Churches of Oaxaca: A Visit to a Historic City

In Oaxaca, the religious constructions of the colonial era impress with the magnificence of their interior and exterior decorations and offer a peculiar vision of the history of this kind and beautiful city.

Churches of Oaxaca: A Visit to a Historic City
Façade of the Cathedral of Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo: Francisco Enrique Camach

The religious constructions of the colonial era impress the tourist with the magnificence of their interior and exterior decorations and offer a peculiar vision of the history of this kind and beautiful city. Welcome to Oaxaca.

The city of Oaxaca is one of the most famous tourist centers, for its wonderful climate, admirable colonial monuments, and hospitable atmosphere. It has first-class hotels, and restaurants with attentive service, offering national and international haute cuisine specialties, in addition to the traditional regional cuisine, widely known. Modernism combined with the colonial atmosphere.

The foundation of the city dates back to 1,486 under the reign of Ahuízotl, the Aztec emperor who conquered the Zapotecs. Hernán Cortés, later in 1521, founded the town under the name of Segura de la Frontera, which would later be called Antequera.

And with the arrival of the Spaniards, the arrival of the catechizing missionaries determined to destroy the indigenous temples and build churches and convents, architectural jewels that remain to this day and are a sample of the creative ingenuity of the men of yesterday. A set of relics that no visitor should miss, do you want to see them?

The Cathedral of Oaxaca

The primitive Cathedral of Oaxaca was begun in the middle of the XVI century but was destroyed by the earthquake of 1696. The present building was begun at the beginning of the XVIII century and finished forty years later.

It is of austere and solid construction, of green quarry stone with well-cemented buttresses. The frontispiece is enriched with a quarry stone altarpiece with saints and apostles in the niches, as well as a fine sculptural relief of the Assumption.

The clock, with the machinery of copper and bronze, was manufactured in 1738 by a London house, and on the dial, it presents the date of 1765 in which it was installed. It has two monolithic towers crowned by small bell towers that barely protrude from the central part, perhaps in anticipation of possible seismic movements.

Although throughout the centuries it has suffered serious damages and consequent reconstructions, the Cathedral of Oaxaca remains standing as a symbol of the city. The interior of the cathedral, with three naves and numerous adjoining chapels, is sober.

The highlight is the High Altar, built-in marble. Here is venerated the Virgin of the Assumption, an Italian bronze sculpture of great proportions. Among its treasures are several oil paintings by José Palacios and outstanding works by the Oaxacan painter Marcial Santaella (XVIII century).

Church and Ex-Convent of Santo Domingo de Guzmán

Its construction began in the middle of the XVI century by the Order of the Dominicans, who did not finish it until a century later, becoming the evangelizing center of the whole region.

The most notable element of the façade is the façade, with three bodies and a central top where a medallion with the images of Santo Domingo de Guzmán and San Hipólito stands out, supporting a church on which the Holy Spirit descends. Closing the facade in a triangle and to the sides of the Dominican shield are represented the three theological virtues.

The interior of the church is the most complete example of baroque art on the whole continent. On a stucco base and white background, an infinity of gold-covered motifs stands out, forming a true filigree. Not a single part of the interior is undecorated. There you can admire the exceptional genealogical tree of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, an ornamentation that dates from 1665.

The upper part of the choir presents an infinity of reliefs with images of Dominican monks and martyrs that diminish in size as the motifs grow in height. The symbol of the Holy Spirit can be seen at the top.

In the vault of the church, there are frescoed medallions with scenes of the Virgin and Jesus Christ. In the inferior part, there are eight great high reliefs, also with evangelical scenes. To the central nave, there are six chapels on each side, whose original altars have disappeared, since for more than forty years the church was used as a stable.

The Rosary Chapel

One of the treasures of the church is the Chapel of the Rosary whose construction took place between 1724 and 1731. The beautiful octagonal dome stands out, crowned by the image of the Virgin protecting the Dominican Order.

The small vault over the choir is ornamented with the Mysteries of the Rosary. In the central part of the Main Altar stands out the image of Our Lady of the Rosary, an Italian image of the XVIII century.

This church deserves to be visited at night when the artificial illumination increases the reflections of its baroque ornamentations. In 1933 the church was declared a Historical Monument.

In the Ex-Convent is installed the Regional Museum of the State, which exhibits the treasure found in the Tomb 7 of Monte Alban.

Ex-Convent of Santa Catherine of Siena

Founded in 1576, it was the second monastery of nuns in New Spain. The building suffered really important changes as a result of the exclaustration of the nuns, due to the application of the Reform Laws in 1862. The City Hall, the municipal jail, two schools and a movie theater were installed there.

Church of the Trinity of the Huertas

Its construction dates from the end of the XVI century being then small, with a single nave and adobe walls. It was probably during the XVIII century when the present building was built of lime and stone. In the central niche of the main altar, the representation of the Holy Trinity is admired. In the altarpiece of the left side, the image of the Virgin and the Child is observed, and on the right side the image of San Sebastián. The images of San Isidro Labrador, the Virgin of the Solitude, and a Moreno Christ are also notorious.

Church of La Compañia

On the opposite corner of the Plaza de la Constitución, it dates from the XVIII century. With a Latin cross shape, it has three chapels, one dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, another to the Lord of Lightning, and the third to the Sacred Heart. The decoration on walls and vaults dates from the beginning of the century.

Church of San Juan de Dios

The origin of this sanctuary dates back to the arrival of Cortés' forces in 1521 when it was initially an adobe and straw chapel dedicated to Santa Catarina. Upon the arrival of the first bishop, Juan López de Zárate, it was rebuilt with brick and tile for its new functions as a diocesan seat. But when the works of the cathedral were concluded, the church was abandoned and was destroyed by the earthquake of 1662. In 1700 the works of the convent and the hospital began and the church was renovated and began to be called San Juan de Dios.

In 1862 it passed into the hands of the City Hall, was destroyed by fire in 1864, and rebuilt in 1867. In 1934 it was declared a historical monument and is one of the Oaxacan churches with the largest number of paintings, although it has almost no altarpieces.

Church of San Francisco

Also affected by the earthquakes of 1696 and 1787, it was in ruins until it was restored in 1898. In 1933 it was declared a historical monument. Its façade is the only one of churrigueresque style in the State and the interior, there are innumerable paintings of the XVI and XVIII centuries.

Church of El Carmen Bajo

It is a reconstruction of the primitive hermitage called " Tears of San Pedro", built with adobe and thatched roof in 1544. From its beginnings, it was at the service of mestizos and mulattos. In 1801 the roof collapsed due to an earthquake and was rebuilt by the parishioners. In 1862 it was destroyed by fire and ten years later it was rebuilt. The church preserves all its 19th-century altarpieces ornamented with gold, and the most outstanding paintings are those of John the Baptist, The Creation, The Ascension of the Lord, The Last Supper, and The Holy Trinity.

Church of San Felipe Neri

Consecrated in 1773, the images of the Virgin of the Patronage and the one of the Patron Saint of the Church, are those of greater artistic value. However, the Plateresque style façade and the ultra-baroque altarpieces are remarkable.