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The Palafox Library: A Bishop’s Legacy in Puebla

Juan de Palafox y MendozaIt’s been a long road to beatification for Juan de Palafox y Mendoza. The Catholic priest, who served as bishop of Puebla from 1640 to 1655, became a candidate for the church’s official blessing shortly after his death some 350 years ago. But due to one roadblock after another — mostly opposition from Jesuits who argued that honoring Palafox would discredit them (because he’d policed misconduct in their ranks) — confirmation stalled for centuries. It will finally happen this Sunday, June 5, at a ceremony in Osma, Spain, the last place that he ministered to the faithful.

Palafox is known for being a prolific writer, a political thinker, a defender of the Mexico’s indigenous people during Colonial times, and a fair yet deeply religious man. “Historians highlight Palafox’s intelligence, integrity, activity, intellectual preparation and will, defining him as ‘one of the most brilliant men of his generation,’” says Jorge Fernández Díaz, third vice president of the Congress of Deputies, the lower house of Spain’s legislature.

“[Palafox is] probably the most interesting and maybe the most important figure in the whole history of 17th century Mexico.”

In Puebla, Palafox made his mark in both church and state affairs. He established the Dominican convent of St. Agnes, the colleges of St. Peter and St. Paul, and the girls school Immaculate Conception. He pushed for administrative reform within the diocese and for the completion of the city’s Cathedral, which was dedicated 1649. He also held several political offices, including that of the viceroy of New Spain in 1642.

“He was a superior man for his century, a classic in our language [Spanish] whose numerous texts were written with an elegant and eloquent style and have resulted in twelve thick volumes,” notes University of Salamanca researcher Águeda Rodríguez Cruz in a 2010 bulletin for the International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean. Quoting her colleague, professor Antonio Heredia, she adds: “[Palafox] was robust in his work, although of a sensitive condition; a spender, but mean with it; legalistic, while with an ascetic of sensitive piety; an expert and executor in law and politics, while at a mystic at the same time; a man of war and noise, while pacific and fond of silence; active, while contemplative; indebted, while punctual with his duties … a man of great contrasts, like life itself.”

His greatest legacy is a secular one: the Palafox Library in Puebla. Founded in 1646, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana was the first public library established in the Americas. Located inside what was once the seminary of St. John’s College — now home to Puebla’s cultural center — the library preserves 45,058 volumes dating from just before until just after the Colonial era. Many of its works are of global importance. These include original copies of Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), which charts human history according to the Bible in words and more than 2,000 illustrations; Andreas Vesalius’s On the Fabric of the Human Body (1555), a seven-volume tome that revolutionized the study of anatomy with detailed diagrams based on actual observation and dissection; and books printed in Mexico before 1600, including Alonso Molina’s Vocabulary in Castilian and Mexican, essentially the earliest New World dictionary.

The bookshelves consist of finely carved cedar, wild sunflower, and white pine.The library is also noteworthy for its sheer beauty. The bookshelves, commissioned by Bishop Francisco Fabián y Fuero in 1773 (and expanded to include a third level in the 1800s), consist of finely carved cedar, wild sunflower, and ayacahuite, a native white pine. A three-story gold altar at the far end of the room features an oil painting of Virgen of Trapani, which is believed to be modeled after the 14th-century sculpture attributed to Italian sculptor Nino Pisano.

In 1981, the Mexican government declared the library a historic monument. In 2005, UNESCO added the Biblioteca Palafoxiana to the Memory of the World list, formally recognizing its international significance. In 2010, after five years of work by 30 specialists, the first digital catalog of the library’s complete contents was released; some 3,000 copies of the interactive disk were distributed to other libraries, universities, and research institutions. At the time, Elvia Carrillo Velázquez, a director for ADABI, the national book-preservation group that helped to create the archive, told El Universal newspaper that the interactive disc “provides access to culture and, above all, makes public knowledge part of the history of the printed word.”

This seems to be exactly what Palafox intended. A sign at the library’s entrance bears his words from 1646: “He who finds himself benefiting without books finds himself in solitude without comfort, on a mountaintop without company, on a path without a walking stick, in the darkness without a guide. This gave me the desire to leave the library of books I’ve collected since I served his majesty the King, which is one of the best I’ve seen in Spain, ancillary to those of the church and in part and in public form, so that it may be used by all professions and people.”

The Biblioteca Palafoxiana is located on the second floor of the Casa de la Cultura, 5 Oriente #5, in the city’s historic center. Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Image credits: Bicentenario México/Wikipedia Commons (portrait) and Agencia Enfoque (library interior)

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3 Responses to “The Palafox Library: A Bishop’s Legacy in Puebla”

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  1. Kate says:

    Thanks for all this background. The place was so beautiful to visit — and I knew nothing about it at the time we were there. (Too bad they don’t allow photography inside… )

  2. I was delighted to read the brief history of Juan de Palafox y Mendoza. I am also interested in history and recently saw a painting done by Pascual Perez born in Puebla in 1663. I read a brief note on his life in Historia de la Pintura en Puebla, 1963, Francisco Perez Salazar. Any additional information you may have on this artist would be greatly appreciated. With warm regards, Howard

  3. Rebecca says:

    Thanks, Howard. I’m not personally familiar with Pascual Perez, but I did find some information about the artist in the book, “The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico: Treasures,” from the Museo Franz Mayer/Houston Museum of Fine Arts. According to the authors, Perez was one of the most important painters working in the city around the turn of the 18th century. “Perez’s talent was unfairly underrated and all too quickly forgotten, and few of his works have been identified, although we know he did for the arch that was built in Puebla for the birth of Prince Louis-Phillippe. This accomplishment led to his being called the ‘Zuexis of the century.’” He died in 1721.

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