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2016 Inside the Ritual: Approaches, Practices and Representations in the Arts

The Via Crucis of Puebla: The Ritual Architecture of an Imagined Jerusalem in New Spain

Juan Luis Burke

University of Maryland-College Park


The Via Crucis or devotional Way of the Cross is a theatrical, ritualistic staging of one of Christianity's main tenets, the Passion of Christ. In the Spanish American Continent, in the early modern period, and concurrent with the conversion of the indigenous peoples, the tradition of the Via Crucis was adopted together with the Christian faith. One of the most outstanding examples of these architectural complexes in Spanish America is found in the city of Puebla, Mexico, and is a testament to this city's explicit effort to mirror the city of Jerusalem—the axis mundi itself. This paper briefly contextualizes the Via Crucis by discussing the foundation of Puebla, upholding the idea that it strove to resonate with the archetype of the Heavenly Jerusalem since its inception. The discussion then shifts in order to address the history of this ritual complex, in order to close with a discussion about the way communal ritual actions were central to a city's identity as a res publica in the early modern period.

The Via Crucis of Puebla: The Ritual Architecture of an Imagined Jerusalem in New Spain

If the Holy City of Jerusalem presented itself to St. John descending from the skies […] being that glorious city such in likeness to this one of Puebla, and having been the same [angels] who traced its streets none others than those who, by order of the Mighty One, traced those of the Sacred Zion we can with careful discourse infer the resulting beauty of this Angelic City.
— Diego Bermúdez de Castro, Theatro Angelopolitano (1746)1



The city of Puebla de los Ángeles,2 founded in April 1531, was originally created as a city to be inhabited solely by Spanish settlers, which was to be a mid-way trading post between the port of Veracruz and the capital of the viceroyalty of New Spain, Mexico City.3 But unlike other cities founded by the Spanish in New Spain, the civic and religious Spanish authorities conceived Puebla de los Ángeles as an experimental community in which its inhabitants would not resort to employing the encominda.4 This was the name of the system employed by the Spanish Crown to exact tribute from the conquered populations through the so-called encomenderos. These were usually Spaniards who had participated in the conquest of New Spain and in return for their services received a territorial demarcation in custody, assuming thereby the right to own the – unrewarded – labor of that territory’s indigenous inhabitants.5 Towards the late 1520s, the encomienda system had already become a contentious issue in New Spain, with many reports of encomenderos abusing the native populations. The colonial authorities attempted to mitigate the issue by crafting alternative social arrangements; in specific terms, the Spanish authorities planned on founding a series of cities in which Spanish war veterans and newcomers from the Iberian Peninsula would settle down. They would be given ample land plots and tax exemptions, they would be asked to be agriculturally self-sufficient and in return, they were expected to abstain from the encomienda system.6

However, the only city created under this experimental model was Puebla de los Ángeles, and this might be because the creation of this city was received with great animosity by the powerful encomenderos in Mexico City, who felt the founding of Puebla could defy their economic and political ambitions. It was also ill-received by the indigenous towns close to Puebla, who resented that eventually—and in betrayal of the city’s initial social idealism—the Puebla settlers would ask to make use of the encomienda system after all, demanding to employ the indigenous peoples’ labor from towns such as Tlaxcala, Cholula, Tepeaca, among others. The Spanish settlers in Puebla weighed their demands against the threat of abandoning the incipient settlement, which would have been observed as a defeat for the civil authorities, represented by the Audiencia tribunal, who finally allowed the encomienda to be employed by the settlers, therefore betraying the city’s initial idealistic aspirations.7 Apart from the change in the city’s initial social agenda, the city also struggled to attract settlers and suffered a severe setback when the initial foundation had to be moved due to seasonal floodings.

Perhaps as a result of so many reversals, as historian Antonio Rubial explains, the city countered its founding struggles with sophisticated efforts at crafting a series of rhetorical discourses that Rubial has termed the “creation of a homeland identity” (“la creación de una identidad patria”). In essence, Puebla de los Ángeles’ founders created a mythology (a term I would argue can be exchanged to a certain extent with the modern concepts of “city image” and “legibility,” in other words, the way the city is perceived by its inhabitants, to borrow Kevin Lynch’s terms and ideas).8 This mythology was in fact a series of symbolic associations articulated through folktales, crafted since the city’s founding, which continued to be promoted throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by chroniclers, city officials, and clergymen. These folktales involved an intricate attempt at characterizing Puebla as exceptional in the sense that it was a city of heavenly origin, and the narratives employed—what Rubial calls Puebla’s “homeland identity”—included the attempt at linking the city with the rhetorical locus of the Heavenly Jerusalem; the most admired and revered urban archetype in the medieval and early modern periods, constantly connecting the city, its founding event, and its urban design, to notions of angelic intervention and heavenly perfection.9

