History of Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral in 60 Seconds

Photo of Lauren Cocking
Northern England Writer9 August 2017

Anyone who’s visited Mexico City will be familiar with the imposing cathedral that dominates the vast expanse of Mexico City’s central square, or zócalo. The Metropolitan Cathedral (or to give it its full title, The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven) is not only one of Mexico’s most treasured architectural masterpieces, it is also Latin America’s largest and oldest cathedral.

The history of the Metropolitan Cathedral’s creation spans three centuries, from 1573-1813. So it makes sense that the architecture is an amalgamation of the three distinct styles which dominated during the lengthy process of its construction; Baroque, Neo-Classic and Neo-Renaissance. Prompted in 1544 by a need to replace the original church that formerly occupied the site following the conquest of Aztec hub Tenochtitlán, not even three centuries of development could make sure the foundations were sufficiently resilient. The cathedral – much like the rest of Mexico City – gradually sinks year after year into the shifting lake upon which it was built.

Urban legend even asserts that an underground pathway connects the neighboring Templo Mayor with the cathedral. Hearsay at its finest. The link between the two structures is irrefutable though; almost all of the Templo Mayor’s stone is built into the cathedral. It’s even claimed that Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortes was responsible for laying the first stone.

Despite being a great source of Mexican pride, the cathedral, which now houses the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico, was actually designed by Spaniard Claudio de Arciniega and inspired by Valladolid’s Gothic architecture. All the cathedral portals’ high reliefs are equally foreign in inspiration, influenced by Flemish Peter Paul Rubens. However, the impressive bell towers are of Xalapan design and house a total of twenty-five bells. The largest of these, Santa Maria de Guadalupe, weighs in at 13,000 kilos, but she’s not the only bell adorned with a name. Another is known as Doña Maria – yes, like the famous mole paste brand.

Yet the external architecture is by no means the biggest draw of this popular cathedral, as the internal offerings are just as magnificent. Numerous works of art, religious relics and crypts adorn every orifice, including in the sixteen chapels. Gold coats every surface and towering ceilings add to the grandeur of the Altars of Forgiveness and of the Kings. The Altar of Forgiveness was damaged in a 1967 fire along with the Americas’ biggest 18th century organs. This fire led to the discovery of previously hidden treasures, including over fifty paintings, historical documents concerning Hernán Cortes and the burial place of first governor of Veracruz, Miguel Barrigan.

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