Monasteries on the slopes of Popocatépetl

From New World Encyclopedia
Earliest 16th century monasteries on the slopes of Popocatépetl*
UNESCO World Heritage Site

Facade of the church of the Dominican convent of Tepoztlan.
State Party Flag of Mexico Mexico
Type Cultural
Criteria ii, iv
Reference 702
Region** Latin America and the Caribbean
Inscription history
Inscription 1994  (18th Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.

The World Heritage Site known as the Monasteries on the slopes of Popocatépetl consists of fourteen monasteries built on or near the Popocatépetl volcano in central Mexico in the sixteenth century by members of the Franciscan, Dominican and Augustinian orders. They were a major factor in the Christianization of a large population over a vast territory and in a short period of time. These 14 monasteries cover over 150 miles (242 kilometers) of land southeast of Mexico City; 11 in the state of Morelos and three in Puebla state.

In 1994 UNESCO designated these fourteen monasteries, part of a much larger total, as World Heritage Sites. UNESCO’s justification for nomination included both their architectural and historical significance. In addition to being the earliest of the monasteries constructed, their designs are distinctive in the relationship formed between the wide open spaces of an atrium setting, the individual buildings, and the open chapels.

Today's Mexican culture is an intricate mix of indigenous and Spanish elements, evidenced in its music, cuisine, language, dance and religion. The Catholic religion brought by the missionaries is practiced by 89 percent of the country's population. These monasteries played a significant role in the shaping of modern-day Mexico. As such, they are historical treasures. As part of the World Heritage Site program, they will be preserved and this legacy will be passed on to future generations.


The south side of Popocatépetl, as viewed from Paso de Cortez.
Monasteries on the slopes of Popocatépetl are located in the states of Morelas (#16) and Puebla (#20), south and southeast of the grey area representing Mexico City.

The slopes of Popocatépetl hold numerous monasteries constructed by missionaries in the sixteenth century. First Franciscans, then Dominicans and Augustinians were sent to the New World to convert the indigenous populations to Christianity. A number of these monasteries remain in excellent condition. They exhibit the architectural style adopted by the first missionaries, representing a style of open spaces, which has carried on throughout the Mexican territory.[1]


Popocatépetl (commonly referred to as Popo, El Popo or Don Goyo) is an active volcano and the second highest peak in Mexico after the Pico de Orizaba (5,636 m). Its name originates from the Nahuatl words popōca (it smokes) and tepētl (mountain), meaning Smoking Mountain. It is linked to the Iztaccíhuatl volcano to the north by the high saddle known as the Paso de Cortés, and lies in the eastern half of the Trans-Mexican volcanic belt. Popocatépetl, in south central Mexico, is in Puebla State only 44 miles (70 km) to the southeast of Mexico City.

Nominating criteria

In October 1993, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites nominating committee listed fourteen monasteries on the slopes of Popocatépetl for designation as World Heritage Sites. UNESCO’s justification for nomination included both the architectural and historical significance of these sites. The monasteries selected for inclusion are considered representative of a much larger total. Built in the sixteenth century, they are distinctive in the relationship formed between the wide open spaces of an atrium setting, the individual buildings, and the open chapels.

The theory of this design was based upon the purpose of the monasteries. Meant to convert large populations spread over a large territory to Christianity in a short period of time, they offered the settings for religious practice in the midst of an "urban" setting of individual dwelling places.[2]

Historical use of the monasteries

At the time of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, this area was occupied by two provinces of the Aztec Empire. Several bloody battles that occurred during the siege of Mexico-Tenochtitlan by Cortes took place here in 1521.

In 1523 the first group of 12 Franciscans arrived, followed by the Dominicans in 1526 and the Augustinians in 1533. Their initial missions were established in Mexico City, but they soon moved into the mountain range in order to live among the Indians. They established monasteries as focal points for urban settlements. The monastery at Cuernavaca, an important city of the time, became a cathedral.

