Although these ancient Catholic structures in Mexico are for obvious reasons often called “fortress monasteries,” some architectural historians claim that their design was more influenced by examples in Spanish architecture than by any particular need to construct ecclesiastical edifices in a defensive style because of the occasional possibility of hostile arrows of the Mexican tribes.
The Spanish priest-designers and their Hispanic architects modelled their work on the churches they knew and remembered from the centuries-long campaign to drive the Moors from Spain. (Even so, one early church in Mexico, the Augustinian monastery at Yuriria, did safely rebuff the arrows of a Chichimec attack.)
Every early convento (religious community residence and a public church) conformed to a standard plan -- a rectangular blocky church with the residential wing enclosing a garden and a walled atrium, i.e., a courtyard extending like a welcome away from the monastery out to the community. The fortress-like walls and towers echo Moorish decorative traditions and military methods. However, even if for the Spanish priests the castle-like top-knots to their churches represented the safety or strength of a fortress -- although perhaps only in its church-militant imagery -- it cannot have meant that to the native Mexican tribes, who had fought their battles in very different manner.
Whatever the real intent of the church priest-designers, the castle churches are readily recognizable, and are sure evidence of the very earliest church architecture in Mexico. They certainly gave the native Mexicans a conviction that the Spanish newcomers intended their Church to be permanently present there. The earliest Augustinian places on the North American continent were in Mexico over 450 years ago, and this Augnet page introduces a few of them.
Christian holy spaces in Mexico were created soon after the conquest by Indians working under the direction of friars - Franciscan, Dominican and Augustinian. A very small number of friars converted millions of Indians in a short time, primarily in the thirty five years between 1525 and 1560. As late as 1536, fifteen years after the capture of the great city of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlán, there were only about sixty members of these religious Orders in New Spain (Mexico).
As the 16th century progressed, monasteries and missions great and small arose in every Mexican town and village. They were highly visible centres of the new Catholic religion and Spanish rule. Today, over four hundred years later, many of these venerable buildings still stand. Within their walls are exquisite altars decorated with gold, religious sculptures and folk art. In many cases, there were spectacular early religious murals, painted by Indian artists under the direction of members of the Order of Saint Augustine from Spain. They have come to light in recent years, often having been hidden for centuries beneath later layers of lime or paint.
With historical developments in Mexico during the past centuries, none of these national treasures are any longer in Augustinian possession. There are now, however, newer Augustinian houses in some of the towns and cities in question. There are two Augustinian Provinces in Mexico.
Minalco is situated about 125 km (80 miles) southwest of Mexico City. From one of the best preserved Aztec sites in all of Mexico just above Malinalco, this charming town is dominated by the Augustinian house (convento) and church. Some of its foundation stones were taken from the Aztec site to build this church.
The Order of Saint Augustine arrived in this region in 1537. Work began on the church and house (convento) soon after, and was completed around 1575. The design of the church followed the usual, single nave plan used in early New Spain (Mexico). It was built using a rich mixture of architectural styles including late gothic, renaissance and plateresque with Indian motifs. It has a sober Renaissance-Plateresque facade.
Massive arched buttresses brace the roughly cut side walls. They contrast with an elaborately sculpted west doorway, whose arch and jambs bear foliated friezes and angels with wings spread upholding large crosses. Carved in native "tequitqui" style, some of the faces have inset obsidian eyes in the pre-hispanic tradition. The restored frescoes inside the church, sacristy, and patios (cloisters - clausurae) are highly decorated with renaissance imagery.
The large atrium is typical of churches in Mexico in the 16th century. Today Augustinians again serve in many of these ancient churches, although not always living in the adjacent ancient monastery. The list includes Puebla, Atlixco, Ocuilan, Malinalco, Metztitlan, Chalma and Ocuituco, Yuriria, Queretaro, Morelia and Oaxaca.
Photos (at right): Picture 1. Church built by Augustinians at Acolmán during the years 1539-1561. Picture 2. Church and monastery at Acolmán. Facade of church at left edge of picture, obscured. Picture 3. Interior of church at Acolmán, showing the sanctuary and altar. Picture 4: Facade of church built by the Augustinians at Metztitlan.
