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Franciscan Ensemble of the Monastery and Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, Tlaxcala (extension of the property Earliest 16th-Century Monasteries on the Slopes of Popocatépetl)

Date of Submission: 07/11/2018
Criteria: (ii)(iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Mexico to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Coordinates: N10 18 W98 14
Ref.: 6363
Word File Word File

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The first steps taken in favor of an evangelizing work carried out with order, method and full recognition by the Pope in continental America began with the bull Exponi nobis fecisti, issued on May 6, 1522 by Pope Adrian VI, by means of which delegated his apostolic authority to the Franciscans and other mendicant orders, where there were no bishops or they were located at a distance of more than two days, for all that seemed necessary for the conversion of the indigenous peoples. One year later, Fray Martin de Valencia was commissioned by the General of the Franciscan order in Spain, Francisco de los Ángeles, to bring together a group of brothers that would head for the New Spain. The friars chosen were Francisco de Soto, Martín de Jesús or of la Coruña, Juan Suárez, Antonio de Ciudad Rodrigo, Toribio de Benavente (Motolinía), García de Cisneros, Luis de Fuensalida, Juan de Rivas, Francisco Jiménez, Andrés de Córdoba and Juan de Palos.

The so called Twelve Apostles disembarked in San Juan de Ulúa in May 1524, beginning the journey from Veracruz to the city of Mexico, making a scale in Tlaxcala. Once they met in the city of Mexico with the three religious who had arrived one year before, the Franciscans celebrated a chapter with the purpose of choosing who would assume the position of custodian, to be in charge of organizing and supervising the evangelization works. Fray Martín de Valencia was elected and “he ordered that he would stay in Mexico, with four religious partners, and the other twelve were distributed in groups of four heading to the cities of Tezcuco, Tlaxcalla and Huexotzingo.”

Upon their arrival to the lands of Tlaxcala in 1524, the Franciscans lodged in the dominion of Ocotelulco and there established, provisionally, their first monastic house and temple, besides an incipient school where the indigenous children received the first principles of the Christian doctrine; as it is referred by the indigenous chronicler Juan Buenaventura Zapata

“Year of 1524 […] The first Guardian of Tlaxcala was fray García de Cisneros. His fellow friars: fray Martín de la Coruña, fray Andrés de Córdova. […] Then fray García gathered the people, teaching them first the Per signum Crucis, the Pater Noster and the Hail Mary prayer. Sometimes he baptized them at the temple that was still a hall [calpulli], other times in the market and others, he baptized in the places where festivities were held.”

The market of Ocotelulco was important as activator of the regional economy and it was also very useful for the purpose of evangelism, since without considerable efforts, the first Franciscans had a nurtured group to indoctrinate and to baptize.

Two years later, in 1526, when the appointment of fray Julián de Garcés as Bishop of the Diocese of Tlaxcala was announced, the first in American mainland, the rulers of the four most important dominions made the formal donation of the lands bordering a spring called Chalchihuapan, for the construction of the buildings that the Franciscan missionaries and the Bishop would require to preach the Gospel, act that defined the establishment of the political center of the province of Tlaxcala and the development of the future city of Tlaxcala. The chronicles refer that during the Easter of 1527, the Franciscans resident in Ocotelulco moved to the one that would be their definite headquarters:

“They descended here to Chalchihuapan, in the Easter of the Holy Ghost. The temple was still only a shack, where now is found the hospital patio […] and then came the bishop Don fray Julián de Garcés.”

A map from that first constructive period bears witness of the Franciscan Ensemble of Tlaxcala, elaborated by the chronicler Diego Muñoz Camargo who submitted it to King Philip II of Spain. In this map the components of the Ensemble that remain until today can be clearly appreciated: the exempt tower, the north arcade, the cloister, the Temple of the Assumption, the Rosary Chapel, the upper atrium with its posa chapels and the lower atrium with its respective steps leading to the upper patio.

