Another one of the field trips OU’s Faculty in Residence led was to Cholula, a town half an hour from Puebla known for its churches. The story goes that when the conquistadores stood on the biggest hill in Cholula, they could see “a pyramid for every day of the year,” and sought to tear down every “pagan” temple and build a church in its place. As a result, although there certainly aren’t three hundred and sixty-five of them, many churches exist in the municipality of Cholula. We had breakfast at a charming restaurant in the colonial center of town and then went to three of those churches in one day. The first was the Parish of San Pedro de Cholula, sort of the equivalent of a cathedral for a small town. It’s the most important church in Cholula, and it looks the part.
One cool feature of the parish that you can’t see in this picture is that next to the main church building is a large chapel, the Capilla Real, which has forty-nine small domes, or cupolas, on its roof. The chapel was intended for the local Amerindian population, which was used to worshiping in the open air, and so it used to have open walls. Those have since been closed off to preserve the interior, but the cupolas remain.
The next church we went to was unique even among the dozens of churches in Puebla and Cholula. Puebla prides itself on its baroque architecture; the center of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and in 2015 the city created the International Museum of the Baroque, which is incredible and well worth a visit. But that’s all Mexican Baroque, created by colonial Spain or by architects seeking to imitate them. This church, the church of Santa Maria Tonantzintla, is the only example of indigenous or “Indian” Baroque. It was created at the behest of the Spanish, but by local artisans, and contains much Native imagery. For example, the four-petaled flower motif is a reference to the Aztec belief that the world had four corners.
The church is as visually overwhelming in person as it is in photography; no matter where you look, every bit of space is filled, and there’s always a pair of painted eyes staring at you. (Also, the painted faces become visibly paler and blonder the higher up and “closer to heaven” they are, which is the clearest example of religious colonialism I’ve ever seen.) It’s a fascinating place to go, but I had my fill after a minute or so.
The last church we went to was a real hike, and I mean that literally. When the Spanish tore down every pyramid they saw from that hillside, they had no idea that they were standing on the top of the greatest pyramid of all. The Great Pyramid of Cholula is a series of six structures, one built on top of the other over time, as was local custom. The pyramid was then overgrown by grass, which archaeologists have determined is helping to preserve the building from erosion. For that reason, even though there are several active archaeological sites around and tunnels running through the Great Pyramid, the pyramid itself will never be excavated.
Another reason is the church built on top of the pyramid. La Virgen de los Remedios, or “Our Lady of Remedies,” is so high up that it has a convenience store built next to the chapel, for worshipers to fuel their physical bodies before fueling their immortal souls. There’s no elevator or escalator, as that would damage the pyramid. To get to the church, you have to walk up. While we were there, a couple was taking photos for a wedding. I looked at the bride’s six-inch heels and immaculate dress and could only assume she’d changed after the walk up; I was dying in a t-shirt and sneakers.