Colonial Mexico. Photographs of early colonial Mexican religious architecture and art. A blog with various annual additions from 2012 onwards. Over 300 photographic images. http://colonialmexico.blogspot.com.au
Malinalco. To view the splendour of this ancient Augustinian house (convento), go to: Augustinian Monastery of "La Purificacion Y San Simon". http://instructional1.calstatela.edu/bevans/Art454L-06-Malinalco
On the road to Malinalco. The ancient Augustinian site is well photographed in some modern digital images by a husband and wife from Arizona, United States of America, who are making a sponsored bicycle tour around the world (http://www.downtheroad.org): Arizona 2002, South America 2002, Asia 2005, Europe and Australia. See their large images on Malinalco by scrolling down at: http://www.downtheroad.org/Photo/6MexMor/2Malinalco.htm
The ruined Augustinian house (convento). http://instructional1.calstatela.edu/bevans/Art454L-23-Atlatluhacan/index.html
Yecapixtla, Ocuituco and Zacualpan
The municipalities Yecapixtla, Ocuituco and Zacualpan de Amilpas are located in the State of Morelos, Mexico. Surrounded by a lush landscape, this area can be compared to the beauty of a Swiss scenery and is worthy of admiring. Their majestic monasteries of the 16th century were built by the Order of Saint Augustine. These buildings contrast with the rich green vegetation of this region. http://www.tourbymexico.com/morelos/convents.htm
Yecapixtla Monasterio Agustino de Yecapixtla. The Augustinian monastery of San Juan Bautista in Yecapixtla was planned by Jorge de Avila and Jeronimo de San Esteban, based on the plans for the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City. It is part of The Monasteries on the slopes of Popocatepetl, World Heritage Site is a series of fourteen 16th century monasteries built by the Augustinians. http://infomorelos.com/municipi/yecapix.html
The First Augustinian foundation in the Americas. El convento agustino de Santiago Apóstol, es el primer convento de la orden en la Nueva España fundado el año 1533-1534; se pueden visitar también las capillas, de Nuestra Señora de Asunción y de San Nicolás; la Parroquia de San Andrés, fundada también por los agustinos, fundada en el año de 1659, fue hecha priorato y en 1571 se le consideró como convento; las iglesias de San Marcos Evangelista, San Miguel Arcángel San Andrés, La Natividad de Nuestra Señora y la de San Francisco de Asís; el santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria; y la hacienda de San Nicolás. http://www.angelfire.com/az/ProvinciadeMexico/ocuituco.html
Ocuituco Monastery, the first by the Augustinians in America, in the year 1533. Good photographs. https://www.zonaturistica.com/en/tourist-attraction/1287/exconvent-of-santiago-apostol-ocuituco.html
ZacualpanThe Augustinian monastery of Zacualpan. Onein a series of fourteen 16th century monasteries built by the Augustinians. http://colonialmexico.blogspot.com.au/2015/12/mexican-murals-zacualpan-de-amilpas.html
Former Augustinian monastery at Metztitlan (Hidalgo). On the following web site, scroll down to Metztitlan. http://www.interamericaninstitute.org/mural_art.htm
The church and monastery (above) was begun by the Order of Saint Augustine in 1539, and the outstanding pure plateresque facade of the church was finished in 1560. Religious services are still conducted every day in the church (although not by the Order of Saint Augustine), as they have been for the past 450 years. The attached Augustinian monastery building had not contained an Augustinian community for over a hundred years. It is now a museum of the church. This church in Acolmán is most famous for its exquisite Plateresque façade. The Plateresque craft was the intricate carving in stone. The design of the church was influenced by the medieval Gothic fortress churches common in Spain during the reconquista (the re-conquest of parts of Spain from the Moors). Workmen were brought from Spain for this task, and the fruit of their labour had a strong creative influence on the façade of other local churches built subsequently by the Order of Saint Augustine. This was most obviously the case at Yuriria (Michoacán) and Metztitlan (Hidalgo).
Acolman. The facade of Acolman served as inspiration for other monasteries that show certain similarities like Metztitlan, Yuriria, Cuitzeo, and lxmiquilpan. [K8364] http://instructional1.calstatela.edu/bevans/Art454L-04-AcolmanJilotepec/WebPage-Info.00003.htmlEx-monastery of San Agustin at Acolman, Mexico. 445 photos by Enrique Lopez-Tamayo Biosca. Fantastic! https://www.flickr.com/photos/eltb/albums/72157607325749696
Alcoman monastery explained. Colonial Mexico. Excellent photographs and description. http://colonialmexicoinsideandout.blogspot.com.au/2014_07_01_archive.html
Acolman.The Eden of the Americas. http://www.west.net/~rperry/Central%20Mexico/acolman.html
Acolman cloister (courtyard). http://www.corbisimages.com/stock-photo/rights-managed/NW003567/courtyard-of-augustinian-monastery-in-acolman
Convento of former Augustinian monastery at Acolman. http://www.mexicodesconocido.com.mx/templo-y-ex-convento-de-san-agustin-estado-de-mexico.html
Colonial art from the workshop of Basilio Pacheco, in the year 1745 approx. From 1746 at Convento San Agustin in Lima, Peru. There are 38 frescos on the life of Augustine in the covered hallway of the cloister (square courtyard).
St Augustine with the Virgin and Child. http://colonialart.org/artworks/264B
St Augustine writing “De Trinitate” http://colonialart.org/artworks/263B
The Ordination of St Augustine http://colonialart.org/artworks/257B
St Augustine receives the habit http://colonialart.org/artworks/252B
St Augustine presents his Rule http://colonialart.org/artworks/258B
and funeral of St Augustine http://colonialart.org/artworks/267B AN4249