Today, the upper atrium is a public space which can be reached from three different areas: the roadway that begins in the Xicohténcatl Square, north side of the complex, the Street of the Open Chapel and the atrium’s third door that is part of the south atrium wall, where the only posa chapel of the four original posa chapels of the Ensemble is conserved. The upper atrium is a space of exceptional value: its current trapezoid plan is completely different from the settings that have lasted in similar architectural complexes in the country. Here we find the steeple tower, an emblematic element of the Franciscan ensemble given its location, dimensions and constant presence in many profiles of the city of Tlaxcala. It was built on a cube of square plan and it consists of three main bodies and was finished in a second constructive stage.

In the north access of the Ensemble there is an arcade with three round arch hollows which communicates the monastery with the steeple tower, one of the few and maybe the most remarkable example of that type of isolated constructions that have lasted in the country.

The monastery, located in the upper atrium, is relatively large. Besides its functions for the monastic order, that set of spaces was used as jail at the beginning of the 20th century and today it houses the INAH Regional History Museum. Part of the old building is occupied by the parish house, in front of a garden that was part of the main orchard.

The façade of the Temple of the Assumption is remarkably simple. The door is framed by a round arch with mouldings supported by pilasters with frames and it has an alfiz defined by a moulding with another moulding inside edged with the Franciscan cord, creating a soft light and shade effect, stylistically tied to the Renaissance. The façade ends with two pairs of round mouldings to which some pearls were added.

The Assumption, that recovered its quality as Cathedral after the reestablishment of the Diocese of Tlaxcala in the 20th century, was concluded in the 17th century and has practically remained this way to the present day. In spite of its several constructive stages, it conserves most of the characteristics that distinguish the viceregal religious architecture of the 16th century: the plan and the rectangular layout, without cruise; the dimensions of the walls; the facades and the main cover; the choir on the base of the nave, the triumphal arch in the border of the presbytery and the square apse. Its cover is an alfarje ceiling, Arab voice that refers to a coffered wood ceiling with carved and crisscross wood; it is the richest of the many examples built in the country and the one that has lasted in the best state of conservation. Its line, proportions and dimensions not only cover but complement the space from the base of the nave to the triumphal arch and then on the presbytery, besides the complementary section that supports the choir and that below the choir produces one of the most representative Mexican atmospheres of the cultured and refined architectural answers to the demands of symbolic spaces in the viceroyalty.

The interior of the nave is one of the most remarkable enclosures in Mexico. The main altarpiece, of very high plastic and symbolic value, is a Baroque work made in the 17th century. It stands on a predella and has three bodies; the central body has three paintings: the portraits of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt flanking the “Baptize of the Four Senators” (of the Republic of Tlaxcala). That painting, anonymous and seemingly finished in the first half of the 17th century, depicts a scene consecrated by history presided over by Christ in the Cross, standing out a scene in which highlight a group of natives occupying the place habitually reserved to the representation of the Eternal Father, of the Trinity or of Christ.

The congregation space is completed with the lateral chapels of Saint Anthony, of the Third Order, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Light and the chapel of Mercy, which can be accessed directly through the atrium.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Franciscan Ensemble of Tlaxcala is an essential component of the monasteries system established in the 16th century around the Popocatépetl and it complements the constructive typologies and the location patterns for the thorough understanding of the other property already inscribed on the World Heritage List. It is important to point out that this complex was founded earlier than the other monasteries, excepting Huejotzingo and Cuernavaca.

During the 16th century, this Ensemble had hierarchical importance in the province of the Holy Gospel and, yet more outstanding, it constituted the headquarters of the first diocese in American mainland, the Diocese of Tlaxcala, of enormous geographical extension in its moment since it comprised the present day states of Tlaxcala, Puebla, Veracruz, Tabasco, part of Chiapas, Morelos and Mexico City and, not less important, it was seat of the first Cathedral.

