Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies
Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies

Built by Mixtec Hands

Benjamín Ibarra Sevilla’s Work on Treasures of Mexican Colonial Architecture


by Susanna Sharpe

Benjamín Ibarra Sevilla has spent a lot of time in late-Gothic churches. He is not a casual visitor to these vast structures, who might stroll in and crane his neck to take in the splendor of the ribbed vaults high above, or fleetingly ponder the enormous effort that must have gone into their construction: removing stone from a quarry, transporting it, shaping it, and assembling the impossibly heavy pieces of chiseled stone in just the right way so that a structure could withstand the test of centuries.

An architect trained in building restoration and an assistant professor at the UT School of Architecture, Ibarra is the author of the bilingual volume El Arte de la Cantería Mixteca / Mixtec Stonecutting Artistry and creator of a traveling exhibition of the same name, which won the University Co-op's 2014–15 Creative Research Award. The book and the exhibition focus on three sixteenth-century churches in the Mixteca region of southern Mexico whose construction involved the building of complex late-Gothic ribbed vaults. The churches are San Pedro y San Pablo Teposcolula, Santo Domingo Yanhuitlán, and San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca, located in Oaxaca. All three were built by Mixtec hands. 


Church of Santo Domingo Yanhuitlán, photo by Benjamín Ibarra Sevilla

At the time of the Spanish arrival on Mexican shores, the Mixtecs were one of the indigenous Mesoamerican groups making their home in the southern Mexican region of La Mixteca, which includes the present-day Mexican states of Oaxaca, Puebla, and Guerrero. They were known to be skilled in stonemasonry, metalwork, and painting.

Ibarra notes that buildings are often looked at through the lens of art history. His work departs from this approach, asking what went into the making of the structures we see and what stonemasons would have needed to know in order to carve the stone. His work, he writes, “scrutinizes building techniques under the light of stereotomy (the science of cutting solids). The drawings and models illustrating this work provide an analysis of the solutions used for the vaults’ construction. The objective is to position these buildings in the global context of construction history while reflecting on the transmission of building technology from Europe to Mexico."

In order to pursue this focus, Ibarra examined the three Mexican churches with the aid of cutting-edge laser technology, which enabled him to scan the 3D environment and visualize the relationship of every single piece of stone to every other. He explains and illustrates his use of laser technology in a section of the extensive and beautifully illustrated website Mixtec Stonecutting Artistry (see http://www.mixtec-stonecutting.com/methodology). Ibarra created the 3D laser images on this site by directing laser streams at solid objects in the church interior. Each building took a day to scan, with Ibarra moving from place to place throughout the churches.

In addition, using a 3D laser printer, Ibarra re-created each one of the vaults’ stone pieces and then assembled them to show how the vaults were constructed. These models, and an explanatory text, can be seen in the 3D Printing section of his site. Three digital animation videos also illustrate the assembly. (View these videos, and others related to the 3D assembly of vault models, on YouTube.)

According to Ibarra, “indigenous interpretation of occidental building principles resulted in the practical construction of ribbed vaults.” But Mixtec aesthetics and culture also played a role in setting the buildings apart from contemporary structures in Spain. Ibarra writes, “These structures are a significant example of local interpretation of constructive principles revealing the symbiotic process of indigenous masonry techniques and European applied geometry.” He cites the open chapel at San Pedro y San Pablo Teposcolula as an example of this syncretism. Teposcolula’s altar was built along an open wall, and church attendees worshipped outside, in keeping with indigenous practice at the time of its construction. Unlike other open chapels in the Americas, Teposcolula was built right off as a permanent chapel instead of starting as a temporary structure. Its open chapel and buildings are considered an experiment in architecture.


Open Chapel at San Pedro y San Pablo Teposcolula, photo by Benjamín Ibarra Sevilla

Indigenous influence can also be seen in the pre-Columbian iconography that adorns the interior and exterior of the churches Ibarra studied. For example, the iconography found on the north façade of the church at San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca includes several icons of pre-Columbian cultures such as the sun, the moon, and the nine-runged ladder, which evokes the number of levels of the underworld according to indigenous belief. (See more in the History section of Ibarra’s website.) Ibarra’s text on indigenous participation in stonecutting is accompanied by illustrations from the sixteenth-century Florentine Codex by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún.

Despite being the product of a 400-year tradition in Spain, these types of buildings, characterized by their ribbed vaults, were brand new to the Mixtecs, whose structures did not use rounded arches. The native stonemasons had to learn quickly and adapt their knowledge to new forms and aesthetics. For although the specifications and “blueprints” for the buildings came from the colonizers, the indigenous contribution ranged from Mixtec stonemasonry expertise to possible work organization features that would have had an impact on the pace of the building process.

Unlike the Aztecs, the Mixtecs were not subject to an aggressive conquest. They had been Aztec subjects before the arrival of Hernán Cortés, and sided with the Spaniards against their previous subjugators. This openness, says Ibarra, likely helped in the project of building the three Oaxacan churches.

According to Ibarra, “Mixtecs must have had an enormous impact in the construction processes and logistics. Their knowledge of quarry location, how to mine and carve stone, and the organization ability [were] essential to accomplish endeavors of such substantial magnitude.” Indeed, Ibarra remarks on the speed with which the Mexican churches were constructed (an average of 35 to 40 years). To get an idea of the labor force required, Yanhuitlán, known as the tallest church in the sixteenth-century Americas, was built by the hands of 6,000 Mixtec laborers working in 10 groups of 600.

In addition to extensive text on the three Mexican churches, Ibarra’s Mixtec Stonecutting Artistry website provides ample illustrations, including photographs, maps, 3D laser depictions of the interiors, a page devoted to each of the churches, and detailed information on the construction of the churches, from blueprints and drawings to discussions of scaffolding and more.

Attend a LLILAS Faculty Book Presentation by Professor Ibarra Sevilla on Tuesday, March 10, at noon, in the Hackett Room, SRH 1.313.

Banner Image: Church of San Juan Bautista Coixtlahuaca, photo by Benjamín Ibarra Sevilla

  • Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies

    University of Texas at Austin
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    2300 Red River Street D0800
    Austin, Texas 78712