The town of Salamanca, Mexico contains a church built by the Augustinians that has often been described as “the house of gold.”
Salamanca is an industrial city the Mexican state of Guanajuato, 20 kilometres from Irapuato on Highway 12 in west-central Mexico. It is over 300 kilometres (186 miles) from Mexico City. The town of Salamanca lies on the north bank of the Lerma River. Another famous church built by the Augustinians at Yuriria is beside a lake formed by water from the Lerma.
Salamanca is in the middle of the Bajío, a fertile plateau extending over parts of the states of Guanajuato and Querétaro. It was founded on 1st January 1603 by Viceroy Gaspar de Zúñiga y Acevedo, a native of the Spanish city of Salamanca. It has a baroque architectural jewel: the Convento and Church of San Agustín, with its matchless neohispanic altarpieces. This church is considered to be one of the most important architectural works of art during the vice-regal period.
In 1609 Diego de Ávila O.S.A. in Mexico received permission from King Philip III of Spain for the Order of Saint Augustine in the Augustinian Province of Michoacán to build four convents. (Mexico has had two Augustinian Provinces throughout most of its time there.) One of the sites chosen was the recently-founded city of Salamanca, which first received Augustinians on 26th May 1615. Construction took place in two quite separate phases: the first started in 1641 when the Augustinian priest in charge was Miguel de Guevara O.S.A.. The church was named in honour of the beatified Spanish Augustinian, John of Sahagún O.S.A.. It was solemnly dedicated on 6th December 1706.
During this first phase of construction the main church, its towers, domes, facade and its first cloisters were built. This is evidenced by the fact that the building style indicates construction in the 17th century. This tall and relatively narrow building, inconspicuously situated, has an elegantly simple façade and towers. Severe columns, embellished with hollow spiral mouldings, flank the entrance. The positioning of the crucifix on the top of the façade beneath a conche is unusual. This first phase of its construction was finished one hundred years later.
The second phase of construction started in 1761, when it was decided to establish in Salamanca the main house (convento) of the Mexican Augustinian Province of Michoacán. This required the major expansion of the Augustinian convento already attached to the church there. The second cloister, now called the Main Cloister, was most likely added during this period, and it is certain that the now-famous altarpieces and the nave of the church were added at that time. During this second phase, the interior of the church was almost completely covered with painted and gilded panelling. Strong Moorish influence (Mudéjar) is apparent in the gilded wooden ornamentation of the dome and the wooden choir railings. The interior has been aptly described as “a golden explosion of draperies and decoration.”
Up high, there is a crucifix of Christ and at the end of the church, the archangel Gabriel moves his wings and flesh-colored young men cover his nudity with golden colored cloth. The gold-leafed foliage seems to fall in a whirlwind from where the cherubs and figurines sing to the glory of God. The interior walls are covered with eleven of the most beautiful neohispanic altarpieces of churrigueresco style. These golden altars contain gold leaf of 24 carat gold, which date between 1768 and 1782. All of them were the work of artists of Querétaro, Mexico – the venue of another world-famous former Augustinian convento.
These altarpieces solemnly were blessed the 28 of August of 1782. They are said to be the most impressive altars in Latin America. They feature golden angels, saints and cherubs that portray the most imaginative of the fantasies, all set in an atmosphere of wealth and luxury, with capricious forms and of great elegance. Displaying several phases of the late Baroque period, the general design places these altars within the Querétaro style in the middle of the 17th century. The characteristics of this style include the preponderant use of draperies, curtains and crowns, and an excellence in the application of the gold leaf and distempering.
The side altar of San Nicolás de Tolentino artistically portrays the life story of this 14th-century Italian Augustinian priest. The form of the net-shaped background is masterly. Two further magnificent side altars, dedicated to St Joseph and St Anne, have been preserved unaltered. The former was the work of Pedro José de Rojas of the Mexican city of Querétaro in 1768. These two altars are magnificent examples of the Churrigueresque style. In contrast to the relatively flat moulding of the altars in the nave, the emphasis here is on a particularly vivid portrayal of the almost life-size figures of the saints. In about the year 1836 the main altar was dismantled and replaced by a neoclassic version that is, frankly, not easy on the eye. The pulpit is of wood. Its mahogany is wrought and adorned with incrustations in ivory and other materials, and the banister rails of its stairway were painted in the 18th century.
The church has an enormous sacristy. Above its central point is a small cupola with a linternilla (a lantern-like projection) that contains four vertical windows which allow daylight into the room. It has paintings of the four evangelists that are of great artistic merit. Leading from this sacristy the "room of the dead", which was the cemetery of the Augustinians. For this reason the archway to this area has stones carved with skulls. The central and largest piece of furniture in the sacristy is an octagonal table, with attached storage areas for missals, and panels covered with fourteen pointed miniatures and carvings. The carvings often feature the symbols of the Order of Saint Augustine - the heart and a bishop’s mitre. Both the pulpit and the sacristy table are carved works of Eastern art that were commissioned in the Philippines and transported to Mexico on the famed Manila galleons between 1750 and 1757.
In the sacristy there is also a cabinet of carved wood that measures fifteen metres in length. It contains thirty-three drawers for the storage of church vestments and other liturgical objects.
Links and videos
Ex- Augustinian Convent, Salamanca. The major cloister (courtyard), is called the “Second Cloister” because it was built sometime after the first cloister. (You Tube: 3 minutes 19 seconds) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anz3_NXrPks
Ex- Augustinian Convent, Salamanca. The small cloister (courtyard). By the Mexican Tourist Authority. (You Tube: (4 minurtes 6 seconds) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qlXBPIxG00
The major cloister (courtyard). Augustinian ex-Convento, Salamanca, Mexico. B By Mexico Turismo Internacional. (You Tube: 4 minutes 6 seconds) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qlXBPIxG00
Ex-Convento of San Juan de Sahagun, Salamanca, Mexico. By Mexico Turismo Internacional. (You Tube: 4 minutes 30 seconds) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lHOBReFjVM
Coro (Choir) of San Agustín, Salamanca, Guanajuato, Mexico. Christmas Carol. (You Tube: 2 minutes 47 seconds) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dbHwlfix-s
Saint John of Sahagun. Biography.http://midwestaugustinians.org/st-john-of-sahagun