The town of Salamanca, Mexico contains a church built by the Augustinians that has often been described as “the house of gold.
Salamanca is an industrial city the Mexican state of Guanajuato, 20 kilometres from Irapuato on Highway 12 in west-central Mexico. It is over 300 kilometres (186 miles) from Mexico City.
The town of Salamanca lies on the north bank of the Lerma River. Another famous church built by the Augustinians at Yuriria is beside a lake formed by water from the Lerma.
Salamanca is in the middle of the Bajío, a fertile plateau extending over parts of the states of Guanajuato and Querétaro.
It was founded on 1st January 1603 by Viceroy Gaspar de Zúñiga y Acevedo, a native of the Spanish city of Salamanca.
Salamanca possesses a baroque architectural jewel: the Convento and Church of San Agustín, with its matchless neohispanic altarpieces. This church is considered to be one of the most important architectural works of art during the vice-regal period.
In 1609 Diego de Ávila O.S.A. in Mexico received permission from King Philip III of Spain for the Order of Saint Augustine in the Augustinian Province of Michoacán to build four convents.
One of the sites chosen was the recently-founded city of Salamanca, which first received Augustinians on 26th May 1615.
Construction took place in two quite separate phases: the first started in 1641 when the Augustinian priest in charge was Miguel de Guevara O.S.A.. The church was named in honour of the beatified Spanish Augustinian, John of Sahagún O.S.A.. It was solemnly dedicated on 6th December 1706.
During this first phase of construction the main church, its towers, domes, facade and its first cloisters were built. This is evidenced by the fact that the building style indicates construction in the 17th century.
This tall and relatively narrow building, inconspicuously situated, has an elegantly simple façade and towers.
Severe columns, embellished with hollow spiral mouldings, flank the entrance. The positioning of the crucifix on the top of the façade beneath a conche is unusual.
This first phase of its construction was finished one hundred years later.
The second phase of construction started in 1761, when it was decided to establish in Salamanca the main house (convento) of the Mexican Augustinian Province of Michoacán. This required the major expansion of the Augustinian convento already attached to the church there.
The second cloister, now called the Main Cloister, was most likely added during this period, and it is certain that the now-famous altarpieces and the nave of the church were added at that time.
During this second phase, the interior of the church was almost completely covered with painted and gilded panelling.
Strong Moorish influence (Mudéjar) is apparent in the gilded wooden ornamentation of the dome and the wooden choir railings.
The interior has been aptly described as “a golden explosion of draperies and decoration.”
Up high, there is a crucifix of Christ and at the end of the church, the archangel Gabriel moves his wings and flesh-colored young men cover his nudity with golden colored cloth.
The gold-leafed foliage seems to fall in a whirlwind from where the cherubs and figurines sing to the glory of God.
The interior walls are covered with eleven of the most beautiful neohispanic altarpieces of churrigueresco style.
These altarpieces solemnly were blessed the 28 of August of 1782. They are said to be the most impressive altars in Latin America.
They feature golden angels, saints and cherubs that portray the most imaginative of the fantasies, all set in an atmosphere of wealth and luxury, with capricious forms and of great elegance.
Displaying several phases of the late Baroque period, the general design places these altars within the Querétaro style in the middle of the 17th century.
The characteristics of this style include the preponderant use of draperies, curtains and crowns, and an excellence in the application of the gold leaf and distempering.
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