The Primate Cathedral

The Primate Cathedral of Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic).

The first news that we have from the building must be extrapolated from the papal bull of the beginning of the 16th century. Pope Julius II’s intention was to create the first American dioceses in 1504, through his bull Illius fulciti praesidio: “in the province of Hyagüata, in which is located the so called Santo Domingo port and the town of Hyagüata itself, we raise and establish the Metropolitan Church, called Hyagüatense, under the invocation of the Annunciation or of the Blessed Virgen María de la Encarnación, in favour of an archbishop….” (Rubio 2011, 51-52).

The first news that we have from the building must be extrapolated from the papal bull of the beginning of the 16th century. Pope Julius II’s intention was to create the first American dioceses in 1504, through his bull Illius fulciti praesidio: “in the province of Hyagüata, in which is located the so called Santo Domingo port and the town of Hyagüata itself, we raise and establish the Metropolitan Church, called Hyagüatense, under the invocation of the Annunciation or of the Blessed Virgen María de la Encarnación, in favour of an archbishop….” (Rubio 2011, 51-52).Vista aérea de la Catedral Primada

In terms of documentation, we cannot say much about the beginning of the cathedral works. The creation of an ecclesiastical administrative demarcation (like the Hyagüatense Metropolitan Church), or the consecrations of the church, do not give us much information about the origin of the building, but about its liturgical uses. In fact, the original architecture of the apse and its carving elements, along with the presence of ceramic coating – discovered during the archaeological excavation (Olsen et al 1998) – and which can be placed amongst the Sevillian pieces produced in the early years of the 6th century, seem to point to the start of an “ovantine” church in that first decade.

(NOTE: Ovantine = relating to Nicolás de Ovando, 3rd. governor of Hispaniola).

That would explain the archaic and “Extremaduran” look of the apse with buttresses that enclose the main chapel, the early pinnacles that it should have, and the horseshoe window in keeping with patterns typical from Cáceres like the ones found on the bases of Santa María’s co-cathedral, that seem to be a sign of the existence of a church in Santo Domingo prior to the establishment of the diocese. In fact, it is quite reasonable to think that the construction of the church may have been promoted by the presence of Nicolás de Ovando as third governor of the island, from 1503 to 1510, after Cristobal Colón and Francisco de Bobadilla. Ovando’s link with his homeland in the Spanish region of Extremadura, his status within the Order of Alcántara, and the influx of craftsmen connected with Ovando (Pérez Montás 2007, 55), would have had influence on the gothic appearance of this part of the building.

It is true that the project of a “main church” before its promotion as “cathedral” remained unfinished, likely in the part of the transverse arch, which connects with the nave. This would push the development of a cheaper church which would be the one that authors refer to as “made of straw, very small, in which on Sunday not even half the people can enter” (Palm 2002, 27, cit. Flores Sasso 2011, 234), or as “made of wood and straw” (Pérez Montás 2007, 89).

The interpretation of the walls that we call “B Zone” will study this issue from the archaeological analysis of the roofing. Our objective is to determine whether there were pinnacles on the prime building or not, the presence of a bell-gable supported by a segmental arch in the buttress of the apse, what was planned and what was finally built…. everything with the analytic tools that archaeology offers, including the roofing system…. all of it in order to develop a growth of the cathedral that complements the excellent works that have been made in the church up to now.

The second stage of the church is a wide work sponsored by Alessandro Geraldini, second bishop of the see from 1524. Not only was the church uplifted through the construction of a new nave, but also the project of “ad aula” plan and “ad quadratum” elevation, according to the archaic model of Mediterranean gothic style (similar to the one used for the cathedral of Ciudadella), was modified. This change at the end of the first quarter of the century led to a disproportion between the plan and the apse, which made some scholars come to the idea of a planned – but not built – ambulatory. We can easily notice the discontinuity between the height of the main chapel and the height of the back nave.

The new building, with three naves and side chapels, seems to follow a Sevillian design and to follow the Flemish models as well, in which the ribs that support the ceiling emerge from the bases themselves. Let us take as examples the new cathedral of Plasencia, the one of Barcelona, or the churches of Berlanga de Duero or Lerma (Pano Gracia 2004, 46). The slow progress of the works, which lasted until the 40s, must have been another problem, one which causes nowadays some interpretation troubles. These difficulties could be solved thanks to a massive walls analysis: for instance, the presence of some rib traces on the outside wall of the church, or the terrible solution of connecting an excellent Mallorcan staircase with the church’s nave.

