Jerónimo de Balbás, Altar of the Kings (Altar de los Reyes)

Jerónimo de Balbás, Altar of the Kings (Altar de los Reyes), 1718-37, Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary (Mexico City)


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the main cathedral of Mexico City, the largest cathedral in the Americas. We’ve walked all the way down the side aisle, to the very back of the church, and we are presented with the most opulent architecture that I have ever seen.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:19] What we’re looking at is what’s called the Altar of the Kings. There was nothing like it until its creation.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] This would set a precedent for architecture across Mexico.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:28] It’s begun in 1718, but it’s not finished until 1737, and that’s in part because of its enormous size and the numerous people who had to work on this altarpiece.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] The woodworking alone took seven years, and then it took a dozen years to gild it all.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:44] It’s orchestrated and designed by the artist Jerónimo de Balbás, who comes from Spain. He’s from Sevilla, or Seville. He’s thought to have been either working in the circle of the Churriguera family or to have at least been familiar with his architecture, which is a really sumptuous architecture dominated by what’s called an estípite column.

Dr. Zucker: [1:06] We’re in an artistic era which we call the Baroque, and magnificent sumptuous religious structures are being built throughout Catholic Europe.

[1:13] One of the dominant forms of architecture at this time [is] what is known as the Solomonic column, which is a spiral column, probably most famously seen in Saint Peter’s in the Vatican.

[1:23] But the estípite is a very different kind of form. It is rectilinear, but it is just as dynamic as the Solomonic.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:31] The use of the estípite column is important here. What it approximates is the ideal male body, where you get the sense of the neck, the broad shoulders, and then tapering to the feet. It also looks like an inverted obelisk.

Dr. Zucker: [1:45] Unlike a traditional Greek column, which tends to be wider at the bottom and to taper upward, this tapers downward. The result is complex and fascinating. You have placed the mass — that is, the heaviest part of the column — upward, so there is this inherent instability.

[2:01] What a perfect way of understanding the Baroque interest in dynamism, because when we look at the Altar of the Kings, it seems as if it is absolutely in motion, undulating, shifting. It is this ideal representation of the Baroque.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:15] Of course, we have to imagine the candlelight flickering over the surfaces that are primarily gilded.

Dr. Zucker: [2:20] On a scale that is almost hard to comprehend.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:22] You don’t have clear-cut registers where you’re displaying sculpture and painting.

Dr. Zucker: [2:28] Instead, there’s this very sophisticated mix of painting, architecture, and sculpture. In fact, the architecture is gilded. The sculptures are painted. The paintings are completely framed by both the sculpture and the architecture. You really lose those kinds of clear distinctions.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:43] Even though at first glance it might seem that there isn’t any order here, there actually is.

Dr. Zucker: [2:48] It’s probably easiest to see the structure by focusing on the four largest columns. There are two columns that frame the paintings in the center and then two columns beyond those.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:59] If we’re starting at the bottom and we look horizontally, we see a row of women who are queens and princesses. If we go to the middle level, we see Christian kings, and then we see God the Father crowning the entire scene before us, and figures of the Holy Family.

Dr. Zucker: [3:16] The two largest paintings in the center, which today are fairly dark, represent at the bottom the Three Kings, and then the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, which is appropriate given the name of this church.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:26] If we look between these two estípite columns on either side, you see what’s called a niche pilaster. It’s basically a broken-up pilaster that has a niche with some of these fabulous sculptures of kings that are, again, all polychromed wood, painted wood.

[3:42] This pairing of the estípite column and the niche pilaster is something that you continue to see when this style is employed after this point.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] This was a major commission. It was supported by the crown and locally by the viceroy. It was meant to assert the authority of the king.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:58] I think it’s important to keep in mind that instead of using local artists, you have an immigrant artist from Spain.

Dr. Zucker: [4:05] To underscore that point, the contract forbade the use of estofado, the local style of gilding with stamping and carving.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:12] Instead, it stipulated sculptures in the Roman style, that are just polychromed wooden sculptures. What’s fascinating about this is even though Balbás, the designer of this altarpiece, did employ some local artists, there was this distancing of some of these local traditions.

Dr. Zucker: [4:31] This is, after all, the most privileged place within the most important church in Mexico, so it’s no surprise that the viceroy and the king are going to assert their power here.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:41] What’s wonderful about this is even though there is this alienation of some of the local population, particularly the creoles, or pure-blooded Spaniards born on American soil, after the completion of this altarpiece, it begins to influence architecture that is seen as expressing this new patriotism, or, let’s say, creole nationalism.

Dr. Zucker: [5:02] Which comes to be known as Ultra Baroque.

[5:04] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Jerónimo de Balbás, Altar of the Kings (Altar de los Reyes)," in Smarthistory, June 19, 2018, accessed July 15, 2024,