The ribbed vaults built in the churches of Santo Domingo Yanhuitlán, San Pedro y San Pablo Teposcolula, and San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca, are among the very few structures of this type constructed during the sixteenth century in the Americas.
The new buildings of the region
The large buildings erected in la Mixteca appeared in the region’s landscape during the second half of the sixteenth century, when the map of the New Spain was mostly defined along with the new social structure. The mendicant orders were well established throughout the territory. Various literatures of architecture and other arts had reached the continent and intellectual activities were much more abundant. Dominicans, whose evangelization mission expanded throughout the southern territory of Mexico, had developed catechism books in the Zapotec and Mixtec languages. Religious syncretism became common practice; indigenous people began to overlap their spiritual beliefs with the Christian rituals and began to identify themselves with the new temples. By this time many Spaniards had moved to Mexico. Among them were the master builders and masons who came to help with the new buildings. They brought new building systems to the region and, with the help of the monks, trained the indigenous people to construct new types of structures. In addition to practical knowledge, these masons brought metal tools suitable for the kind of work they sought to develop.
The physical transformation of the built environment took place largely in two stages. Immediately after the Spanish arrival to the region in 1535 the main task was to disassemble the pre-Columbian temples reusing the stone to construct the colonizers new buildings. This first phase changed the physiognomy of the indigenous towns by superimposing the new buildings onto the ancient structures. The indigenous monuments were dismantled and/or reconfigured to create Christian churches, Spanish palaces, and administrative buildings. The open spaces were also modified according to western traditions. The transformation of the iconic buildings signified the superposition of the new social and religious order.
The second phase began when the original settlements were abandoned and entire communities relocated to nearby sites. These changes were promoted by the Spaniards and authorized by the Viceroy in 1540. The justification to relocate communities was based largely on sanitation. These new communities created tabula rasa conditions for construction opening up opportunities for the design of new archetypes that expressed the modernity of the time. New monasteries and churches were developed in the towns of Coixtlahuaca, Yanhuitlán, and Teposcolula. The new towns’ layouts were based on grids following the cardinal points that included a carefully chosen location for the palaces of the local Caciques. Many of these archetypes were based on precedents found in Europe as the monastic complexes in these communities followed similar programmatic elements as those built in the old continent during the Renaissance period.
The existence of pre-Columbian monumental architecture in the region was of importance to the Spanish master builders whose commissions had to be accomplished using local labor. We should remember that their success depended on their ability to adapt and manage the conditions of the colony, which were very different to those in Spain. Knowing where the skilled workers were and the type of work that they were capable of accomplishing was crucial.
The native masons quickly learned the new building techniques. The tasks to teach a Mixtec mason should have first involved the carving of simple ashlars and other pieces of regular shapes. That work was familiar to them and by doing this, the apprentice would be able to understand the use of new iron tools mastering the basics of stone carving while learning about the grain of the stone. Later, they would have been assigned to a more complex task, perhaps the carving of an arch voussoir, which included curved surfaces of the arch in addition to the wedge-shaped bed joints.
The social organization of the Mixtecs and their ambitions provided a suitable environment to accomplish the construction of these monumental buildings. The colonizers had to establish agreements with the Mixtec authorities upon their arrival. These negotiations included the layout of the new temples, the insertion of Mixtec symbols in the decorations and the inclusion of the Caciques residences within the new settlements. The layout of open chapels and single nave churches are influenced by the indigenous customs and needs. The most notable presence of Mixtec symbols is found in the north façade and the open chapel at Coixtlahuaca. The town of Teposcolula has one of the most important Cacique’s residences of the country and remains of this type of residential building are also found in the town of Yanuhitlán. The layout and construction methods applied to these buildings are clearly linked to Mixtec art of building in stone that was reflected in the new monasteries and churches.