How Many Churches Can You See in a Day? My record is 16!


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Published: July 27th 2010
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I decided a visit to the capital wouldn't be complete without a visit to Frida Kahlo's house, so I merrily rode the metro to the right stop... and then not-so-merrily rode it back the other way. I'd picked the one day of the week the museum is shut! I'd planned to spend the afternoon at the Basilica of Guadalupe so I decided to go directly there instead. I hopped around the metro to the correct stop and emerged onto the street in the middle of a little cluster of stalls, all selling things bearing the image of the Virgin Guadalupe. I couldn't see any signs for the Basilica and decided to just follow the nearest street and see if I could catch any glimpse of the church spires. I walked down the nearest street. A large group of homeless people were camped under makeshift tents along the road and there was rubbish on the ground, something I really haven't seen before in Mexico. I followed the road to the end and instantly knew I was in the right place. Stalls lined the pavement, completely blocking the road from view. Images of the Virgin stared at me from hangings and t-shirts and photo frames. Eyes stared serenely down from statues crowding the shelves or gazed with wide baby-eyes from childen's plastic models. I walked to where the was a break in the stalls, a zebra crossing and a traffic warden alternately stopping the flow of traffic or the flow of devotees and tourists. I climbed the steps to the pavement above and found myself at the entrance to a wide plaza with three large churches visable.
The Basilica of Our Lady Guadalupe; or in Spanish, Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe; is perhaps the most important shrine in Mexico and in 1999 became the most visited Catholic site in the world. Our Lady of Guadalupe is an aspect of the Virgin Mary who appeared to St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, an Aztec convert to Roman Catholicism, in 1531. The story goes that Juan Diego was walking between his village and Mexico City on 12th December, 1531 when a dark skinned woman appeared, speaking to him in his native Nahuatl language saying
"Let not your heart be disturbed. Do not fear that sickness, nor any other sickness or anguish. Am I not here, who is your Mother? Are you not under my protection? Am I not your health? Are you not happily within my fold? What else do you wish? Do not grieve nor be disturbed by anything," and asking him to build a church on the site.
When Juan Diego spoke to the Spanish bishop, the bishop did not believe him, insisting if the vision were true Juan Diego could bring proof of it. Juan Diego returned to the spot of the Virgin appeared again and though it was winter commanded him to gather flowers. Miraculously Spanish roses immediately bloomed at his feet.
He gathered the flowers and returned to the bishop. As he dropped his apron the flowers fell to the ground and an icon of the Virgin was miraculously imprinted on the cloth. The bishop ordered a church built at once, dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Spanish missionaries used the story of her appearance to help convert millions of indigenous people in what had been the Aztec Empire. Guadalupe has become a symbol of Catholicism in Latin America. In 1737 she was officially recognised as the patron saint of Mexico City and by 1946 her patronage had spread to all of Latin America.
The image of the Virgin has remained a mystery. Experts have authenticated the fabric as dating to the 16th century, but have been unable to determine the type of pigment from which the image was rendered. In 1981, Philip Serna Callahan studied the apron with infrared rays. He reported that the portions of the face, hands, robe, and mantle had been painted in one step, with no sketches or corrections and no paintbrush strokes. The Nobel Chemistry prize recipient Richard Kuhn said in 1936 that the colouring was not from a mineral, vegetable, or animal source. Studies started in 1956 and continuing to the present by several ophthalmologists, including Dr. Javier Torroella Bueno (1956) and Dr. José Aste Tonsmann claim to have found images reflected in the eyes of the Virgin after amplifying the photographs 2,500 times. The pupils reflect a group of Native Americans and Franciscans.
The miraculous properties of the image were further established when on 14th November, 1921, a factory worker placed a bomb a few feet away from the apron. The explosion demolished the marble steps of the main altar, blew out the windows of nearby homes and bent a brass crucifix, but the fabric suffered no damage. In addition the image remains unmarred and unfaded after years of exposure to sun and heat and dust, although since 1993 it has been protected behind bullet-proof glass.
Equally however there are those who dispute the claims and in 2002 art restoration expert José Sol Rosales was reported as examining the cloth and finding evidence of calcium sulphate in the paint, pine soot, white, blue, and green earths, reds made from carmine and other pigments, as well as gold; all of which are consistent with 16th century materials and methods.
Despite this belief in the image and the vision of Guadalupe remains strong and doubts about its origin and creation have had no effect on the devotion it inspires.
I visited the modern basilica on the left. The new basilica was built between 1974 and 1976 by the Mexican architect Pedro Ramírez Vásquez. The new basilica was built as the old was sinking due to the fact the city was built on top of an old lake. It was built in a large circular design to maximise the number of people able to enter and view the image of the Virgin. I walked in thinking again how religious sites should really make a timetable so tourists and devotees don't coincide their visits. I felt a little bad wandering in with a camera and rucksack while people walked on their knees bearing images of the Virgin on their backs. A service was in progress as I went in and whoever was leading the hymn had the most fantastic voice and I wished I could stay longer but with several other churches to visit I had to move on.
I walked to the old basilica which had previous held the image of the virgin. Officially known as the "Templo Expiatorio a Cristo Rey," the construction of the old basilica began in 1531 and was not finished until 1709. The major architect was Pedro de Arrieta. Juan Diego's cloak was housed here from its completion until 1974 but was moved when the new basilica was built. Inside the old basilica is the altar which orignially held the apron. A statue of Juan Diego, who was made a saint in 2002 and became the first indigenous saint in the Americas, stands beside the altar.
Next to the old basilica and next on my list of places to visit was the neoclassical Capuchin nuns' Temple. The interior contains quite a modern altar. I sat and enjoyed the peace and quite... and relief from the sun!
