A multitude of buildings
A difficult task: evangelization
The creation of the monastery of San Cristóbal
The end of the adventure
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San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the domes of the church of Saint Dominic
The convent of Santo Domingo in San Cristóbal de las Casas
After a long and arduous journey of more than a year from Salamanca, Spain, the Dominican friars arrived in Ciudad Real (San Cristóbal de las Casas) on 12 March 1545. They soon became most unwelcome because of the hostility which Bartolomé de las Casas aroused in the Spanish citizens of the town as a result of his preachments regarding the treatment of the Indians. The friars had to leave almost immediately and take refuge in Chiapa de Indios (Chiapa de Corzo).
The controversy with the citizens of Ciudad Real continued until, at last, an accommodation between the opposing parties was reached on 27 October 1546. The city council granted the friars a site located on the Cerro de la Cruz on the road to Chamula.
Not quite a month later, on 13 November 1546, the friars temporary installed themselves in an old building and a stable of adobe construction until their living quarters could be completed. These temporary quarters were most primitive.
The dominican monastery of San Cristóbal de Las Casas
Antonio de Remesal gives many details about the vicissitudes in the creation of the monastery:
The town of San Cristobal wants a Dominican convent
“At last, after much discussion on the establishment of the convent, within the municipal council (of Ciudad Real/San Cristobal de Las Casas) and outside of it, it was finally decided to send two municipal advisers and one person of importance from the town to the fathers and to ask them to build a convent and offer a proper location, either in the area where the town was built up, or in a vacant sector, leaving them the choice of the best and most pleasant location. They promised to help with the building and offered many other services. Father friar Tomás Casillas who ardently wished such a construction, answered them adequately and as politely as was the norm, acquiescing to their wish, and agreed to build the convent and accepted the offers, and so was accomplished something that priests as well as lay people greatly desired.”
The Dominicans pick a location
“Father friar Domingo Ara went around the area of Copanabastla, accompanied by Father friar Jerónimo de San Vicente, and visited the villages in the region. Father friar Tomás Casillas wrote to them to tell them what was going on, and asked them to come visit him. They eagerly came right away and, grateful as they were, gave thanks to Our Lord for such a gift. All four of them went about town and beyond, looking at places where the convent could be built, and they chose the location where it stands today, which was the most convenient in their view, not so much because it dominated the whole town and valley, nor because of the purity and freshness of the air, rather very pleasant, but especially because it was close to the Indians of the valley, so that the Indians could all come to mass in the convent without having to go into town, and also because the priests could evangelize them more easily. Father friar Pedro de Angulo had the same idea when he chose the location of the convent of Saint Dominique in the town of Santiago de Guatemala, which today is the best place and the cleanest in town, and which attracts the inhabitants and is more prosperous than any other area, but it was at that time the most isolated in the town since the town did not stretch longer than two cuadras from the main square, and it was obvious that the houses would not be built near it before a very long time; yet the fathers asked for and obtained the location very graciously, just as they chose the other location in Ciudad Real, eager as they were to educate the Indians without disturbing the Spaniards.”
They obtain a deed for the piece of land
“And in order to obtain it, Father friar Tomás Casillas, Vicar-General, submitted the following request to the municipal council on October twenty-seven 1546, in the presence of San Pedro de Pando, the mayor, and of Luis de Mazariegos, Diego Martín, Andrés de Benavente and Pedro Moreno, municipal counselors :
“We, Friar Tomás Casillas, Vicar-General, kiss the hands of Your Graces in the name of the Fathers of the Dominican order of the province. As you know, the Fathers are determined and ready to build and live in a convent of His Eminence Saint Dominique in your town, in order to bring comfort to the population on the one hand, and to have the friars of the convent, monastery and residence leave from here to visit the villages of the indigenous people of the province and baptize them and teach them the basics of our saintly faith, on the other hand. And since this desire is very saintly and righteous, and in order to ease the conscience of Your Graces, we beg you to give us the favour, in the name of His Majesty, of a piece of land in this town, where we could establish the church, the residence and the garden, in a place that Your Graces would find adequate and within the intentions of this town, for which we would be grateful to you.”