By taking Puebla de los Ángeles’ mythological context as a starting point, my intention is to discuss an urban-architectural complex in the city, which I will argue, ratified and strengthened Puebla de los Ángeles’ bond to the Heavenly Jerusalem: its Via Crucis, otherwise known as the processional and devotional Way of the Cross. Puebla de los Ángeles’ Via Crucis, which was built in stages as a communal and civic effort starting sometime in the mid-sixteenth century, continuing its development until the eighteenth century, is characterized by the integration of a topographical likeness to Jerusalem’s own topography.10 In Puebla, the ritual recreation of the Passion includes the act of ascending a hill for a distance that was said to be in close proximity to the distance of Jerusalem’s own Via Crucis, mimicking along the way the landmarks and buildings of Jerusalem as they appear in the narrative of Jesus’ Passion. But perhaps more importantly, Puebla’s Via Crucis is an urban-architectural landmark that is quite relevant in the ritual traditions of Puebla's contemporary inhabitants, given that the Passion of Christ continues to be recreated and the Via Crucis continues to be ritually navigated by many of Puebla’s citizens to this day, therefore continuing to perpetuate its objective, namely to bridge the relationship of the city’s symbolic ‘body’ with the body of Jesus Christ himself. Furthermore, and this is an important point, Puebla de los Ángeles’ Via Crucis still preserves most of its chapel-stations (12 out of 13 chapel-stations remain; while the first station was celebrated to the interior of the Franciscan monastery, which still exists too). This means that most of its architectural structures and urban context—although greatly affected by the growth and rise in the urban density of the city—has remained legible to a large degree. This stands in stark comparison to other New Spanish cities’ Via Cruces, such as Mexico City’s, whose own Via Crucis’ station-chapels11 have all been destroyed except for one.12

My objective in this discussion is not to present a historiography of the Via Crucis of Puebla. Rather, I wish to discuss its significance as a symbolic and ritualistic element which, through its urban and topographical characteristics, was able to provide the city’s inhabitants with a direct link to an understanding of the city as a living body, an identification that occurs through the remembrance of the body of Christ himself. In other words, my hypothesis is that Puebla de los Ángeles’ Via Crucis has been able to provide the faithful—for some four-hundred years—through their engagement in the ritual of the Passion, with an embodied dimension that places them as active participants in the city’s symbolic relationship with a higher order of their ritualistic, Catholic universe. Through the Via Crucis as physical setting, the remembrance of Christ’s Passion becomes a religious ritual that asks for the participants’ bodily and emotional involvement in its recreation. For centuries now, Puebla de los Ángeles has been, at every calendric cycle of the Catholic Church, identified as being at an equal footing with the terrestrial Jerusalem, the proverbial center of the Christian world and with the Heavenly Jerusalem as well, the City of God itself, symbol of the end of times in the Christi an Parousia.

Puebla de Los Ángeles' Mythological Dimension

The notion that Ciudad de los Ángeles (as the city of Puebla was originally to be named) was rooted in a heavenly origin started with the Franciscan missionary that participated in its founding, Friar Toribio de Benavente Motolinia (c.1482–1569). He was the Franciscan delegate in the founding of Puebla and was, according to his own memoirs, present during the founding of the city where he officiated a mass as part of the foundational rituals.  Regarding the creation of the city, Benavente wrote:

A City of Angels no one believes there to exist but up in heaven.  That one has been built up in the skies, which is our mother, and where we wish to go. […] Another one, newly founded and named City of Angels is in New Spain, the land of Anahuac, where in times past was the abode of devils, the city of Satan, the home of enemies, but where there is now a City of Angels”.13

The mythology persisted and was advanced by other later Franciscans, such as Friar Juan de Torquemada (c.1562–1624), who wrote in his famed Monarquía Indiana, first printed in 1615, that God’s mercy had it that the Franciscan missionaries would build a city dedicated to His angels, in order to cleanse a territory where false idols were once adored.14 Both Benavente’s and Torquemada’s words highlight the desire to fabricate the notion of the creation of Puebla as a veritable civitas Dei—an urban epiphany of sorts in the middle of a territory surrounded by important indigenous city-states, such as Cholula and Tlaxcala. 

The mythology surrounding the city, which hinged on its angelic and heavenly lineage, was continued and augmented during the seventeenth century with various chronicles, which contributed with other tales and anecdotes to the multi-sided narrative.15 There was, for instance, the case of Gil González Dávila. He was a Spanish chronicler who, in his Teatro Eclesiástico of 1649—a work devoted to highlight the history of the bishopric of Puebla—narrated a passage in which a chorus of angels was heard singing Gloria in excelsis Deo. According to González Dávila’s account, they were singing in a native tongue to a group of indigenous people following their conversion, this despite the fact the hymn had not been translated into any native languages up to that point.16 González Dávila deemed it a miracle, and in passing he was able to strengthen the city’s perceived association to God’s emissaries.17 The notion that a city could be identified with the Heavenly Jerusalem was not unique to Puebla. However, historian Antonio Rubial has affirmed that this was such a popular rhetorical strategy—“the axis of all things urban”—that every major city in the viceroyalty created during what he deems the viceregal “baroque era” claimed association to the Heavenly Jerusalem.18 The scholar Martha Fernández has argued that Mexico City was also—during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—identified with the city of God. In the cases of Puebla and Mexico City, one of the levels of identification was established via the urban form, characterized as they were by strict orthogonality.19

In the case of Puebla de los Ángeles, its gridded urban design certainly satisfied a number of functional concerns, such as the drainage of rainwater runoff into the San Francisco River and natural solar incidence, as architectural historian Carlos Montero Pantoja has explained.20 But it is also true that the urban form was meaningful at a symbolic level, given that it attempted to find resonances in the way the axis mundi, the holy city of Jerusalem, was represented in Scripture and in a long line of European medieval visual traditions. The orthogonal character of Puebla’s urban form was often cited in various chronicles, repeated in folk tales that spoke of angelic involvement in the design and execution of the city’s urban layout, and in ecclesiastical accounts. They all insisted on verifying this sacred bond; that of a heavenly abode in the New World, which contrasted with the ‘heathen’ practices of the indigenous peoples who inhabited the area previous to the founding of the city.21

