Can an architectural structure be said to function as a historical protagonist? Can a monumental building, although designed, constructed, and used by human actors, maintain its own life story—a biography that stands witness to the course of centuries? In Miguel A. Bretos’s new book, a case is implicitly made for the dramatic rethinking of how we as scholars imagine and analyze the supposedly stagnant piles of stone that stage the human events that are our usual subjects of historical inquiry. Using the majestic structure as his narrative’s main character, Bretos deftly traces the history of the cathedral, the city in which it stands, and the province it ultimately came to represent, thereby illuminating the complexity of colonial society and the emergence of Yucatán’s distinct identity within the Mexican nation state.
The first two of the book’s ten chapters provide background for readers uninitiated in religious architectural history and Yucatec cultural history; Chapter 1 explains the functional difference between cathedrals and basilicas, and Chapter 2 recalls the early conquest of the peninsula and the creation of the dioceses. Both are placed against the backdrop of contemporaneous European politics. Chapters 3 and 4 recount the cathedral’s physical construction, contextualized within the architectural history of the peninsula and the wider world. The remainder of the book chronologically details the sociocultural and religious history of the peninsula, as an army of bishops marches through Mérida and its cathedral. Chapters 5 through 7 chart early colonial times, detailing the lives and contributions of the infamous Diego de Landa and other lesser known but equally important historical figures, such as Bishops Juan Izquierdo, Gonzalo de Salazar, and Luis Cifuentes Sotomayor. Chapter 7 also highlights the important emergence of popular cults dedicated to Christ of the Blisters and the Virgin of Izamal.
The era of the Bourbon kings follows next as Bretos traces the cathedral’s destiny and the lives of its resident bishops through to the nineteenth century. In doing so, he skillfully relates Yucatecan religious and political concerns to those of the wider colony. He then explains the impact of the wars of Independence and the Caste War on the peninsula during the “Siglo de Sobresaltos,” or Frightening Century. The final chapter, [End Page 664] “Revolution and Rebirth,” and the epilogue, tell of the Cathedral’s postcolonial and contemporary existence.
To say that this book is beautifully illustrated is an understatement. Its hundreds of color images include architectural views, archival documents, structural plans, colonial period panel paintings and monastic mural cycles, period engravings and woodcuts, historical and contemporary photographs of street views, singular edifices, and portraits. Most of these historical images have never been published before, and many, such as the portraits of Yucatan’s bishops, are housed in closed areas of the cathedral. Their presence in this volume is itself a massive contribution. Moreover, the large-scale photographs of the cathedral interior grant views inaccessible to the casual visitor, revealing an architectural majesty never seen from the ground level. Detail photographs of the church’s vaulting system, for example, allow readers to take an architectural tour not bound by the laws of gravity. Similarly, as he traces the province’s history, Bretos illustrates each historical era using Fernando Castro de Pacheco’s 1976 mural cycle of Yucatecan history, which graces the upper floor of the Governor’s Palace, diagonally across from the cathedral on Mérida’s main square.
Thus, despite its title, this book is about much more than a building. To my knowledge, no text has yet been published that so cohesively addresses the last 500 years of Yucatecan history. Although likely written for a popular audience (it was produced in collaboration with the Commission of Sacred Art of the Archdiocese of Yucatan), the book is meticulously researched and its scholarly apparatus will make it useful to an interdisciplinary array of scholars including Latin Americanists, art historians, architectural historians, ethnohistorians, and religious historians. Bretos is to be commended for his mastery of extant sources on colonial Yucatan—archival, visual, and architectural...