ugust 14, 1542. The first shovel of dirt was dug for the Cathedral of Santiago de los Caballeros. In the same year Mary who would become Queen of Scots was born. So was Akbar who would become the great Mogul emperor to control northern and central India. Ivan who would become the Terrible, the first czar of Russia, was 12 years old. Anne Boleyn had lost her head a few years earlier, and Henry VIII was busy propagating his new church and the kingdom with Catherine.
But it’s doubtful there were any fireworks or fanfare in the place chosen to be the third seat of the Kingdom of Spain in Guatemala, now La Antigua. Most of the people were still in mourning. Barely 11 months earlier more than half the population died or disappeared when “in one night came to the ground the work of a quarter of a century,” wrote Carmelo Saenz de Santamaría S.J. in his biography of Francisco Marroquín, the first bishop of Guatemala.
It was Marroquín to whom the people had run for help when the terrible storm brought mud and rocks and trees roaring through Almolonga, the previous capital, destroying everything in their path. When it was over, with a heavy heart and undoubtedly tears, Marroquín picked through the rubble of the church. He salvaged what he could and particularly retrieved the mourning cloths that had hung for his dear friend the governor, Pedro de Alvarado, of whose death in Mexico he had learned just a month before. He would need them for the burials he would carry out, among them Pedro’s wife, Beatriz de la Cueva. Beatriz, after completing the mourning time, had declared herself governess just 40 hours before her death on that ominous night.
Now it was Marroquín for whom the people voted to be in charge until Spain named another. What would they do? Where would they go? Marroquín was unwavering: they would rebuild. Soon the new site was decided upon just three miles away but a little farther from the mountains, and the new urbe was put in the hands of expert designers. Meanwhile, Marroquín held mass at the little church of Santa Lucía and, once free of civic leadership, oversaw construction of the cathedral.
Not that it would be grand. With so much rebuilding, there was great demand for resources. The new cathedral would be built of stone rubble held together with lime mortar. It would be several years before funds came from Spain. But this may have had as much to do with priorities as scarcity. The neighbors themselves had supported cost and labor for construction of the church in Almolonga. Marroquín wrote to the emperor in 1537, “the rest I have spent [from his own funds] and owe a great part of it.” Marroquín was committed to evangelization, but religion was not then a priority for Spain. He lamented the “great riches extinguished in whirlwinds of works.” As before, he would support the new building from his own pocket.
Guatemala was, after all, a somewhat remote place. Unlike other newly conquered territories, it had no mineral wealth nor had His Majesty sacked any rich spoils. The new capital, with all its natural beauty, was basically an agricultural center.
Construction was tediously slow and continued for decades. In a moment of optimism, Marroquín wrote the king in 1554, “This cathedral is the loveliest in the Indies.” When he died on Good Friday in 1563, the work was still unfinished, as it was in 1576 when it was inaugurated, although it was undoubtedly in use long before.
Each time the earth shook the construction suffered and was patched. “It is unusual that one of the main churches in Spanish America should have such modest construction as late as the 17th century, when other churches in Guatemala already had vaults or domes,” writes Elizabeth Bell (Antigua Guatemala: The City and its Heritage, 2005). After 127 years the new cathedral had been broken so many times that it was necessary to demolish the whole thing and start over. What we see today are the ruins of that second construction.
By then not only were the Spanish interested in ecclesiastical building, but it was to some minds excessive. Perhaps they wished to placate the wrath of Divine powers, which they feared caused the repeated earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
In 1669 masses and functions of the cathedral were moved one block south to the newly inaugurated San Pedro (adjacent to the present facilities of Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro). Reconstruction of the cathedral, however stronger and grander, would be done on the same space as before, a full square block. Its thick walls and low arches would reflect professional seismic architectural expertise not available in the first construction. The front, with three doors on the intricately sculpted façade facing Plaza Mayor, then the central market, would have a platform raised to the level of the street at the rear. Two side aisles stretched the full length, opening to doors at both ends.
The Royal Chapel was between the rear doors and behind the main altar, which today carries a stone tablet etched with names of some early royals and nobles whose remains were placed in burial crypts below. Among them are Pedro de Alvarado and his wife Beatriz, his Mexican princess companion Luisa and her daughter Leonor and, heading the list, Bishop Francisco Marroquín.
While construction went on, art works were being created for the new cathedral, including a series of paintings of the apostles, which were hung in place for the inauguration in 1680 and which can still be seen today. We can only imagine the grandeur of the baroque cathedral in colonial times. Records show that the altar was embellished with tortoise shell, pearl, bronze and ivory; the bays of 14 chapels held fine sculpted images. Remnants of remarkable molded plaster adornments of the pillars and domes can still be admired. “The procession of Corpus Christi,” wrote Rafael Vicente Álvarez Polanco (Las Calles de Antigua, 1999) “was of the highest brilliance, with gold and silver, rubies and emeralds with a company of militia, the carriers wearing colorful insignias and banners and the clergy adorned in rich capes.”
Nineteenth century drawings show tall twin bell towers (Hibbits, Estado de Conservación de las Iglesias de Antigua Guatemala, 1968). Although no trace remains of those towers, five of their bells are inventoried in Caroline Long’s Church Bells of Antigua (1999).
But the glory of the place would be shortlived. Forces under the earth moved again and again until a major quake in 1773 moved the powers of Spain to order the town abandoned. The capital would be relocated to where it is now, in Guatemala City. Agriculture continued to thrive, however, and it wasn’t long before the town repopulated.
The space of the cathedral entrance and two chapels was refurbished and began serving as the parish church of San José in 1832. Unfortunately, the two front side doors and their access to the side aisles were walled up. According to Elizabeth Bell, “No attempt was made to capture any of the majestic touches of its predecessor.” Luis Luján Muñoz wrote,
Antigua was a symbol of a better past that was impossible to emulate.(Hibbits)
La Antigua was named a National Monument in 1944. The major part of the old cathedral still lay in ruins, giving in to all kinds of erosion, insects, birds and vegetation growing in the cracks of its fallen parts, but Mother Nature was not finished.
The morning after the earthquake in February 1976, like déjà vu, those who loved the town and its treasures once again scrambled to rescue fallen works of art and shelter them in places safe from further damage by rain or debris. Elizabeth Bell was among them. She later sponsored conservation of the collection of paintings of the apostles, and now, although they hang on pillars too narrow for them, they are at home again in the only functioning part of the cathedral for which they were painted.
The cathedral has been in the process of restoration by the National Council for the Protection of La Antigua Guatemala for over 20 years and will be for some time to come. There is still now the opportunity to meander through that sacred site, to come apart and hear the “mystic echoes no longer heard outside” (Polanco), to gaze upward to the open sky, framed by decorated curves of fallen domes, to visit the vacated crypts.
Bishop Marroquín had his modest home built along the north side of the cathedral, with a door opening to Plaza Mayor. When the second cathedral was finished, it was felt that a more fitting bishop’s palace was needed.
And so, 150 years after Marroquín’s death, an elegant, two-story palace with fountains, servants’ quarters and stables was complete. This too has succumbed to the ravages of time, including takeover by a strip of businesses along 4a calle. But fresco designs can still be appreciated on sections of columns and arches sheltered in the patio that serves as a laboratory, as well as remains of geometric patterns on walls.