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Mexican Baroque Architecture: Characteristics & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Baroque spread across Europe, taking on slightly different traits in each nation. Then it crossed the Atlantic Ocean. In this lesson, we'll check out the Mexican Baroque, and see what makes it entirely distinct from anything else in the world.

The Baroque in Mexico

In the mid-late 16th century, European architects started experimenting with dramatic new styles. In contrast to the rational, composed structures of the Renaissance, they were bold, emotional, dramatic, and absolutely plastered with ornamentation. This style was the Baroque, and while it became very popular in Europe, it did not stay there.

Spain had missed most of the Renaissance. It was busy fighting a nearly 800-year long religious war for the fate of the Iberian Peninsula. Desperate to catch up with the wealth of other European nations, it funded a risky voyage in 1492 and ended up building the largest empire in the world at that time. The jewel of the Spanish Empire was Mexico (then called New Spain). As Spain used its new wealth to enthusiastically pursue the sorts of arts it missed in the Renaissance, those arts found a unique ability to thrive in Mexico. The Baroque was no exception. Mexican cities were flooded with Baroque architecture, representing the wealth of the Spanish in the Americas. However, these Mexican structures were often built by indigenous artists and craftsmen, and over time they developed unique traits of their own. We call this the Mexican Baroque.

Characteristics of the Mexican Baroque

Several variations of Baroque architecture took root in Mexico, all of which can be collectively identified as the Mexican Baroque. For the most part, they originated in Italy, were introduced to Mexico through Spain, and were then adapted to reflect the tastes of indigenous workers and Mexican-born Spaniards (criollos).

So, what did this style look like? One characteristic of the Mexican Baroque is its ornamentation. Most architectural facades are covered in countless reliefs or moldings of angels, saints, and decorative elements, many of which are gilded. While this is true of all Baroque architecture, the Mexican Baroque really takes it up a notch. Not only are facades covered in decoration, but most interior walls are as well. In fact, the Mexican Baroque is often defined by what is called el horror vacui, the fear of empty space. This is especially true of a variant known as the Churrigueresque, the most elaborate and most definitive of the Mexican Baroque styles. In Churrigueresque architecture, any empty space is wasted space. The extreme focus on interior spaces is something that sets the Mexican Baroque apart from European Baroque styles.

Altars, like this one inside the Metropolitan Cathedral, do not leave any wasted empty space
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Another notable characteristic of the Mexican Baroque is its materials. While European Baroque architects worked heavily in stone, with some plaster molding, Mexican Baroque artists embraced a wider range of media. They carved plaster into complex geometric patterns, a technique called yesería. Polished and gilded wood are found in many buildings. Especially notable are the retablos, paintings of saints set in wood frames that are ubiquitous features of Mexican churches. Saints are often carved as life-sized wooden statues as well.

They were also fond of azulejos, or ceramic tiles. By the late 17th century, the heavy use of tiles, generally set in decorative patterns in the facade, had become one of the most definitive features of the Mexican Baroque. In Mexico City, there is even an old house named the Casa de los Azulejos, which is covered from floor to ceiling in hundreds of individual ceramic tiles.

The House of the Tiles is a great example of the use of this material in the Mexican Baroque
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For all of these unique elements, however, one thing defines the Mexican Baroque above all others: hybridity. The Mexican Baroque may have been built on a European precedent, but it was built with Amerindian artisans and made to fit criollo tastes. As a result, Mexica (Aztec) symbols and motifs can be found incorporated into countless churches. Techniques like the yesería combined Amerindian carving traditions with those of Islamic Spain. Many buildings were made with the red volcanic pumice of former Amerindian temples that had been torn down and rebuilt into Catholic churches. It is impossible to understand the Mexican Baroque without appreciating it as a remarkable synthesis of Spanish and Amerindian aesthetic traditions.

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