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Architecture and World History


Santo Domingo Church and Convento, Oaxaca, Mexico: Architecture as a Window into Early Modern World History

Tom Mounkhall


     Shortly after his conquest of the Mexica capital, Tenochtitlan, Hernando Cortez was granted control over the Oaxaca area in southern New Spain in 1529 c. e. Soon after accepting this gift, Cortez invited the Dominican religious order to begin evangelizing the indigenous Zapotecs and Mixtecs in the region of Oaxaca. One of the first acts of the Spanish Dominicans was to begin the construction of the Santo Domingo Church and Convento complex in 1551 c.e. This paper will address the role of indigenous culture and agency in the construction of this site as well as the activities of Dominican missionaries, who were inspired by a variety of Western models and processes then shaping the early modern world, from the Spanish Renaissance to trans-Pacific trade routes. It will also examine the geographic, geological, and biological dimensions of this religious complex whose very stones speak to core World History theories and understandings, particularly continuity and change. The influence of cross-regional connections as a change agent underlies all that follows.

Amerindian Influence

The Oaxaca area of what is today south central Mexico was the site of one of the earliest urban centers in Mesoamerica, Monte Alban (c. 500 b.c.e–500 c.e.). However, by the beginning of the sixteenth century c.e, the region had been forced into the tributary empire of the Mexica-Aztecs from the Valley of Mexico. Large Mexica garrisons were established throughout what is today Oaxaca State.

     With the advent of Cortez, the Aztec Empire died but the Amerindian impact on Oaxaca City remained quite influential Even though the very name Oaxaca resonates with Nahuatl origin, it was the indigenous Zapotecs who selected the site where Oaxaca City sits today. The natural intersection of three valleys in the mountainous Oaxaca region made sense to the builders of Monte Alban and also to the 16th century c.e. Spanish, who built their colonial capital of Antequera adjacent to the ancient urban site.

     One can see firsthand at Monte Alban that the central concourse served as a huge marketplace but it was also reserved for religious activity on sacred days of the Zapotec calendar. Thousands of indigenous worshippers stood outside and prayed to the gods through the mediation of priests standing on altars at the tops of temples. Consequently, the Dominicans built Santo Domingo on a fairly large plaza or atrio built to the west of the future church site, which initially served as the site for mass and baptisms while the church was being built.

     In order to enter any of these sacred temple precincts at Monte Alban, the ancient Zapotecs had to ascend a set of stairs leading toward the clouds that were considered the abode of the gods. Santo Domingo was built on a man-made platform to relate to this Amerindian ritual custom. As one approaches the temple from the south and west, it is necessary to climb from five to ten steps to arrive at the sacred space.

     Monte Alban is a massive construction site with many buildings that dwarf human scale. If one looks at Santo Domingo from its south side, the huge size of the building becomes obvious. Perhaps it was the latent talent possessed by the Zapotec artisans, who had long experience with constructing large buildings that allowed them to accomplish this1

     Mixtec influence on Santo Domingo has its origin at the late Post-Classic site of Mitla, which sits about thirty miles to the east of Oaxaca city. The most significant aesthetic aspect of this urban site is the excellent two dimensional zig-zag carving done by Mixtec sculptors on the main temple building. These carving skills were transferred by early 16th century c.e. Mixtec artisans to the western façade of Santo Domingo2. The bas-reliefs of Santo Domingo on the main façade and that of the Virgin Mary on the façade of the Rosary Chapel are excellent examples of Mixtec artisans being able to carve stone into lifelike images of Catholic iconography.

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Massive Building—South View of Santo Domingo  

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Bas-Relief on Center of Western Facade  

Geographical and Biological Influences

     Local human capital was invested in Santo Domingo but it would be a mistake to ignore the contributions made by the physical geography of Oaxaca itself. Oaxaca State is very active earthquake territory. To deal with this problem, the buildings in the complex were designed to be seismically resistant. The roofs are relatively low, the walls are quite thick and the outside of the structure is buttressed by massive supports.

     Human adaptation to local physical conditions is also very evident in the positive use of two important local resources: water and stone. The sixteenth century aqueduct carrying its water downhill from the high mountains to the north of the city runs right by Santo Domingo. If one has the pleasure of viewing the western facade of the building complex in late afternoon, he or she cannot help but notice the gorgeous light green and tan limestone blocks from mountain quarries that grace the western front and add to its beauty.

