Marvelous Masonry: Mérida Cathedral

Words: Indi Blake

Words: Indi Blake
Photos: MASONRY Magazine

Over the last 500 years, Mexico has been the stage for a dramatic and fascinating history. From the Spanish conquest to violent uprisings to opulent grandeur, all the way to the emergence of its current vibrant, modern culture. If all of this immense history could be distilled into one building, there is a strong case that it would be the St. Ildephonsus Cathedral of Mérida in Mexico’s Yucatán state. It was said to be among the oldest cathedrals in North America. 

Its construction started in 1561, a mere 20 years after Copernicus’ groundbreaking work establishing the sun as the center of our solar system and two years before the birth of William Shakespeare. The structure, built from the ruins of ancient Mayan pyramids, was devised by Spanish conquistadors and constructed by indigenous laborers. Its vast proportions, cultural significance, and awe-inspiring beauty have made it a valuable place for worship and an integral piece of local identity. 

After Columbus’s discovery in 1492, that an entire continent and its myriad people had gone entirely unnoticed by Europe, a scramble of exploration and conquest of the new world took hold. While famous figures like Hernan Cortez led brutal campaigns into native Aztec land in the heart of Mexico, Juan de Grijalva and Fransico Cordoba led expeditions throughout the Caribbean and gulf, including the Yucatán peninsula. Then, by Spanish royal decree, Montejo, a veteran of those original expeditions and the captain-general of the Yucatán at the time, led an effort to conquer the peninsula. 

Unannounced to Montejo, the local Mayan population that had inhabited the Yucatan for the last few thousand years harbored a fierce resistance to the European occupation of their land. Montejos' military campaigns to conquer the Yucatán waged from 1528 to 1535 but were unsuccessful at beating back the Mayans, who proved to be a unified and organized fighting force. Small townships established on the coasts by the Spanish would routinely be in chaos within only a matter of months, destroyed by Mayan forces. In the background, though, European disease crept into the indigenous population and began to turn the tables in the Spaniard's favor. 

Montejo, now too old to fulfill his original mission, bestowed the task of conquering the Yucatán to his son with the same name. He was nicknamed “El Mozo,” Montejo junior waged campaigns into the unconquered Yucatán. After years of planning, even more bloodshed, and with the additional help of rapidly spreading foreign diseases. 

El Mozo eventually led successful missions into the heart of Yucatán. Many battles and uprisings by the Maya ensued, but none could shake off the new Spanish presence in the region once it was established. It wouldn't be until 1542 that the first permanent township would be declared at a site in the northwest region of the peninsula.

El Mozo's site for the new township was a mostly abandoned Mayan settlement called Ichkanzihóo, or T'hó for short. The inhabitants were unceremoniously expelled, and the new Spanish town council began to plan the city that would later become Mérida. Spanish accounts of what the peninsula was like in the early 1500s paint a picture of an exotic jungle environment rich with wildlife. Ancient Mayan temples were scattered throughout the region and were shrouded in mystery. 

Though mainly the Spanish kept the Mayan resistance under control, Mayans still outnumbered the Spanish by a wide margin. They inhabited the surrounding areas in village enclaves and small cities across the peninsula. Local religious traditions and customs like human sacrifice and shamanistic rituals practiced by the Maya were foreign to the Spanish. 

They stirred up fear that exacerbated the already tenuous rift between Mayans and Europeans. Relations in the early days were astonishingly bad. Settlers to the new city considered Mayans savages primarily incapable of being civilized, and many were slaughtered or enslaved. 

Countless artifacts painstakingly carved out of stone or handwritten on scrolls were destroyed for depicting “cult images” believed to be sinful by the church. As a result, so much of pre-hispanic Mayan history was erased in purging texts and artifacts during this era. Historians have used the few articles that remained to piece together much of what we now know about the ancient Maya.

As was common for many new colonial cities, erecting a church was a top priority to begin the arduous task of converting the local people to Christianity. The new city's church was meant to be massive from its initial inception. It meant to be a place to worship and as tangible evidence of Christianity’s power and dominance over the local culture. 

It was a towering reminder of who was now in charge. A location was selected in the central part of the city on the edge of the main plaza. The Mayan pyramid that had stood there for the last few hundred years, Yajam Cumu, was to be deconstructed, and its stone blocks would be integrated into the new church walls. Even with the repurposed masonry, the church's construction was a huge undertaking that took immense planning, money, and sheer manpower. 

