Ornamentation on the Cathedral
Adding a touch of class and elegance
Some of the sculptural ornamentation on the main facade and that surrounding the north entrance to the Our Lady of Nebraska Chapel suggests another genre of the Spanish tradition at work in Kimball's design process. An archetypal feature of Spanish ecclesial architecture was the bold contrast between smooth-surfaced massive external walls and an otherwise profusion of sculptural decoration concentrated around the portal, frequently in the central bay between the bell towers.
Prior to the construction of El Escorial, the uniquely Spanish style known as "Plateresque" was favored from the fifteenth through early sixteenth centuries. The national penchant for lavish surface ornament and decorative forms was revived again during the eighteenth century under the title of another architectural style named Churriguesque (after the Churriguera family of architects and sculptors whose building style was marked by lavish surface ornament). Both of these highly-ornamented architectural styles reached their most exuberant extremes in the Spanish colonies of America.
A visual comparison between Saint Cecilia's north and west facades and the entrances to Plateresque or Churriguesque churches will serve to illustrate the equally decorative character of the Cathedral. Place, for instance, the side portal of the Sagrario Metropolitano in Mexico City by Lorenzo Rodriguez (1749-68) next to the Saint Cecilia Cathedral's north entryway, and it is possible to see roughly the same aesthetic at work. The shapes of the decorative archivolts bordering the tympanum are virtually identical. The articulation of the tympana above the doorway consisting of a round-headed niche supported by a bracket with a statue of the Virgin Mary at its center is also nearly the same. Aside from the differences in the surrounding space above the tympana--plain at the Cathedral and highly sculptured at the Sagrario--even the scrolled gables at roof height bear a striking resemblance to one another.
Highly sculpted entrance ways of Spanish churches like this one in Mexico City are called retablo facades because they are conceived in much the same fashion as the typically ornate multi-storied retablo altarpieces inside churches throughout the Spanish New World.
While the Cathedral's north facade bears some resemblance, coincidentally or not, to a specific example of Mexican ecclesial architecture in the Churriuresque tradition, the articulation on the west facade is more difficult to trace to a probable individual source. This again highlights the fact that Kimball's design approach was far from slavish copying but rather highly inventive and eclectic.
Despite the resemblance to Herrara's unadorned scheme at El Excorial, the entrance facade of the Cathedral is like those of its Spanish precursors in its more lavish application of carved ornamentation who array of mitifs reflects an eclectic blend of influences that affected Spanish architecture including Renaissance, Gothic and Moorish elements. The crenellated parapets which divide the facade of the Cathedral horizontally are a vestige of Medieval architecture.
Niches for religious statuary were a primary feature of the facades of seventeenth-century Baroque churches in Mexico. Kimball used the classical Renaissance format of a rusticated surround and scallop shell, the traditional symbol for the Christian pilgrim, to add sculptural interest to the exterior wall in much the same way as in the Spanish precendents.
Kimball's version of this Spanish decorative tendency seems to be merely a pared down version of the same architectural language. The sculpted decoration surrounding the niche above the north portal in Mexico City is very much the same as that in the niches on the Cathedral's main facade, both those between the three windows on the second story and that above the rose window at the top.
On Saint Cecilia's feast day, November 22, 2000, a statue of Saint Cecilia and three other saints were blessed by Archbishop Elden Curtiss and placed in niches on the church's facade. The alcoves had been waiting eighty-eight years. All are originals and were carved in Italy of renowned Carrara marble. Saint Cecilia, at eight feet and the tallest, occupies a nice eighty-five feet above ground in the center of the west facade, the main entrance to the Cathedral. Her hair is unbound, maidenly, and her robe is loose and modest. The upturned face is given a luminescence by the white marble. In her arms, the patron saint of music holds a portative organetto, which could be played for its own sweet sound or to accompany singing. One is reminded of Psalm 150: "Praise the Lord with everything that has breath!" The statue of Saint Cecilia was an anonymous gift in memory of the Archbishop's mother, Mary Curtiss.
The Cathedral's rose window is in many ways a microcosm of some of the influences that made their way into the Spanish Baroque tradition. Its overall quartrefoil-shape is a convention that ultimately stems from the Gothic tradition. The mistilinear scrollwork at the apex of the rose window is of classical Renaissance vocabulary.
While the highly organic treatment of the pair of columns that bisect the stained glass, marked by very unorthodox center-points resembling stylized flower petals, could be a variation of the regional interpretation of the Mexican.
Columns whose shafts were either spiral, decorated with a zig-zag pattern, or distinguished by naturalistic carving like these were common to Mexican church architecture of the mid-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The cathedrals in Zacatecus and Chihuahua are examples. The stylized foliage that decorates them appears to have an exotic indigenous flavor perhaps reflective of Mayan or Aztec sculpture. The possibility of pre-Columbian art seeping its way into Kimball's thinking is also suggested by the stylized glyph-like relief panels amongst the otherwise classical features above the main facade's two small niches and around the base of the twin spires.
The Moorish-influenced design from Spain and Spanish America (Mudejar) is apparent on the panels with scallop-shaped stone fretwork below the bell towers on the exterior.