Even though its extension was reduced, the diocese of Tlaxcala had under its subjection the missionaries that would found the 14 monasteries included in the inscription of 1994. There lies the necessary inclusion of the Franciscan Ensemble of Tlaxcala on the Tentative List of Mexico´s Cultural Heritage and, yet, its recognition and inscription in the World Heritage List, saving this way a sort of omission and an acquired historical debt.

Besides its magnificent architectural qualities and the artistic value and historical meaning of its wealth, it is a container of the memories of a defining moment of the history when the cultural exchange occurred for the first time between the indigenous peoples and the Europeans, and that was base of the process of formation of the New Spain society. Since its first years it was the space where the natives, newly converts, learned the foundations of the Catholic faith and, in return shared with the Friars Minor the vast knowledge of the natural world they had, particularly the kindness of the phitotherapy and the herbalism for medicinal and therapeutic use once the Hospital of the Incarnation started working.

Due to the presence of springs, the Franciscan orchard soon gave its first fruits and this way, the traditional prehispanic tianguis (market) was enriched; furthermore, the Tlaxcalteca table incorporated new spices and species, becoming so familiar that when the migratory journey of the end of the 16th century occurred, they took copies of maize, apple trees and walnuts to acclimatize them and to disseminate them in the North of the New Spain. On the same topic of the miscegenation and although it is not exclusive of Tlaxcala, it is necessary to point out their notorious inclination to name their settlement places appealing to the subtle combination of a Náhuatl word and an element of the Catholic calendar. Yet, numerous populations of Tlaxcalteca origin reproduced in the New Spain geography the dearest devotions of the native town, outstandingly the Marian advocations, Saint Michael and the Apostle James.

The Ensemble remains over time without remarkable changes, faithful to the architectural patterns that arose in the first stage of evangelization in the New Spain, as product of the symbiosis between stylistic traditions and skills of Medieval, Renaissance and Mudéjar influence, with the use of materials and constructive techniques of the ancient Mexico.

Among other singularities, the Franciscan complex of Tlaxcala served as scenario in 1539 for the representation of “The Conquest of Jerusalem”, one of the first sacramental mystery plays of the New Spain, sponsored by fray Toribio de Benavente “Motolinía” who was guardian of the monastery of Tlaxcala.

“It is clear from the development of the argument that it is  not something outside the common missionary theater. The evangelizing purposes of the play are obvious when creating an analogy between the conquest of the Arab infidels and the conquest of the New Spain’s idolaters. The victory of the Christians upon the pagans is one of so many didactic resources that the Seraphic fathers used for their doctrinal dissemination.”

In The Assumption decisive events for the history were developed that led to the production of chronicles and documents of exceptional meaning indispensable to understand the genesis and the later development of the American evangelization, such as the argument made by fray Julián Garcés before Pope Paul III, in favor of the humanity of the natives, and which gave rise, in 1537, to the promulgation of the Bull Sublimis Deus.

It is very important to highlight that in this space, the Franciscans created one of the first schools for indigenous children, where these received the rudiments of the Christian faith. Resulting therefrom, here also appear the early stages of evangelization and the sacrifice of Cristóbal, Antonio and Juan, the “Martyr Children” who were canonized in 2018.

Furthermore, the Franciscan Ensemble of Tlaxcala is the material testimony of the formation of a new society and the scenario of numerous historical events and of important manifestations of the intangible culture that determined the way in which evangelization developed in the American continent during the 16th and 17th centuries. Moreover, it has maintained its vitality throughout the centuries: the past and present Tlaxcaltecas coexist in this space in a daily way, they cross through it, they enjoy it, they preserve it and they disseminate it, aware of the historical importance of their monument and of the value that this bears in the range of the cultural property that ennoble the human chore.

Critrion (ii): The Franciscan Ensemble constitutes a fundamental element to understand the cultural values of universal scope present in the group of the first Franciscan, Dominic and Augustinian foundations on the slopes of the Popocatépetl; it also provides information on the first and decisive moments of the American evangelization and adds an outstanding wealth of movable and immovable property representative of the diverse historic times, thus formalizing a material testimony of the cultural exchange that had as scenario the Franciscan monastery and the Temple of the Assumption, today Cathedral of Tlaxcala.

