Xavier del Bac, outside of Tucson (Figure 10.11). Built between 1783 and 1797, it is located on the edge of the Sonoran Desert. This was one of the places, like the Californian missions farther west, where the friars tried to induce settled living among largely nomadic populations, something that was extremely difficult to enforce and not always suited to the terrain. A new spatial as well as political and religious order resulted from this interweaving of imported agricultural practice, religion, and political authority. This was far more disruptive than the conversion of settled populations, whose house forms, for instance, often changed only gradually during the period of Spanish colonization.

San Xavier is a provincial version of Santa Prisca. Two bell towers frame a retablo facade. There is even a small dome over the crossing. Instead of a simple nave ending in an altar, there is a full Latin cross plan with transepts branching off to the side. There is also a choir loft and a series of domes, again a technical innovation for the local labor force. Indigenous craftsmen were once more responsible for the decoration, into which apparently they incorporated aspects of their pre-Christian beliefs. This was an extremely ambitious undertaking at the very end of the supply lines of the empire.

Spain and Portugal in the Americas

Figure 10.11. Interior, San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona, 1783–97.

(p.156) Throughout the Americas, the colonized and the colonizers collaborated in producing environments to which both groups could relate. These buildings bridged the enormous gaps between two very different spatial, technological, and architectural cultures. The colonizers had all the political and most of the economic power but depended on the labor of natives to transform that power into built form. Many of the results were new to both cultures, highly modern within the European as well as the American context. The encounter generated changes that were often traumatic for the original Americans but also transformative for the colonizers. The results may be mourned as evidence of the erasure of the original cultures of the indigenous peoples and the forcibly imported African slaves, but they can also be appreciated as outsized aesthetic achievements, which is why they often continue to be embraced with such great pride by the descendants of their colonized makers.

For Further Reading

For examples of medieval European colonial architecture, see Maria Georgopoulou, Venice’s Mediterranean Colonies: Architecture and Urbanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). The basis of my discussion of Mexican colonial architecture is provided by Samuel Edgerton, Theaters of Conversion: Religious Architecture and Indian Artisans in Colonial Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001), reinforced by Jaime Lara, City, Temple, Stage: Eschatological Architecture and Liturgical Theatrics in New Spain (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004). On the Escorial, see Catherine Wilkinson Zerner, Juan de Herrera: Architect to Philip II of Spain (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993). For discussion of the possible impact of New World precedents on Old World architecture and planning, see Jesús Escobar, The Plaza Mayor and the Shaping of Baroque Madrid (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). On the Law of the Indies, see Valerie Fraser, The Architecture of Conquest: Architecture in the Viceroyalty of Peru, 1535–1635 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); on Ouro Preto, see Damian Bayon and Murillo Marx, History of South American Colonial Art and Architecture: Spanish South America and Brazil (New York: Rizzoli, 1992). William Pierson discusses in The Colonial and Neoclassical Styles, volume 1 of American Buildings and Their Architects (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970).