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Bev­er­ley Spears’ Early Churches of Mex­ico

Bev­er­ley Spears presents a vis­ual and in­for­ma­tional glory in Churches of Mex­ico: An Ar­chi­tect’s View, pub­lished by Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press. Ten years in the works, the book has 408 pages and hun­dreds of beau­ti­ful pho­to­graphs. For her im­ages, made from 2006 to 2016, Spears used black-and-white photography to em­pha­size the an­cient build­ings’ es­sen­tial char­ac­ter­is­tics, to “con­vey ar­chi­tec­tural form, space, and light,” as she puts it in her in­tro­duc­tion.

The churches and (mis­sion com­plexes or monas­ter­ies) were built dur­ing the 1500s by men­di­cant fri­ars — Fran­cis­cans, Do­mini­cans, and Au­gus­tini­ans — who came from Spain to con­vert, teach, and bap­tize in­dige­nous peo­ples. The struc­tures show mas­sive walls, of­ten but­tressed and topped with rows of mer­lons (pro­ject­ing forms like tiny tow­ers), some with a sin­gle tower on one side only, and with grand (church­yards) in front. An­other strik­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic, es­pe­cially in the Fran­cis­can con­ven­tos, is the rib-vaulted ceil­ing struc­ture.

The ma­jor­ity of features Spears’ pho­to­graphic ex­am­i­na­tion of ex­te­ri­ors and in­te­ri­ors, but the text chap­ters treat Span­ish his­tory in Mex­ico and ex­plain mis­sion ar­chi­tec­ture and or­na­men­ta­tion. An ap­pen­dix of­fers a de­tailed chart of vaults, bell tow­ers, atrios, and other features in 108 in a dozen Mex­i­can states, from Hi­dalgo to Chi­a­pas. “The book is re­ally about how I see th­ese as ar­chi­tec­tural mon­u­ments, as pieces of art,” said Spears, an award-win­ning Santa Fe ar­chi­tect. “I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in the spa­tial qual­ity more than the his­tory and the art his­tory, the dec­o­ra­tions and the mu­rals.”

Her topic en­com­passes a whole dif­fer­ent realm from New Mex­ico’s 17th- and 18th- cen­tury mis­sion churches, with their f lat roofs and trans­verse cleresto­ries. The roof struc­tures in are vaults, which were not done in the north of colo­nial Nueva Es­paña. “I think there were fewer, less- skilled ma­sons here,” Spears said. “There were mil­lions of peo­ple in Mex­ico who worked in stone, who had built the pyra­mids. So the fri­ars were able to teach them about vaults and arches. Some of the spa­ces in th­ese Mex­i­can churches are just mag­nif­i­cent, partly be­cause typ­i­cally they’re not basil­i­cas with three aisles and col­umns [as in Santa Fe’s Cathe­dral Basil­ica of St. Fran­cis of As­sisi]. They’re very tall and very long, but it’s a sin­gle vault. So that space is very con­tained and very fo­cused on the sanc­tu­ary.”

Spears dis­cusses Early Churches of Mex­ico: An Ar­chi­tect’s View at 6 p.m. Tues­day, Nov. 7, at Col­lected Works Book­store (202 Gal­is­teo St., 505-988- 4226). — Paul Wei­de­man

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