Friday, January 8, 2010

Catedral de San Juan Bautista

The San Juan Cathedral is located in Old San Juan on Calle del Cristo, overlooking a small plaza next to the El Convento Hotel. This cathedral of St. John the Baptist is the second oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. The original structure had wooden walls and a thatched roof, and a cathedral was soon planned to replace it. Construction began in 1521 in Late Gothic style, and some of these original architectural components remain to this day: a vaulted tower, gothic ceilings, a circular staircase and four rooms, all rare examples of Medieval architecture in the Americas. The British looted the building in 1598, removing many gold and silver treasures, and in 1615 a hurricane blew the roof off. In 1625 the Dutch burned San Juan to the ground, including all the churches and the bishop’s library – at the time the most famous and complete collection of books in America.

The cathedral was renovated in 1852 in Neoclassical style, and the plan we see today is three parallel naves intersected by a transept with a central elliptical dome and six lateral chapels. Located near the transept is a tomb that holds the remains of Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish conquistador who colonized Puerto Rico. In 1908 his body was disinterred from the nearby Iglesia de San José and placed in this marble tomb, one of Spanish sculptor Miguel Blay’s master works. The latest major restoration of the cathedral took place in 1917.

The cathedral also contains the wax-covered mummy of St. Pio, a Roman martyr persecuted and killed for his Christian faith. The mummy has been encased in a glass box ever since it was placed here in 1862. To the right of the mummy is a bizarre wooden replica of Mary with four swords stuck in her bosom. After all the looting and destruction over the centuries, the cathedral's great treasures are long gone, although many beautiful stained-glass windows remain. The cathedral faces Plaza de las Monjas (the Nuns' Square), a shady spot where you can rest in front of Hotel El Convento and the Children’s Museum.

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