In an outstanding way, the Franciscan Ensemble of Tlaxcala constituted the corner stone of the construction of the city of Tlaxcala. Contrary to what happened in other cities, Tlaxcala grew in the shadow of the Franciscan ensemble, being this guardian of the incipient city, as up to now it can be appreciated in the architectural perspective.

Critrion (iv): The Ensemble of Tlaxcala is the only one that, evoking the holy friary of Assisi, developed an atrium in two levels and between them raised a tower exempt from the body of the temple that joins the complex through an arcade that supports a sentry passage.

The singular humilladero or shrine dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary has remarkable architectural and historical value as it is decked out with the first arches and ribs of Gothic style built in continental America.

The church is distinguished by being built without buttresses, what indicates that since its inception was conceived to have a wooden cover and tiles and in the interior a magnificent alfarje of clear Mudéjar influence, complete and perfectly preserved. The temple still uses a magnificent wealth of assets among which highlight the main altarpiece, the pulpit has inscribed the legend “Here was the outset of the Holy Gospel in this New World”, the great carving of the Saint Francis of Assisi holding Three Worlds, the Philippine door of the 18th century that leads to the Chapel of Guadalupe and an image of Christ made of corn husk paste.

Critrion (vi): In the Franciscan Ensemble occurred events that were fundamental to understand the genesis and development of the American evangelization. The first of them is its relevance when being declared Cathedral headquarters of the first bishopric in American mainland: such was the original character of the Assumption. Being Episcopal See, it was in San Francisco where the first bishop of the New Spain fray Julián de Garcés had first-hand information that would later allow him to argue, before Pope Paul III, in favor the of the natives’ humanity, what led in 1537 to the promulgation of the Bull Sublimis Deus that recognized the rationality of the natives and their free access to hug the Catholic faith. Both documents substantially reformulated the relations between the indigenous communities and the Spaniards, from there its historical importance.

On the other hand, the ecclesiastical hierarchy of Bishop Garcés allowed him having the missionaries of the mendicant orders that operated in the current states of Morelos, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Veracruz, Tabasco, Chiapas and certainly the City of Mexico under his subjection, and having under his jurisdiction and authorization the strategies and methods of evangelization, as well as the foundation of new monastic houses for Franciscans, Augustinians and Dominicans.

In San Francisco de Tlaxcala, the Christian pedagogy appealed to two unprecedented evangelization methods in America and that over the years were replicated in countless places: the decoration of the walls with biblical topics and scenes and the evangelization theater, used by the first missionaries to attract indigenous people to the Catholic faith.

Lastly, in San Francisco de Tlaxcala, the catechesis through children was put in practice for the first time in continental America; in such a sense, it is not casual that the first martyrs of the evangelism in continental lands come from the  province of Tlaxcala, even though their recognition and canonization has been late because the “Martyr Children” were just recognized as Christian saints in 2018.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The Franciscan Ensemble has maintained the materiality and the authentic image of the time of the encounter and the amalgam of the two cultures that gave place to the Mexican identity. The ensemble conserves the components referred to the Spanish king Philip II with meticulous drawings by the mestizo chronicler Diego Muñoz Camargo in 1585, excepting in the Open Chapel and the part of the lower atrium today occupied by the Bullring.

The present function of the monastery building is clearly compatible with its original vocation and with the characteristics of its spaces: a library in the same enclosures where chroniclers of the 16th century such as Toribio de Benavente “Motolinía”, Gerónimo de Mendieta and Juan de Torquemada worked, as well as a museum that, having as main piece the very building, preserves precious assets of the prehispanic and viceregal times, enclosure that in recent years was renovated with an important investment of the Federal Government.

