Spanish Colonial Architecture

Lest it all disappear . . .

The UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) supports heritage conservation around the world. This includes, but is not limited to, studying the impact of climate change on historical and natural property, identifying strategies to reduce natural and man-made disasters, and working to preserve historic structures.

In my study of the Old Spanish Missions, I also became aware of WHEAP, World Heritage Program on Earthen Architecture, and I am especially interested in their work with Taos Pueblo. This pueblo was introduced to Spaniards in 1540, as the Coronado expedition came through the area in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola and its imagined gold.

The first church at Rancho de Taos, San Geronimo de Taos, was built around 1620.  (The original missionaries’ church and convent lie in ruins west of the pueblo. Click here to view a short video from UNESCO about Taos.)

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Traditional adobe construction (sun-dried mud bricks reinforced with mortar) was used to build many of the missions that are now melting back into the earth from which they came. Other materials used to construct these missions included cobblestone, lime mortar, and timbers. These timbers were often hauled by Indian laborers from locations miles away from the construction site.

The ruin at Tumacácori National Park (a place which lights up the imagination–you should go) has been somewhat resurrected. Meandering through the courtyard, one can almost hear Gregorian Chant mingle with the Indians’ wooden flutes. The southern district is being investigated for possible misidentification by archaeologist and author Deni Seymour, the error relating to the date it was built and by whom.

Built to Last . . . Unless it Doesn’t

There is no doubt Iberian peninsula architecture was influenced by the Moors who, along with their conquest, brought their type of building construction to Spain. Mudéjar style developed in the 12th Century and is a synchronization of Moorish, Christian, and Jewish characteristics. It traveled with the Spanish across the Atlantic and impacted the assembly of churches, presidios, and haciendas.

Today, horseshoe shaped arches define southwestern style as much as wood beam (or ocotillo) ceilings. This proves my adage Linking Yesterday to Today remains viable. Or, as King Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NIV), “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

But the Soul Lives Forever

Many churches were built over Indian Kivas, underground gathering places often used for religious purposes. (Although I have been inside a Kiva, I have friends who had never heard of them before, or friends who used to think kivas relate only to fireplaces. I tell them reading historical fiction is a fun way to learn stuff, so read!)

Not every priest was inclined to destroy a man to reach his soul. Some missionaries sought to integrate, rather than obliterate, native religious practices by allowing their traditions to mingle with those of Catholicism.

Spanish Renaissance architecture followed the Spaniards into the New World; the only thing that held them back from building imperishable structures was the availability of material and labor. Even so, many churches rivaled European cathedrals.

Interior decoration included the imaginative use of paint. While the Franciscans’ churches normally oriented from the east to the west, other religious orders had no defined orientation (save vertically). The nave (long corridor where parishioners worship) often had two wings (transept) attached about three-quarters of the way down. These wings formed (from a birds eye view) a cross. This tangible form acted to remind the occupants that they were always and intimately held within the Cross of Christ. Just like me.


2 Responses to “Spanish Colonial Architecture”

  1. Deni Seymour

    Thank you for the call out Amy. We are running a crowd funding effort for a limited time for our current achaeological research at Guevavi, hoping to submit additional chronometric dates on as many of the adobe structures as we get funding for:

    Each time we run a sample we learn so much more about this mission, the period, and how many misconceptions there have been about this place and the people that lived here.


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