Intricate Interiors

Interior perspective of Mexico City’s cathedral by artist Urbano López and lithographer Pedro Gualdi, circa 1841-1851. The view overlooks the choir space, which occupied a central place in the building's floorplan. Although its first architect, Claudio de Arciniega (circa 1520-1593), did not include domes or vaults in his original design, subsequent tradesmen incorporated them and clerestory windows that brought into the space dramatic natural lighting. The cathedral's construction began in 1573 and mostly concluded in 1666.

Altar Mayor de la Iglesia de Valenciana
“Altar de los Reyes” en la Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Inmaculada Concepción de Puebla
Vista interior de la catedral de México
Alzado para un retablo
Alzado para un tabernáculo
Alzado para un retablo
Alzado para un tabernáculo

Altars typically commanded the interior perspectives of a church. This was largely due to the richly decorated wooden altarscreens, or retablos, that served as their backdrop. Originally conceived as didactic elements for the illiterate during the Medieval period, retablos generally comprised three vertical segments divided by columns. Central to the composition was the tabernacle, or the cabinet that held the communion bread and wine, while paintings and sculpture adorned the surrounding niches. Wealthy families and confraternities often sponsored these works of art to make their devotion—and status—publicly known within these colonial spaces of spiritual power.

Techo de la Iglesia de Santo Domingo de Guzmán en Oaxaca
Ceiling of the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Oaxaca

In some churches, ceilings would be equally or even more ornate. Throughout the colonial period, ceilings in the Mudéjar style, which derived from Medieval Moorish art, often appeared in religious buildings. Novohispano architects and designers apparently appreciated the style's complex composition of intertwined geometric patterns, gilding, and organic designs.

Although they appeared on the surface to be carved in stone, they were made out of wood and fastened to architectural structures. In his seventeenth-century architectural manual, Carmelite friar Andrés de San Miguel presented the principles and designs behind this interlaced woodwork called “carpintería de lo blanco” or “carpintería de lazo”. During her 2019 LLILAS Benson Digital Scholarship Fellowship, UT-Austin School of Architecture graduate student Andrea Alvarez examined San Miguel's treatise and drawings to understand the construction of this interior ornament. After extracting geometric data from the manuscript, Alvarez reconstructed the ceiling woodwork using 3D modeling and printing techniques. See Alvarez's presentation and slides to learn more about the project.

Alzado de altarescreen
Altarescreen de los Siete Príncipes o Arcángeles
Alzado de una entrada


UT Catalog | Worldcat | Donahue-Wallace, Kelly. Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America, 1521-1821. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.

UT Catalog | Worldcat | Nesvig, Martin Austin. Local Religion in Colonial Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2006.

UT Catalog | Worldcat | Taylor, William B. Shrines and Miraculous Images: Religious Life in Mexico before the Reforma. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010.