The Cathedral of the Assumption maintains the liturgical use that gave it its raison d'être more than 480 years ago, making evident the authenticity and integrity of its emblematic elements: the Mudéjar alfarje ceiling, the altarpieces of the nave and the chapels, the choir and the tubular organ, the pulpit, the baptismal pile and an entire profusion of liturgical art property from different times that the temple preserves because it did not suffer spoliations, deteriorations or thoughtless modifications that many other monuments of its time suffered.

Being an architectural complex erected in the 16th century, it is likely to think on the series of interventions that San Francisco de Tlaxcala has undergone. Documents like the Records of the Cabildo of Tlaxcala and the narrative of its early chroniclers can illustrate the strong relationship between the Franciscan friars, their complex and the city authorities. In many occasions, those documents attest the concern to reconstruct spaces and elements of such architectural complex like the wooden ceiling, the cloister and the external arcade, taking care as much as possible of maintaining the austere character of the Franciscan composition, using local materials and without affecting the original construction. Even, the deterioration of original constructions as the Open Chapel allowed its integration to the complex through architectural solutions that did not affect the liturgical use of the property; in this case, the creation of the Chapel of Mercy, as it is evident in the study of its geometric configuration and the architectural disposition of the plan.

The authenticity of the complex extends to its surrounding environment that conserves the urban layout, the system of public spaces and the contextual architecture historically assimilated to the site. The interventions of adaptation to the museographic use and monumental and artistic restoration carried out in the second half of the 20th century have tried to preserve the historic vestiges just as they came from the past. The works of structural rehabilitation to repair damage caused by the expiration of the materials or by earthquakes, have endeavored in maintaining the original materials and constructive systems and contemporary structural prosthesis have been used only where it was unavoidable.

The integrity of the property and its good management is guaranteed by its condition as property of the nation and by the shared management between local and state governments, the then National Council for the Culture and Arts, today Secretariat of Culture through the INAH, civil associations and the organized community. Additionally, there are clear regulations that protect this property, highlighting:

  • Federal Law on Historic, Archaeological and Artistic Monuments and Zones, of 1972
  • Decree for the Area of Historic Monuments in the City of Tlaxcala de Xicohténcatl, issued on April 11, 1986
  • Regulation of Urban Physiognomy of the Municipality of Tlaxcala, issued on November 30, 1988
  • Regulation of Advertising of the Municipality of Tlaxcala, Tlaxcala, issued on December 14, 1988
  • Partial Program of the Historic Center of the City of Tlaxcala, in force since January 8, 1999
  • Public Works Law for the State of Tlaxcala and its Municipalities, of October 11, 2004
  • Law of Territorial Ordering for the State of Tlaxcala, issued on December 30, 2004
  • Construction Law of the State of Tlaxcala, issued on December 6 of 2013, reformed on January, 2014
  • General Law on Human Settlements, issued on July 21 of 1993, reformed on January 24, 2014
  • Law of Public Works and Related Services, issued on January 4 of 2000, reformed on January 13, 2016

At present, the Honorable City Council of Tlaxcala, in coordination with the INAH, is reviewing the legal instruments to propose modifications to the current regulations protecting the Franciscan Ensemble. The Municipal Administration 2017-2021 has also plans and programs in process, executable starting from 2019 and incorporated to the Management Plan of the Ensemble, among them:

  • Modifications to the Edict of Police and Good Governance of the Municipality of Tlaxcala and of the Municipal Development Plan 2017-2021, to incorporate protective measures for the Historic Center and particularly for the Franciscan Ensemble, besides including in the Expenditure Budget 2019 economic resources addressed for the conservation and restoration of the property and its buffer
  • Risk Map of the Historic Center of the City of Tlaxcala and its Franciscan Ensemble.
  • Partial Protection Plan of the Franciscan Ensemble of the City of Tlaxcala.
  • Program of Architectural Lighting of the Ensemble and the Monuments Area of the Historic
  • Urban Mobility Plan for the use of spaces and the enjoyment of the Historic Center and its Monuments Area.
  • Civil Protection Strategic Plan before natural disasters of the Historic Center and of the Ensemble in particular.
  • Strategic Cultural Tourism Program for the City of Tlaxcala and in specific for the Franciscan Ensemble, including signage for its location and
  • Bilingual training of the municipal police in order to provide tourist, historical and cultural information on the Historic Center of the city and particularly on the Franciscan
  • Strategic Program of Promotion and Cultural Diffusion, for the use and enjoyment of the City and of its Franciscan Ensemble, particularly for the organization of Arts Festivals and Cultural Events 2019, with reason of the 500 Years of the Hispanic Tlaxcalteca Alliance.
  • Strategic Program of Education and Dissemination of the Franciscan Ensemble for its Appropriation by the Municipality and the State School
  • Creation of the Citizen's Advisory Council for the protection of the Heritage of the Historic Center and of the Ensemble.
  • Incorporation to the Municipal Administrative Structure of the new Management Unit for the Investigation and Diffusion of the Tangible and Intangible Heritage of the Capital
  • Of main importance is the decision of the H. City Council of elaborating the Cultural Atlas of the Municipality of Tlaxcala and the creation of a Municipal Historic and Administrative Documentation Center with the support of the Autonomous National University of Mexico; the Regulation for the Protection of the Historic Center and Area of Monuments and a Management Program of the Historic Center.

Comparison with other similar properties

In the Mexican Republic there are hundreds of monastic complexes of mendicant friars from the16th century, in a territory that embraces from Yucatan and Chiapas to Jalisco, Zacatecas and Durango.

The nomination that Mexico submitted to the UNESCO in 1993 revolved around the Popocatépetl because this region constituted the pioneer space for the indigenous conversion to Christianity in the outset of the New Spain, and here the friars of three Mendicant Orders -Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians- shared the space, later on defined by their own and exclusive spaces and evangelization strategies. For this reason we will only refer to the monasteries on the slopes of the Popocatépetl, to sketch their similarities and differences.

The Franciscan Ensemble of Tlaxcala shares the historic moment and the missional objective that moved to the foundation of the other fourteen monuments already inscribed on the World Heritage List. It has in common with those monasteries many of the patterns of spatial organization and has the same late medieval and Renaissance stylistic and technological inheritances. However, it is in Tlaxcala where the Mudéjar contribution is more remarkable.

It is fair to note that the spirit of the evangelizing geste impelled by the Franciscans is best expressed in Tlaxcala. We can say that designing the “moderated rule” that sought to limit the luxury and the ostentation in the buildings of the mendicant friars was a sort of paradigm. In other temples the naves that had been covered with wood, evolved to barrel vaults, groin vaults or ribbed vaults, and they faced the necessity of raising strong buttresses. In Tlaxcala, on the other hand, remained the structural outline of the cover and the flat nave that remits us to the beginnings of the evangelism.

Also, the Franciscan settlement of Tlaxcala did not assume the defensive character present in other convents of the region, no doubt due to the status of allies and citizens of the Spanish Crown enjoyed by the Tlaxcaltecas.

Another distinctive feature of the monastery of the Assumption is its location on an acropolis that dominates the town, with the atrium of prehispanic hallmark solved in different platforms united by stairs around the Rosary's humilladero.

Contrary to other religious sites that constituted the outset of the community life, San Francisco de Tlaxcala has the quality of being the corner stone for the construction of the city of Tlaxcala, that is to say, the city grew after the Franciscan ensemble and not in an encircling form as it occurred in other cases.

Notwithstanding the above-mentioned, we can find similar heritage qualities to those of the Franciscan Ensemble of the Monastery and Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, in the World Heritage inscriptions of the Jesuit Block and Estancias of Córdoba, the Churches and Convents of Goa or the Historic Centre of Lima (especially the Franciscan Monastery), with which shares the fact of being outstanding buildings, within a founding evangelization process, although these last date from a later time and, very probably, had the influence of the first years of the American evangelization; of which, the Earliest 16th-Century Monasteries on the Slopes of Popocatepetl are testimony.