Architect Don Pedro de Aulestiaone completed the initial phases of construction, though his overall influence on the building would end up being minimal. The first brick was placed in 1562 into what would become the cathedral’s foundation under the administration of the first bishop fray Fransisco Toral who arrived during the planning stages. 

Reportedly, he was displeased at the way the local Mayan population had been treated. While he too believed in the forceful conversion of locals to Christianity through ethically dubious methods, he also saw the atrocities inflicted on the Mayans for what they were and tried to heal relations. Toral’s bishophood during construction was followed by Fray Gregorio de Montalvo and Fray Juan de Izquierdo, all of whom served the Spanish Roman Catholic Church. 

From a single letter from the Mérida township, scholars know that issues with the cathedral's construction were hindering its completion. Because of this, Spanish architect Juan Miguel de Agüero was enlisted to help finish the project as well as Pedro de Aulestia and Gregorio de la Torre. It was Agüero who would steer the project the most and is credited with masterminding the bulk of the cathedral's architectural concepts. Agüero, who had been working to fortify Havana’s defenses from pirates in Cuba, would also later be involved in Mexico City’s famous Metropolitan Cathedral and would end up leaving his mark on three major new world-building projects throughout the 1500s. Under Agüero’s instruction, the Mérida Cathedral was eventually completed on November 4, 1598. 

The complicated masonry technique employed during the cathedral’s construction reflects the Spanish mastery of the art practiced in Europe over the previous thousand years. It features basilical architecture and closely aligns with Renaissance-Mannerist designs built during the same era and has even been compared to the Pantheon in both its style and specific design characteristics. 

At its highest points, the hulking structure reached an astounding 143 feet tall. Its two grand bell towers each featured three stories of bell slots allowing the structure to accommodate many tons of brass church bells. The ceiling itself ranged from 70 feet high in its arches up to 110 feet in its central dome, which was one of the first in the New World. Agüero’s name was inscribed in the central dome in honor of his work and remained there for over 300 years before renovations covered it up. 

The main front-facing walls and the building's corners were made from large slabs of local limestone up to a meter wide, many carved by ancient Mayans centuries before. The building required so much stone that the high-quality stacking stones had to be prioritized for the corners and front face of the building. While builders were forced to stack irregular assemblages of what was left for the less visible walls of the building. 

Inside the temple sit 12 gigantic free-standing pillars six feet wide extending up to the ceiling far above with 16 half pillars built into the walls supporting a series of arches that in turn support the 20 vaults that make up the ceiling. Everything from the pillars to the ribs was adorned with beautifully intricate stone carvings. 

On its facade, between massive pilasters that supported a cornice with pediment, the cathedral featured an oversized engraved Spanish coat of arms, a veritable stamp indicating its creator's origin and allegiance to Spain. Two Saint Peter and Saint Paul statues stood on either side of the twenty-some foot high main entrance meant to decorate and protect the building. Upon its completion, the cathedral would be dedicated to Archbishop Ildefonso of Toledo, a saint who lived in Spain during the 600s.

While earlier Mayan architects had mastered many masonry techniques, the concept of ribbed vaulted ceilings was a novel Spanish introduction that allowed a cavernous interior with a sturdy roof in the classic Roman Catholic renaissance style. The particular variety of vaulting used in Mérida's Cathedral can also be seen in the Cathedral of Jaen in Spain. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the first bishop of Yucatán, fray Francisco Toral was from a town in Jaen province and so had direct connections to that particular building style.  

Local Mayans undertook the bulk of the actual construction of the cathedral. They were descendants of those who had built the dismantled pyramids that had once occupied the site. Most Mayan labor was involuntary and was considered by the Spanish to be part of the high price of local assimilation to the new cultural norm. Interestingly, records have preserved the Spanish given names of two of these Mayan workers. Francisco Pool and Diego Can were both recognized for their contributions to the project.

As the cathedral began to take shape, its staggering proportions would have become clear. For many, it must have been the largest building they had ever seen, rivaling even the ancient Mayan pyramids in size. An ancient Mayan text handwritten during this era called “Chilam Balam,'' chronicling ancestral legends and cultural knowledge includes mentions of a massive religious building in the new Spanish city. Its inclusion in such a text indicates that even distant populations of indigenous people were aware of the construction marvel in the new city. 