     In addition to being evangelizers, the Dominicans were scholars, who brought knowledge and methods of the "New Science" of the seventeenth century c.e. to southern Mexico. Some of them were serious botanists, who used the convento's large farms in the countryside as experimental gardens. Their methodical cultivation and study of local flora developed into an arm of the entire Spanish Empire in the eighteenth century c.e. as the farms were used as laboratories to discover plants that could be grown or sold for profit in other regions of the Spanish colonial domain. Cochineal, native to Oaxaca State is an excellent example of this process.

     Cochineal comes from a little insect that lives on cacti, which when crushed, gives off a dark, red dye, impervious to fading. The Zapotecs and Mixtecs cultivated and used the dye for centuries before Cortez. It was of such great value that tons of the product were sent to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, as tribute during the century before the Spanish conquest. The Spanish exploited the resource and increased their export of it from 175,000 pounds in 1570 c.e. to 1,400,000 pounds in 1774 c.e. The dye found its way to Manila and Ming China on the Manila Galleons. This deep red dye was also an integral part of the compositions of Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt in Western Europe. The significant point about cochineal and Santo Domingo Church and Convent is that much of the money for its construction, which took over one hundred years, came to the Dominicans through their involvement in the long distance cochineal trade.3

Figure 3
  Figure 3: Bell Tower Seismic Support  

Figure 4
  Figure 4: Yellow and Green Stone  

Figure 5
  Figure 5: Zapotecs Collecting Cochineal  

Dominican Influence

     By the sixteenth century, the Dominicans, who came to the region of Oaxaca State at the bequest of Cortez, belonged to a stable, mature Catholic religious order. They were started by Dominic Guzman in the early thirteenth century c.e., establishing their usefulness to their faith during their crusade against the Cathars (deemed a heretical sect for their commune-like lifestyle) in southern France: the origin of the word crusade may be found in this campaign. Their particular mission from their inception was to spread the word of God to the masses in open cities. They viewed this goal as an important reform of the Post-Classic Catholic Church. In fact, their name is a derivative of the Latin phrase "Domini Cani", which loosely translates to "Dogs of the Lord" spreading his word across fairly long distances.

     Viewing themselves as descendants of the first twelve apostles of Jesus, the Dominicans had taken the "Good News" of the gospels to Northern Europe, Russia, North Africa and the Middle East by the time Cortez and Charles the Fifth called them to southern Nueva Espana in 1529c.e. Answering this call, they established a Dominican route of church-convento ensembles from Mexico City through Puebla and all the way south to Guatemala. Industriousness was a key characteristic of these preachers because in the forty years following their arrival in the Oaxaca area, they had constructed and staffed forty-two missions in the Oaxaca Province of St. Hippolytus.

     Given almost total control over Catholic evangelization in the Oaxaca region, the Dominicans set up their base in Oaxaca City, where in the mid 1550's c.e., they began the building of Santo Domingo Templo and Convento. This institution developed into a multi-faceted contribution to the Dominican efforts in the area. By the mid-seventeenth century c.e., Santo Domingo served as a novitiate for criollo youth, a college of theology and philosophy, a rest and rejuvenation center for preachers from the rural pueblos and a hospital and pharmacy for indigent Oaxacaquenos.

Figure 6
  Figure 6: Early Modern Dominican Churches and Conventos in Oaxaca State  

Early Modern Spanish and Renaissance Influence

     In his seminal work of the mid 1960's,The Rise of the West, William H. McNeill established one of the central principles of the modern world history movement. His point was that to truly understand world history, one must study the influence of ideas moving over long distances. Given its location in southern Nueva Espana in the sixteenth century c.e., the Dominican complex of Santo Domingo was in an excellent position to receive influential notions from the entire Spanish Empire of the period. This diffusion of concepts is evident as one looks at the set of buildings. There are iron reinforced doors from the Reconquista Wars of Post-Classic Spain. The western facade features a Plateresque central section, which was a dominant Spanish interpretation of the Italian Renaissance. Geometric glazed tiles grace the apex of the bell towers. This idea came to Oaxaca from Puebla, Mexico to the north but originally the design motif was Islamic from North Africa by way of al-Andalus. By the eighteenth century c.e., a very influential school of art had developed in the former Inca capital of Cuzco, Peru. Cusconian artistic impact was felt from Santiago, Chile to Mexico City and its aesthetic is also evident in Santo Domingo Templo. The intricate flower patterns and the gold borders on the interior walls are Peruvian in origin.4

