The city of Merida on the Yucatan Peninsula is home to the second oldest Cathedral in the New World, the Cathedral of San Ildefonso. Merida’s cathedral is built on top of the Mayan city of T’ho. Many of the stones used in the construction of the cathedral and other old structures in Merida were taken from the Mayan temples of this ancient city. Using the Maya as slaves, the Spanish forced them to destroy their own city and religious center to build a new one for their conquerors.
Merida was established in 1542 and construction of the San Ildefonso Cathedral was started nineteen years later in 1561. The Cathedral was commissioned by Pope Pius IV and constructed by the builder Juan Miguel de Aguero. Aguero also built the fortifications of Havana Cuba and the Cathedral of Mexico City.
Merida’s cathedral is a huge and imposing building in the center of the city. The inside, with it’s vaulted ceilings and grand columns, is not highly decorated but does feature a huge crucifix. The crucifix, Cristo de la Unidad, is a twenty five foot tall birch wood sculpture by the contemporary Spanish artist Ramón Lapayese del Río. It is supposed to represent unification of the Mayas and the Catholic Church, an idea I am both bothered by and unconvinced of.
Merida’s Cathedral was more highly decorated before the Mexican revolution. In 1915 General Salvador Alvarado arrived in Mérida, he had been appointed as the military Governor of Yucatan. He was credited with many social reforms, but one of his first acts was the sacking and destruction of the inside of the cathedral. He even used the cathedral as a stable for his horses. He was a socialist reformer and eliminating the political power of the church was obviously one of his priorities. Like so many of the people associated with the revolution, he was executed shortly thereafter.
On the floor of the Cathedral are a large number of grave stones. I am unclear whether these are from a cemetery or are grave markers of wealthy church goers who could afford to pay for the space. The tradition is that the more wealthy benefactors of the Cathedral could be buried within its confines, but the way the stones are arranged makes it seem like they have been put there from somewhere else.
I found this Cathedral cold and impersonal. Any giant structure can install a kind of awe, as this one does, but it did not leave me feeling the least bit inspired. The whole place seemed more like a monument to the power of the Church and State and their unholy alliance. A warning to anyone who would dare question the dominance and might of the institutions of the Catholic church or Crown of Spain. The image of the giant crucifix as a symbol of unification, when considered against the crimes of the church during The Conquest, seems in bad taste, at best.
The Church of Jesus or Church of the Third Order of Jesus, just a block away from the Cathedral of San Ildefonso, is very different in style and feel from its imposing neighbor. This church was built in 1618 by the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church.
In researching this post I found out some interesting things about the Jesuits and The Franciscans. The Jesuit order was started by a Spanish soldier who dedicated himself and his followers to Pope Paul III in 1537. During his rehabilitation from a cannon ball injury he read about the lives of the Saints of the Catholic Church and was inspired to follow their lead. The Jesuits did not take vows of poverty, nor did they dedicate themselves to the service of the poor, like their Franciscan brothers. Because of this the Jesuits were more frequently associated with seeing to the religious needs of the wealthy and powerful members of the church.
Due to their more wealthy followers, churches of the Jesuits tend to be more ornately decorated than those of other orders. The Church of Jesus in Merida is most certainly a highly decorated church. The Jesuits were forced out of all Spanish dominions in 1767. After that the church passed the Third Order of the Franciscans.
One thing I didn’t find out until after I started researching, is that like so many other old structures in Merida, this church is constructed from the stones of Mayan temples. Mayan carvings can still be seen in the stones on one of the sides of the church.
The inside of the church is ornate and speaks of wealth. In modern times the church is used for elaborate weddings and it is still where the wealthy Catholics of Merida come to worship. I know all old churches in the new world were built with slave labor, under brutal conditions, however I did find the interior of this church both peaceful and beautiful. I realize that this is a contradiction.
Merida is filled with old churches and chapels. I just scratched the surface with these two.