“Friar Tomás Casillas, Vicar-General”
“And immediately, the men of law and the municipality mentioned above, the registrar wrote, said that since it was about a very saintly and good task meeting our Lord God’s requirements and the salvation of their conscience, they agreed to give them a piece of land, which would be traced out on the hill of the Cross, on the Chamula road, whixh would be limited on three sides by the royal streets, and on one side by communal land. They requested a deed to be drawn up for such land and property, and signed it with their names, San Pedro, Luis de Mazariegos, Diego Martín, Andrés de Benavente, Pedro Moreno. Read by me, Gaspar de Santa Cruz, Public and Council Registrar.”
They take possession of the land for the future convent
“On the same day, after obtaining this grant, Father friar Tomás Casillas, Vicar-General, pacifically took possession, on his behalf and on behalf of the Order, of this piece of land in the presence of the whole population, and to confirm the deed, he and three other priests accompanying him, friar Tomás de la Torre, friar Jerónimo de San Vicente, and friar Domingo de Ara, raised and fixed a cross. The whole town then gathered in the church, where many promises of grants for the building of the house were made, even though many of the promises went forgotten, but whatever the Fathers could obtain greatly helped them to progress with the construction. The mayors and municipal advisers promised the help of 16 000 Indians and said that they would give more once the first batch of Indians got tired. And the fathers accepted this offer, since the convent was being built for the well-being and to the benefit of the Indians themselves. The inhabitants of the town also wished that the priests came and live with them. And Luis de Torres Medinilla offered the use of one of his houses that was located near the town, so that the Fathers could settle there while a home was being built for them to live in on the new land. And once all this was agreed and organized, the fathers took leave from the town with much gratitude and went to Cinacantlán from where the Father curate called all the fathers in Chiapa, and asked them to come there to celebrate the Saints’ Day and discuss the management of the foundation of the new convent.”
The first convent is very poor
“To make sure of what had only been lent to them, the Father curate sent Father friar Tomás de la Torre and Father friar Vicente Nuñez to town . The house was made of poles and branches covered with mud, with a thatched roof and it was badly set up, because in addition to being built with these materials, it had been vacant for a long time. There was a big yard in front of it, then a central room with two small bedrooms, then another kind of bigger bedroom, and behind the house there was another yard, where the stable stood, as well as two other rooms used as a kitchen and a dormitory for the Indian slaves. The fence surrounding the whole thing was broken, and made with pickets that lay flat in some places or had been removed."
Ideal reconstruction of the convent of 1546
“The founding fathers arranged the house as much as they could. They turned the central room into a church and separated the choir from the altar by a rattan fence that left very little space. The two small bedrooms near the central room were used as a sacristy and a cell for the sexton, and in there they put the clock, the bigger one of the two clocks that His Eminence the bishop had left behind. They divided the room on the other side of the central room with a few rotten planks held together with strings, to turn it into a dormitory on one side and a refectory on the other, but it was so narrow that we could barely stand there, and so gloomy because of a lack of light. The other room used as a stable had half collapsed and was blackened by the smoke coming from the kitchen, covered with soot and cobwebs, and since it had a thick ceiling that had been put up while humid and that had since dried, there was constant dust coming out of it, that dirtied anyone standing there. All the rooms had doors that opened on the front yard. They were closed and other openings were built that opened in each room, with the refectory having openings on all of them. There they set up the dormitory of silence, the poorest and saddest one can imagine. It would probably have been improved by our glorious Father Saint-Dominique himself had he seen it.
