Baroque Reaction Has Parallels for Today

Gold leaf covering every space in sight
Rosary Chapel is fine example of baroque style

The new, world-class International Museum of the Baroque in Puebla, Mexico, opened in 2016, and is unquestionably the premier museum in the world devoted to Baroque style. Designed by world-renowned Japanese architect Toyo Ito, the building itself is a stunning attraction. It includes several exquisite water features, one of which, I discovered as the clock struck noon, is a sundial. No wonder architecture and design enthusiasts from around the world have been flocking here.

Although built near earthquake fault lines, the museum is designed to survive tremors and has already withstood several. Its exterior is a spectacular minimalist style with sleek, modern and curving white walls. A lot more complicated, Baroque style leaves no space unfilled, consequently, the interior exhibits are the antithesis of the museum’s minimalist exterior.

Stunning architecture of Baroque Museum
Minimalist exterior of museum contrasts with exhibits inside

Inside, the history, attributes and meaning of Baroque style are well displayed in a thought-provoking curation. The museum is well located at ground zero of baroque in the Western Hemisphere. La Capilla del Rosario (The Rosary Chapel) in the Convento de Santo Domingo (Saint Dominic’s Convent) operated by Dominican monks in Puebla is, perhaps, the finest example of New Spanish Baroque style. Some regard this church as the most beautiful in the world, including those at the Vatican.

When it was built, the Rosary Chapel was considered the Eighth Wonder of the World. Other excellent examples of world-class Baroque churches are in nearby Cholula, Mexico. Puebla also has the largest cathedral in Latin America and claims more churches per square mile than anywhere in the world.

A scale model of The Rosary Chapel is a central exhibit in the museum. Built in the 17th century by local infidel indigenous workers, it stands as a testament to their workmanship and skill rather than a reflection of their devotion, which was non-existent. Two principal local materials were used in the chapel’s décor. The first, gold leaf powder, was obtained from the owner of a local gold mine, a patron of the Virgin Mary to whom the chapel is dedicated. The second is the famous Mexican talavera tile, which hails from Puebla. There is hardly any space in the Rosary Chapel not covered by one of these materials.

Indigenous workers, descendants of Mayans, had the know-how to mix the powder with natural materials like egg, flour and honey to create gold leaf, which was generously applied. This combination has withstood the test of time better than surrounding structures damaged by earthquakes. Even if the gold leaf was very abundantly applied and could easily overwhelm, you instead are awe-stuck with its symmetry, design, intricacy and beauty.

The Baroque Museum explains how the style influenced all aspects of life besides church design. Bringing visitors through galleries in a pre-ordained order, the museum explains baroque in music, theater, art, literature, clothing, science and philosophy, with abundant examples. Most of the art is from Mexico, and there did not appear to be any “famous” pieces on display. Exhibits aptly use modern multimedia to bring baroque to life. The museum’s explanations are multilingual, facilitating foreign visitors.

Parallels from the Baroque period to the present day make the exhibits relevant. Baroque was a response to rapid urbanization in Europe during which church and royalty struggled to hang onto fading glory. Baroque portrayed these cultural icons as grander-than-life until people eventually came to terms with the reality of a new era. Similarly, speed of news with today’s social media makes it difficult to parse truth from fiction.

During a period of expected peak attendance, Wednesday, the free entry day of the week, visitors were sparse. Make a beeline to see this fantastic museum as rumor has it the local government wants to convert the building into a more populist use.