It should not come as a surprise that the continuous changes of the cathedral point to the will of creating an orthodox building as far as architecture is concerned. That is the reason why all the works made on the right front always point to the idea of building a cloister, which would never occur, as well as the inclination of the left front towards the public square and its secular urban planning, with the creation of what seems to be a Corpus balcony during the Counter Reformation period.

The interpretation of the whole main front, with its unfinished tower, raises a new problem. In our archaeological working project, we refer to it as “A Zone”. It seems rational to think that, before the construction of the tower, or until the provisional/final solution of a narrow brick bell tower, there was a primitive bell-gable on one of the main chapel’s sides. Likewise, there is no stylistic relation between the cathedral’s second phase (the Geraldini one), and the magnificent ornamental typology of its current façade (unfinished as well).

The stratigraphic correlation between the tower and the current façade will set the chronology of the works to before 1556. What seems to be clear, and could be confirmed after a walls analysis, is that the decorated façade is attached to the original façade of Geraldini’s project like a curtain. This solution arises from the desire of dignifying the building with high quality works. This magnificent artificial piece seems to remain unfinished in terms of height, so that it allows us to see the previously built recessed façade. We would like as well to mention the existence of some 18th century pilasters, which were placed on top of the façade, where the final pediment should have been executed.

In respect to the tower, (which plays an important role in the nave-façade backing), the standstill of its construction was a scorn for the canonry’s projects. Santo Domingo had lost geopolitical power, and the despotism installed in civil society and the projects to defend the Antilles represented a setback regarding the project of creating a “big church”.

It would be necessary to work on the constructive solutions of the prosthesis observed in the atrium of the main façade, in the façade-tower contact, known as the “secret-chapel”, which seems to correspond to a spiral staircase with a half-moon plan at the beginning of its development, which then achieves a round shape as it continues. Here, the stoppage of the tower had two consequences:

The late gothic window with Isabelline orbs remained uncovered, and no more parts of the building were destroyed in order to fit the staircase – which should be Mallorcan too, according to its width. On the other hand, it compelled to open a forced entry to the original terrace of the unfinished construction. To that end, an access was created by destroying one of the buttresses, and a new spiral staircase was built, leading into a security box to access the final bell tower.

The resulting plan of the tower, in its ground floor, shows said anomalies, such as the structure of the first staircase and that of the second one. Furthermore, we notice a strong pillar made out of rough stone in most of its elevation, and ashlars of unknown chronology on the upper part. It could be some sort of constructive structure from the 16th century, perhaps the base of a crane, or some autarkic solution to sustain the cement slab that rests on it.

These are just some preliminary hypotheses and some of the doubts that we intend to elucidate with the proposed archaeological analysis. I just want to conclude by remembering the “unfinished spirit” that surrounds Santo Domingo cathedral from its start, at the beginning of the 5th century. This must have caused awkward feelings for centuries but, remembering Schubert’s Symphony in E minor, D. 759, commonly known as “Unfinished Symphony”, maybe that is what makes it one of the most beautiful works of American architecture.

Ildefonso Ramírez González

Flores Sasso, Virginia (2011): «Arquitectura de la Catedral» (CAP.), Basílica Catedral de Santo Domingo. Santo Domingo, pp. 211-374.

Olsen Bogaert, Harold, Pérez Montás, Eugenio & Prieto Vicioso, Esteban (1998): Arqueología  y  Antropología  Física  de  la  Catedral  de  Santo  Domingo.  Ed. Centro de Altos Estudios Humanísticos y del Idioma Español. Santo Domingo.

Pano García, José Luis (2004): «El modelo de planta de salón: origen, difusión e implantación en América», Arquitectura religiosa del siglo XVI en España y Ultramar, Institución Fernando el Católico. Zaragoza, 39-84.

Pérez Montás, Eugenio (2007): La ciudad de Ozama; 500 años de historia urbana. Barcelona.

Pleguezuelo Hernández,  Alfonso (1989): Azulejo sevillano, Ed. Padilla Libros. Sevilla.

Rubio, Fray Vicente (2011): “El  título  de  la  Catedral  Dominicopolitana” (CAP.), Basílica Catedral de Santo Domingo. Santo Domingo, pp. 51-62.

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