Another element that confirmed the relationship to Jerusalem as urban paradigm is registered visually in the design of the city’s seal of arms. The seal displays a city-temple with five towers, visually related to a tradition of medieval and early modern imagery of the City of God. A representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem in the Liber Floridus, by Lambert von Saint-Omer in the twelfth century, for instance, displays a strong resemblance to Puebla’s seal of arms. In Puebla’s seal of arms, the city-temple is flanked by two angels, as if guarding it, with the city presenting three entrances.22 Further, a banner framing the seal displays Psalm 91:11: Angeluis suis Deus mandavit de te ut custodiant te in omnibus viis tuis, “for he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways” (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. The shield of arms of the city of Puebla, as presented in the Cédula Real or royal charter, endorsed and signed by Queen Juana de Castilla in Valladolid, Spain, in 1538, and by her secretary, Juan de Sámano.

The Via Crucis as Embodied Experience

The Passion of Christ has been a main tenet of the Christian religion since its beginnings, thus becoming a fundamental practice of the faith.23 In simple terms, the devotional practice of the Way of the Cross can be defined as the physical and spiritual remembrance of Christ’s path on Good Friday. It retells the events Christianity upholds as having occurred from Christ’s death sentence by Pontius Pilate to his death by crucifixion at Mount Golgotha, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.24

As proof of the devotion that the faithful have had surrounding the Passion of Christ, we can count on the numerous pilgrimages carried out to the Holy Land, recorded in as early as the fourth century. Pilgrimages included visits to sites associated to Christ’s Passion, such as Calvary Hill; the Holy Sepulcher; the Mount of Olives; and the Garden of Gethsemane, among others.25 These occurred all throughout the Middle Ages, although the Via Crucis did not acquire its present form until the early modern period, when a good number of pilgrims who continued to undertake the long and perilous journey to terrae sanctae produced a literary genre of their accounts. These written accounts, together with architectural, urban, and topographical information transmitted through maps—although to a great degree fictional—helped spread the tradition of recreating Jerusalem and its holy sites to Europe. An example of these famous accounts was the one written by Christiaan Kruik van Adrichem (1533–1585), who had his work published for the first time in 1584. In this thorough description of the Holy Land, he included a map of Jerusalem that stands out for its details. Van Adrichem labeled the city’s walls, the different shrines, and the places playing a role in the narrative of the Passion of Christ.26

However, an earlier event occurring towards the end of the fourteenth century also aided in the development of the devotional tradition of the Via Crucis: the Franciscan order establishing itself as the custodian of the Holy Sites in Jerusalem.27 As Franco Cardini explained, there was a change from the Early Christian notion of the Passion symbolizing the triumph of life over death, to one in which the medieval narrative that retold Christ’s Passion became an event in which the faithful expressed a deeply embodied empathy; in other words, the believer would place him or herself in the position of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or other characters, and acquired the whole range of emotions felt by them throughout the ordeal.28

In general terms, the devotional practice of the Via Crucis carries a series of phenomenological attributes symptomatic of the ritualistic life and cycles of a city in the early modern period, in which civic life was tied to calendric and ritualistic activities that marked the passing of time. The word phenomenology here is employed in an adjectival form, i.e., a phenomenological approach to a ritualistic phenomenon, one in which the subject becomes involved in a bodily and emotional manner and in which that dual body-mind involvement defines their conscious experience. To this effect, in Puebla’s Via Crucis, the participants of the ritual are not only involved in a spiritual manner, one in which their consciousness becomes intertwined with contemplative practices of praying accompanied by intimate meditations. But further, the participants’ experience is embodied, which dictates that there is an interaction between the subject’s mind and its built environment. To that effect, the topography in a Via Crucis, whether in Puebla de los Ángeles, Jerusalem, or the Sacri Monti in Lombardy, engages an intimate relationship between religious expression and the landscape, and it is through the ritualistic remembrance and physical navigation of the site that the worshipper feels and experiences the city or the site as a ‘living body,’ in other words, carnally. It is not excessive to state that believers engage in the embodied experience of—truly feeling—Christ’s ordeal: his pain, his sacrifice, and his redemption, by way of performing the devotional ritual; it is paramount to note how the faithful experience His pain, His piety, and then make it their own.

Puebla's Via Crucis: its History and Development

The Via Crucis was planned and laid out by a lay brother of the Franciscan Tertiary Order named Francisco Barbero, while the land where the complex was to be constructed was donated by Benito Conselabaña, one of Puebla’s earliest settlers, according to a seventeenth century chronicler of the city, Miguel Zerón Zapata.29  While the chronicler does not provide specific dates, the mentioning of Conselabaña signals this would have occurred toward the mid-sixteenth century.30 However, according to the eighteenth century chroniclers of the city, Mariano Fernández de Echeverría y Veytia, Miguel de Alcalá y Mendiola, and by the twentieth century historian Hugo Leicht, the construction of the Via Crucis started around the year 1606, without any of the sources providing any detailed account of the development of the Via Crucis complex throughout its long development. Nevertheless, one thing that all chronicles appear to agree on is that the Via Crucis was slowly developed by way of a series of patrons donating either their labor, or their money for the construction of the chapel-stations, sculptures and paintings that would decorate the interiors of the chapels.31

The collective participation in the planning and building of the Via Crucis complex is a relevant fact, because it suggests the idea that architectural enterprises, whether a church building or in this case, a processional route articulated by small chapels, points toward the idea that in the early modern period, as architectural historian Alberto Pérez-Gómez affirmed, architecture “was especially dedicated to the representation of significant human action”.32 During the early modern period, rituals and the built spaces in which they took place, “allowed for the recognition of an individual’s place in society and in relation to the natural world”.33 In a similar vein, architectural historian Françoise Choay affirmed that the relationship between humankind and organized space in the European context of the early modern period was dictated to a large extent by a religious understanding of the lived world. Specifically, she wrote that up to the fifteenth century, “religion and the sacred have traditionally been the major factors organizing human space, either through the action of the spoken word or through the written word”.34 This idea corresponds with the collective nature of the construction of the Via Crucis at Puebla, which points toward the notion that the intentionality of collective architectural-urban efforts during the early modern period were based on transcendental and largely symbolic elements, those that would aim at reconciling earthly existence with the heavenly realm.

