An eighteenth-century historian compared the vestiges of San Cristóbal, an early sixteenth-century chapel on a hillside in Puebla, to the Areopagus of Athens: “a circle of seats in the open air.” In 1591, San Cristóbal was known as an iglesia catedral, a teaching chapel. These descriptive terms provide insight into the earliest structures built by the Franciscans to provide Christian education. They derived their form from classical, mudéjar, and Mesoamerican architectural models. The influence of the Italian Renaissance on pedagogy in Spain and the emphasis on the power of rhetoric also had a profound effect on the chapel builders. The iglesia catedral, configured to amplify the spoken word in the open air, later became a stage for the Mass and for dramatic performances. This paper investigates the innovations that developed around this teaching theater that were then incorporated into monastery complexes throughout Mesoamerica.
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