La Merced Church is one of my favorite buildings in Antigua Guatemala and arguably the prettiest Baroque church in the city. Part of its appeal is that it’s also one of the few churches that have remained standing relatively unscathed since colonial times.
Construction of Iglesia de La Merced
La Merced Church, Antigua Guatemala
Mercedarians were the first religious order to establish a men’s convent in Guatemala, seeking and obtaining land and a permit to build a convent in present-day Ciudad Vieja. Their church was almost finished when a lahar came rushing down from Agua Volcano and wiped out the city.
Eventually, the city leaders that survived decided to relocate the city to the Panchoy Valley, where present-day Antigua Guatemala is located. When the city was finally moved, Mercedarians fought hard to be granted the second permit to build a new church and convent – and permission was granted in 1541. Mercedarians completed their second church in Guatemalan territory in 1583. Subsequent earthquakes destroyed this second temple.
In 1749, Architect Juan de Dios Estrada (also known as Juan de Chaves) was commissioned to build a much bigger temple and an adjacent convent. After studying the design failures of previous architects, de Dios chose to adapt traditional baroque designs to suit the city better. He lowered typical baroque, airy ceilings down – up to two-thirds lower. De Dios also added thick walls that were up to a meter wide and thicker buttresses. The Philippines is the only other location in the world that features this type of baroque architecture.
This type of massive construction made the third structure far more earthquake-resistant than previous structures. This is easy to notice when looking at the walls and columns that can be seen at the church and at the convent ruins next door.
Lower ceilings, thicker walls at La Merced convent
The church and convent were finished in 1767. The church featured priceless works of art. Unfortunately, major earthquakes hit the city in 1773. While the structure resisted the earthquakes, the convent’s walls were weakened, later falling during subsequent earthquakes that year.
La Merced Church Is Abandoned
Once Captain-General Martin de Mayorga made the order to relocate the city to present-day Guatemala City official, Mercedarians did not hesitate. They packed up their works of art and abandoned the convent to get a headstart in rebuilding their church in the new capital.
And so it was that La Merced lay abandoned, for the most part. The convent’s ruins were further destroyed, and as with most abandoned ruins in the city, its interior used as a stone quarry by the locals. It wasn’t until 1853 that Mayor Jose Maria Palomo y Montufar approved restoration work.
La Merced Church Today
The church is very popular with locals and tourists alike. Its stucco work is admired for its arabesque patterns, known as ataurique – from the Arabic word al-Tariq, meaning “vegetable.” This type of relief detail is a sign of Moorish influence, which was popular at the time.
Ataurique stucco work at La Merced
The facade features an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, along with some of the more prominent Mercedarians in history, such as St. Pedro Armengol, St. Maria de Cervello, and St. Raymundo Nonnatus – each saint has quite the interesting history.
Atrium at Iglesia La Merced
Among the art of note inside La Merced is the image of Jesus Nazareno, an antique baroque piece that’s paraded reverentially throughout Antigua during Palm Sunday and Good Friday processions. The image of Virgen de Dolores, by sculptor Pedro de Mendoza, is worth checking out as is the gold-leaf retablo.
Keep an eye out for the Mercedarian shield. Once you learn to recognize it, you’ll spot it not only inside the church but in a lot more places throughout the city.
Jesus Nazareno, La Merced
Retablo La Merced Antigua Guatemala
La Merced Convent Tour
La Merced is open to the public daily, as are the ruins of the convent next door. However, unlike the church, there is an entrance fee to visit convent’s ruins (Q7 for locals, Q15 for foreigners). Open daily from 9 am to 6 pm, the convent is well worth a visit, as the views of the surrounding volcanoes are excellent on bright days.
The convent also featured what is believed to be the largest fountain in Central America. Mercedarian monks used it to raise fish to supplement their diet.
La Merced fountain
The convent’s installation offers a self-guided tour via strategically placed Spanish/English signage.
I highly recommend you take the time to visit La Merced, especially the convent’s ruins next door.
Lenten Season Displays
This church is famous for its beautiful Lenten and Holy Week alfombras (sawdust carpets) that are displayed in the sanctuary – check them out if you’re ever in town during this religious festival. See some of the images below:
More attractions here: https://okantigua.com/things-to-do-in-antigua-guatemala/
Have you visited La Merced?
Did you enjoy it?