The Cathedral of The Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception (also known in Spanish as La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana) is one of eleven Roman Catholic cathedrals on the island of Cuba. Located in the Plaza de la Catedral, the Havana Cathedral is found in the center of Old Havana. This thirty-four by thirty-five meter rectangle church serves as the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Cristobal de la Habana which overlooks 7,542 square kilometers of the island and 2,821,000 Catholics.
The church was built in a Baroque style with several Tuscan elements and is considered one of the best examples of Baroque architecture in Cuba. The building itself is mainly made up of coral which was cut from the copious amounts of coral rock that could be found in the nearby Gulf of Mexico's ocean floor. If you look closely, you can find preserved marine fossils within the outer wall of the facade.
The facade was designed with asymmetrical features seeing that the right bell tower is wider than the left. That same larger tower consists of two bells that were cast with gold and silver mixed into bronze which gives them an elegant and sweeter tone. The cathedral is said to be the only example of a Baroque facade with such a distinctive asymmetrical feature such as this. This feature served a particular purpose. The asymmetrical bell towers allow for water that tended to accumulate on the plaza after heavy rainfall to freely flow through the streets and out to the ocean. The plaza is located where a swamp once was, which was subsequently drained for construction and used as a naval dockyard, hence why water tended to accumulate so rapidly during the colonial period.
The cathedral can be categorized as having an early Cuban Baroque facade because of its many curves and double curves that turn into column-like pilaster structures within the facade. These pilasters have very little practical significance and are primarily ornamental. The use of pediments is another defining Baroque feature that can be seen when directly facing the cathedral. Despite its grandiose exterior, the inside of the building is much more simple, and many would even say it could be seen as austere. Before its "cleansing of excess ornamentation" in the 19th century the interior of the cathedral was once extremely ornate. The cathedral's interior neoclassical style consists of white and black marble floors, three naves covered with wooden vaults, massive stone pillars, and eight chapels
As more and more native and indigenous Cubans were converted to Catholicism the need for churches grew quickly everyday. One of the largest missionary groups within the island were priests of the relatively new Society of Jesus (also known as Jesuits). Many requests for construction had been denied by Havana's City Attorney General. After heavy petitioning and Diego Evelino Hurtado de Compostela's, Bishop of Santiago de Cuba at the time, purchase of a piece of land in the Plaza, a permit was finally granted to these missionaries. The cathedral is currently set in the former Plaza de La Ciénaga. In 1727 plans to build a church, convent and collegium were approved and began to take form. The situation was less than ideal considering its location but construction took form nonetheless.
The construction of the cathedral was started by the Jesuit order in 1748 on the site of an earlier church and finished many years later in 1777, well after King Carlos III expelled the same Jesuits from the island in 1767. The cathedral is also dedicated to Saint Christopher (San Cristóbal), thus it is sometimes called the Cathedral of Saint Christopher.
Legend has it that the remains of Christopher Columbus once resided within the cathedral. In 1796, after the Peace of Basel was signed and Spain gave up most of its colony of Hispaniola to France, the remains of Christopher Columbus were moved and laid to rest in the cathedral's Altar of the Gospel. The gravestone read "Oh Remains and Image of Great Columbus, Be Preserved One Thousand Years in the Funerary Urn." The remains were moved once more in 1898 back to Spain after the Cuban War of Independence.
The cathedral went through a final renovation from 1946 to 1949. Cuban architect, Cristobal Martinez Marquez headed this project and through complex architectural procedures achieved in giving the church a more open and grandiose space which let in more light and improved its ventilation system. The cathedral currently serves as the seat of Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, the Cardinal Archbishop of Havana, Cuba.
Artworks within the cathedral
Within the cathedral walls there are many paintings and frescoes. Most of these paintings and frescoes are copies of original works that can be found in cathedrals around Rome and within several museums across the world. Walking around the side chapels and altars of the cathedral, one can be find several paintings by Peter Paul Rubens and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, both of which are Baroque artists.
Above the main and relatively austere altar, three fading frescoes can be found by Italian artist Giuseppe Perovani. This neoclassical artist was commissioned by Bishop Juan José Díaz de Espada y Fernánez de Landa to paint these three fresco scenes: The Delivery of the Keys, The Last Supper and The Ascension. This change between Baroque and neoclassical art styles is what makes the cathedral so unique.
A huge statue of St. Christopher, the name sake of the cathedral, can be found to the immediate right of the main altar. This statue was made by Spanish artist Martín de Andújar Cantos and brings in flocks of tourists and pilgrims alike.
There are several artistic styles that can be identified through the church's architecture, sculptures, paintings and frescoes. Due to its historical and cultural significance, UNESCO made La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana and Old Havana World Heritage Sites in 1982.
The Cathedral at Havana in 1762 during the British occupation by Dominic Serres
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- Havana puts on New Face for Pope by Phillip True, Express News, January 21, 1998
- Old Havana Restoring Hidden Treasured Murals by Vanessa Bauza, SunSentinel, April 11, 2004
- Panoramic Virtual Tour in Cathedral Square
- "San Cristóbal Cathedral" picture gallery at Remains.se
- Catedral de San Cristobal