Greene's novel is a great argument for the faith, but so is the country in which it was set
My Mexican wanderings are now drawing to an end, and I find myself in the country’s second city, Guadalajara waiting for my flight back home via the United States. Guadalajara, or GDL to use its popular acronym, is a sort of Mexico in miniature. It has some splendours, but many squalours. The most picturesque places in this country are the small colonial towns, such as San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato and Zacatecas, places with real charm. GDL, by contrast, may have started out as a small colonial town back in the sixteenth century, but it has grown and grown, and swallowed all its near neighbours. It is not the size of Mexico City, but it is as big as London in its extent – a vast sprawl in every direction, consisting mainly of single story houses.
GDL does not have the world class museums that grace Mexico City, or some of its astonishing Art Nouveau architecture, but it does have some rather nice things to see. There is the former orphanage, now called the Instituto Cabanas, used as an arts centre, perhaps one of the finest colonial buildings in the country. Built in the classical style, it consists of a series of austerely beautiful patios, with a deconsecrated chapel in the form of a Greek Cross at its centre, decorated with murals by Jose Clemente Orozco, one of this country´s great twentieth century artists.
The Cathedral is in a melange of styles, gothic, baroque and classical, its interior painted white. But for something all of a piece one should go to the Templo Expiatorio some twenty blocks from the centre. This is Mexico´s finest example of neo-Gothic, indeed it probably counts as the finest piece of neo-Gothic anywhere on earth. As the name suggests, the church was a conceived as an expiatory temple to the Blessed Sacrament, in the late nineteenth century. It took almost a hundred years to build. The nave is lined with rose windows, which is most unusual. The buoilding next door has some tracery that is clealry modelled on the Papal Palace at Viterbo, but the main thrill is to be had by approaching the main altar and raising one’s eyes to the vast spire above one, which consists of tracery and coloured glass – the nearest thing one will get to to a gothic dome.
One reason the Temlo Expiatorio took so long to build is that the construction was held back by the Mexican revolution and the attendant persecution of the Church, along with the financial collapse that the revolutionary years brought in their wake. The church was not built to expaite the crimes of the revolution, being conceived before that, but the martyrs of the revolutionary period, most of whom were from Jalisco, the state which has GDL for its capital, are commemeorated in the stained glass.
Funnily enough the Mexican revolution is something we English think we know quite a bit about, as we have all read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory which to me will always be one of the greatest books ever written. The novel deals with the persecution of the Church in Tabasco, where it was especially fierce, and where many churches were demolished, but most of the martyrs come from the north of the country, Jalisco and Zacatecas in particular; there church furnishings were destroyed, but buildings were spared, though, as the Cabanas Institute and other places around GDL show, there were plenty that were deconsecrated.
If you have not read The Power and the Glory, please do read it. Don’t let the author’s reputation put you off. It is the greatest argument for Catholicism ever made: and it bears all the signs of being made in Mexico!