The Cathedral of San Ildefonso receives its name from when it was assigned to the head of the Archbishop of Toledo. It is considered the oldest church in the Americas built on the mainland, second only to the one built on the island of Santo Domingo, Hernán Cortés’ first landing point. Its construction, made from the stones of the pyramids of the ancient Maya city of T’hó, began in 1561 and the first stage was completed 37 years later, in 1598.
Style and façade
It is considered to be Renaissance, mannerist style—subjective and abstract—as well as Herrerian (the building is similar to the architectural style of renowned Spanish architect Juan de Herrera); although the interior is noted by its Moorish style, as are the towers.
The façade contains the main door (“Door of Forgiveness”), which is only open on special dates, flanked by the sculptures of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. On the sides are four columns which symbolize the four apostles charged with protecting and instilling the religion. Up above, in the center, used to be the Royal Spanish coat of arms of Felipe II carved in stone, replaced in 1822 by the Mexican post-colonial coat of arms as well as the eagle which was the symbol of the first and only emperor of Mexico, Agustín de Iturbide. But there are still two stone blocks on either side of this coat of arms, pertaining to the Spanish kingdom.
The machinery of the enormous clock was built in London in 1731, and gave the correct time until 1871. On the north wall of the church, where there are still various wooden crosses, is the entrance to a fresh-water spring, closed a long time ago, noticeable by its walled-in arch.
The sacristy used to have five chapels. The three northern ones still remain: dedicated to the Christ of the Blisters (1656) and to Santa Ana and to the Baptistry (1904) respectively. The southern chapels, San José and the Rosary, which united the headquarters of the Episcopal Palace (now MACAY Museum), were demolished in approximately 1916 during the revolutionary period, in the looting headed by General Salvador Alvarado; and in their place is the Pasaje de la Revolución.
The Christ of the Blisters was so named because during this looting, after starting a fire in the Cathedral, it was noted that the Christ figure had blisters, which was considered a miracle. It has been referred to in this way ever since.
There used to be an official bell ringer, who had his own room, measuring approximately 4.5 meters by 2.5 meters, where he had his hammock, a candle, and a small organ. His job was to climb up and play the enormous bells a half hour before each mass. At that time there was a mass every hour, so the bell ringer had to have a tremendous will as well as a pair of good strong legs. A bell ringer is no longer needed, as new technology allows this function to be carried out mechanically with electricity.
There are three naves: a central nave and two side ones: the Gospel Nave and the Epistle Nave.
Between 1903 and 1905, during the henequén boom, the choir was built to protect the first of the Cathedral’s organs, which was manufactured in Germany. Unfortunately, the organ was destroyed during General Alvarado’s looting. Its successor, also from Germany, was built in 1938 by the same engineer. Today only 40% of its pipes still work.
There is an oil painting of the Virgin dating from the 18th C, and a painting dedicated to the chief of Maní, Tutul-Xiu, facing the base camp of Francisco de Montejo in T’hó, as the city now known as Mérida used to be called.
During the revolutionary period various altars and images were destroyed or disappeared, including the revered Christ of the Blisters and the altarpiece at the back. The Christ of the Blisters which is there today is a replica. Today there are no remaining pieces of great antiquity.
In the center of the interior is the wooden Christ, known as the Christ of the Unity, which measures almost 8 meters high, and is carved from birch, positioned on a mahogany cross which is 12 meters high. It is the work of the Spanish sculptor José Ramón Lapayese del Río, made in the middle of the 20th C. It is believed to be the largest made of wood in the Americas.
San Ildefonso Cathedral
Calle 60 x 61 y 63, Centro
Facing the Plaza Grande
Editorial and Photography by Mónica López
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