The dormitory was composed of cells, all a few feet wide and separated by partitions that isolated the spaces but were not entirely closed, and when a candle was lit in one of them, all cells received light. Mats were used as doors, the windows opened on the countryside and they were closed with another piece of mat. Ten cells were built in that space; three more were set up in the stable for friar Tomás de la Torre, friar Domingo de Ara and friar Jerónimo de San Vicente; and even though in the past so much dung had been removed from it that it was thought there was none left, they had to dig again because of persistent smell and remove more dung and Father friar Tomás de la Torre alone took out more eighteen loads carried by the Indians from his cell. The town requested the people of the market to clean the pigsty which was then used as a cloister. There a door was opened on the countryside that was used as an open space where the Spanish lay people had exchanges with the priests. The pigsty was used as a corridor for the choir and as a room leading to the refectory and as a meeting room in which to confer on days when silence was not the rule. In this yard there were also cabins for the pigs. They were cleaned and were used as kitchens, supply rooms and storage for wood and other things.
There was the first convent in due form that the Order of our glorious Father Saint Dominique received in the province of Chiapa; I did not deem it out of place to describe it as it was, so that everyone could be grateful to the first fathers who established it and who built with great discomfort the foundations of the buildings which their sons today enjoy. But with the spirit of poverty they possessed, these saintly founders did not think of asking for more.” (Friar Antonio de Remesal, Historia de la provincial de San Vicente de Chiapa y Guatemala, book 7, chapter 23, translated by Chantal Burns)
The nave of the convent
A rendering of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in 1586
“…The Father commissary (Friar Alonso Ponce) left that place (Amatenango) with his secretary on Sunday, September seven (1586)… He arrived in the royal town of Chiapa (San Cristóbal de Las Casas) and entered our convent, which is the first building at the entrance of town ; he surprised the Spaniards who all felt ashamed and confused not to have prepared to greet him as they deemed fit, and who all deplored that he had not told them of his visit; and yet the Father commissary had planned such a visit since Amatenango but his messenger had not arrived here because of strong showers in the previous evening and during the night. He said mass upon arrival and then the priests of Saint Dominique, the magistrates and the authorities of the town came to see him, and all of them brought him many gifts and presents on that day and on the following day when he was there; and such is the devotion of the inhabitants for our order that the authorities decided, in a common agreement, to feed the Father commissary and his brothers, each in turn, during the time they remained here, however long. But since he remained little time, as has been said, they gave him sweets, preserves and cookies for the road, and no village until then had done so for him.
“This town sits in a very large valley surrounded by mountains on almost all sides, so that the river in question and a torrent situated on a higher plane and others flowing into it on the other side of town have not exit, but God placed an outlet not too far away and all the water flows into it, and all the inhabitants keep it clean so as to avoid having an expanse of water capable of flooding the town. The town had some 150 Spanish inhabitants, honorable and noble persons, although poor; the houses are built with beams and covered with tiles; the bishopric of Chiapa has its headquarters here and in addition to the cathedral church there is a convent of Saint Dominique and another of our Order, recently established; it was being built with adobe and a thatch roof, but not yet finished; it is dedicated to Saint Anthony. Four priests lived in it, they were responsible for some Mexican Indians who had accompanied the Spaniards at the time of the conquest and they lived near the convent; they were also responsible for several villages of the Quelemes Indians.” (Antonio de Ciudad Real, Tratado curioso y docto de las grandezas de la Nueva España, Vol. II, chap. LXII, translated by Chantal Burns)
Plan of the Dominican monastery in San Cristobal de Las Casas (XVIIth century)
San Cristóbal de Las Casas as seen by Fray Antonio Vásquez de Espinosa, circa 1620
"571. In that same year they founded the royal city of chiapa in a circular valley which is shut in on every side by ridges and mountains. This valley is a league long and in its center there is a high bluff on whose eastern slopes they built their city, which is 100 leagues E. of Oaxaca, and 80 from Guatemala City, which lies to its ESE. ; it is in 18° 30’ N. The valley in which the city lies has a cool climate, and is rich in excellent and refreshing water from its handsome fountains ; besides these there are two streams whose waters flow southward through the valley and unite at the foot of a high mountain, dropping into a basin or gully at its foot.