The three religious orders each established their own sphere of influence in different locations, though travel routes between them were also established. By the end of the sixteenth century, over three hundred monasteries had been built.

Following the Council of Trent in 1567, the role of the missionary orders was greatly reduced, allowing for the regular clergy to take over the monasteries. Many were converted to parish churches at that time.[2]

Basis of selection by UNESCO

Entrance to the Franciscan convent of Huejotzingo.

Though many of the original monasteries of Popocatépetl remain intact, fourteen of them were chosen to be included in this World Heritage Site based upon what is viewed as their representative character. They are also among those first constructed, and conform to the architectural model which spread throughout the region. There exist a significant number of later-period monasteries, also in excellent condition, that are not included with this earlier grouping.


There were three principal elements to each monastery: the atrium, the church, and the monastic buildings. Generally, the atrium walls were built first, followed by the smaller vaulted chapels. Then came the processional pathways, open chapels and central cross. Stations of the Cross were incorporated into some of the communities, though not all of them. Water management features were built, including aqueducts, fountains, cisterns, and other features.

Many of the churches were simple, yet were the central, dominant features of the settlements. Most consisted of a nave, buttresses and chancels. Some contained baptismal fonts or other specialized structures.

The monastic buildings, for the most part, were located to the south of the church structures. A courtyard or central patio was selected as an open space around which these buildings were built. Some of the monasteries contained an internal corridor parallel to the cloister pathway, housing confessionals.

Generally rooms on the ground floor included those designed for prayer, meetings, kitchens, office, and sacristy. Upper stories contained libraries and lodgings.

An important part of these monasteries was the use of mural paintings. The paintings at Tetela, Atlatlauhcan, Cuernabaca and Heufotzingo hold special interest.[2]

Individual monasteries

Original frescoes on the walls of Tepoztlán's Dominican convent.
Window in a room of the Tepoztlán's convent.
Tower of the cathedral of Cuernavaca.

Dominican convent of Tepoztlán

Tepoztlán is a picturesque town located in the state of Morelos. It was occupied by Spain in 1521, with the Dominicans arriving soon thereafter.

The old Dominican convent has been converted to a museum. This fortress-like structure was built between 1559 and 1580, and dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. The church was completed in 1588. The original frescoes on the walls of the church remain, depicting scenes important to Catholicism.

The facade of the church was built in plateresque style and has, on both sides, buttresses that support the towers. These needed to be reconstructed following earthquake damage that occurred in 1839.

Symbols above the door include sculptures representing the Virgin Mary holding the Infant Jesus, flanked on either side by two saints, Saint Dominic and Saint Catherine of Siena, finally there are two angels holding a screen on which it is believed there was once an inscription.

The interior of the church includes one nave leading to an apse, which contains a diagonally ribbed Gothic vault. Following the church is a two-story monastic building. Community rooms are on the upper floor, while cloister cells encircle an open arcade. A carved cross dating from the sixteenth century is found to the right of the church.

Franciscan convent and cathedral of Cuernavaca

Cuernavaca is the capital of the state of Morelos. The construction on its cathedral began in 1533 to serve as a shrine to the adjacent Franciscan convent. There is an open chapel with vaults with gothic ribs built between 1536 and 1538 next to the cathedral. It is still possible to see pieces of mural paintings from the sixteenth century in the cloister of the convent. The chapel of the Third Order whose facade was built in baroque style and which has a beautiful altarpiece made of carved wood is located in the atrium.

Augustinian convent of Atlatlauhcan

Atlatlauhcan is a town in the state of Morelos where an Augustinian convent was built between 1570 and 1600. The church is preceded by a large atrium with two small chapels; the facade of the temple has a bell gable above. There is an open chapel to the left, behind which a high tower was constructed. It has a portico that leads to the cloister whose vaults are decorated with hexagonal coffering that are painted with frescoes.

Augustinian and Franciscan convent of Yecapixtla

Side view of the convent of Yecapixtla.

