San Miguel Allende -- Pictures of Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel

Guanajuato, Mexico
Visited March 2002 and December 2007

So many architects, so much time

San Miguel visitors can't miss the parish church, La Parroquia, the in-your-face symbol of the town and perhaps the most distinctive facade in all of Mexico.  But often they fail to realize that their impression of La Parroquia is all facade.  There is much more to this church than its bizarre Gothic front.  The next two pictures below show much more of the heterogeneous exterior.  (La Parroquia is the church in the center including the left two domes and the soaring pink facade.)
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Here's another view taken from southwest of the church.  As both pictures show, the pseudo-Gothic tower makes La Parroquia by far the tallest structure in this hilly town.   Since San Miguel became a National Historical Monument in 1926, it's likely to remain that way.
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click to see a larger picture of Los Monjas Dome

The two domes are most likely from the original 1683 church although the nearer tower bears a suspicious resemblance (maybe just a paint job?) to the tower of Los Monjas, the Church of the Immaculate Conception  (thumbnail photo on the right which can be enlarged by clicking on it).   Click here to see more of Los Monjas church.  

The earlier church was designed by architect Marco Antonio Sobarias in pretty much the standard Latin cross plan.[218]

Here's a closer look at one of the Parroquia's two domes:

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Two centuries after La Parroquia was built, Mexico's first native-born bishop and San Miguel native ordered a new facade.  Rather than hiring a traditionally trained architect, the local parish priest chose another San Miguel native, Ceferino Gutierrez, a mason and builder, to create what the untrained Gutierrez viewed to be a Gothic structure[12].   

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Supposedly Graceland was remodeled to fit the vision of how Elvis Presley thought rich people lived.  La Parroquia's facade fits Ceferino Gutierrez's vision of how Gothic cathedrals should look, based upon the postcards that were as close as he ever got to those great European medieval structures.  Like his fellow visionaries creating Chartres or Paris's cathedrals, each morning the illiterate Gutierrez would draw the day's work in the sand in front of the church and his masons would add what he drew to the slowly rising tower.[12]  

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Kitsch or high art?  Does it matter?  The facade works and is loved by the people who live with it.  It gives San Miguel an immediately recognizable icon just as Paris has its Eiffel Tower, completed nine years after La Parroquia's addition.  (At the time, many Parisian artists hated the look of Eiffel's monstrosity.)  Remember that anonymous saying:  "You don't love a woman because she is beautiful; she is beautiful because you love her."  Miguelinos love their pink Parroquia and most tourists do as well.  

Note the bells poking through the upper spaces.  San Miguel has at least 87 church bells plus numerous others in  some of the public buildings.  Synchronization is not a core competency of Mexican Colonial towns, so you may hear these bells ring anytime during the hour.  The Parroquia boasts the loudest bell in town, nicknamed "Miguel."  It's nearly 6 feet tall and is over 8 inches thick at its rim.  All bells are named after saints and may get a special ringing on their feast day.  When all church bells are rung at once, we have a repique[50].   If you find this maddening, come to San Miguel on Good Friday when all bells are silenced to honor Christ's passion and entombment.
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Besides the bells, a few statues protrude through the pink and tan stones.  Gutierrez planned on filling these niches with such statues as is typical on European Gothic cathedrals -- but the budget did not allow.[12]  But let's look at a few statues that were added to the Parroquia complex later on:
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The above bronze was added in 2005 to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the death of the town founder, the Franciscan Juan de San Miguel.  Here he comforts one of his indigenous converts.  His robe covers the bare feet that walked the breadth of colonial Mexico in search of lost souls. [No snickers about the puns, please.]  His belt should show the shell that not only symbolized St. James the Greater, patron of Spain, but could be put to practical use to hold baptismal water.  Fray Juan did not stay here long, just long enough to erect a simple mud-and-branch shelter over the altar and move on.  
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In front of La Parroquia and St. Rafael's (the adjoining church) rises this monument to the first bishop of Leon, native Miguelino Jose Maria de Jesus Diez de Sollano y Davalos. Sollano was the first native-born Mexican to become a bishop in 1863 -- over 300 years from the time the Spaniards started subduing this land and 4 decades after Mexico became independent of Spain!  As head of an influential seminary, Sollano made Leon the center of a revival of St. Thomas's scholastic philosophy.  He also commissioned the building of the pseudo-Gothic facade on the parish church of his home town.  In both cases, he brought the middle ages to 1880s central Mexico.   A man of a historic first who was slightly behind his times.

As aging yuppies from Mexico City and US/Canadian expats move (at least part-time) to San Miguel, local  architects who add to San Miguel  exploit any view  of La Parroquia they can get.  Here's a dramatic view from a plaza used for special events such as weddings in the Allende Institute...

...and another one of a couple works in progress.  Behind the fence will rise a Four Seasons hotel where you can have a five-star view of the Parroquia.  ( Housing prices in Central San Miguel start at around $200K and go up to $5 million US dollars.)  Our star Jane will return to Houston.  Just in front of this spot is a huge overflow parking area with modern restrooms and lighting.  Progress!

Another exterior shot showing the heterogeneity of this distinctive building.  Medieval cathedrals took as long to create as La Paroquia but did not diverge this much.  Everything is here including the kitschian sink.  

And a final shot of the facade sporting its dramatic night lighting.  In front is an old market now used as a tourist restaurant.   San Miguel's centro can be a lively place after dark and the well-lit historical monuments help encourage people to linger.

