Over the course of more than four centuries, three different cathedrals have been built on the north side of the Zócalo. The latest incarnation of the cathedral, facing west, like all Dominican churches, overlooks the Alameda de León plaza, both plazas bustling with activity from early in the morning until late into the night.
Earthquakes quickly dispensed with the first cathedral, hastily constructed of mud bricks in the 1540s. Work on the second cathedral began in the 1560s and was completed in 1581. This one fared much better, surviving several major earthquakes in the 1600s, until the great earthquake of 1696 finally brought it down. Construction on the third and final cathedral began in 1702 and was completed in 1733.
Set between two massive bell towers, the wide and intricate retablo façade is laid out, like all retablo façades, in rectangular tiers, in this case three, arranged vertically, stacked one on top of the other, each tier divided into five sections. On the first tier, three arched main portals fill the middle and outer sections, two oval windows lying on their sides topping the outer portals. On the second and third tiers, three ear-framed sculpted reliefs fill the middle and outer sections of both tiers. Statues set in deep shell niches are interspersed between the portals and reliefs on all tiers. Interestingly, the outer sections of all three tiers are set back slightly from the front plane of the base of the towers, giving the illusion that the inner sections project out.
The three main portals open to an expansive interior — three long, parallel naves covered in low domes, a dozen side chapels and two side portals lining the north and south walls. A major renovation in the 1890s stripped the interior of most of its original ornamentation.
An interesting aside, entering through the main portal on the right, the first side chapel contains a small wooden fragment that is purported to be from the Holy Cross of Huatulco. As legend has it, when the English pirate Thomas Cavendish raided the port of Huatulco in 1587, he tried to destroy the cross, first by chopping it up with an axe, and then by burning it. Miraculously, the cross proved to be indestructible to him. Other supposed fragments of the cross are on display at the Cathedral of Puebla and the Vatican in Rome.
- North side of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico.
Arriving in the city in 1576, the Jesuits first constructed a church on this site in 1579. Earthquakes destroyed the original and subsequent churches, until the present incarnation and its adjoining convent, a sprawling complex covering the entire city block southwest of the church, were completed in the early 1760s.
Shortly thereafter, in 1767, King Charles III expelled the Jesuits from Spain and all of its colonies, including México. The Catholic bishops took possession of the church and convent. They held on to the church but promptly sold off most of the convent. In 1950, the Jesuits regained possession of the church, along with a small piece of the convent, the rest of it remaining in private hands. Today, the church is open daily for mass and prayer, while the bulk of the convent is being used as apartments, offices, and retail shops, among other things.
Aesthetically eclectic, the church’s main façade, exuding confidence, projects well forward from between two stout octagonal bases missing their belfries. The real treat, though, awaits inside — the church's original main retablo, circa 1760s, built in the Churrigueresque style that was in vogue at the time.
- Northeast corner of Trujano & Flores Magan, across the street from the southwest corner of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico.
Museo del Palacio Universum • Neoclassical Architecture, Museum • (B)
Even though the neoclassical former governor’s palace housing this museum was built in 1884, long after the waves of extravagant baroque construction had receded from the city, it is still one of the most elegant and impressive buildings in the city. Facing north, the front of the museum, which is lined with arches, spans the entire southern edge of the Zócalo, a full city block wide. Three large courtyards, also lined with arches, fill the interior, about half a city block deep. Lively murals cover the walls of the center and eastern stairwells, painted by Arturo García Bustos in the 1980s, the murals celebrations of México’s Independence and the Zapotec, Mixtec, and Aztec cultures.
Today, the museum hosts the occasional special event and a modest collection of rotating art exhibits. Set aside in a small corner of the western most of the three courtyards, the exhibits are dwarfed by the immense building surrounding them, making the moniker of museum something of a stretch. More so than the exhibits, the architectural beauty of the building itself and the two murals tucked away in the staircases are what makes this place worthy of a visit.
- South side of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico; Tue - Sun 10 am - 7 pm, closed Mon.