Spiritual Sparks

Volume 41, Issue 3 :: by Jaime Lara

The Hispanic Aesthetic in Religious Art and Architecture

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The U.S. is currently the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Many residents of New Mexico and the Southwest are proud to claim that their Spanish-speaking ancestors were landowners there for 200 years before the U.S. ever existed as a political entity; some Floridians and Louisianans could say the same. According to the 2000 census and the projection of experts on population growth and immigration, the Latino percentage of the nation’s population will continue to increase. This will have far-reaching consequences for multiculturalism, bilingualism, and catholicity in the wider sense of the word. What will this mean as religious communities become composed of a majority that is Hispanic or Hispanic American? Or how will religious communities attempt to embrace the gifts and cultural flavors of people who have immigrated from one of the 21 countries south of the border?

The reader will please pardon me for attempting to discuss “hispanicity” as if it were some uniform cultural and religious expression; it is not. Latinos in the U.S. are mestizos, sharing to varying degrees a complicated indigenous, European, and African bloodline and cultural history. They or their forbears have migrated from lands as diverse as the Sonoran desert, the Patagonian grasslands, the snow-capped Andes, and the tropical islands of the Caribbean. Moreover, significant numbers of Hispanics in the U.S. now have mainline Protestant, Evangelical, and Pentecostal religious affiliation, not to mention the majority who are Roman Catholics; a minority are Jews or Muslims. Such a variety of faiths forces one to think beyond stereotypes. But in spite of the vast complexity, I believe that certain ingredients went into the collective heritage of Latin Americans and Hispanic Americans in this country, regardless of national or denominational affiliation. Some of these have come into play in the design of recent houses of worship and liturgical spaces.

The spirituality of Latin America is, by and large, a product of late medieval piety and baroque Counter-Reformation Catholicism. Sixteenth-century “discovery” and evangelization grew out of the travels of medieval explorers in the line of Marco Polo and a late medieval worldview.1 The initial church buildings in Mexico (the first European construction on the mainland of America) incorporated Romanesque and Gothic elements of stone, massing, and scale, taught to the indigenous builders by the friar-architects. The neophytes of the New World were now greeted by classical portals that introduced them into an atrium reminiscent of ancient indigenous temple complexes while replicating something of the Roman basilicas, and even of the Temple of Solomon.2 The atrium was the site of the frequent processions that punctuated the liturgical calendar, a kinesthetic activity that was very popular with native peoples who were accustomed to sacred dance as a liturgical expression.3 In the atrium an outdoor apse sheltered an altar for Mass when the numbers of worshippers could not be accommodated within the single-nave neo-medieval church. The Santa Clara of Assisi Catholic Church in Dallas, Texas (1999), by VAI Architects, has reincorporated some of the same features of a massive forecourt centered on a stone cross carved with the instruments of Christ’s Passion. The atrium thus functions as gathering and fellowship space as well as a processional route circumscribed by the enclosure. With the importance that Latin Americans place on family and on social rituals of greeting and leave-taking, the revival of this medieval feature has been a godsend.

A little more history. If the Renaissance had any influence in the earliest churches of the New World it was in the decorated façades of these churches which had been directly copied from black-and-white prints. In the latter part of the 16th century altarpieces and panel paintings were created – again by indigenous artists – in a Renaissance or Mannerist style, but the New World quickly embraced the baroque as an architectural style, as cultural rhetoric, as personal spirituality, and as social theatricality.4 “Baroque” has always been more of a mindset than a fashion: a materialized spiritual world engaged less with the intellect than with direct, emotional experience, sensuous, prolix, and ostentatious. A horror vacui – a disdain for the void or the unadorned – is evident in the quasi-theatrical settings for the divine rituals seen in thousands of churches that are similar to San Javier del Bac in Arizona.5 In a more folkloric way, the California and Texas mission churches of the 18th century, with their riot of colors, bear witness to the unspoken principle that “More is more,” and that God deserves the best, brightest, and most of everything.6 Even in the poorest rural parish it is felt that glitter and sparkle are needed to make manifest the glory of God. This sensual piety is as far as possible from otherworldly quietism.

For example, any student of art history knows that Spanish baroque images are never static or stoic; they are in intense movement, windblown by the presence of the spirit, electrically charged by contact with the divine. Hands and arms stretch out to the eternal, mouths open wide in prayer and praise, eyes fill with tears in joy or contrition. Passion and pathos are for the Hispanic soul the true signs of the Holy Spirit. I suggest that Latino Evangelicals and Pentecostals demonstrate the same opulent aesthetic in their verbal and musical expressions, and in the importance they give to the gloria de Dios in ecstatic praise. For the Hispanic soul, power is released in passion.