"572. This city was colonized a second time and embellished by the Treasurer Alonso de Estrada 2 years later, in 1526, when he was Governor and Captain General of New Spain, and he was a blessing to this country, as befitted a son of King Ferdinand the Catholic, as he was said to be by many authors, and his deeds indicate it, for his intrepidity and excellent administration all those provinces stayed quiet and tranquil, after having been sorely tried.
"573. This city contains over 250 Spanish residents, the great majority of noble rank. It has a Cathedral with a Bishop and Prebendaries in residence and attendance, with Dominican, Franciscan, and Mercedarian convents, a hospital in which they care for the indigent sick, and other churches and shrines. An Alcalde Mayor resides here, appointed by His Majesty in consultation with the Supreme Council of the Indies for its good government and the administration of justice in the city and all the many provinces in its district.
"574. The royal city of Chiapa is over 60 leagues distant from the Atlantic, and in that direction there are many heathen Indians to be Christianized, like the tribes of the Lacandones and the Manchés, who do great harm to their neighbors the Zoque Indians, and the others in that region ; but they could easily be pacified and brought to the knowledge of our Holy Faith, since a beginning was made by Dr. Alonso Criado de Castilla when he was President of Guatemala ; but since his death, all those provinces have been far from peaceful.
"575. The city is also 60 leagues distant from the Pacific, so that it is equidistant from the two seas. On that side it has many provinces and settlements of Christian Indians, allotted to the residents of the city. It is abundantly supplied with cheap and delicious foodstuffs ; they harvest abundance of wheat, corn, large beans, the whole year through, as in other parts of the Indies, chickpeas, kidney beans, and other cereals, and all sorts of fruit, both Spanish and native.
"576. This diocese is over 70 leagues long from E. to W., and over 60 across from N. to S. Il lies between the Diocese of Oaxaca to its WNW. And that of Guatemala on its ESE. ; in its district are many provinces, the great majority with a hot climate. The chief provinces are four in number : the Province of the Chapanecas, from which the city and Diocese take their name ; the Province of the Zoques ; that of the Zendales ; and that of the Quelenes ; and although in each village and province there is a native mother tongue, these four are the most general and widespread, and still more the Mexican, which was introduced for administrative purposes, the Mexican kings having issued orders that their language should be used in all the provinces and tribes which they subdued and brought into their empire, and so it is spoken as a lingua franca in the whole country.
"577. In the district of this Diocese they have large ranches of cattle, sheep, swine, mules, and the best horses in all New Spain ; they can compete with those of Cordova, and some assert that they surpass them. They gather quantities of fine cultivated cochineal, and wild from the mountains ; wax and honey in abundance, cacao, annatto, excellent fragrant pepper which comes from trees ; fine coyol and a berry from which they make quantities of rosaries which are an article of commerce ; and cotton, which the Indians weave into quantities of native cloth, used for cloaks, guaypiles, and other sorts of clothing ; these are exported by merchants and traders to Guatemala and its territory and other regions." (Antonio Vásquez de Espinosa, "Compendio y Descripción de las Indias Occidentales", 1627-1629, Book V. Chapter I. Of the Royal City of Chiapa and the District of Its Diocese. Translated by Charles Upson Clark, Smithsonian Institution)
San Cristóbal de Las Casas as seen by Thomas Gage, circa 1630
"The city of Chiapa Real, is one of the meanest Cities in all America, consisting of not above four hundred householders Spaniards, and about an hundred houses of Indians joining to the city, and called el barrio de los Indios, who have a Chapell by themselves. In the City there is no Parish Church, but only the Cathedrall, which is mother to all the inhabitants. Besides, there are two Cloisters, one of Dominicans, and the other of Franciscans, and a poor Cloister of Nuns, which are burdensome enough to that City.
