The year is 1521. Until now, the sunny and mountainous lands of what we now call Mexico – Mexico City in particular – were being ruled by the Aztecs. Mexico City at this point is known as the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. In 1521 Hernan Cortes and his Spanish warriors land on the sunny shores of the Aztec empire. It took the Spaniards advanced weaponry, an outbreak of smallpox and 93 days to overtake the Aztecs, claiming Tenochtitlan and the surrounding area for their own. Driven by a desire to expand their empire and spread Christianity, the first plan of the Spanish colonizers was easy: Dismantle the Aztec sacred precinct at the center of the city and replace it with a massive gothic cathedral.
In 1573 construction of the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral began.
The Beginning of the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral
The cathedral’s official name is the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assuption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. The design for the cathedral was completed by Claudio de Arciniega who was a Spanish architect in the 1500s. The inspiration for the church came from the gothic style which was found in many cathedrals in Spain at the time. It’s easy to recognize the gothic influence just by looking at the facade – intricate details and high looming towers and ceilings are telltale signs of the style.
Many architects, however, would not agree that this church is gothic in style alone. That’s because the construction of the church took 250 years and spanned three centuries to complete. It was started in 1573 and was not finished until 1813. Claudio de Arciniega was replaced multiple times by multiple architects who all brought in the styles and influences of the time. To this day, the Metropolitan Cathedral is an amalgamation of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical styles in architecture and design.
The Physical Specs of the Cathedral
The cathedral features 2 bell towers, 3 main portals, a central dome, 150 windows and stands 220 feet tall. A majority of the construction was done by hand with the walls being erected in 1581.
The length of time it took to build the church – almost 250 years – is attributed to many disasters, pauses and roadblocks. Many of these were natural and out of the control of the builders. Some were simply restrictions of how fast construction could happen when everything was being done by hand.
In 1672 a flood devastated the city and almost sank the cathedral. They paused the project and considered relocating it to a new area and starting fresh. Alas they had already put in over a decade’s worth of work into the church and they chose that spot for a reason. So, the project restarted. More modern disasters to the church include a fire in the 1960s and the earthquake in Mexico in 2017. Just like Notre Dame in Paris, this cathedral has seen its fair share of destruction.
The Location of the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral
The Cathedral was built right in the old city center of Tenochtitlan. Not only was it chosen because it is the city center but also because it provided the Spanish a way to physically conquer the previous civilization. Recent excavations have found that the cathedral was actually built right on top of an Aztec structure. Some of the stones used in its construction came from the demolished rubble of this and other Aztec buildings surrounding the city. The problem with this location, however, is that the Aztecs has first built their capital city on a lake.
Excavation site of Aztec ruins right by the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City. Image borrowed from Culture Trip.
Building on Water
Lago de Texcoco – as it was known by the Aztecs – was a lagoon found in the center of the Mexican mountains. The story goes that when seeking a location for the center of their civilization, Aztec leaders were presented with a vision by the Gods saying that then they saw an eagle eating a snake while sitting on a cactus, then they would have found their destination.
The image was pretty specific. Apparently, it was while in the middle of this lagoon that they actually witnessed this – an eagle sitting on a cactus while biting a snake on a patch of land in the mountains of Mexico. It was the destined spot for the Aztec civilization. This is also the reason that this image is found on the Mexican flag.
A Sinking City
Believing that this area was destined to be the location of their empire, the Aztecs filled in the lake with soil, expanding the land and providing them with an area to build their empire. When the Spaniards colonized the area, they soon realized that this was a problem. They tried to drain the lake below the city but to this day the ground remains uneven. It is estimated that Mexico City sinks about 1 meter every single year.
Because of this, one of the main motivators for choosing material for the Cathedral was weight. They wanted the lightest rock and material possible to ensure the longevity of the church. Tezontle, Chiluca Stone and stones from the Aztec buildings were most popular. Some stories say that Hernan Cortes himself laid the first cornerstone of the church.
The stone foundation of the church is stabilized by giant wooden spikes in the ground to help maintain the building. This 1500’s method of limiting the sinking of the church wasn’t successful. In the late 1900s, the cathedral was placed upon the list of the Worlds’ 100 Most Endangered Sites because of how unpredictable the ground was. Engineers worked to stabilize the church in 2000 and it was taken off that list. That doesn’t mean that the church isn’t shifting, though.
Today, there is a giant pendulum that suspends from the ceiling of the Cathedral. Over time, it has marked and continues to mark the center point of the church as it tilts and shifts.
Construction of the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral
Tezontle is a highly porous volcanic rock. Mexico City is surrounded by volcanoes making it a widely available material for a project as large as the Cathedral. Since it was built so long ago, there are few specifics about how they went about building the cathedral. Hand tools, horses and ox, and plenty of manual labor would have been the main contributors to construction at the time.
The Metropolitan Cathedral Today
The church was finished in 1813 – about 3 years after Mexico declared its independence from Spain. The church itself, its location and its design have all come together to create in a physical representation of the colonial past of Mexico. Its location today is in the main center of Mexico City and is used for many cultural and social gatherings such as festivals and Cinco de Mayo.
Whatever materials and tools went into the construction of the Cathedral, it has withstood over 500 years of weather, floods, fires and earthquakes. While the cathedral has taken on damage and has been renovated and restored many times, it still stands as an icon for tourists and locals alike.