Saint Gabriel Complex

The Saint Gabriel Complex in San Pedro Cholula

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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Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Remedies

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Remedies

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Remedies

by Carmen Caelen

 

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Remedies is the infamous church built on top of the Great Pyramid of Cholula.  It is dedicated to the Virgin of the Remedies and dates back to the late 16th century.  The original building was rather small and simple; the present structure is the result of a restoration carried out between 1864 and 1874 after an earthquake severely damaged the church.  During this remodeling, the original baroque decoration was replaced with the neoclassical style we see today.  The church’s interior is lavishly adorned with gold-leaf, stained-glass windows, religious paintings, and a chandelier.  The exterior displays a baroque entrance and Talavera covered domes.

 

The Virgin of the Remedies

The first image of the virgin arrived in Mexico with the first Spaniards in 1519; however, the one housed in the church was brought from Spain in the 17th century.  There are many stories and legends surrounding the Virgin of the Remedies.  She became very important to the conquistadors because she supposedly granted Cortes a miracle that allowed him to finally defeat the Aztec army.

In Cholula, before the church was built, the Franciscans attempted to put a large wooden cross on top of the hill, but each time lightning struck it down.  They attributed this to the presence of the Prehispanic gods lingering in the pyramid.  The land was consecrated to the virgin and magically the lightning stopped.

The Virgin of the Remedies is highly venerated by the current inhabitants of Cholula.  Every year the is a huge procession in her honor on the evening of August 31st.  The patron saints of the city’s ten neighborhoods parade along some of the main streets and then proceed to walk up to the church.  At midnight, the attendants sing Las mañanitas (the Mexican “Happy Birthday”) to the virgin and there is a celebration that goes on all night.

 

Learn more interesting facts about the Sanctuary and the Virgin of the Remedies on our Walking Tour guided by a local archaeologist: https://obsidiantours.com/product/walking-tour-cholula/


Archaeological site Cholula

History of Cholula: The Forgotten Sacred City

History of Cholula: The Forgotten Sacred City

by Carmen Caelen

 

The history of Cholula is one of the most interesting and enigmatic in ancient Mesoamerica.  Few people know that it is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the entire western hemisphere and that its pyramid is the largest in the world in terms of its base.  The current city is known for the Great Pyramid, its many colonial churches, and constant religious celebrations, making it a widely visited place; however, the tremendous importance of Prehispanic Cholula has been lost in the historical accounts of Puebla and even Mexico as a whole.

Located in the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley within a very fertile area, the Prehispanic city of Cholula was founded around 500 BCE.  It soon developed into an important city and the construction of its Great Pyramid began around 200 BCE.  During the height of Teotihuacan’s influence in the Classic Period and the expansion of the Aztec empire in the Postclassic, Cholula managed to maintain its independence and grew to become the greatest religious center in central Mesoamerica.  As the main site for the cult of the god Quetzalcoatl, Cholula received pilgrims from many Prehispanic cities.  The two high priests of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl were charged with confirming the legitimacy of these foreign rulers, making their role one of great importance in the region.

In addition to its religious relevance, Cholula was also a very important commercial center.  Many lavish and exotic goods were traded at its market.  The city’s merchant class also exported a variety of luxury crafts produced in Cholula, such as richly adorned textiles and very fine polychrome pottery.

Cholula is mentioned on some level in most important works concerning Mesoamerica; however, in most cases it is simply named alongside a list of other Prehispanic sites.  In the majority of these sources, all the information offered is that Cholula was a great religious center with a large pyramid where a terrible massacre took place upon the arrival of the Spanish, but other than that this impressive city remains mostly unknown.  “It is paradoxical that in Cholula, that which the conquistadors set out to accomplish in 1519 persists till this day: that no one would know or value its past.”[1]  Despite its irrefutable importance, Cholula continues to be undervalued in comparison to other Prehispanic sites.

 

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[1] Ashwell (2004, p. 8), translation mine.