In this sense, it could be argued that the crafting of Puebla’s mythological narratives holds a direct cultural line with some European medieval traditions vis-à-vis the attempt to mirror a higher order in the Judeo-Christian universe. The mytho-sacred image of Puebla can be traced back immediately to a medieval European genealogy and, to borrow historian Keith Lilley’s terminology, Puebla was, at least until the early seventeenth century, an “embodied city”. In other words, it was a city that acquired meaning by borrowing from a mythological legacy that, as we have seen, flourished and was enriched by its authorities and citizens. It also acquired meaning through the cyclical and ever-repeating rituals that commemorated Christ’s life throughout the year, including the most important one, the Via Crucis, which commemorated His Passion. As Keith Lilley has written, “[s]uch ritual bodily performances in and through the medieval urban landscape were important for generating and projecting a sense of urban identity and community”.35

Puebla de Los Ángeles and Its Topographical Mimicry of Jerusalem

A series of parallels between Puebla’s Via Crucis and Jerusalem’s have been noted since at least the eighteenth century by Pueblan chroniclers Mariano Fernández de Echeverría y Veytia, Augustín de Vetancurt, and Miguel Alcalá y Mendiola. All three pointed out the topographical likeness between the Puebla Via Crucis and Jerusalem’s own36. To be more precise, the topographical parallels between Puebla and Jerusalem, as architectural historians Leopoldo García Lastra and Silvia Castellanos Gómez have pointed out, commence with the existence of two streams of water bordering the east and west sides of first century AD Jerusalem. These were the Kidron stream that formed in the valley of the same name, and the Hinnom stream that ran through the valley of the same name, joining each other to the south. In Puebla, there were two bodies of water geographically enclosing the area where the city was founded, which is the same area where the Franciscan monastery and the Via Crucis were built. These bodies of water were the San Francisco River and the Xonaca Stream. These authors also pointed out how the distance presumably walked by Jesus during his ordeal, some 1,321 paces—approximately a kilometer—was also observed in Puebla, where the devotional procession is approximately one kilometer in length (see Fig. 1 and 2).37

Furthermore, both Via Cruces act on a similar manner from a processional point of view: in Puebla’s case, the procession begins at the Franciscan monastery, traverses a short topographical descent, in order to then begin ascending up the Cerro de Belén, or Bethlehem Hill. The ritualistic procession at Jerusalem follows a similar order: the procession starts close to the Temple Mount (the Temple and the monastery being analogues as we have seen), and then descends in order to begin ascending up again towards Calvary Hill. In Puebla’s mirroring of this topography, the Cerro de Belén, wherein lies the Iglesia del Calvario or Calvary Church, evokes Jerusalem’s own Church of the Holy Sepulcher, standing in for Jerusalem’s own Calvary Hill. At the Iglesia del Calvario in Puebla, the representation of the last six stations of the Via Crucis are celebrated, in a mimicking of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which hosts the last five stations of the procession.

The Via Crucis in Puebla during the colonial period followed this order: the processional ritual, which took place in the early afternoon of Holy Friday, started out inside the Franciscan church, a part of the monastic complex, where the first station, “Jesus is Presented to Pilate,” took place. The procession then moved out onto the streets, stopping at the second station, “Jesus Carrying the Cross on His Back,” at a chapel attached to the Franciscan church building’s side. The third station, “The First Fall,” was part of the Franciscan monastery’s peripheral wall, now destroyed (this is the only chapel that has been completely lost). The fourth station initiates the climb up the Cerro de Belén, it is a chapel popularly known as “Los Fieles Amantes,” and it sits in the vicinity of the Franciscan monastery, on present-day 14 Oriente Street. The fifth station, “El Cirineo,” a reference to Simon of Cyrine, is also located on 14 Oriente Street, merely some 50m up the street. The sixth station is represented by a chapel popularly still known as “La Verónica,” a reference to St. Veronica’s wiping of Jesus’ face in the Via Crucis narrative, and is located on present-day 12 Norte Street, across a narrow backstreet from the Santa Cruz church building. The seventh station is represented by the chapel called “La segunda caída,” a reference to Jesus’ second fall, also on present-day 12 Norte Street. The eighth station is represented by the chapel still known as “Las Plañideras” or “Las Piadosas,” in reference to a group of women Jesus briefly addresses on the Via Dolorosa, on his way to Mount Golgotha. This station’s patron was Alejandro Fabián, a man now remembered for having been in epistolary correspondence with Athanasius Kircher. The remaining stations are all concentrated in the church building of El Calvario; where stations ninth through fourteenth are all housed within the same complex. These stations are: ninth, the “Third Fall”; tenth, “Jesus is Stripped of His Clothes”; eleventh, “Jesus is Nailed to the Cross” (popularly known as “Capilla de los Pobres,” as it was completely sponsored by the poor inhabitants of the neighborhood); twelfth, “Jesus Dies on the Cross”; thirteenth, “Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross,” and fourteenth and last, “The Holy Sepulcher”.38  (see Fig. 2 through 5).

