Image by Rulo Ricardo Cuello
One of Mexico City’s most iconic structures, this cathedral is a monumental edifice: 109m long, 59m wide and 65m high. Started in 1573, it remained a work in progress during the entire colonial period, thus displaying a catalog of architectural styles, with successive generations of builders striving to incorporate the innovations of the day. The conquistadors ordered the cathedral built atop the Templo Mayor and, as a further show of domination at a key historical moment, used most of these Aztec stones in its construction.
Original architect Claudio Arciniega modeled the building after Seville’s seven-nave cathedral, but after running into difficulties with the spongy subsoil he scaled it down to a five-nave design of vaults on semicircular arches. The baroque portals facing the Zócalo, built in the 17th century, have two levels of columns and marble panels with bas-reliefs. The central panel shows the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, to whom the cathedral is dedicated. The upper levels of the towers, with unique bell-shaped tops, were added in the late 18th century. The exterior was completed in 1813, when architect Manuel Tolsá added the clock tower – topped by statues of Faith, Hope and Charity – and a great central dome.
The first thing you notice upon entering is the elaborately carved and gilded Altar de Perdón (Altar of Forgiveness). There’s invariably a line of worshippers at the foot of the Señor del Veneno (Lord of the Poison), the dusky Christ figure on the right. Legend has it that the figure attained its color when it miraculously absorbed a dose of poison through its feet from the lips of a clergyman to whom an enemy had administered the lethal substance.
The cathedral’s chief artistic treasure is the gilded 18th-century Altar de los Reyes (Altar of the Kings), behind the main altar. Fourteen richly decorated chapels line the two sides of the building, while intricately carved late-17th-century wooden choir stalls by Juan de Rojas occupy the central nave. Enormous painted panels by colonial masters Juan Correa and Cristóbal de Villalpando cover the walls of the sacristy, the first component of the cathedral to be built.
Visitors may wander freely, though you’re asked not to do so during Mass. A donation is requested to enter the sacristy or choir, where guides provide commentary, and you can climb the bell tower. Mexico City’s archbishop conducts Mass at noon on Sunday.
Adjoining the east side of the cathedral is the 18th-century Sagrario Metropolitano. Originally built to house the archives and vestments of the archbishop, it is now the city’s main parish church. Its front entrance and mirror-image eastern portal are superb examples of the ultra-decorative Churrigueresque style.