In regard to the worship space, it should be obvious that the subtleties of white-on-white or shades of beige are lost here. Such spaces cry out to be filled and to be given a life and human warmth that otherwise are absent. In this vision, a space for religious fervor that is impassive is no sacred space at all. We may think of the California mission church as one of whitewashed stucco walls, but that is actually more a romantic fiction created by Hollywood. We forget that those structures were often painted with murals on the exterior, and that the wooden trim and doors would jump out at us with royal blues, forest greens, saffron yellows, and fiery reds. The original interior decoration of the mission churches, which has now been scientifically researched, would impress us with its garish super-graphics.7

Admitting these color lines, one has to be somewhat critical of Rafael Moneo’s 2002 Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, the largest Hispanic metropolis in the Americas after Mexico City. While the massive structure in an atrium does allude to early Christian basilicas and to the Mexican conversion centers of the 16th century; and while its external concrete shell does mimic the color of natural adobe (the first material used in the California missions), we have to ask if the monochromatic interior dialogues in any way with the surrounding neighborhoods. The cathedral complex sits literally at the seam joining colorful Chinatown, Thai Town, and Olivera Street, the early center of the Mexican-Indian pueblo and the symbolic heart of the Latino community. That permanent monochromatic tapestries were installed to line the cathedral walls means that a golden opportunity for splashes of robust color has, sadly, been lost. One can use many flattering adjectives to describe the interior space of the Los Angeles Cathedral – the last great Modernist church of the 20th century – but “passionate” is not one of them. The general feeling among Latinos is that the building, except for its lipstick-red altar and torturous crucifix, is self-consciously Anglo and, with its sharp rectilinear lines, aggressively “masculine.”8

In contrast, the baroque instinct of the 17th and 18th centuries was eminently feminine. The great pre-Columbian civilizations of the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas may have built in monolithic blocks with a hyper-lineal style of decoration, but Iberian Christianity introduced the rounded arch, the dome with lantern, the espadaña bell-wall, the volute, and the voluptuous S curve – all of which are particularly apt for the expression of intense feeling. Add to this the baroque iconography of the Virgin Mary and the gender-bending renditions of the face of Christ, and one can see that the feminine was an all-pervasive principle of the epoch.9


In Latino culture religion is handed down by the mother, who is both catechist and home liturgist. More so than in Anglo societies, women have long been recognized as the leaders of prayer and song during worship, and they are the keepers of the community’s memory and traditions.10 A woman’s sense of detail is also evident in the decoration and the ephemeral art of the worship space: delicate fabrics, complex patterns, roses, cherubs, and lace. I suggest that Hispanics, of whatever denomination, still think and imagine in these terms today, even if they don’t realize it.

Although 19th-century neoclassical style arrived in the Spanish New World together with the politics of nationalism and independence, it never made a significant impact in religious circles. It was an ideology of the elite or Enlightenment clergy, but relatively few houses of worship in Latin America accepted its aesthetic, and none are significant buildings.11 More impressive has been the mid-20th-century contribution of Latin American modernism.

Beginning in the 1950s, architects like Feliz Candela began to experiment with thin skins of reinforced poured concrete and sweeping rooflines. Initially influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, Mexican architects quickly moved to the parabolic arch, the S curve, and a neobaroque aesthetic. They hung curtain walls of glass from undulating concrete shells. The glass walls left little space for side altars, votive shrines and the like, and as time went on ephemeral decorations often took over as the worshippers attempted to inject more color and a sense of fiesta. More recently, postmodern architects like Plutarco Barriero have taken Candela’s soaring roofs to a new level, as in the church of La Esperanza de María (2000), a Mexican homage to Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp.

The architect Luis Barragan went in another direction by creating massive concrete boxes in which walls are painted in strong primary colors awash with light. His chapel for cloistered Capuchin nuns in Mexico City (1954-60) is timeless and iconic, with its shimmering gilded panels juxtaposed against walls that pop. Ricardo Legoretta’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Managua, Nicaragua, (1993) continues in the line of bold color and simple form influences of the Mudejar or Islamic architecture of Iberia. Its 63 small domes are an allusion to an early open Chapel of the Indians in Cholula, Mexico, which was itself modeled on a mosque.12 The ceiling of its cave-like Chapel of the Crucifix is pierced with dozens of pinpoint skylights as in a Turkish bath.


A more prismatic Latin American modernism is present in Daniel Bonilla’s “open” chapel for Los Nogales School in Bogotá, Colombia (2002). The purity of burnished concrete contrasts with the warmth of tropical hardwoods for pews, altar, ambo, and an enormous lateral door-wall. When this door is swung open, the worship space for 100 swells to accommodate 1,000 or more persons congregated on the grass. From that vantage point the worshippers can see completely through the building and out onto a reflecting pool wherein floats a monumental wooden cross (à la Tadao Ando). Once again, we see a solution that has a historical precedent in the first evangelization of the colonial period but which reinterprets that tradition with all the materials, technology, and aesthetic sensibility of contemporary architecture. Such sacred spaces, while clearly in the modernist vein, show that Latin architects have successfully manipulated the idiom with their own sense of the transcendent.