"But the Jesuites having got no footing there (who commonly live in the richest and wealthiest places and Cities) is a sufficient argument of either the poverty of that City, or of want of gallant parts, and prodigality in the gentry, from whose free and generous spirits they like Horse-leeches are still fucking extraordinary and great almes for the Colledges where they live; but here the Merchants are close handed, and the Gentlemen hard, and sparing, wanting of wit and Courtiers parts and bravery, and so poor Chiapa is held no fit place for Jesuites.
"The Merchants chief trading there is Cacao, Cotton-wooll from the adjacent parts of the country, in Pedlers small wares, and in some Sugar from about Chiapa of the Indians, in a little Cochinill ; for commonly the Governour (whose chief gain consisteth in this) will no suffer them to be too free in this commodity, left they hinder his greedy traffique. These have their shops all together in a little Market-place before the Cathedrall Church, built with walkes and Porches under which the poor Indian wives meet at five a clock at evening to sell what slap and drugges they can prepare most cheap for the empty Criolian Stomachs.
"The richer sort of these Merchants go and send yet further to Tabasco for wares from Spain, such as wines, Linnen cloth, Figs, Raisins, Olives, and Iron, though in these commodities they dare not venture too much, by reason the Spaniards in that Country are not very many, and those that are there, are such as are loath to open their purses to more then what may suffice nature. So that are Spanish commodities are chiefly brought for the Fryers who are the best and joviallest blades of that Country."
(Thomas GAGE, The English-American his Travail by Sea and Land: Or, a New Survey of the West Indias Containing a Journal of Three Thousand and Three Hundred Miles within the Mainland of America, 1648, T. 1, Chap. XV, Describing the country of CHIAPA, with the chiefest Towns and Commodities belonging unto it.)
San Cristobal de Las Casas, Museo de los Altos de Chiapas,
Model of the Dominican Convent
Antonio de Alcedo, 1786
"The capital is the royal city of Chiapa, situate on a delightful plain. It is the head of a bishopric, erected in 1538; and has for arms a shield, upon which are two sierras, with a river passing between them: above the one is a golden castle, with a lion rampant upon it; and above the other a green palm, bearing fruit, and another lion, the whole being upon a red field. These arms were granted by the Emperor Charles V in 1535. The cathedral is very beautiful. It contains three convents of the order of St. Francis, La Merced, and St. Domingo; a monastery of nuns, and five hermitages. Its population is scanty and poor, and the principal commerce consists in cocoa-nuts, cotton, wool, sugar, cochineal, and other articles. Its nobility, although poor, are very proud, as having descended from some ancient families of the first nobility of Spain; such as those of Mendoza, Velasco, Cortes, &c. The women suffer great debility at the stomach on account of the excessive heat, and they can never fast for a long time together: they consequently eat frequently; the common food on these occasions being chocolate, and which is even handed to them whilst at church. This irreverence the bishop proclaimed against; but it is said that this execution of his duty cost him no less than his life. It is 100 leagues distant from Guatemala. Lat. 17” 4’. Long. 93” 53’." (Antonio de Alcedo, Diccionario geografico-histórico de las Indias Occidentales o América: es a saber: de los Reynos del Peru, Nueva España, Tierra Firme, Chile y Nuevo Reyno de Granada. Madrid, 1786/89)
San Cristóbal convent, detail
The convent of Santo Domingo in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Though the monastery was originally constructed in the second half of the sixteenth century, little from that period remains intact. The main body of the church and also the convent building probably date for the most part from the last third of the seventeenth century, while the church façade may have been given its present design even as late as the early eighteenth.
Cloister of the Dominican monastery in San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
The temple of Santo Domingo has a gorgeous baroque facade covered with intricately carved mortar, Solomonic columns, and statues tucked into ornate niches, much of it carved by indigenous workers.
The General Utrilla avenue in San Cristóbal de las Casas, today. Far end, the church of San Nicolás de Tolentino, situated on the plaza mayor 31 de Marzo, behind the cathedral.