Mexico, as it was and as it is/Letter 5
CITY OF PUEBLA.
I shall say nothing more of our journey from Perote to Puebla, or of the several uninteresting villages through which we passed. The road led among deep gullies, and was exceedingly dusty on the plains. The towns were usually built of the common adobe's, or sun-dried bricks of the country, and neither in their architectural appearance, nor in the character of their inhabitants, offered any attractions for the attention of a traveller. It was, indeed, a tedious and uninteresting drive over the solitary moors, and I have seldom been more gratified at the termination of a day's fatigue than I was when we entered the gateway of our spacious and comfortable inn at Puebla. In addition to the usual discomforts of the road, we had suffered greatly from the heat during the two or three last hours of our ride, and were annoyed by a fine dust, which, heated by a blazing sun, rolled into our coach from every side, and fell like a parching powder on our skins. A bath was, therefore, indispensable before the dinner, which we found excellent after our fare of the previous night at Perote. In the afternoon I paid a visit to the governor, who promised an escort of dragoons for the rest of the journey to the Capital; and I then sallied forth, to see as much as possible of this really beautiful city.
My recollections of Puebla (comparing it now with Mexico) are far more agreeable than those of the Capital. There is an air of neatness and tidiness observable everywhere. The streets are broad, well paved with flat stones, and have a washed and cleanly look. The crowd of people is far less than in the Capital, and they are not so ragged and miserable. House rents are one-half or one-third those of Mexico, and the dwellings are usually inhabited by one family; but, churches and convents seem rather more plentiful in proportion to the inhabitants. The friars are less numerous, and the secular clergy greater.
A small stream skirts the eastern side of Puebla, affording a large water-power for manufacturing purposes. On its banks a public walk has been planted with rows of trees, among which the paths meander, while a neat fountain throws up its waters in the midst of them. The views from this retreat, in the evening, are charmingly picturesque over the eastern plain.
On the western side of Puebla lie the extensive piles of buildings belonging to the Convent of St. Francis, situated opposite the entrance of the Alameda—a quiet and retired garden walk to which the cavaliers and donzellas repair before sunset, for a drive in view of the volcanos of Istazihuatl and Popocatepetl, which bound the westward prospect with their tops of eternal snow. Near the centre of the city is the great square. It is surrounded on two sides by edifices erected on arches through which the population circulates as at Bologna. On the northern side is the Palace of the Governor, now filled with troops; and directly in front of this is the Cathedral, equal perhaps in size to that of Mexico, but, being elevated upon a platform about ten feet above the level of the square, it is better relieved and stands out from the surrounding buildings with more boldness and grandeur.
This church is, in all its details and arrangements the most magnificent in the Republic; and although not desirous to occupy your time with a description of religious edifices, yet, with a view of affording some idea of the wealth of this important establishment in a country where the priesthood is still very powerful, I will venture to remark on a few of those objects that strike the eye of a transient traveller.
It is about this Cathedral, I am told, that there is a legend of Puebla, which states that while in process of building, it gained mysteriously in height during the night as much as the masons had wrought during the day. This was said to be the work of Angels, and hence, the city has acquired the holy name of "Puebla de los Angeles." Be this, however, as it may, the church, though neither exactly worthy of divine conception and execution, nor a miracle of art, is extremely tasteful, and one of the best specimens of architecture I saw in Mexico. The material is blue basalt; the stones are squared by the chisel; the joints neatly pointed; and the whole has the appearance of great solidity, being supported by massive buttresses, and terminated at the west by lofly towers filled with bells of sweet and varied tones. Between the towers is the main entrance, over which there is a mass of sculpture of Scripture history in stone and moulded work.
Entering by this portal, the edifice, though lofty and extensive, has its effect greatly marred by the erections over the crypt, altar and choir, which fill the building to near its arched and elevated ceiling. As usual, the church is divided into three parts by rows of massive columns. Outside of these, under lower arches, are the side aisles, and in the wall the lesser chapels are imbedded, as it were, between columns, and screened from the main edifice by a graceful railing and fanciful gates of wrought iron. A similar rail also incloses the choir and other portions of the building; and the whole, painted green, is picked out with gilded ornaments.
From the centre of the vast dome depends the great chandelier-a weighty mass of gold and silver. It weighs tons. The sum at which it is valued I will not mention; but you may judge of its extent and price from the fact that, when cleaned thoroughly some years ago, the cost of its purification alone amounted to four thousand dollars!
The great altar, too, is a striking object. It was erected about thirty years ago by one of the bishops of Puebla, and affords the greatest display of Mexican marbles in the Republic. The variety of colors is very great, among which is one of a pure and brilliant white, as transparent as alabaster. The rail and steps, which, of course, are of fine marble, lead to a circular platform eight or ten feet above the floor, beneath which is the sepulchre of the bishops, (constructed entirely of the most precious materials,) divided into niches and panels, and covered with a depressed dome of marble, relieved by bronze and gold circles, from the centre of which depends a silver lamp, for ever burning in the habitation of the dead.
To the right of the altar is the gem of the building. It is a figure of the Virgin Mary, nigh the size of life. Dressed in the richest embroidered satin, she displays strings of the largest pearls hanging from her neck below her knees. Around her brow is clasped a crown of gold, inlaid with emeralds of a size I had never seen before; and her waist is bound with a zone of diamonds, from the centre of which blaze numbers of enormous brilliants!
But this is not all. The candelabras surrounding the platform before the altar, are of silver and gold, and so ponderous that a strong man could neither move nor lift them. Immediately above the altar, and within the columns of the large temple erected there, is a smaller one, the interior of which is displayed or concealed by secret machinery. From this the Host, amid a blaze of priceless and innumerable jewels, is exhibited to the kneeling multitude.
The principal dome is, of course, in the centre of the church; and opposite the front of the altar is the choir, remarkable, principally, for the workmanship and preservation of the richly carved woodwork of its stalls for the canons and clergy. Above the seat of the bishop is a picture of St. Peter, formed by the inlaying of different woods; yet so skilfully is this work of art executed, that at a short distance it has all the effect and gracefulness of a painting in oil. It is to be regretted that the organ is rather too small for so large a building, and that the rich tone of the noble instrument is therefore greatly lost in the services of a church where the effect of the Catholic rite, amid so many other magnificent adjuncts, would be greatly enhanced in pomp by the perfection of solemn music.
It was too obscure to see the pictures which are said to be worthy of notice, or the three sets of valuable jewels of the bishop; and we therefore departed at dusk from this mine of wealth and splendor.
As I went out of the door in the dim twilight, and found a miserable and ragged woman kneeling before the image of a saint, and heard the hollow sounding of her breast as she beat it with penitential fervor; I could not help asking myself, if the church that subsisted upon alms, in order to be the greatest almoner of the nation, had fulfilled its sacred charge while there was one diamond in the zone of the Virgin, or one homeless or foodless wretch in the whole Republic.