A New Story About Three Old Churches

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In the Mixtec region of southern Mexico stand three magnificent Gothic churches: Santo Domingo Yanhuitlán, San Pedro y San Pablo Teposcolula, and San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca.

With their soaring vaults and ornate decoration, the churches proudly announce themselves as feats of European architecture. They appear, in fact, directly imported by explorers from 16th-century Spain and seem to leave very little room for indigenous expression.

But in his exhibition, “Mixtec Stonecutting Artistry,” UT professor Benjamin Ibarra-Sevilla has a different story to tell. “The buildings were actually built by indigenous people,” he says. “They had a very well-organized system for creating monumental architecture. Nevertheless, they did not know this specific type of technology. They pretty much learned it within the first 15 to 20 years of the arrival of the Spaniards to Mexico, and they managed to build buildings similar to those in Europe.”

Similar, but not the same. At the time of the Spanish arrival, Mixtec communities were accustomed to building pyramid-like monumental structures. When commissioned to build Gothic European churches, their traditional methods fell short. As a result, Ibarra-Sevilla believes that an exceptional exchange of structural knowledge occurred between the Mixtec and Spanish builders in the creation of the Gothic churches.

Mixtec Stonecutting Artistry“The indigenous people had a lot [of knowledge] in terms of how they used to work. The Spanish people adopted what the indigenous people knew,” he says. So while the iconic Gothic vault remained unchanged in Mexico, Mixtec builders introduced new methods of labor organization and wall construction to the European model.

Ibarra-Sevilla is sure to note that this practical exchange extended beyond form and into function. “[A] new typology emerged as a consequence of the need to accommodate both the Christian ceremonies and the indigenous ceremonies, so that created a very unique type of building that did not exist before.”

Ibarra-Sevilla’s work has awakened an appreciation for the late-Gothic churches throughout Mexico and the United States. Featuring 3D-printed scale models, photos, and blueprints of the churches, the exhibition has been traveling for two years and has visited six different cities in both countries. And while students of architecture history have been offered a new perspective on the churches, the Mixtecs themselves have found renewed value in the buildings as sources of income and community centers. According to Ibarra-Sevilla, San Pedro y San Pablo Teposcolula used to be called a “ruin” by the surrounding communities. Today, thanks in part to his work, it is used for the community’s biggest and best celebrations. Finally, for those of us learning about Mixtec architecture for the first time, “Mixtec Stonecutting Artistry” goes a long way in teaching us about three of the region’s most remarkable feats.

“Mixtec Stonecutting Artistry” is on display until Feb. 22 in the Mebane Gallery in Goldsmith Hall.

Photos by Benjamin Ibarra-Sevilla


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