The Parroquia Interior

Let's now venture inside where the artifacts and art work provide as much heterogeneity as do the various domes and towers of the exterior.    In general, the layout follows the classic Latin cross plan.  A few places such as this spot near the left transept even look neo-classic.

But most of the walls are covered in murals, many of them done by a parish priest with more devotion than talent.  Apparently he served at La Parroquia for a long time.[13]


Not even the domes are spared.

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This mural is in the baptismal area.  The area was gated to keep photographers and other riffraff at bay.


Most of the better statues have been carted off long ago.[13]  Among those that remain include this statue of Archangel Michael (Miguel) above the main altar.  

Being an archangel, Michael was in a rare company.  Archangels were pretty much the grand poobahs of theseven orders of angels.  And Michael was usually the holy warrior sent to lead the righteous into battle including against Iran/Persia.  (W, are you listening?)  As such, we'd expect a pretty virile man, perhaps with a 5 o'clock shadow like the raunchy archangel Michael portrayed by  John Travolta in the 1996 film of the same name.
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Instead we have an effeminate doll-like statue looking more like a young cherub rather than a seasoned Archangel warrior.  The reason for this is that the church forbad artists from providing secondary sexual characteristics on angels which included beards.[14]  (How did that industrial-strength Catholic named Rubens get away with giving his corpulent cherubs the primary sexual characteristic?  Don't spare the rod lest you spoil the art!)  

Here's another statue: this one of St. Roque (Roch/Rocco) -- known as the plague fighter.  The dog, with a Mexican bolillo in mouth, reminds us how the saint was fed once he had been expelled from the town where he had nursed plague victims, only to contract the disease himself.[13]   Here he uncovers his thigh to show his plague sores.  While the plague wiped out a third or more of Europe starting in the 14th century, European diseases killed off 95% of the indigenous people in the early days of the Spanish conquest, giving San Roque much to do.  (Modern scholarship claims Roque probably never existed).  
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San Roque's statue stands near the entrance to the Baptistery on the left side of the church.  Some of the heroes of the Mexican war of independence were baptized here.[13]

The view down the left transept leads to the last statue we will discuss: Our Lord of the Conquest, an image fashioned from the hearts of cornstalks and orchid glue by the indigenous people of Patzcuaro. 

This life-size sculpture is quite light.  The two friars who were bringing it to San Miguel were ambushed and killed by the Chichimecas, just south of town.  The blood of one of them remains on the statue. Somehow it ended up here where it is sacred to the concheros dancers who participate in ancient (pre-Columbian) ritual dances accompanied by music emanating from lutes constructed or armadillo shells.

The Eucharist Chapel -- Capilla del Santisimo

The back of La Parroquia on the left (east) side contains a small chapel devoted to the adoration of the Eucharist.  The large wall sign reminds visitors in primitive skeleton letters of the scriptural roots of the Eucharist from Matthew 26 -- and tries to keep the tourists out (or at least respectful).
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The chapel seems to contain more modern murals that work together better than the amateur priest's paintings throughout much of the rest of the interior of La Parroquia.  Maybe it's that eye of God over the barred window on the left side.
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This large mural above is on the left.  The one below is on the front wall to the right of the chapel of Jesus with his two cherubs.
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Our musicians seem to be raising a somber song to Christ the King.

The Crypt

Lucky visitors can find their way down to the usually locked crypt below the main altar.  Of the three major architects who created or elaborated on La Parroquia, the designer of this space has been most honored by history:  Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras.

Tresguerras (1759-1833) was a famous not only as an architect but also as a painter and sculptor/wood carver.  He learned architecture through the literature; like the untrained Ceferino Gutierrez who created La Parroquia's iconic Gothesque pink tower, Tresguerras never went to Europe to study its wonderful cathedrals in situ.  
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Tresguerras was born in the nearby city of Celaya where his neo-classic masterpiece, the church of El Carmen still stands.  But lets anachronistically call him a Renaissance man since he also painted the frescoes in this church, wrote devotionals as well as satires and poetry.  
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In addition to the architecture, Tresguerras did these monochrome murals
Soon after the war of independence began in 1811, Tresguerras was arrested for being in favor of the revolutionaries.  Fortunately, he had been conscripted to "save" a nearby (and quite different) San Miguel church called San Francisco long before.  (Learn more about that church by clicking here).  
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This crypt contains the bones of one of those revolutionaries: Felipe Gonzalez (not the 20th century Spanish socialist but a conspirator with Ignacio Allende as they met in a nearby house and plotted).

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The place also houses the body (but not the heart) of General Anastasio Bustamente, president of the finally independent Mexico who retired to San Miguel and died here in 1853[111] after his several bouts of power and exile.  He first came to fame as a royalist general, trying to suppress the revolution.  Once the revolution was assured, he had a change of heart and joined the rebels, rescuing the four heads (including Allende and Hildago) that had been exposed to the elements in cages in nearby Guanajuato for a decade.  Graves make for ironic companionship

To return to our overview page on San Miguel de Allende, please click here 

or if you'd like to see the church next door, named after the Archangel Rafael, click here.

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Sagrada, Barcelona, Spain --taken in 2002 Above is another view of La Parroquia. Actually not. It's the work of one of the most distinctive 20th century architects, the well-educated Catalan Antonio Gaudí. He started his neo-Gothic cathedral in OLD Spain in 1882, about the same time that San Miguel's signature church was getting its new facade. Dick visited the Barcelona building site in October of 2001 and found it still unfinished. (He also saw another work-in-progress visiting the building site, a guy named Bill Clinton.  To see those pictures and a bit of commentary, click here.) If we moved this church to Mexico, would it suddenly become kitsch?