Graced with one of the finest baroque interiors in México, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo is the city’s premier historical attraction and the one church in the city every visitor should make a point of seeing. Dominican friars founded the church in 1529 after first arriving from México City, hastily erecting a small, poorly constructed mud-brick chapel near the Zócalo. By 1569, the chapel had begun to crumble and was quickly becoming unusable, so the order, in dire need of a larger, more permanent church and a monastery, acquired the land for the current site.
Construction of the church and monastery got off to a slow and shaky start, financial problems impeding progress on both for decades, work on the monastery finally getting underway in 1569, the church sometime in the 1570s. And then, as fate would have it, just as the monastery was being completed in 1603 and the friars were getting ready to move in, an earthquake struck, severely damaging the monastery and the uncompleted church.
Reconstruction on both buildings began almost immediately, work on the monastery proceeding quickly, the friars’ residence opening in 1610, the church taking another fifty-six years to complete, finally opening in 1666, ninety-some years after the start of construction. Both buildings remain standing to this day.
In 1859, in the midst of a civil war between the country’s Liberal and Conservative forces, the Benito Juárez administration expropriated all church properties in México, converting churches and monasteries into government buildings and army barracks. During this time, much of the interior ornamentation and most of the original furnishings of both buildings were heavily damaged or destroyed, including the destruction of the church’s original retablos, a particularly egregious loss.
In the 1890s, the government turned the church over to the Catholic Bishops, who held on to it until the 1930s before giving it back to its original owners, the Dominicans. The order then embarked on a decades-long program of restoration, which was mostly completed by the 1970s, though some work continues to this day.
Facing west, like all Dominican churches, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo overlooks a spacious cut-stone plaza, slightly elevated from the traffic-free cobblestone streets below, its tall, narrow retablo façade recessed and ascending between two massive tower bases topped with belfries.
As with all retablo facades, this one is laid out in horizontal tiers, in this case four, arranged vertically, stacked one on top of the other, the lower three tiers each divided into three rectangular sections, the sections lining up vertically across all three tiers, classical columns dividing the sections horizontally within a tier. The central sections of the facade are filled with an arched main portal on the first tier, an ear frame relief depicting St. Dominic and St. Hippolytus holding the church on the second tier, and a window on the third tier, while the outside sections of all three tiers are filled with statues of saints set in deep shell niches, the façade culminating in a wide, pediment-shaped fourth tier filled with figures in relief.
The Rosary Chapel, an early 18th-century addition, juts off to the south of the main entrance to the church, resting over the chapel's portal another ear frame relief, this one of the Virgin and Christ child giving the rosary to St. Dominic.
Inside the tunnel-like main portal, the earliest surviving piece of art in the church awaits: the painted relief of a vine sprawled across the length of the vaulted ceiling, its curved, interlaced branches sprouting — as if they were flowers — the busts of thirty-three brightly colored human figures. At the base of the vine rests the figure of Don Félix de Guzmán, founder of the Dominican order; at the other end sits the Virgin and Christ child, surrounded by a halo of angels. Opinions differ as to the precise meaning of the iconography of the vine and some of the other figures. Whatever their meaning or original inspiration, the artists created a unique piece of early Spanish colonial art.
Beyond the Guzmán vine, though, lies the luscious interior of the church, restored to its earlier baroque grandeur, the entire surface of every wall, every dome, every vault overlaid with paintings, reliefs, statues, or stucco ornamentation, and the gilded retablos, all three of them, overflowing with ornamentation as well. Indeed, the intention seems to be saturation, nothing left untouched, every surface embellished, transformed, the cumulative effect the whole of the interior a work of art.
What to visit
In addition to the church, the priory’s former monastery has been restored and converted into Oaxaca's finest museum, the Museo Nacional de las Culturas de Oaxaca, dedicated to the preservation of the state’s cultural and historical heritage. The museum’s collections and the monastery itself are both worthy of visits, as well as the priory’s grounds, which have been converted into a botanical garden featuring plants native to the state, making it a real delight for plant lovers.
When to visit
Anytime is a good time to visit the church, even in the evening when floodlights illuminate its exterior. And yet, in the late afternoon, as the sun starts to set, there is a moment, if you can catch it, when the light green and beige stone of the church turns golden, the whole of the church suddenly aglow, briefly, as the dusk settles in for the night.
- Northeast corner of Alcalá & Gurrión; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Daily 7 a.m. - 1 p.m. & 4 - 8 p.m..