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Gold Décor Gives Puebla Chapel a Heavenly Glow

Templo de Sto. DomingoOn April 16, 1690, hundreds of people thronged the flower-strewn streets of downtown Puebla to inaugurate the Capilla del Rosario, or the Chapel of the Rosary. The celebration in and around the chapel lasted a full 10 days. Although the drawn-out festivities may seem somewhat extravagant now, when you consider that the ornate chapel — a shining example of Mexican Baroque architecture — at the time was regarded as the “8th wonder of the world,” the celebration was more than fitting. Today the architectural jewel, resplendent in gilded stucco, is a must-see for any visitor to this UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

The Capilla del Rosario and the larger temple in which it resides, Santo Domingo, were actually built at different times. The construction of the main church began in 1571, and the majority was completed by 1611; the final touches were worked out in 1659. In 1650, friar Juan de Cuenca conceived the chapel to demonstrate the Dominican order’s devotion to the Virgin of the Rosary and to help convert the masses to Catholicism. To achieve this goal, he made sure that the chapel would outshine any other people had seen before. Thus, its use of gold leaf, onyx stone, and talavera tile is, in a word, stunning.

Visitors only need to spend a few moments inside the chapel to realize the master craftsmanship involved in creating it.

Oil paintings also decorate the space. A transplant from Mexico City, José Rodriguez Carnero, painted many of the canvases. His images depict scenes from the birth of Christ, the mysterious joys of the rosary, and the coronation of Mary, in somber tones that neatly contrast the gilded plaster.

The dome of the Capilla del RosarioThe ceiling of the chapel nave features gilded stucco.Artist José Rodriguez Carnero painted many of the canvases in the chapel.The centerpiece of the sanctuary is the altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who almost appears to float in midair. The gold canopy surrounding her came from the hands of Lucas Pinto, an Iberian artisan, and the columns were carved of stone from nearby Tecali de Herrera. Multiple saints adorn the walls surrounding the altar: At left are Mary’s husband, St. Joseph, and her cousin St. Elizabeth, who was the mother of St. John the Baptist. At right are her parents, St. Joachim and St. Anne. On the next tier up, you’ll note 16 virgin martyrs, each holding the instrument of her death.

While surveying the grandeur of this chapel, I’ve often pondered how a society that grappled with poverty could invest so much in a house of worship. Yet donations from rich and poor alike paid for the realization of the Capilla del Rosario: People of lesser economic means gave what they could to garner the protection of Mary, while the rich were promised burials within the chapel. (It is unclear how many, if any, are indeed buried here.) In more recent history, thanks to a donation from the Mary Street Jenkins Foundation, a team of restorers rejuvenated the noblest characteristics of the chapel between 1967 and 1971.

During any visit, be sure to examine the chapel carefully, slowly, from front to back, ceiling to floor. Try to gaze at the walls from every angle, from various directions, to see how many details you notice. The best time to visit is in the late afternoon: When the sun comes down through the windows, the gold leaf shines brighter than usual and fills the space with a heavenly glow. It’s a sight you simply should not miss.

—Laura McKelvie

The Templo de Santo Domingo and Capilla del Rosario are located at the corner of 4 Poniente and Calle 5 de Mayo, a short walk from the city’s main square. Hours: 8 a.m.-1 p.m. (2 p.m. on Sundays) and 4-8:30 p.m. daily.

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