The monastery of Izamal, painted ocher and white like the rest of the town, epitomizes the plain, austere style favored by the Franciscan friars, who brought Catholicism to the Yucatán. It was founded in 1549, and its huge atrio, or courtyard, was designed to hold great crowds of Mayans worshipping in open-air Masses.
The oldest permanent church in the Yucatán began as part of a Franciscan monastery in 1552. It was located outside Valladolid in order to function both as a place of worship for the Spanish townsfolk and as a mission for Mayan villagers. Inside is a spectacularly painted Baroque altarpiece. The cloister surrounds an overgrown, palm-filled garden with a massive stone well from 1613, built over a cenote.
The first of all the Franciscan missionary monasteries in the Yucatán, consecrated in 1549, Maní was built very simply, with a massive stone facade and cavernous cloister. Set within the facade was an external altar or “Indian Chapel,” so that open-air services could be held in the square. In 1562, after the Franciscans discovered that many Mayans were practising their old religion in secret, an auto da fé was held in the square, during which the friars burned hundreds of Mayan manuscripts and pagan relics.
This large church with a very Spanish-looking plain facade was built as part of a major Franciscan friary in 1640. It was the last occupied monastery in Mérida, and closed only in 1857. Behind the church, some of the former monastery buildings now house a school of architecture.
Campeche’s churches are generally more colorful than those of Mérida and central Yucatán. San Roque is an extravagant example of Mexican Baroque, with a beautifully restored opulent altarpiece that is surrounded by intricate white plasterwork.
The church of “The Nuns” was built in the 1590s as a chapel for one of the first closed convents in the Americas. The castle-like mirador, or watchtower, with its unusual loggia (covered balcony) was built so that the nuns could take the air without leaving the convent. Somber metal grills inside the church recall the separation that was kept between nuns and lay worshippers.
Mérida and Campeche began their cathedrals around the same time, but the stop-start construction at Campeche meant that while the central facade was finished during the 1600s, the tower on its left was added only in the 1750s, and that on its right as late as the 1850s.
Built for the Jesuit Order and completed in 1618, the Jesús has a gilded Baroque interior that contrasts strikingly with the simplicity of the Franciscan churches. On the exterior, look out for traces of carvings on some of the stones – these were taken from Mayan temples.
The first cathedral built in mainland America was constructed by local conquistadores in a style that the church leaders found extravagant. The design is, in fact, simple, with few flourishes, and the solemn interior is set in white stone. The figures that you pass on the way in represent saints Peter and Paul.