     It should be no surprise that ideas of proper urban planning held by Italian Humanists exerted much influence in Spanish Antequerra-Oaxaca. The works of the great Roman architect,Vitruvius, that were re-discovered in 1413 c.e., greatly affected the thinking of the Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti on the subject. Alberti's influential work on architecture Re: Aedefictoria was published in c.1461 c.e. Soon after this publication many of the thoughts of Vitruvius and Alberti were applied in the design of one of the first Renaissance model cities. Pienza, Italy near Siena, was the site of this ideal urban plan, which was specifically designed for the Pope. Medieval walls and crooked, narrow alleys were replaced by an open, unfortified city with wide streets giving human access to all necessary locations. It was this conception of the ideal city that greatly influenced the planners of Nueva Espana.

     The only sites where forts were built in the Spanish Overseas Empire were located on the coasts, such as at Vera Cruz, Mexico, San Juan, Puerto Rico and Manila, Philippines. Since there was no threat from English or Dutch pirates at landlocked Oaxaca City, the 16th century c.e. urban site was built around an unfortified central square or zocalo with wide streets emanating from the center on a grid basis. Consequently, the site of the Santo Domingo ensemble of buildings was constructed on a broad, open space, about twenty-four lots in size, located four to five blocks north on the street grid from the zocalo. The Humanist planners of Pienza would be very happy with the contemporary use of the plaza to the west of the buildings. It is a wide, open space used for wedding celebrations, concerts and political demonstrations. As they envisioned the utopian urban space, Santo Domingo's plaza presents an open, orderly geometric space within which human needs can be addressed. Another interesting aspect of Santo Domingo's location is that it sits just southeast of a small hill where the Aztecs maintained a temple to the sun god prior to Cortez.

     Even though the architects of Santo Domingo were greatly influenced by Alberti's ideal city plan, they definitely were not dogmatic utopians. Realizing the real possibility of indigenous unrest, given their active involvement in an empire building project, the Dominicans provided for necessary self-defense if needed. Churches had been used for military purposes during the centuries of the Reconquista and many of these defensive notions were employed at Santo Domingo. The walls are made of very thick limestone, the doors are reinforced with iron rods and there are narrow openings in the north bell tower that could be used for rifle firing. In addition, many of the city's churches are connected by underground tunnels to expedite a hasty retreat if required. The set of buildings is so well adapted for martial activity that it was used as a military base following the secularization of the state under Benito Juarez in the late 1860's.

Figure 7
  Figure 7: Plateresque Western Façade—Ornate Decoration That Resembles Silverwork  

Figure 8
  Figure 8: Geometric Tiles On Bell Tower—Moorish Influence By Way Of Puebla  

Western Atrio and Facade

     The physical layout of the complex attracts one's attention immediately. The collection of buildings sits on an obviously man made platform. This configuration is important in terms of continuity because the pre-contact Zapotecs always placed their places of worship and statues of deities on raised stages. Fronting the west facade of the temple is a welcoming terrace that measures four thousand square meters in area. Today, this is an open, secular space but it served serious religious purposes in the 16th and 17th centuries c.e. The Dominicans constructed a wall around the terrace or atrio to demarcate the separation of secular and sacred spaces. The original purpose of this atrio was to serve as an outdoor chapel for large groups of Amerindians until the church was completed. It was also used for processions and baptisms, which took place in one of the four altars or posas, located in the four cardinal points of the terrace.5

     Rising high above the west terrace is the striking façade of the church. Framing this beautiful example of Oaxacan architecture are two unadorned, square bell towers. The towers have a support function against earthquakes. In addition, they may also have very interesting World History pedigree. At this point, although the evidence is just circumstantial, I believe that these towers may be modeled after the Giralda Tower in Seville, Spain.6

     Renaissance interest in mathematical proportion informs the design of the retablo facade. The base of the templo front measures seventy-two feet across with the ratio of bell tower width to façade being 2:3:2. The retablo facade is set back five feet from the line of the bell towers, which produces a beautiful contrast of light and shade in the afternoon sun. Corinthian columns serve to separate the four sections of the facade.7 However, these Ancient Greek architectural components also address the Renaissance concept of beauty being found in mathematical proportion. As one's eyes ascend the four sections of the facade, it becomes obvious that both the length and width of the columns decrease, lending a sense of lively rhythm to the entire composition.

