By: Liborio País
In earlier editions of this blog, we recreated the past of the Havana Cathedral Plaza and of the buildings surrounding it, but did not made particular reference to the history of the building that denominates the Plaza, located in the historical center of Havana: the Main Parish of Havana.
In due time, we narrated how the Jesuits Order wanted to establish their religious services at the Plaza already at the beginning of the 18th Century, and how their requests to the City Attorney General were denied. Later, owing to the fact that the Havana Bishop Diego Evelino de Compostela had bought a piece of land next to the Plaza, it was possible to build the first and very plain chapel that started to provide assistance and liturgy in the place, under the sponsorship of the Jesuits Order. It was not until 1748 that the construction of a real edifice, that according to the plans of the order would house a school, a convent and a church, was begun. In 1767 at least the school had been completed, but the purposes of the Order were not met since the Jesuists were expelled from the island by the Spanish monarch Charles III. In 1777 the Havana Clergy made good use of the building just as the Jesuits left it in order to establish the Main Parish of the City. Not until 1788 did the construction works to fully transform the property from a Jesuit school into a church proper begin, under the command of Bishop Jose de Trespalacios. The former Jesuit school was turned into what would later be the famous Seminary of San Carlos and San Ambrosio.
During the prelacy of Bishop Espada (1802-1832) important reforms in the building were undertaken in order to eliminate whatever was considered lacking style or good taste in ornaments, altars and statues of saints and to replace them by copies of Rubens, Murillo and other great masters. The copies were made by French painter Vermay, who lived for a long time in Havana, and his disciples. As he was painting one of the fresco paintings that can be seen up the church’s main altar, Vermay, who would eventually found San Alejandro Academy, is supposed to have fallen from his scaffold and fractured several bones, so that he had to take a prolonged leave of absence. When he came back, the painter had to settle for overseeing his apprentices’ painting, since the condition of his legs prevented him from personally continuing the work.
The temple is shaped as a thirty-four-by-thirty-five-meter rectangle, interiorly separated by heavy pillars into three naves and eight lateral oratories. The floor is made of black and white marble tiles. Among its chapels, the very old Santa Maria del Loreto stands out, consecrated by Bishop Morell de Santa Cruz in 1755; that is to say, long before the transformation of the Jesuits chapel into a cathedral.
The Catedral went through a process of complete transformation or, more properly, renovation, by architect Cristobal Martinez Marquez in the years 1946 to 1949. It was an initiative of Manuel Arteaga Betancourt, the cardinal-archbishop of the City of Havana. For this project, the Island’s republican government supplied 250 000 pesos.
The reconstruction was a complete success since thanks to it the temple gained a lot in terms of light, ventilation, safety, beauty and above all, grandiosity.
Many famous writers, art critics and acknowledged architects have talked about the building and its features, praising the beauty of the building that hosts the Havana Cathedral.
Writer Alejo Carpentier used to say that the Cathedral’s facade was “music turned into stone”. Another literary man, Lezama Lima, stated that that front and its projections resembled sea waves.
Emilio Roig de Leushering, a former Historian of the City of Havana believed that the Cathedral, the San Francisco de Asis Convent, the Paula Church, La Merced Church and also the Church of the Angel were the temples of the colonial period that most deserved to be preserved in the Havana of all times, as representative landmarks. In his opinion, the Cathedral was privileged to find itself in the midst of the most interesting and typically colonial environment of the plaza where it is located and of the classically Havanan edifices surrounding it, which seem to be doing permanent guard duty to honor the old temple. Architect Joaquin Weiss expresses his view about the Cathedral:
“Stylistically speaking, the Cathedral building goes far beyond any other monument of the Havanan sober baroque: the concavity of its façade walls, its angular columns, the degree to which the inscription and intersection of architectural elements and the contortional quality of its lines, place it side by side to the most radical works of the baroque school. Not only does the Havana Cathedral do great credit to the plaza presently named after it, without the Cathedral the Plaza would not have much of its venerable personality.
Another important aspect of the history of the Plaza is whether Christopher Columbus’s remains ever lay in the Cathedral at a certain time. The saying goes that in 1796, after the so-called Basilea Peace at a time when Spain ceded its Santo Domingo colony to France, Admiral Christopher Columbus’s remains, formerly resting in the neighboring island, were lain in the Havana Cathedral. Next to the Altar of the Gospel, the gravestone above the remains read: “Oh Remains and Image of Great Columbus, Be Preserved One Thousand Years in the Funerary Urn”. In 1892 the ashes were transferred to a funerary monument made by Spanish sculptor Antonio Melida, put in the central nave of the temple and kept there until they were taken to Spain in 1898, at the end of Spanish rule over Cuba.
Were those the true remains of the Oceanic Sea Admiral? For many, the presence of Columbus’s dead body in Cuba is one of the mysteries of our history.
Columbus died in Valladolid on May the 20th, 1506. He was buried in the San Juan de la Cerda Chapel. It was a temporary burial since his remains were transferred to the Monastery of Las Cuevas, Seville, in 1509. This would not be the permanent place either: between 1537 and 1559 the Admiral’s remains were taken to Santo Domingo to rest next to his son Diego’s and his brother Bartolome’s. From there, as was seen before, were sent to Havana an eventually Spain.
This beautiful story was changed in 1877 when Monsignor Roque Cocchia, Papal Envoy to Santo Domingo, declared that he had found the Admiral’s grave in the Dominican Cathedral. According to Cocchia, Columbus remains never left the place. In his version, his son’s were the ones sent to Havana, either by mistake or by the deliberate action of the Dominican fathers that guarded the Cathedral at the time when the move was decided, in their concern to preserve the precious remains. Of these, some are in Venezuela and in the cities of Genoa and Pavia at present.
Some believe that Monsignor Cocchia’s disclosure is completely unreliable. For them, Columbus’ remains are the ones who used to be in Havana and now rest in Seville. Others are of the opinion that the true ashes never left Valladolid, still others maintain that they are in the Seville monastery Las Cuevas. There are those who place them in Puerto Rico or in the most unthinkable places. Italian Paolo Emilio Taviani, considered an utmost authority on the subject of the Admiral’s life, believes that Columbus’s remains are the ones in Santo Domingo.
The Great Admiral’s figure has always generated countless controversies. His death, as well as his birth, still stimulates mythology and fable. The Havana Cathedral, for the time being, still prevails in some of the theories about this question all over the world.