The Saint Gabriel Complex in San Pedro Cholula

by Carmen Caelen

 

The Saint Gabriel Complex is a group of three Franciscan buildings making up the oldest Spanish constructions in Cholula, dating back to the early 16th century.  The exact dates are still a matter of debate.

The central building is the main church dedicated to Saint Gabriel which was built exclusively for the Spanish population in the beginning.  It has a medieval feel to it, looking much like a castle or fortress with tall thick stone walls, battlements, and roof spouts shaped like cannons.  The interior displays lavish Neoclassical decoration with the traditional gold-leaf covered Greco-Roman columns found in most churches in Cholula.  At the top of the high altar is a statue of the archangel Gabriel with gilded wings.

To the north of the main church stands a huge square building with 49 domes known as the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel) or Capilla de Indios (Chapel for the Indians) which was originally an open chapel used to catechize the indigenous population.  The first roof was a wooden structure built in the 17th century, but it collapsed and was replaced by the domes in 1731.  The interior is composed of a large central nave and a row of 5 small chapels on each side.  What is truly surprising about this building is that it does not contain any lavish decorations; the walls and columns have been left bare.  There is, however, an interesting explanation; since the chapel was intended for the indigenous people, the Spanish saw no need in allocating funds for its embellishment.  It is, nevertheless, curious that it remains that way in the present.

The third building in the complex was the Franciscan Convent of which only a small section remains.  A part of the Convent is still active, and the remaining part is now the Franciscan Library that houses an extensive collection of old books, some dating back to the 16th century.  The convent’s interior and exterior walls were all decorated with religious murals.  These paintings were likely the first expressions of indigenous Catholicism, displaying intricate scenes that combine European and Prehispanic elements.  The clearest surviving example shows a Renaissance inspired landscape with two unmistakably Mesoamerican jaguars; a perfect sample of syncretism.

 

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