     Since the Spanish architectural adaptation of the Italian Renaissance is the style of Plateresque, it is not surprising to find that aesthetic system in use on the front of Santo Domingo. A loose translation of the term simply means the intricate work of a silversmith translated into decorative architecture. The profusion of cherubs, columns and acanthus foliage in the church's front wall visually clarifies the term. All of this complexity is purposefully set off by a simple door.

     As the complex was fashioned during the Counter Reformation, it is not surprising to find Baroque characteristics on the facade. In fact, Spanish Plateresque is seen by many architectural historians as a transitional phase from Renaissance design to a Baroque aesthetic. The sculptured gable, that features the three Catholic, cardinal virtues of faith, hope and charity, is a definite marker of this distinctive style. The eared frame of the central relief is a second example. It is this sculpture that proclaims the legitimacy of the Dominican evangelization process in Oaxaca because it depicts the Roman martyr, St.Hippolytus, handing over a church to the Post-Classic founder of the order, Dominic Guzman.

Figure 9
  Figure 9: Western Atrio—Open Air Worship in 16th and 17th Centuries  

Figure 10
  Figure 10: Sevillan Almohad Type Bell Towers and Bell Towers and Fašade in 2:3:2 Proportion Between Bell Towers and Facade  

Figure 11
  Figure 11: Plateresque Façade—Ornate Stonework Resembling Silver Jewelry Inside Plain Borders  

Floor Plan

     As one enters the church from the west portal, the overwhelming Baroque ornamentation immediately catches the eye. However, a more careful consideration of the floor plan reveals the essential architectural expression of the designer.8 The nave measures sixty-six meters in length and twenty-two and a half meters in width for a ratio of 2.9:1. Squares dominate the floor's composition. As one walks from the western choir to the eastern apse, five squares will be passed through ending at the altar rail of the of the sacred section of the templo, which in itself constitutes a sixth square. Each square measures 13.2 meters in length, which is in a 1:5 ratio to the length of the entire nave. This ratio was the standard for Spanish single naved churches in the second half of the sixteenth century c.e.9

     Single naved churches were quite rare in colonial Nueva Espana. In fact, churches such as this with side aisles converted into lateral chapels were only constructed in Mexico City and Oaxaca City and both were designed and built by Dominicans.

     The complex's planner Fray Francisco Marin's single nave plan has been described by an expert in the field as a cryptocollateral church.10 This design, which dominated floor plans in Spain and the West Indies in the second half of the sixteenth century, had a very rich historical pedigree. It is essentially based on Ancient Roman building design, which certainly correlates to its construction in the Renaissance era. However, it had two fairly contemporaneous models, one in Spain and one in New Spain. Rodrigo Gil de Hontanon's Church and Convento of San Esteban built in Salamanca, Spain during the second half of the 16th century was not only the source of many Dominican friars, who came to Oaxaca, but its plans served as models for many Dominican churches in Oaxaca State. In New Spain, the first Dominican church and convento, Santo Domingo in Mexico City, completed late in the sixteenth century, was the direct model for Santo Domingo, Oaxaca.11

     The architect of Santo Domingo, Francisco Marin, has been belatedly recognized by experts as a true Renaissance master. His single naved masterpiece in Oaxaca City replaced the Catholic conventional three aisled basilica system of the Post-Classic period. Marin's choices of a Roman barrel vault over Gothic rib vaults and a square apse completed his break with the Medieval Catholic tradition.12

     Once the appreciation of the planning involved in the linear layout of the church is completed, one's attention is drawn to the side chapels of the nave. There are eight of them, four in the north wall and four in the south. Each one is a chronicle of Medieval and Early Modern Spanish History. The Council of Trent definitely had its effect here in that many of the chapels are dedicated to the lives of Catholic Saints. In contrast, the seven hundred years of Moorish impact in southern Spain is demonstrated by the Mudejar ornamentation on the chapel ceilings. In terms of pure architecture and physics, the templo's barrel vault is held up by the eight lateral chapels that stand at right angles to the roof. George Kubler saw the model for these chapels in the late fifteenth century Spanish church of San Juan De Los Reyes in Toledo.13