Small uprisings mounted by indigenous peoples were common from the 1600s to the 1700s but none managed to seriously threaten the fall of Mérida. That changed in the early 1800s when the political climate in Mexico was heating up. The country’s Mexican-born Spaniards had begun to develop their own identity, distinct from the country their families had left behind centuries before. The prejudices against their fellow countrymen of different ethnic backgrounds faded as their lineages blended together. 

Mexico’s people became unified enough to begin thinking about breaking free from the colonial shackles that bound their country to Spain. This, in tandem with a changing political landscape back in Europe, largely Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Spain, provided an opening for a revolution in Mexico. By 1821 a series of uprisings across Mexico became too much for Spain to handle, leading to Mexico declaring its independence. 

Though the Yucatán region was significantly insulated from the fighting that was ravaging the rest of the country, Mérida endured a significant portion of the battles. The Spanish coat of arms on the cathedral's facade was vandalized due to anti-Spanish sentiment and revolutionaries reportedly bunkered up behind the cathedral's thick walls using it as an impenetrable fortress from which to shoot down their enemies. Bullet impact sites can still be seen on the church's walls from the many times the church has provided refuge. 

The cathedral again provided cover for its townspeople in the early 1840s when, for a brief time, the Yucatán was declared an independent state distinct from Mexico. At the time, the bulk of Mexico’s troops were dealing with a looming issue in the north— Texas. Soon after Texas successfully broke off from Mexico, and the Mexican forces were no longer preoccupied, they swiftly brought the Yucatán back under its rule where it has stayed for the last roughly 200 years. The facade that once displayed the Spanish coat of arms was adapted to show a great eagle, the same emblem that shows up on Mexico’s flag and currency affirming the Yucatán’s position as a Mexican state.

Today, the Cathedral of Mérida sits as it always has in the central plaza, still active, surrounded now by tourists and handicraft vendors rather than conquerors and revolutionaries. Its tumultuous history now seems distant as the structure functions as a quaint backdrop while children play in the plaza. The Mayan people whose sweat and blood created the cathedral have never left and their descendants continue to use the church for religious services and shade while they go about their daily business. 

The city of Mérida has expanded to a population of about one million and hosts tens of thousands of tourists each year, for many of whom witnessed the great cathedral is at the top of their travel lists. If one looks carefully at the church's towering walls today, ancient Mayan engravings can still be seen etched carefully into the giant blocks of stone, whispers of the forgotten centuries that those same stones spent as pyramid blocks in a bygone era.

Throughout its life, the St. Ildephonsus Cathedral of Mérida has seen Mexico’s cultural landscape change more than any person. It has seen the dawn of the European onset into the Americas as well as countless rulers, battles, and powershifts as regimes evolved with the times. It is the physical representation of the end of the era of new world isolation and the beginning of the current era of global influence and rapid change. 

Its masonry has stood the test of time and will undoubtedly outlive everyone alive today. With some luck, we can expect that in another five hundred years, it will continue to stand, diligently guarding the central plaza as it has for centuries. What events the Cathedral will play host to during that time we can only speculate on, but the longevity of the cathedral itself and its incredible legacy is certain.

Westlake Royal Building Products™ to Showcase Be Boundless™ Campaign, Top Industry Trends and New Product Innovations at Pacific Coast Builders Conference (PCBC)

HOUSTON (June 18, 2024) — Westlake Royal Building Products™ (Westlake Royal), a Westlake company (NYSE:WLK), will showcase its Be Boundless™ campaign, top industry trends and new product innovations at the Pacific Coast Builders Conference (PCBC) in Anahe

Bringing Bricks Back To Life

BrickRecyc, a machine that removes old mortar from bricks, was invented by three entrepreneurs from Quebec in 2021. Tommy Bouillon, David Dufour, and Hugo Cartier were the innovation's source. The invention emerged out of necessity. Tommy Bouillon, head o

Are Your Employees Safe While Working In Hot Weather?

As the temperatures rise outside during summer months, so do the risks that employees working in hot conditions may be harmed by the dangerous effects it can have. Exposure to high temperatures can be deadly. It’s your responsibility as a business owner

Maximizing Efficiency with CrewTracks

In the masonry industry, efficient project management is crucial for success. CrewTracks addresses this need by streamlining various aspects of daily operations.