Fig. 2. A map of Jerusalem pointing to the Hinnom and Kidron streams, as well as the Via Crucis route. Credit: Google Earth image edited by author.

 Fig. 3. A map of Puebla’s El Alto district, pointing to the topographical similarities between Puebla and Jerusalem. Of notice are the two bodies of water, the San Francisco River and the Xonaca Stream, which demarcated the Via Crucis area. Credit: Google Earth image edited by author.


Fig. 4. A diagram pointing at each Via Crucis station along the processional route in Puebla de los Ángeles’ El Alto district. Credit: Google Earth image edited by author.

Fig. 5. A 1650 map of Puebla, which illustrates the Via Crucis relative to other landmarks in Puebla’s historic district. Credit: Public domain image digitally edited by author.

The way Jerusalem’s and Puebla’s Via Cruces operate, which is as the physical settings of an embodied spiritual experience, is not necessarily unique in the context of ritualistic religious phenomena. Mircea Eliade explained how space acquires special characteristics for the religious man, as a hierophany manifests itself and reveals to participants the exceptional traits acquired by the space they occupy: “For religious man space is not homogenous; he experiences interruptions, breaks in it; some parts of space are qualitatively different than others”.39 It does not matter if it is not in Jerusalem: the processional route and the spaces, shrines, and places that re-create the Passion of Christ acquire a qualitative importance that sets them at an equal footing to the original Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem and its holy sites. To this effect, it is important to understand the role that landscapes can play in the context of religious experiences. Thomas Matus, for instance, when discussing the topography intrinsic to religions, points out that Christianity was inherently conceived alongside its landscapes; it was born at the banks of the River Jordan with Christ’s baptism, it continued with Jesus’ ministry through the dry lands of Palestine, with the revelation and temptation in the desert, and it followed him as a backdrop to all of his teachings.40 However, perhaps the most outstanding element present in the Via Crucis, both the original in Jerusalem and its replicas throughout Europe and later in the New World, is the presence of a mountain or hill, as mountains are sacred topographical features in a diversity of cultures, and Christianity would be no exception.41

From a symbolical-religious perspective, mountains and hills carry various symbolic meanings; for one, as outstanding topographical features they can be considered to represent the place where heaven and Earth meet. In other instances, a mountain or hill can be also understood as an omphalos, a symbolic navel. Giovanni Filoramo points out how this condition is expressed in the literature of the Christian mystics: “Richard of Saint Victor described the degrees of contemplation as the ascension of a mountain; Saint John of the Cross titled one of his most important works, “Subida del monte Carmelo”; and Mechthild of Magdeburg defined God as ‘a mountain’”.42 It is not surprising then that Puebla’s Via Crucis places its processional element at the center of its operation, in other words, the act of ascension becomes a relevant concept in the re-enactment of the Passion of Christ. The topographical experience signals the importance of the events being remembered, a schism between Heaven and Earth, i.e. Christ’s mortal death, which in turn also signals the promise of his return, the hope of heaven and earth being conjoined again. Thus, the Via Crucis is a symbolic navel of the city. As an architectural complex, a string of chapel-stations strewn along the city’s mountain, the Via Crucis marks a most important revelatory point of conjunction with the heavenly, the place where Christ died and, according to Christian doctrine, will return to redeem humanity from its mortal condition.


The Sacrimonti and Via Crucis are part of a series of innovative types of spiritual practices that were created around the fifteenth century in Flanders. As art historian Antonio Bonet Correa wrote, they are the product of the Devotio moderna, a sensual and more sentimental way of expressing a person’s faith in the context of an early modern approach to devotional practices that valued personal experience and reflection.43 Puebla’s Via Crucis, as was argued in this paper, is relevant for various reasons, not least because of its topographical mimicry of Jerusalem. It is also surprisingly well-preserved in the context of a city that has suffered much destruction of its historical built heritage and a tremendous increase in urban density. Finally, if we are to attend to Bonet Correa’s definitions and distinctions between a Sacrimonti and a Via Crucis, Puebla’s urban-architectural complex is a hybrid between the two. Indeed, Bonet Correa supports the idea that a Sacrimonti is characterized by being usually laid outside an urban area in a topographical ascent, and for having a series of decorated chapels, which, in their most sophisticated iterations, are veritable theatres of the sacred with real-life scaled sculptures and painted scenographies. Via Cruces, on the other hand, according to Bonet Correa, are made up of the various stations in the narrative of the Passion and could be located inside a church building or outside, in an urban area for instance, along a designated route and marked by a series of small crosses or markers. Puebla’s Via Crucis, when it was originally built in the sixteenth and up until the eighteenth century, was located in the outskirts of the city, in Bethlehem Hill, a somewhat rugged area devoid of lush vegetation, and is constituted not by simple crosses or markers, but by small chapels, making it a hybrid between a Sacrimonti and a Via Crucis. 