Figure 12
  Figure 12: Nave Looking East  

Figure 13
  Figure 13: Apse Forming the Sixth Square of the Nave—West To East  

Figure 14
  Figure 14: Side Chapel  

Barrel Vault, Crossing Vault in Nave

     The barrel vault of the place of worship is at least partially a function of the physical geography of southern Mexico. It wasn't finished until the damage of the 1608 c.e. earthquake was cleared away, which was a full half century after the beginning of construction. The vaulted ceiling is a distinctive symbol of cultural diffusion. While Cortez introduced Spanish Renaissance vaults to Nueva Espana, it was the Dominican architect, Francisco Marin, who designed and built the first barrel vault in Oaxaca City.

     The barrel vault leads eastward into the crossing, the cruciform section of the nave, which is directly in front of the sacred space of the church or apse. The dome above the crossing is a very low and light. Perhaps the architect was attempting to adjust to the seismic conditions of Oaxaca City with this light dome. However, it is not the weight of the ceiling that interests this world historian but its cross-regional story. The origin of this architectural element is in Roman groin vaults, which is an architectural technique of crossing a barrel vault with a second barrel vault set at a right angle to the first. Groin vaulting lost favor with the Romans but it enjoyed much popularity in the Byzantine Empire to the east. The technique was re-introduced to Western Europe through the Byzantine churches in Ravenna, Italy during the 6th century c.e. From this point, the crossing vault became a signature element of Western European, Romanesque architecture. It was in this period that the ceiling design was diffused into Iberia. The Dominicans carried this design system to Oaxaca City, where they placed the canonical images of the four evangelists in the corners of the groin vault. Mudejar influence is also quite evident in the composition, which blends Catholic images across the ceiling within a background of Islamic strapwork.

Figure 15
  Figure 15: Barrel Vault Looking West  

Figure 16
  Figure 16: Groin Vault Over Cruciform Section Of The Nave  

Retabalo in Apse

     Standing behind the altar is a stunning Baroque retablo. Its perfect symmetry, scalloped niches with statues of saints, gold leaf and rectangular sections all identify the composition as mid-17th century c.e. Spanish in design.

The retablo is an excellent example of connections across time and space. The Catholic Counter Reformation, for instance, had great influence of the retablo composition. The four tiered wall is completely covered in gold leaf, which was a favorite visual technique of the Baroque. During the late 17th century c.e. this aesthetic became the symbol of Western European absolute monarchy, but in the context of Mexican Seventeenth Century Catholic churches, it represented the importance of the House of God. Twisted Solomonic pilasters that abound on the retablo were visual statements of the continuity and legitimacy of Early Modern Catholicism. These columns had their origin in Solomon's temple in Jerusalem c. 1000 b.c.e.14

     Secular development in 17th century c.e. Europe also had its impact on the templo's retablo. At the apex of the composition sits a large sunburst symbol, which had religious significance. For the illiterate, 17th century Zapotecs and Mixtecs the sun's rays stood for the direct communication from heaven to earth. However, it is also true that by the mid-17th century c.e., largely due to the work of Galileo and Kepler, most European scientists were beginning to accept the heliocentric theory of the solar system. The large number of solar images in Baroque places of worship is an excellent example of the influence of science on Early Modern sacred architecture. A second and just as ubiquitous an image as the sunburst in Baroque churches is the use of the ellipse and half ellipse as ornamentation. Kepler's discovery that planets move in elliptical paths around the sun is evident in Santo Domingo's retablo, which is framed by elliptical cornices.

     The modern history of the retablo also follows a fascinating narrative. Following the 1860's secular reforms of President Benito Juarez, an indigenous resident of Oaxaca State himself, all Catholic church buildings became property of the Mexican State. The original Zapotec and Aztec gold in the retablo was melted down to use for government purposes. Perhaps it was used to help drive the French out of Mexico after their defeat at Puebla. Since the Dominican convent became a cavalry base, the temple became a stable where the apse was used as a place for the elimination human waste. At the outset of the 20th century c.e., the temple was returned to the Catholic Church, while the convent remained as state property. Today, the convent complex houses a state museum of Oaxacan History and Culture. In 1958, the retablo was restored through private philanthropy. Its reconstruction was modeled on the main altar retablo at Yanhuitlan, Oaxaca State. This Dominican Church of Santo Domingo, Yanhuitlan, pre-dating Santo Domingo, Oaxaca, was designed by the same architect, Fray Francisco Marin. Sitting in a Mixteca valley north of Oaxaca City it was a major complex on the missionary Routa Dominica that ran south from Mexico City through Puebla and Oaxaca City to Guatemala.