In the last decade or so, architects and liturgical designers in the U.S. have consciously attempted to incorporate identifiable Hispanic elements for new clients. Mission-style revival churches have been around since the early 20th-century revivals; one need only look at the eclectic examples in San Diego, for example. The use of the espadaña wall in Sagrado Corazón Church, Windham, Connecticut, is one recent attempt to give a New England Latino congregation the look of a California mission. The danger here is that, in the hands of a lesser designer, neo-mission architecture can resemble a Taco Bell. Many Catholic and some Protestant congregations have installed an icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe or a carved santo in the New Mexican style, the only ecclesiastical art form that is indigenous to the U.S.13 But an image in itself is not sufficient to create a Hispanic identity.

Another direction in this historical referencing is the recent renovation of the oldest cathedral in the U.S., San Fernando Cathedral (founded 1731) in San Antonio, Texas. In the final phase of the multimillion-dollar project, the parish commissioned sculptors and painters in Mexico to create three gilded “baroque” altarpieces (retablos) that are set deep in the chancel of the original building, behind the centrally located altar table. The retablos have no mensa (table) and hence do not reduplicate the one altar of the Eucharist, but rather they act as shrines that are dimly lighted during liturgical services but brightly illuminated at other times. Here the traditional and the familiar have been reconstituted for contemporary worship.

A very successful blending of the old and the new is the San Juan Bautista Mission in Miami, Florida. Designed by the firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk in 1989, the modest-sized atrium alludes to the traditional church of Latin America, offering a courtyard as a refuge from the hectic urban environment outside. At the sidewalk level the low front building greets the visitor who is then drawn through a dim zaguan vestibule toward the light and the sound of the fountain in the cloistered atrium.14 A small chapel with a pedimented clay-tiled roof, like the classic basilicas of Rome or the neo-catechumenal centers of the colonial New World, is the reward for entering the miniature enclosure.

No megachurches in the U.S. have been built to date by Hispanic congregants. Latino Evangelicals tend to be minorities within larger Anglo congregations (like those of the Assembly of God), who are the ones responsible for the program and design of worship spaces with theatrical stages, praise bands, and sophisticated audio equipment, but little that is traditionally Hispanic as defined here. As Latinos move to the middle-class mainstream and design their own megachurches, it will be interesting to see if their buildings take on the passion and power that is innately Hispanic.

Much of what I have said about a Latino aesthetic could certainly be said of other ethnic groups; Hispanics have no monopoly on passion or religious power. The Crucified One and the Sorrowing Mother are perfectly understandable across cultural lines. But those themes have been imagined and imaged in unique ways by Latin Americans in their sacred words, art, and architecture. The space in which one meets these visual or verbal icons, with their corresponding colors and shapes, is nothing less than a powerhouse, a holy hot spot wherein heaven and earth make contact and where spiritual sparks fly.

  1. See, for example, Luis Weckmann, The Medieval Heritage of Mexico (New York: Fordham University Press, 1992).
  2. See Jaime Lara, City, Temple, Stage: Eschatological Architecture and Liturgical Theatrics in New Spain (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), esp. 111-149. It should be noted that, in Spanish, the most common word for a church building has always been templo, temple.
  3. See Jaime Lara, Christian Texts for Aztecs: Art and Liturgy in Colonial Mexico (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), esp. 171-199.
  4.  See, for example, Linda Curcio-Nagy, The Great Festivals of Colonial Mexico City: Performing Power and Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004).
  5.  Many baroque architects, both in Europe and in the New World, were also stage-set designers.
  6.  I suggest that the dictum “Less is more,” popularized but not invented by Mies van der Rohe, has emerged from a Calvinist value judgment (perhaps with Carthusian roots) and means very little to Hispanic worshippers of any denominational affiliation. It obviously did influence architects like Luis Barragan and Daniel Bonilla.
  7.  See Norman Neuerburg, The Decoration of the California Missions (Santa Barbara, Calif: Bellerophon Books, 1991).
  8.  This was the general consensus of Latino pastoral leaders at the 2005 conference of the National Hispanic Institute for Liturgy, which took place at the cathedral.
  9.  On this topic see Emile Mâle, L’art religieux de la fin du XVI siècle: Etude sur l’iconographie après le Concile de Trente (Paris: Armand Colin, 1951).
  10. It is not uncommon for women in Latin American parishes to tell the priest what he is supposed to do during Holy Week; they know the rubrics and customs better than he.
  11. It is true that some gilded baroque altarpieces were summarily removed and replaced by neoclassical altars in white or ebony, but there was resistance to the new style.
  12. See Lara, City, Temple, Stage, 141-146.
  13. See Willard Hougland, Santos: A Primitive American Art (Santa Barbara, Calif: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1946), 4.
  14. The zaguan is a familiar feature of Iberian and Latin American vernacular architecture. It originated as a defensible corridor in private houses and palaces.

Jaime Lara is a professor at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music in New Haven, Connecticut, and is a member of the Faith & Form editorial board. His most recent book is Christian Texts for Aztecs: Art and Liturgy in Colonial Mexico (University of Notre Dame Press).