Regardless of whether Puebla’s Via Crucis sits somewhere in between one definition or another, the fact remains that it is an extremely understudied artifact, as there is no notion whatsoever of the chapels’ interior decoration nor the architectural aspects of the chapels themselves. This essay highlighted how the Via Crucis complex at Puebla served to advance the city’s self-notion of exceptionalism during the city’s colonial period—i.e., its identification with Jerusalem as the axis mundi. Further, it has also tried to expose the possibilities of an architectural complex such as this one when it comes to revealing and helping to delineate a city’s image of itself and for its inhabitants. In essence, Puebla’s Via Crucis—a remnant of a cultural urban and spiritual tradition from the early modern period—has survived to our days while it continues to bridge the gap between the earthly and the heavenly for the faithful who continue to celebrate its processional ritual each year.

Fig. 6. The first chapel of the Via Crucis complex, corresponding to the second station, “Jesus Accepts His Cross” (the first station was enacted inside the Franciscan church). This chapel station is attached to the Franciscan church building’s side. The church’s bell tower is visible to the right.  Credit: Google Street View screenshot.

Fig. 7. The second chapel of the Via Crucis complex, corresponding to the fourth station (the second chapel, corresponding to the third station, was destroyed).  It is popularly known as “Los fieles amantes,” and it is located on present-day 14 Oriente Street. Credit: Google Street View.

Fig. 8. The third chapel of the Via Crucis ritual complex, corresponding to the fifth station, popularly known as “El Cirineo” (a reference to Simon of Cyrene), located on present-day 14 Oriente Street. Credit: Google Street View.

Fig. 9. The fourth chapel of the Via Crucis ritual complex, corresponding to the sixth station, popularly known as “La Verónica” (a reference to St. Veronica who wiped Jesus’ face in the Via Crucis narrative), located on present-day 12 Norte Street. Credit: Google Street View.

Fig. 10. The fifth chapel of the Via Crucis ritual complex, which corresponds to the seventh station and is located on present-day 12 Norte Street. Credit: Google Street View.

Fig. 11. The sixth chapel of the Via Crucis ritual complex, which corresponds to the eighth station, popularly known as “Las Piadosas” chapel. Credit: Photo by author.

Fig. 12. This image shows the Iglesia del Calvario architectural complex, the last stop and most architecturally sophisticated element in the Puebla Via Crucis, wherein the seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh chapels of the Via Crucis, together with the Santo Sepulcro, are located, corresponding to the ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth stations. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.


  • 1

    Diego Antonio Bermúdez de Castro, Theatro Angelopolitano ó Historia de la Ciudad de la Puebla, escrita por D. Diego Antonio Bermúdez de Castro, Escribano Real y Notario Mayor de la Curia Eclesiástica del Obispado de Puebla (México City, 1746), p.148. Translation by author.

  • 2

    This essay is largely based on Chapter 5 of my doctoral dissertation. I would like to thank the scientifical committee of the conference “Inside the Ritual” for additional comments and suggestions. See: Burke, Juan Luis, “Angelorum Civitas: The Symbolic Urbanism of Puebla de los Ángeles in the Early Modern Era”, doctoralPhD dissertation., McGill University, Montreal, 2016.

  • 3

    Julia Hirschberg, ““La fundación de Puebla de los Ángeles: Mito y realidad,” Historia Mexicana - El Colegio de Méxicovol. 28, no. 2, (1978, p.): 185-223.

  • 4

    For a comprehensive history and analysis on the phenomenon of the encomienda de indios, see: Silvio Arturo Zavala, La encomienda indiana, (Madrid, : Helénica, 1935).

  • 5

    Zavala, chap. II.

  • 6

    For a detailed account of Puebla’s foundation and details on the settlers’ demands to employ the encomienda system, see:Guadalupe Albi Romero, “La sociedad de Puebla de los Ángeles en el siglo XVI,,” in Ángeles y Constructores: Mitos y realidades en la historia de Puebla, siglos XVI y XVII, (Puebla, : BUAP, Gobierno del estado de Puebla, 2006), p. 127-206; Hirschberg, “La fundación de Puebla de los Ángeles,” François Chevalier, Significación social de la fundación de la Puebla de los Ángeles, Puebla, Mexico: Centro de estudios históricos de Puebla, 1957.

  • 7

    Guadalupe Albi Romero, “La sociedad de Puebla de los Ángeles en el siglo XVI,”in Ángeles y Constructores: Mitos y realidades en la historia de Puebla, siglos XVI y XVII, Puebla: BUAP, Gobierno del estado de Puebla, 2006, p. 127–206; François Chevalier, Significación social de la fundación de la Puebla de los Ángeles, Puebla, Mexico, Centro de estudios históricos de Puebla, 1957; Julia Hirschberg, “La fundación de Puebla de los Ángeles: Mito y realidad,” Historia Mexicana - El Colegio de México, vol. 28, no. 2, 1978, p. 185-223.

  • 8

    Kevin Lynch, Chapter 1:“The Image of the Environment,” The Image of the City, 1st edition, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1960.

  • 9

    Antonio Rubial García, “Los ángeles de Puebla. La larga construcción de una identidad patria,” in Poder civil y catolicismo en México, siglos XVI al XIX, Mexico City, : Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas UNAM – Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades BUAP, 2008), p. 103-28.

  • 10

    The existence of urban Via Cruces in the most relevant cities of the New Spanish viceroyalty was common, but unlike other Via Cruces found in cities that concentrated large Spanish populations in New Spain, such as Mexico City or Santiago de Querétaro, Puebla de los Ángeles’ Via Crucis with its topographic mimicry stands as a unique example of its kind.See: José Miguel Muñoz Jiménez, “Sobre la ‘Jerusalén restaurada’: Los calvarios barrocos en España,” Archivo Español de Arte (AEA), vol. LXIX, no. 274, June 1996, p. 157-69.