Figure 17
  Figure 17: Symbolic Gold Leaf on Retablo and Twisted Solomonic Columns Connecting 17th Century Catholicism To Ancient Judaism  

Figure 18
  Figure 18: Sunburst at Top Of Retablo and Elliptical Shape Of The Composition  

"Horror Vacuii" of the Baroque

The lateral walls of the temple are as ornate as the ceiling and retablo. Every inch of stucco is covered with frescoes, reliefs and sculpture from the Counter Reformation vocabulary. The cross-regional movement of decorative notions is as evident here as it is in the retablo. Artisans from Puebla brought the Baroque idea of "horror vacuii" south to Santo Domingo, Oaxaca. The cross-regional links in this story powerfully reinforce the global approach to our discipline. Much of the composition of the church's walls are Mudejar in origin, linking Southwest Asia, North Africa, Andalucia with Oaxaca by way of Puebla.15

Figure 19
  Figure 19: Baroque Horror Vacuii Of The Side Walls and Elliptical Shapes  

Internal Western Section of the Iglesia

The western section of the house of worship exhibits an aesthetically pleasing combination of aesthetic motifs, which read as a visual narrative of cross-regional connections. The Medieval Spanish impact is exemplified in this area of the church. The choir with its huge window is in the western part of the edifice in order to catch the afternoon sun for matins. Dominic Guzman's family tree, probably the initial sight one sees upon entering the church, is located along the entire floor of the choir loft above.

     Although, the Post Classic, Western European provenance of the church's entrance is unquestionable, the discerning eye can detect evidence of cultural synthesis that is related to the events that occurred in Andalucia hundreds of years before the construction of Santo Domingo. The choir dome reads as a litany of Dominican and other Catholic figures all symbolized by ceramic facial images. However, the spacing of the saints is distributed among intricate Moorish strapwork. In addition, the branches of the Guzman genealogical tree follow the beautiful paths of Mudejar arabesques.

Figure 20
  Figure 20: Choir With Mudejar Strapwork  

Figure 21
  Figure 21: Dominic Guzman's Family Tree Underneath The Choir  

Rosary Chapel

     The complex's Medieval Western European orientation is continued in the Rosary Chapel which was added to the southwest of the temple in the early eighteenth century c.e. The Dominicans were in the vanguard of Catholic rosary devotion in Western Europe. The canonical account of the ritual's origin holds that the first rosary was given to Saint Dominic by the Virgin Mary in 1214 c.e. to assist in the crusade against the Albigensians in southern France. This scene is beautifully depicted on the chapel's west front in bas relief. By the mid-Fifteenth century c.e., the monastic order had set up rosary confraternities. By the mid-Sixteenth century c.e. the ritual was codified by Pope Pius the Fifth during the Counter Reformation.

     Cross-regional encounters beyond the Western European links to the rosary are quite apparent in the chapel. Scholars of Early Modern, long distance trade would not be surprised to learn that the finances of this beautiful chapel were primarily raised through the sale of Oaxacan cochineal on the world's oceans. Oaxaca City was the center of the Spanish cochineal trade, which took one and a half million tons of the red dye from Manila to 1774 c.e. Much of the profit from this cross-regional exchange was used to construct Enlightenment style buildings near the zocalo and pay salaries to the artisans, who crafted the Capilla Del Rosario.

     These craftsmen were Mexicans from the city of Puebla to the north who brought with them specific notions of Baroque composition based upon the Dominican Rosary Chapel in their home city. The original space behind the altar was composed of mother of pearl while the altar rail was built from solid silver. Both of these elements were "lost" during the nationalization of the church property by the government of Benito Juarez in the 1860's.

