La Enseñanza Church

La Enseñanza Church is located on 104 Donceles Street in the historic center of Mexico City. It has been argued that the Mexican Churrigueresque style of this church, especially that of its altarpieces, represents the pinnacle of the Baroque period in Mexico, as this style soon gave way to the Neoclassic after this church was built. The church’s official name is Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar (Church of Our Lady of the Pillar). The former convent was called El Convento de la Enseñanza La Antigua (The Old Convent of the Teaching), from which is derived the church’s popular name. After the Reform War, the convent was disbanded and the complex had various uses but the church has returned to is originally-intended function.

History

The convent was founded by Mother Maria Ignacia Alzor who belonged to the Company of Mary Our Lady founded by Jeanne de Lestonnac. Mother Maria Ignacia was from a wealthy Creole family that had established itself in Chihuahua. She entered the order of the Company of Mary Our Lady in Spain, where she obtained permission to found a convent and school for young girls.She bought two houses on what is now Donceles Street (then Calle de Cordobanes), just north of the main cathedral of Mexico City. In the parking area of the two houses, she began to build the church. This small space would determine the unusual design and dimensions of the building. With Francisco Antonio Guerrero y Torres as the architect, the church was built between 1772 and 1778.

The church was consecrated with Our Lady of the Pillar and Saint John of Nepomuk as patrons by Archbishop of Mexico Alonso Núñez de Haro y Peralta in 1778. The relics used to consecrate the church included a fingerbone from latter saint, a 25 cm gold statue of him, as well as a shroud that had come in contact with the Shroud of Turin. A wooden statue of the Our Lady of the Pillar, which was inherited by Mother Maria Ignacia from her own mother, was placed on the main altar.

The name La Enseñanza comes from one of the convent’s main missions, which was to educate young girls. Over time, the convent school gained status until the most-privileged of New Spain’s families sent their daughters there. However, it also taught girls from humbler families, esp. in needlework.

When Mother Maria Ignacia died in 1767, she was interred in the communion altar of the church. After the Reform War in 1867, the convent was closed and initially converted into a prison. Later, the convent was used to house the Palace of Justice, the General Notary Archive and the offices of the Ministry of Education. The church building was declared a national monument on 9 February 1931. The church building was refurbished between 1963 and 1969, reopening to worship in 1974. Since 1984, this church has been in the custody of Order of the Missionaries of the Eucharist of Nazareth who give services and maintain the building.

Description

It is a small church with its main axis running transversally to the street. The currently visible facade of the church was built in 1912, as a reproduction of the original. Unlike most other convent churches, La Enseñanza has only one, rather than two, portals. At the bottom, or first body, of the portal are the church’s main doors, which are topped by a curved arch, a common Baroque feature. Above this arch is an elongated niche. The doors are flanked by four relatively unadorned, thick columns. Between these columns are statues of the Archangel Michael and John de Nepomuk. The first is the guardian angel of the convent and the second is one of its patrons. Above the doorway arch and between the first and second bodies of the portal is an elongated niche that cuts the dividing line between the two bodies.(historic)

Above these four thick columns are four more slender columns decorated with geometric figures and zig-zagging grooves. Between these columns are statues of Saint Benedict and Ignatius of Loyola, whose doctrines are important to this order. On the same level is a window for light, which is surrounded by moldings placed one behind the other for an echo-like effect. Within the moldings and in front of the window is a small, slender figure of Our Lady of the Pillar. Above this is the crest, which is triangular in shape and bears images of God the Father, God the Son and a dove representing the Holy Spirit. Above this is an acanthus leaf supporting a crown.

Interior is of the ultra-Baroque, or Mexican Churrigueresque style and uses incoming light to highlight the golden details of the altarpieces. The floorplan of the church is an irregular octagon with a long lower choir which houses four altarpieces, and a very small atrium which once divided the church from the convent/school area.

The central focus of the church is its main altar with altarpiece, flanked by two choirs. In the central section of the main altarpiece, there are images of the Holy Sacrament, the Our Lady of the Pillar, Ignatious of Loyola and Benedict of Nursia. These sculptures are made from glue-soaked cloth. The church also has six side altarpieces, all of which are done in the 18th century Mexican Churrigueresque style using estipite (inverted truncated pyramid) columns.

The choirs of the church located on either side of the main altar. This not the usual place for the choir; normally one choir would be placed where the entrance of this church is. Since they are in the front of the church, lattice-work screens were placed to shield the nuns from the gaze of commoners during services. Above these choirs, enormous canvases depicting the Assumption of Mary and the Immaculate Conception were placed.

On the right side of the main altar, next to the railing of the choir below is a small doorway through which the nuns received communion. The frame of this doorway is made of stone and is carved with two mermaids with their tails crossed supporting a oval with a well, a symbol of wisdom. In the center of the door covering this window there is an Eye of Providence surrounded by rays of light and foliage.

The upper choir has an arch with bars decorated with iron foliage, in the center of which is the emblem of the Company of Mary Our Lady. The seats in this choir are the originals as is the organ.

Other features of the church include two windows showing scenes from the Old Testament and an allegorical fresco of the Our Lady of the Pillar covering the vault. The pulpit contains four medallions each with one of the Four Evangelists. There are ten small wooden doors that functioned as confessionals for both the nuns and the students of the convent.