Postcard from Merida, Mexico: Home of the first cathedral finished in the Americas

santiago church merida yucatan mexico

Above, Bells at the Top of the Facade of the Santiago Church in Merida

Under supervision of Spanish architects, Mayan laborers began building the Cathedral of Merida in 1562 with stones pillaged from one of their own temples. The cathedral was finished before the close of the 16th century and dedicated to the new outpost’s patron saint, San Ildefonso of Toledo (607-667).

As Ildefonso was conducting Mass in his role of Bishop of Toledo, Spain, brilliant light suddenly illuminated the entire church. Many of the celebrants fled in fear, but those who remained witnessed the Virgin Mary herself descend and enthrone herself at the altar. Grateful for his devotion and defense of her purity, she even gifted him with a splendid vestment, a chasuble, from her own son’s wardrobe. His association with the miraculous illumination must provide Merida with extra excuses to set off fireworks on his feast day, January 23.

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Postcard from Lecce, Italy: Frolicking putti, Solomonic columns and saintly relics

she-wolf on facade of chiesa di sant'irene in lecce

She-Wolf and Oak Tree, Symbols of Lecce, on the Façade of the Church of Saint Irene

Baroque churches of Lecce are filled with putti frolicking amidst birds and pomegranates, twisting Solomonic columns covered with intricate lacelike carvings, images of saints and some of their bones.

 

Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: Size foremost in the minds of Cathedral founders

In the year 1482, Pierre Dancart began carving the High Altar for the Cathedral of Seville, el Catedral de Santa María de la Sede. The enormous project probably consumed most of his life, as he did not finish until 44 years later. The sheer size of the altar overwhelms the vignettes from the Bible and lives of saints contained within it, such as the rather gory spearing of children above.

But size was what mattered most to those who determined to build the grand Cathedral in 1401.

Prior to that time, the site was occupied by a major mosque with a minaret designed by architect Ahamed ben Basso for Almodhad Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf (1135-1185). When King Ferdinand III of Castile (1199-1252) conquered Sevilla in 1248, both the city and the mosque were Christianized. Chapels were inserted to convert the interior into a more Catholic appearing space.

Seville became a center of wealth, and the initial redo of the mosque was not as grandiose as the city’s leaders vision for the city. They wanted an awe-inspiring Cathedral, so work commenced.

The resulting Cathedral was built astride the mosque and inside some of the walls of its compound. The imposing edifice covers close to six acres, with the center transept soaring to a height equal to a 12-story building – by most measurements, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. The minaret was converted into a bell tower, the Giralda, and rises more than 30 stories in height.

Perhaps some of the plans were more grandiose than practical. The center dome collapsed in 1511, only five years after its completion. Its replacement, however, lasted until an earthquake in 1888. The newest one was completed in 1903.

The Cathedral contains the tombs of several kings as well as that of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506). The riches within are suitably impressive, and art includes works by Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) and Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).

One can be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the Cathedral, or zoom in on the details, such as tiny shards of saints held in reliquaries or predatory, the Moorish lock on a door or wolves topping pilasters at one of the entrances.