     World historians, who focus on architecture as a unit of analysis, will benefit from studying the appearance of the chapel. Seen from the outside west and south views, it is obvious that the structure is a perfect square which correlates perfectly with its Enlightenment construction date of c. 1730 c.e. This square space is topped by a full dome. The weight of the dome is transferred to the ground of the nave by four triangular elements or pendentives. Each of these triangles is located above one of the four columns set in the four corner points of the square base. Global historians, focused on built environments, will immediately see the influence of the great, Byzantine Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the Capilla Del Rosario. The contribution of Justinian's 6th century c.e. architects, Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, of a dome built over a square was transferred to Oaxaca City by way of the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus, through Fez, Morocco to Moorish al-Andalus and finally to Santo Domingo Church in the 18th century c.e.

Figure 22
  Figure 22: Bas-Relief On Western Fašade of Rosary Chapel  

Figure 23
  Figure 23: Dome Over a Square Space In Rosary Chapel  

Figure 24
  Figure 24: Pendentive Supporting The Dome In The Rosary Chapel  


     The cross-regional influence on the templo is as much in evidence in the adjoining convento, which today serves as a public museum of Oaxacan History. Its spatial organization is based on Western European models. A striking example of this phenomenon is the grand Dominican staircase, which is patterned after its contemporary model at Philip the Second's 1570's L'Escorial near Madrid. Although Santo Domingo Convento did not function as a pure monastery, it certainly contained some aspects of the ascetic monastic tradition. Friars' cells were austere cubicles resonating of the self-denial that was an integral part of Christian monasticism dating back as far as the first century c.e. Coptic monasteries in the Egyptian desert. However, the Oaxacan complex was built to serve many other needs, such as catechism instruction for Amerindians, training for Dominican novices and a university center later in its existence.

     Viewers sensitive to the direct relationship of the physical environment and architecture, will immediately perceive an example of this practical notion as they consider the beautiful cloister of Santo Domingo. The planner's number one goal was to ensure that the edifice didn't collapse during one of Oaxaca's many earthquakes. As a consequence, the wide limestone piers have been braced with triangular shaped buttresses which resemble a ship's bow.16 Since the entire region is seismically active, this type of solid construction is found throughout most of the Dominican centers in Oaxaca State.17

     The ongoing global narrative of cross-regional links is continued in this space. The structure is a two story building that traces its Hellenistic origins back to elite Roman structures on the Mediterranean island of Delos c. 110 b.c.e. The style, which was adapted for Byzantine monastic complexes in Southwest Asia, made its way to Charlemagne's Aachen by the early Ninth century c.e. In the center of the cloister, one finds a beautiful fountain which has its beginnings in pre-Islamic Persia. Muslims took this aesthetic element and the hydraulic system at its base west across the Maghreb and introduced it to al-Andalus in the 8th century c.e. Surrounding the square open space of the cloister is a colonnade used by the Dominicans for exercise, meditation and prayer. The dominant stylistic program used in the colonnade is the High Gothic pointed arch and rib vaulting. Most historians will accurately connect this style to Post-Classic Western Europe since it became the signature of 12th century c.e. Catholic Church architecture. However, there is ample evidence that the pointed, Gothic arch has its origins in Southwest Asia from which it was diffused west to the Eastern Mediterranean by the Umayyad Dynasty in the 7th Century c.e.18

Figure 25
  Figure 25: Grand Staircase In Convento  

Figure 26
  Figure 26: Ship's Bow Column Supports  

Figure 27
  Figure 27: Greek Peristyle Cloister  

Figure 28
  Figure 28: Gothic Colonnade in Cloister  

Santo Domingo and World History Theory and Practice

     To stand in the cloister is a tour de force for a world historian. Its architectural elements resonate with ideas ranging from the Hellenistic- Roman world through the Byzantine-Islamic nexus to Romanesque and Late Medieval Europe. Global regions connected to the cloister can be traced from Central Asia through the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa to Western Europe and finally to Mesoamerica.

     William H. McNeill, Leften Stavrianos, Marshall G. Hodgson, and many other seminal contributors to the current world history movement would be reinforced in their theoretical contentions by visiting and studying Santo Domingo, Oaxaca as it is a testament to the influence of cross-regional processes on the creation of the linked Early Modern Period. This essay has emphasized cultural history with a focus on the movement and mixture of ideas from many global regions that are evidenced in the set of buildings. In addition, the effects of long distance trade and missionary work are also quite apparent in the complex. Although they have not been fully developed as themes here, the dual processes of Spanish imperialism and colonialism in New Spain underlie this entire narrative.