  • 11

    See Fig. 4 for a graphic breakdown of the existing chapel-stations in Puebla’s Via Crucis and subsequent figures illustrating the chapel-stations.

  • 12

    Alena Robin, Las capillas del Vía Crucis de la Ciudad de México: Arte, patrocinio y sacralización del espacio, First Edition, Mexico City, UNAM - Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, 2014, p. 209.

  • 13

    Fray Toribio de Benavente, Memoriales: Edición crítica, introducción, notas y apéndice, Mexico City, El Colegio de México, 1996, p. 363. Translation by author.

  • 14

    Fray Juan de Torquemada, De los Veintiún Libros rituales y Monarquía indiana, Mexico City, Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas – UNAM, 1979, vol. I, p. 426-427.

  • 15

    Two studies that trace the mythology of the city of Puebla from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries are those by Martha Fernández and Antonio Rubial. See: Martha Fernández, “La Jerusalén celeste. Imagen barroca de la ciudad novohispana,” in Actas III Congreso Internacional del Barroco Americano: Territorio, Arte, Espacio y Sociedad, Sevilla, Universidad Pablo de Olavide, 2001, p. 1012-1031; Antonio Rubial García, “Los ángeles de Puebla. La larga construcción de una identidad patria,” in Poder civil y catolicismo en México, siglos XVI al XIX, Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas UNAM – Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades BUAP, 2008, p. 103-128.

  • 16

    Rubial García, 2008, p. 107.

  • 17

    Gil González Dávila, Teatro eclesiástico de la primitiva iglesia de las Indias Occidentales, vidas de sus arzobispos, obispos, y cosas memorables de sus sedes, Madrid: Diego Díaz de la Carrera, 1649, p. 83.

  • 18

    Antonio Rubial García, El paraíso de los elegidos: Una lectura de la historia cultural de Nueva España (1521-1804), Mexico City, FCE - UNAM, 2010, p. 230.

  • 19

    Fernández, 2001.

  • 20

    Carlos Montero Pantoja, Arquitectura y urbanismo: De la Independencia a la Revolución, dos momentos claves en la historia urbana de la ciudad de Puebla, Puebla, Mexico, BUAP, Ediciones de Arte y Cultura, 2010. See chapter 1.

  • 21

    Rubial García, 2008.

  • 22

    If the city-temple were imagined as square or rectangular in plan, we could visualize the edifice as having 12 entrances, as in the description of the Heavenly Jerusalem by John, Revelation, 21.

  • 23

    Amédée Zedelgem da, “Saggio storico sulla devozione alla Via Crucis,” in Saggio storico sulla devozione alla Via Crucis a cura di Amilcare Barbero e Pasquale Magro. Edizione originale del 1949, traduzione dal francese di Paolo Pellizzari, Turin: Italy, Centro de Documentazione dei Sacri Monti, Calvari e Complessi devozionali europei, 2004, p. 67.

  • 24


  • 25

    Zedelgem, 2004, p. 70.

  • 26

    Kenneth Nebenzahl, Maps of the Holy Lands: Images of Terra Sancta Through Two Millenia, First Edition, London, Abbeville Promotional, 1990, p. 33.

  • 27

    Tradition has it that St Francis of Assisi himself traveled to Palestine in 1219, and although he never actually managed to make it there, he indirectly established a long tradition between his order and terrae sanctae.The Franciscan’s presence in Jerusalem and Palestine date back to the early thirteenth century, when the Franciscan province of Syria was established. Towards the end of this same century, they were allowed to establish themselves in the Cenacle, on Mount Zion. Pope Clement VI declared them the official guardians of the Holy Sites in 1342, and to this day, they are still the official Catholic guardians of the Holy Sites.

  • 28

    Franco Cardini, “I Sacri Monti nella tradizione cristiana latina”, in Religioni e Sacri Monti Atti del Convegno Internazionale Torino-Moncalvo-Casale Monferrato, 12–16 ottobre 2004, Turin, Centro de Documentazione dei Sacri Monti, Calvari e Complessi devozionali europei, 2006, p. 109.

  • 29

    Miguel Zerón Zapata and Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, La Puebla de los Ángeles en el Siglo XVII: Crónica de la Puebla, Mexico City, Editorial Patria, 1945, p. 107.