Yecapixtla is a municipality in the state of Morelos. The Franciscans came in 1525 and built a modest chapel which was later replaced with the imposing convent-fortress whose construction was led by the Augustinian Jorge de Ávila. The church is preceded by an atrium in which there are chapels.

The facade of the church is sober and beautiful; the decoration includes cherubim and floral motifs. It has a gothic rose window above the plateresque facade which is surrounded by well-carved mouldings. Below the small pediment that crowns the facade there is a symbol that resembles the five wounds Saint Francis of Assisi received and that represent those Christ suffered during the Crucifixion; another symbol that shows arrows through a heart lies to the left which represents the Augustinian Order. The church has a stone carved pulpit that dates from the sixteenth century and a gothic cupola with ribs. The cloister has vigorous columns that support the arches.

Franciscan convent of Huejotzingo

Religious painting on the wall within the Franciscan convent of Huejotzingo.
The refectory at Huejotzingo.

Huejotzingo belongs to the state of Puebla and is 2,100 meters above sea level, where one of the most beautiful Franciscan convents is located. The colonial city began to grow in 1529 around the convent whose construction probably began in the same year and was completed around 1570.

The convent has an atrium in whose center is a carved cross. Small oratories whose facades bear a carved coat of arms and sculptures can be found on the corners of the atrium.

The church of the convent resembles a fortress due to its height, and has a sober facade. It has only one nave with a beautiful vault with gothic ribs, especially below the quire and on the apse. In the background sits a large altarpiece built in plateresque style and decorated with sculptures and paintings made by the Flemish artist Simon Pereyns, who came to Mexico (where he died) to serve the third viceroy of New Spain, Gaston de Peralta. Fragments of mural paintings can be seen on one of the walls (in gray tones that imitate the relief of sculptures). The wall where the door of the sacristy lies is decorated with mudejar symbols. The pulpit and the seventeenth-century organ are also remarkable.

The entrance to the convent has a facade with two arches which lead to the hall, to the chapel of the Trinity and to the cloister, characterized by its two superimposed galleries; the lower one has remnants of mural paintings, among them an image of the Immaculate Conception. The refectory, kitchen, sacristy, and rooms are located around the cloister. Some rooms contain their original wall decorations.

Facade of the convent of Calpan.

Franciscan convent of Calpan

The Franciscan convent of Calpan, in the state of Puebla, was founded in 1548. A triple arcade leads to the atrium. The sober facade of the church is decorated with sculptures, some of them represent maguey flowers. The atrium has four chapels that served as small oratories. They have floral and geometric designs on their walls and bas-reliefs resembling the Annunciation, the Last Judgement, and monograms, among other depictions. A seventeenth century fountain was reconstructed in the atrium following recovery of its fragments which were scattered throughout the city.

Franciscan convent of Tochimilco

Tochimilco is located in the state of Puebla. A sixteenth century Franciscan convent was built there. The church shows a Renaissance facade. The portico lies to the right of the facade and leads to the cloister with arcades.


  1. UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Earliest 16th-Century Monasteries on the Slopes of Popocatepetl Retrieved May 12, 2008.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Mexican Monasteries Retrieved June 3, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Heindorffhus. Earliest 16th-Century Monasteries on the Slopes of Popocatepetl.
  • López Aldana, Carlos. 1950. Mexico's famous archaeological relics: a map of the principal archaeological ruins of Mexico: the Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl volcanos legend. Mexico City: The Author. OCL 2520820
  • Mexican Tourism Board. Earliest 16th-Century Monasteries On The Slopes Of Popocatépetl.
  • Mexico cultural and natural heritage of mankind. 1998. Mexico: CONACULTA-INAH. OCLC 51636224
  • Taylor, Julia. October 1, 2007. The Pre-Hispanic, the Colonial, the Royal Roads of Morelos and Puebla Retrieved June 21, 2008.
  • World Heritage Popocatepetl monasteries Retrieved May 11, 2008.

External links

All links retrieved November 9, 2022.

Coordinates: 17.4833° N 92.0497° W


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.