Back outside I saw the bell in the plaza. Designed by Pedro Ramirez Vazquez and opened in 1991 it is comprimised of a calendar clock, and astronomical clock, a sundial and an Aztec clock as well a set of belles which can play 23 different melodies. I walked around the back of the churches. I first saw the baptistry, a snail shaped building which celebrates the practise of baptism and was consecrated in 1991. Beyond that I found the start of the route up to the St Michael chapel at the top of the hill. The lower slopes of the hill are covered in pretty gardens, a waterfall trickling behind the white statue of Juan Diego showing the image of Guadalupe to the bishop. I walked slowly uphill, the stairs covered with trellis arches and climbing plants. As I reached the top four stony angel faces peered down at me. Beyond them I saw the chapel. Tradition holds that it was at the top of this hill that Juan Diego presented the spanish roses to the bishop Zumarraga as proof of his vision. It wasn't until 1666 that a chapel was built on this site, paid for by a baker and his wife. However the small structure soon proved insufficient for the number of pilgrims coming and in 1749 another, larger church was built on the site. The new chapel was dedicated to Archangel Michael, but remained incomplete, the facade of the chapel not being finished until 1950.
Inside I saw the beautiful frescos painted by Fernando Leal and reached the altar before carefully turning in the crowds and moving back on the other side to see the rest of the murals. I thought after reaching the summit I would merely return to the main plaza and leave, but I found the steps took me into a pretty parkland in the centre of which a statue of the Virgin's appearance to local tribespeople stands before a waterfall and surrounded by flowers. While several photographers had set themselves up with large tacky displays of artifical flowers and plastic images of Guadalupe, I only wanted to have a photo on my own camera with the more tasteful bronze statues behind me. Usually a nice smile and holding out my camera gets me what I want no matter the country or the language but for the first time was surprised by the reaction I got. The girl looked confused and stepped backwards, shaking her head. I asked in Spanish if she could take a photo for me but she shook her head again and walked away from me. I couldn't quite figure that one out unless she mistakenly thought I wanted to photograph her or something. I finally found a more obliging stranger and got my photo, minus Guadalupe's head but one can't have everything I suppose!
I walked on to the tiny Pocito Chapel, built around the well containing water from a spring said to give miraculous cures. People considered the appearance of the spring as a sign that it was the exact location where the virgin appeared to Juan Diego. Unfotunately it led to people both drinking the water, and bathing wounds in the waters hoping for a cure and as a result leading to the spread of infection. The well and later the church were built to contain water and keep it clean. The church was designed by architect Francisco de Guerrero y Torres and completed in 1791. The interior is tiny and incredibly ornate and I enjoyed a brief visit before moving onto the next church, the Parroquia de Indios. This is the oldest structure on the site, built in 1649 and where, Juan Diego is supposed to have lived his last years and established a brotherhood of local natives.
From this last church I finally started to make my way back towards the metro.
I wasn't entirely sure what to do with my afternoon. I joined the hostel gang at the TV again and quietly chatted to my friend at the back, before deciding I had to go out and do some sightseeing. I chose a walking route around the historic centre. Unfortunately I soon discovered that 'historic' is synonomous with 'church' in Mexico City and after spending all morning at the Villa of Guadalupe my daily church count was going through the roof. The Villa of Guadalupe contains 6 chapels and churches and if I may be permitted to include the baptistry that make 7 religious structures in one place. I walked along from the hostel to plaza 23 de Mayo and found myself at Church No. 8, Templo de Santo Domingo. I sat inside a while before continuing to follow the wobbly biro line drawn on my city map. I managed to get slightly lost after that first church and took an extra loop around the block, viewing bustling streets, shops, the craziest looking 3 wheeled auto-rickshaw-type-vehicles and another random church. Church No. 9 was a more modern looking structure in a solid block of dark yellow with a red roof, and no reference on my map. Back on the wobbly biro route I saw Church No. 10, Templo de Nuestra Senora de Loreto. This church, being the last major church constructed during the colonial period was built between 1806 and 1819. The church now tilts significantly to one side due to being constructed of stone of two different weights and is at risk of being lost due to structural damage from the uneven sinking. Situated on the same plaza is the sombre-looking Baroque, Templo de La Concepcion (Church No. 11 for me!) , which was inaugurated in 1655.
Walking onwards I again struggled to find the correct route due to poorly labelled streets and a confusion of bustling shops and market stalls. Church No. 12 was La Santisima Church, a truly elaborate church with an impresive facade. The church was built between 1755 and 1783 as a temple for the adjoining hospital/hospice for priests. It was hard to view properly, let alone photograph, due to the raised street circling it (no doubt due to the fact that the church has sunk almost three meters since it was built), and the bustling pavements filled with crowds of people, all of whom stared at me as they passed.
I finally stumbled a route out of the confusion and found myself at Church No. 13, a long white structure with a dark red roof and a series of statues standing ont he pavement in front. I crossed the road to take a closer look and found the little angels to be rather creepy with solid black eyes gazing out from their white faces. More or less on track again I reached the Templo de Santa Ines. This church (No. 14!) was completed in 1770 and Thoriginally formed part of the convent of the same name, the cloister of which now houses the Museo José Luis Cuevas. Near the end of my walking route I took the time to explore the interior as well and entered the quiet space dominated by a beautiful altar bearing an image of the Virgin Mary standing before a blue curtain and crowned with gold stars.
I finally walked to the end of the road and stood back on the zocalo, the impressive cathedral and its ajoined tabernacle (Church No. 15 and religious building which sort of counts as another church No. 16!)
Having finally filled the day with an impressive amount of sightseeing... well ok churchseeing, I retired to the hostel and collapsed. Curled up in the communal area with a book were I was found by my friend so we headed out for pizza before returning to slouch on the sofa for the remainder of the evening.


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