  • 30


  • 31

    Although this article does not allow for a deeper historiographical analysis, Mariano Fernández de Echeverría y Veytia, Miguel de Alcalá y Mendiola, and Hugo Leicht all list the patrons in the collective effort that was the construction of the Puebla Via Crucis, and identify the year 1606 as the date in which construction of the chapel-stations started, without specifying any subsequent dates thereafter. The chroniclers identify the following patrons: starting with Diego Marín, a local sculptor, who is reported by the chroniclers as having built (or sponsored?) the vault of the second chapel-station, which is attached to the nave of the Franciscan church building (see Fig. 6).Friar Jacinto Rosales, a Franciscan priest, was the patron of the third chapel-station (now destroyed). Gaspar Toreno had the fourth chapel-station built.Andrés Bañuelos had the fifth chapel-station built, now still popularly identified as the Cirineo chapel (for Simon the Cyrene). Antonio Hernández de Priego was the patron for the sixth chapel-station, the Saint Veronica station. Pedro de Medina was the patron that paid for the construction of the seventh chapel-station, whose expenses were later adopted by the Dean of the Cathedral at the time, don Diego de Victoria Salazar. Don Juan de Alexandro Fabián was the patron of the eighth chapel-station who is also credited with convincing other citizens for the importance to push forward and complete the Via Crucis ritualistic cycle with the remaining chapel-stations. The ninth to the fourteenth stations are all located in the same architectural complex, known as the Iglesia del Calvario. Nicolás Coronado was the patron of the ninth chapel-station within the complex, while two brothers, Melchor and Juan del Hoyo were responsible for building the tenth chapel-station by themselves, known popularly as the “Capilla del Despojo,” the station which sees Jesus stripped of his clothes. The next station, the eleventh, also known as the “Capilla de los Pobres,” was collectively built with the work and alms of the neighborhood.The following chapel-station, called “Capilla de la Expiración,” the twelfth, is the most architecturally sophisticated of the whole cycle and the largest chapel-station, a man identified as licenciado Martín Fernández was the patron. The next chapel-station, identified as “Capilla de Nuestra Señora de la Piedad,” was built and maintained by Andrés de Illescas. Finally, the last chapel-station, the fourteenth, was built and paid for by Diego Marín, a sculptor and by the licenciado Juan de Altamirano. See: Alcalá y Mendiola, Descripción en bosquejo de la imperial cesárea muy noble y muy leal Ciudad de Puebla de los Ángeles (paleographic edition of the c.1696 original), p. 155-157; Mariano Fernández de Echeverría y Veytia, Historia de la fundación de la Ciudad de la Puebla de los Ángeles en la Nueva España, su descripción y presente estado, vol. II, Puebla, Mexico, Ediciones Altiplano, 1962, p. 276-282; Hugo Leicht, Las calles de Puebla, Tenth Edition, Secretaría de Cultura, Gobierno del Estado de Puebla, 2009, p. 50-53.

  • 32

    Alberto Pérez-Gómez, Built Upon Love, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2008, p. 125.

  • 33


  • 34

    Ibid., p. 3.

  • 35

    Keith D. Lilley, City and Cosmos: The Medieval World in Urban Form, London, Reaktion Books, 2009, p. 158.

  • 36

    Mariano Fernández de Echeverría y Veytia, Historia de la fundación de la Ciudad de la Puebla de los Ángeles en la Nueva España, su descripción y presente estado, vol. I, Puebla: Mexico, Ediciones Altiplano, 1962, p. 276; Miguel Alcalá y Mendiola de, Descripción en bosquejo de la imperial cesárea muy noble y muy leal Ciudad de Puebla de los Ángeles (paleographic edition of the c.1696 original), Puebla, Mexico, BUAP, 1992, p. 155-56; Augustín Vetancurt de, Teatro Mexicano: Descripción Breve de los Sucessos Exemplares, Históricos, Políticos, Militares y Religiosos del Nuevo Mundo Occidental de las Indias, Tratado de la Ciudad de México, y las Grandezas que la Ilustran después que la Fundaron los Españoles. Tratado de la Ciudad de la Puebla de los Ángeles, y grandezas que la Ilustran (por doña Maria de Benavides viuda de Iuan de Ribera, 1698).

  • 37

    Leopoldo García Lastra and Silvia Castellanos Gómez, Utopía Angelopolitana, First Edition, Puebla, State Government of Puebla, 2008. See Chapter 5, dedicated to the Via Crucis of Puebla.

  • 38

    Montserrat Báez Hernández and Fabián Valdivia Pérez, Guía de patrimonio religioso de la ciudad de Puebla, Puebla, Mexico, Ayuntamiento de Puebla, 2012, p. 437-451.

  • 39

    Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, New York, Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1961. See Chapter One: “Sacred Space and Making the World Sacred”.

  • 40

    Thomas Matus, “Religioni, ambiente, paesaggio,” in Religioni e Sacri Monti Atti del Convegno Internazionale Torino-Moncalvo-Casale Monferrato, 12–16 ottobre 2004, Turin, Centro de Documentazione dei Sacri Monti, Calvari e Complessi devozionali europei, 2006, p. 66.

  • 41

    Ida Zatelli, “Monti e luoghi elevati nella bibbia ebraica: monti di dio e sacralità di Sion,” in Religioni e Sacri Monti Atti del Convegno Internazionale Torino-Moncalvo-Casale Monferrato, 12–16 ottobre 2004, Turin, Centro de Documentazione dei Sacri Monti, Calvari e Complessi devozionali europei, 2006, p. 103.

  • 42

    Giovanni Filoramo, “I monti sacri nella storia delle religioni”, in Religioni e Sacri Monti Atti del Convegno Internazionale Torino-Moncalvo-Casale Monferrato, 12–16 ottobre 2004, Turin, Centro de Documentazione dei Sacri Monti, Calvari e Complessi devozionali europei, 2006, p. 55-56.

  • 43

    Antonio Bonet Correa, “Sacromontes y calvarios en España, Portugal y América Latina,” in La “Gerusalemme” di San Vivaldo e i Sacri Monti in Europa. Firenze-San Vivaldo, 11–13 settembre, 1986, Florence, Centro internazionale di studi “La ‘Gerusalemme’ di San Vivaldo” – Comune di Montaione, 1986, p. 174.

Juan Luis Burke
University of Maryland-College Park

Juan Luis Burke is an architect and an architectural historian. Presently, he teaches design studio, as well as history and theory of architecture at the University of Maryland's School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. His research interests revolve around the history and theory of the architecture and urbanism produced during the period ranging from the sixteenth century to the present, with an emphasis on Latin America -particularly Mexico- and the connections between this region with Spain, Italy and North America. He holds a Master's of Architecture and a Ph.D. in architectural history and theory from McGill University.