     World historians holding the view that one of the chief markers of Modern World History is the influence of the global oceans as agents of connections will welcome this paper. With Spanish conquest and settlement in Mesoamerica, the Atlantic Ocean takes precedence. Nevertheless, the Pacific and Indian Oceans have their supporting roles to play as is illuminated by the Santo Domingo complex.

     Given that the Spanish colonial experience in Mesoamerica was one of the initial steps in the Rise of the West, much of this study details significant change for the original population of Oaxaca State. However, the chronicle of Santo Domingo contains some important examples of continuity in southern Mexican History. Zapotec architectural ideas and Mixtec sculptural techniques have both brought aspects of the pre-Columbian past to the complex. Furthermore, much of the cost of the building's construction was financed by the global sale of a red dye extracted from insects that the local Amerindians had perfected hundreds of years before Cortez.

     Santo Domingo exudes the blending of cross-regional and endemic processes. There are Catholic sculptural figures in the Rosary Chapel garbed in indigenous dress. There is also a central sculpture in the west facade that depicts Dominican missionary legitimacy in Oaxaca State but which is expressed in beautiful Mixtec two dimensional carving style.

     World history teachers who subscribe to the constructed learning theory of education will find Santo Domingo to be a mother lode of rich examples of core disciplinary themes. Illustrations of cultural diffusion for example, abound in the set of buildings and can be put to excellent classroom usage in the clarification and learning of this central global history process.

     For this world historian, the most interesting and enjoyable aspect of this research has been in tracing the influence of events across time and place on the church and monastery complex. Events from Ancient, Post-Classic and Modern World History have partially but significantly influenced Santo Domingo. In this sense, the complex is a rich narrative of the past two millennia in World History.

     All of the photos in this article were taken by and are the property of the author.

Tom Mounkhall has taught world history at the high school level for thirty-three years in New York State. Since retiring from secondary education, he has taught graduate courses in world history at SUNY New Paltz and has trained world history teachers across the United States and in Cambodia. He can be reached at


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1 Robert James Mullen, Dominican Architecture in Sixteenth Century Oaxaca( Tempe: Arizona State University, 1975), p. 19.

2 Robert James Mullen, Dominican Architecture in Sixteenth Century Oaxaca( Tempe: Arizona State University, 1975), p. 19.

3 Amy Butler Greenfield, A Perfect Red (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2005), p. 98.

4 Richard D. Perry, Exploring Colonial Oaxaca: The Art and Architecture (Santa Barbara, California: Espadana Press, 2006), p. 11.

5 Robert James Mullen, Dominican Architecture in Sixteenth Century Oaxaca, p. 3.

6 The Spanish architect, who most influenced the design of Santo Domingo, Oaxaca was Rodrigo Gil de Hontanon. His workbooks were known to the Dominican friar Francisco Marin, who designed the church. Rodrigo's father, Juan, completed the Seville Cathedral in 1506 c.e., which is where the Giralda Tower, originally a late 12th Century c.e. Almohad minaret, is located. The tower is a square structure modeled after the late 12th Century c.e. Almohad Koutoubia Minaret in Marrakesh, Morocco.

7 Richard D. Perry, Exploring Colonial Oaxaca: The Art and Architecture, p. 17.

8 Robert James Mullen, Dominican Architecture in Sixteenth Century Oaxaca, p. 5.

9 Robert James Mullen, Architecture and Its Sculpture in Vice-Regal Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), p.79.

10 George Kubler, Mexican Architecture of the Sixteenth Century, Vol.2 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 233

11 George Kubler, Mexican Architecture of the Sixteenth Century, Vol.2, p. 285.

12 Robert James Mullen, The Architecture and Sculpture of Oaxaca, 1530's–1980's, p. 382.

13 George Kubler, Mexican Architecture of the Sixteenth Century, Vol.2, p. 285.

14 Richard D. Perry, Exploring Colonial Oaxaca: The Art and Architecture, p. 9.

15 Sidney D. Markham, Hispano-American Colonial Architecture (Louisville: University of Louisville, 1984), p. 20.

16 Richard D. Perry, Exploring Colonial Oaxaca: The Art and Architecture, p. 21

17George Kubler, Mexican Architecture of the Sixteenth Century, Vol. 2, p. 351.

18 Peter Draper, "Islam and the West: The Early Use of the Pointed Arch Revisited" Architectural History 48 (2005), p. 15

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