Elsaris Núñez Méndez: Sacred Marvel: Space and Prayer at the Ochavo Chapel in the Cathedral of Puebla

In 1959, Mircea Eliade stressed on the importance of the “hierophany”, or the irruption of the sacred, as a necessary condition for a space to be considered sacred. Jonathan Z. Smith, on the other hand, has questioned Eliade’s paradigm by considering the ways in which human behavior can also shape the idea of sacredness from a situational perspective. The relevance of such theoretical standpoints seems obvious when studying the Ochavo Chapel, a space that was built within the Cathedral of Puebla’s physical and symbolic limits. A look into the interpretative literature dedicated to this cathedral’s room makes it urgent, however, to reconsider the validity of the dichotomy between sacred and profane space.

Built and decorated in the 1680s, the chapel of the Holy Spirit, mostly known as the Ochavo has been considered as one of the few religious spaces that still portrays its original “Baroque splendor”. Although widely acknowledged as a site of art-historical interest, the Ochavo has never been studied in a systematic manner. For this reason, its function and decorative program have remained unclear for both the academic and the non-academic community. Despite the lack of consensus, scholars addressed this dilemma by proposing a set of interpretations based on the room’s location, octagonal shape, floor plan and art collection. One of the most successful hypotheses was proposed by Clara Bargellini, who described it as the “first kunstkammer in the Americas”, and the only space built in New Spain to hold an artistic collection, where the accumulation of “rich” and “curious” objects attests for a privileging of “aesthetic interests” over religious ones. The chapel’s decoration with numerous oil-on-copper paintings produced in Flanders and in New Spain, along with relics, agnus dei waxes, featherwork mosaics, mirrors and sculptures settle – according to Bargellini – within the categories that organized kunstkammer collectionism: naturalia and artificialia. Furthermore, the prevalence of adjectives such as “curious”, “rich”, “elegant” and “precious” in mid-eighteenth century descriptions led Bargellini to consider that such qualities interfere with the effectiveness of the chapel as a place of worship or any other spiritual purpose.

Documentary findings pivotal for my research project, located in Mexico and Spain, allow me not only to clarify the history of the chapel’s conception and building, but also to propose new ways of understanding its function. In relation to the role of human activities in the definition of sacredness, I have found evidence that proves that the Ochavo was consecrated to the Holy Spirit, and as such, it also had a tabernacle (no longer present) and an altar table that, in 1690, received the papal distinction of “privileged altar” for 15 years. Also, inventories allow me to identify a votive hierarchy that was defined by three formerly veiled images, from which two of them were of the type of vera effigies.

Along with the ritual and physical markings of divine presence, primary sources reveal that this octagonal space was originally conceived of as an oratory in which to pray in a “private and quiet manner and in which to keep relics” and whose proximity with the sacristy points at the compliance with Charles Borromeo’s post-Tridentine prescriptions regarding the sacristy’s oratory in his Instructiones fabricae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae (1577). In such way, the Ochavo illustrates the extent to which the Cathedral’s Spanish and criollo clergy was aware of and participated from a broader dynamic in which the architecture of cathedrals in Europe and the Americas were adapted to host specialized rooms built to assist in the preparation of the liturgy. Thus, in building the Ochavo and other auxiliary rooms, Puebla’s late-seventeenth century bishops and chapter demonstrated not only their knowledge of the current state of affairs in terms of religious building practice, but also the clergy’s own interest in claiming political and religious legitimacy and prestige by turning the project into a direct quotation of the Ochavo reliquary room from the Cathedral of Toledo (Spain), the Kingdom’s most important cathedral at the time.

Along with the political connotations of naming and shaping Puebla’s Ochavo in the manner of its counterpart in Toledo, the expenditure in such an ornate and peculiar oratory, with no parallel in Mexico City’s cathedral, further suggests interests that overcame practical purposes. The integration of the arts unfolding inside the Ochavo is not exclusive of Puebla. Rather, it originates in a tradition of oratories, reliquary rooms and camarines (votive chambers) formerly found in reserved spaces in court and high-rank clerical buildings in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Spain and Italy. Coinciding with a noble and refined practice that viewed art and object collecting as a vehicle to cultivate the spirit, these oratories showed decorative criteria that echoed the kind of display and sometimes the variety of objects found in a kunstkammer. As I argue, however, rather than proof of secular collectionism, its abundance and richness is potentially meaningful in a context of prayer where sensory stimuli is essential for the cultivation of an introspective spirituality as echoed in contemporary ascetic literature produced in Puebla and abroad. Through its octagonal structure and its gilded and richly decorated devotional program, the Ochavo produced an overwhelming view, in 360°, that required active engagement, contemplation and reflection. Seldom approached by Colonial Latin American Art scholarship, the Ochavo Chapel of Puebla presents a unique opportunity to delve into the configuration of sacredness within religious architecture, and especially to approach the spatial dimension of private and often solitary sites of devotion.

Elsaris Núñez Méndez holds a PhD in Art History with a major in Viceregal Arts from the College of Philosophy and Letters at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where she completed her dissertation entitled “Oración, virtud y sacerdocio. La capilla del Ochavo en la Catedral de Puebla”. Núñez has a strong interest in the arts of seventeenth-century Puebla (Mexico) and its relationship with the broader artistic and religious dynamics developing in the Hispanic world, including those concerning the sensory cultivation of an intimate spirituality through the integration of the arts in ornamental architectural spaces. She was a pre-doctoral fellow of the National Council of Science and Technology of Mexico (CONACYT) (2014-2018) and of the College of Arts & Sciences at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2010-2012), where she obtained her Master’s degree. She was a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston for the exhibition Made in the AmericasThe New World Discovers Asia (2015). She is co-author of the book La Catedral de Puebla. Una mirada (2015), and has produced articles and chapters for specialized publications and exhibition catalogues published in Mexico, Peru and Spain. Supported by UNAM and CONACYT-Foro Bilateral sobre Educación Superior, she has carried out archival and field research in Spain and Mexico, and the Benson Latin American Collection – University of Texas Austin, respectively. She is a member of the International Association of Art Critics – Chapter of Puerto Rico and of the research group “Spanish Italy & Iberian Americas”, funded by the Getty Foundation and organized by Columbia University (USA). Currently, she is a curatorial researcher at the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City.


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