The San José Cathedral

Guatemala Insight by Elizabeth Bell.

Located across from the central park, it is one of the most spectacular colonial buildings in La Antigua Guatemala.

San José Cathedral in one of its early restorations

San José Cathedral in one of its early restorations

The original cathedral, built in the 1540s, was severely damaged by earthquakes in 1583 and 1600 before being demolished in 1669. Captain Martin de Andújar was in charge of the new construction, but he was relieved from his duties in 1672 after a series of misjudgments. He reportedly used dynamite to demolish the existing structure, much to the consternation of local inhabitants. Next, the brick vaults he built fractured. This was the first building with brick vaults in Santiago de Guatemala (present-day Antigua) and apparently the supports were removed before the structure was sufficiently dry.

The new cathedral was finally completed in 1680, bearing little resemblance to the original structure. It was designed by a Guatemalan architect José de Porres, a man of mixed heritage: African, Maya and Spanish descent. Porres studied construction under Juan Pascual and excelled as an architect. The ornate plasterwork is exquisite, as it blends Roman and Moorish architectural styles. Some of the floral detail is remarkable.

The cathedral was abandoned in 1774, not long after the devastating earthquake of 1773, and all of the art was moved to the new capital—except for the collection of apostles by Juan de Corea, which has been restored over the last 15 years. What once was the largest structure in Guatemala began to fall into disrepair. Lack of maintenance and constant earthquakes did not help. In 1830, inhabitants began to restore the front section—sealing it off from the back area where the main altar was originally built. The bell towers were removed after the 1876 earthquake repairs.

When you enter the cathedral today, the altar is now where the original baptistery had been located, and it appears sideways. Sculptures from 1650 have been brought in from other churches and towns, and altars were later created for San José Cathedral (technically no longer a cathedral albeit in name only), and church attendance now is most often at full capacity.

Bautismo de Jesus

Bautismo de Jesus

My favorite part of the cathedral is the “ruins” section. The south side entrance takes us back 300+ years. One column that fell during the 1976 earthquake remains on its side. The 22-year extensive restoration work by the National Council for the Protection of Antigua began in 1984. The Maya still use one of the burial vaults as a special prayer area. It is not common knowledge that everyone was buried in his/her church throughout colonial times, so we estimate thousands of people were buried below the cathedral.
Our latest contribution to San José Cathedral is the restoration of the 18th century anonymous painting—“Bautismo de Jesus.” (photo) It was restored by an expert in his field, Flavio González, and sponsored by Antigua Tours. We look forward to seeing it back up on the wall very soon!

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