Earliest 16th-Century Monasteries on the Slopes of Popocatepetl
Earliest 16th-Century Monasteries On The Slopes Of Popocatepetl
Cultural Mexico Latin America And The Caribbean Morelos And Puebla States Municipalities: Atlatlauhcan, Cuernavaca, Tetela Del Volcan, Yautepec, Ocuituco, Tepoztlan, Tlayacapan, Totolapan, Yecapixtla And Zacualpan De Amilpas In Morelos. Calpan, H

The distinctive characteristic of these monasteries of New Spain lies in the relationship between built and open spaces and, above all, in the emphasis placed on the wide forecourt or atrium with its individual posas and open chapels that offered a variety of solutions. The considerable influence exercised by the architectural model of these early monasteries is incontestable, because it operated not only in the second half of the 16th century in the centre and south-east of Mexico, but also continued with the expansion of colonization and evangelization of the lands to the north in the 18th century, reaching what is now the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts, in the form of a large number of smaller establishments knows as 'missions' rather than monasteries.

This region was intensively occupied from early times. At the time of the Spanish conquest it was divided into two provinces of the Aztec Empire and was the scene of several bloody battles during the siege of Mexico-Tenochtitlan by Cortes in 1521.

The first twelve Franciscans arrived in Mexico in 1523, followed by the Dominicans in 1526 and by five Augustinians in 1533. From Veracruz they moved inland to Mexico City, where they set up their first communities, but they quickly moved outside the capital to spread the Gospel to the Indians, establishing their first monasteries on the southern slopes of the mountain range dominated by Popocatepetl - the Franciscans at Cuernavaca in 1525, the Dominicans at Oaxtepec in 1528 and the Augustinians at Ocuituco in 1534. The three orders established their own spheres of influence in the region.

The monasteries were founded in areas of dense indigenous settlement, with the object of providing focal points for urban settlements, a role which has survived to the present day. At Cuernavaca, which was an important pre-Hispanic centre and which became a colonial provincial capital, the monastery exceptionally became a cathedral. From their Cuernavaca house, designed and built by Francisco Becerra, the Franciscans moved towards the 'hot lands' to the south, and to the west, away from the mountains. A new route was opened to the south-east, encircling the volcanic massif towards Puebla, to replace the difficult Paso de Cortes. Their first foundation on the eastern slopes of the volcano was at Huejotzingo (1529), followed quickly by Calpan and then Tochimilco on the southern slopes.

Three years after the arrival of the Franciscans, the Dominicans built their monastery and hospital at Oaxtepec, but their efforts to establish themselves in the Tepozteco valley at Tepoztlan were frustrated by the local tribes until 1560. In the meantime they opened up a westerly route to Oaxaca, founding monasteries at Teltela del Volcan and Hueyapan.

The Augustinian houses occupied the area lying between the eastern route of the Franciscans and the western route of the Dominicans. The mother house was at Ocuituco, from which other establishments were created at Totolapan and Yecapixtla to the west and Atratlauhcan, Zacualpan, and Tlayacapan on the route towards the 'hot lands' further south. The Augustinians built the largest number of monasteries in this region. Between 1525 and 1570 more than 100 monasteries were built in this region, By the end of the century over 300 had been established. Following the Council of Trent (1567), the role of the missionary orders was greatly diminished and many of the monasteries were taken over by the regular clergy, being converted into parish churches.

The 14 monasteries all conform with an architectural model which spread rapidly over the region and contains certain basic elements common to this new type of monastic house: atrium (usually rectangular), church (usually simple in plan but of imposing size, with a single nave), and monastic buildings, usually located to the south of the church and disposed around a small courtyard or patio, designated as the cloister.