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Ermitas and Barrio Chapels of Mérida, Yucatan

The principal colonial monuments of Mérida - the Cathedral, the Casa de Montejo and the monasteries of La Mejorada and Las Monjas - are well known. But the city can also boast a variety of lesser known churches and chapels of interest.

With the expansion of colonial Mérida after 1600, many former native barrio chapels, ermitas (local shrines and chapels) and outlying village churches were drawn into its orbit. Although usually modest and often considerably altered over time, they are all buildings of charm and character, and in one instance-that of San Cristobal-of considerable architectural distinction. Here are a few of our favorites, with their locations, proceeding outwards from the main plaza:

North

 

Santa Ana* (C. 45 & C. 60)
The little walled church of Santa Ana, founded in the late 1500s and rebuilt in the 1700s, served the northernmost barrio of colonial Merida with its sizeable Indian and mulatto population. Raised on what was probably a former Maya temple platform, the church was eclectically altered in post-colonial times and is easily identified by its curious pyramidal spires.

 

 

Itzimná* (C. 20 & C. 19)
The first colonial structure to be erected in this former Maya village on the northern outskirts of Merida was an Indian chapel, part of which may form the fabric of the raised sanctuary of this attractive 18th century church. The distinctive facade, crowned by a lofty, scrolled espadaña, is a prominent landmark in this now fashionable suburb.

South

La Candelaria* (C. 67 & C. 64)
Founded as an ermita in the early 1600s, the sturdy little church of Candelaria was rebuilt late in the same century, looking much as it appears today. A modest espadaña trimmed with tiny decorative scrolls and flanked by pierced parapets, stands above the simply framed doorway. A gilded baroque retablo with Salamonic columns-a rare colonial survival in the city-rests in the domed sanctuary.

San Juan Bautista* (C. 69 & C. 62)
San Juan Bautista, with its multi-tiered towers and recessed facade with shell archways, is a more modest version of nearby San Cristóbal. Originally an ermita chapel marking the southern entry to the colonial city, the church was repeatedly enlarged during the colonial period and beyond. Its elegant proportions and baroque front with carved stucco ornament are shown off to advantage by the pleasant and spacious site, whose precincts were the haunt of the sanjuanistas, a group of early 19th century reformers and patriots.
The unusual neo-Gothic retablo - one of the few altarpieces to survive the depredations of the Revolution - is fitted with mechanical pulleys designed to cover and reveal the santos mounted in the retablo.

San Cristóbal (C.50 & C. 69)
Southeast of the main plaza, opposite its own little park, stands the parish church of San Cristóbal. This monumental church, located in a city ward of the same name, is the last and most sophisticated of Mérida's colonial churches.
The barrio was originally settled by native auxiliaries from central Mexico, who accompanied the Montejos on their conquest of Yucatan in the 1540s. After the Spanish conquest, the residents of the quarter were served by the Franciscans from their monastery of San Francisco de Mérida, but following the secularization of the Franciscan church in the 1750s, pressure mounted to establish a new parish church in the heart of the barrio. The foundation stone was laid in 1757 and the church officially dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe the next year - marking papal recognition of the popular Virgin as the patron saint of Mexico.

Work proceeded at a snail's pace, however, and a temporary wood and stone sanctuary was erected, with an open thatched nave recalling the rural missions of the 16th century. Finally, under the energetic priest Ignacio de Zepeda y Lira, construction resumed apace in the 1790s, and the church was completed in December 1796. Although its architect is uncertain, San Cristóbal has been attributed to Juan de Torres, the designer and builder of the grand church at Uman, Zepeda's previous curacy.
The church is a major Mérida landmark. Clearly related to the cathedral, it also incorporates many late baroque features of scale and appearance while successfully remaining within the austere tradition of Yucatecan religious architecture. Multi-staged twin towers anchor the lofty facade - a characteristic feature of the Cathedral as well as numerous parish churches across the peninsula. A great recessed shell archway, flanked by giant ornamental pilasters, encloses the sober classical entry and a Moorish choir window.
San Cristóbal's sheer nave walls enclose an interior gallery (camino de rondo) reached by a spiral stairway of 129 steps. While the coffered vaulting and the great dome above the crossing recall the Cathedral interior, the neoclassical stone retablo is unique in Yucatan - purportedly created by an imported European sculptor. The modern mural medallions along the nave illustrate the apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Emblazoned above the doorway, framed by discreet baroque floral reliefs, is the Latin inscription, "This is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven."


Ermita de Santa Isabel* (C. 77 & C. 66)
This charming ermita chapel stands in a scenic park located just outside the colonial city walls bordering the old camino real from Campeche. Set on an elevated site beside a picturesque grotto or cenote, this 18th century wayfarers shrine was originally dedicated to Nuestra Señora del Buen Viaje. A rustic espadañasurmounts the church front, anchored by stubby towers, and a plain beamed ceiling covers the intimate nave. The gardens surrounding the shrine are dotted with Mayan and colonial sculptures, and are the venue for occasional musical evenings.

West

Santiago* (C. 59 & C. 72)
Located beside its much reduced atrium, the church was founded in 1637, although little now remains of the original structure save perhaps the modest sanctuary and the dated inscription placed above the entry. The later nave is supported by a phalanx of external buttresss and capped by a decorative, wave-like parapet. The imposing 19th century front features a baroque doorway and rather overwrought baroque espadaña in three tiers with outsize pinnacles. A retablo in late baroque style, with its statue of Santiago, occupies the sanctuary.


Text ©2001 by Richard D. Perry. *Starred drawings ©1978 by Lawrence Mills.

Consult our guidebook, MAYA MISSIONS for more on the colonial buildings of Mérida and Yucatan.

Read travelers' accounts of Mérida and Yucatan through the ages in our new anthology, EXPLORING YUCATAN

Yucatan pages (The "Y" files)

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