As one of the historical five main art forms, architecture in modern times has been occupying a more practical function, compared to that of other art forms that focus mostly on their aesthetic values. However, in most cases this demarcation becomes subtle to the point of not being apparent anymore, when stately works of architecture are involved, particularly when they have a historical nature.
Such is the case with cathedrals – imposing man-made structures that carry a wealth of history, culture, and religiosity. San Juan Cathedral in Puerto Rico is a prime example of a work of art that skillfully merges beauty and utility in one.
This review of San Juan Cathedral pays homage to the First Church of Puerto Rico. A major historical landmark, a cultural icon, and a paramount tourist destination.
More Than Just the Fountain of Youth
There are those who associate the name of Spanish explorer and conquistador Juan Ponce de León with the legendary Fountain of Youth. However, to the inhabitants of the Borinquens (or Borikens, the ancient name for the island of Puerto Rico, from the indigenous Taíno Indian culture), Ponce de León was more than just an explorer who wanted to renew his youth and stay young forever.
Ponce de León has a tomb in the San Juan Cathedral, which is highly appropriate, since he was the first governor of what eventually became Puerto Rico.
Pio and Charlie
Another historical figure whose mummified remains can be found in the Cathedral is Santo Pio or Saint Pius (not to be confused with Padre Pio), a soldier who became one of the first Roman persecution martyrs.
The San Juan Cathedral also holds the relics of Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Santiago – more popularly known as Beato Charlie or just Charlie – the first beatified Puerto Rican. Pope John Paul II beatified Charlie in 2001. In the Roman Catholic Church, beatification is a special declaration that a dead person is in a state of bliss, and on the way to being canonized as a saint.
Stained Glass and Hurricanes
If gazing at reliquaries or human remains and ruminating about life and death is not your thing, there are other items of interest in the architecture of the San Juan Cathedral. For one thing, it is always pure joy to look at the stained glass windows of the cathedral. Of the many elements and principles of design that are found in great works of art, stained glass windows are among those which manage to effortlessly combine them all.
It is almost poetic, the way the sunlight streams gently through the stained glass, heightening the sense of spirituality and union with a Higher Being that pervades the church.
The Cathedral has come a long way from its humble origins when it was constructed sometime in the 1520s, with wooden walls and thatched roofing. Two hurricanes destroyed it – one in 1529 and another in 1615 – but each time, it was made stronger, eventually using more durable materials such as marble for rebuilding it.
The strong sense of awe that can be felt inside and outside the Cathedral is perhaps attributable in part to its high domed ceilings and size. However, the spiritual side also has a lot to do with the deep marvel that is often felt by visitors, as they look at the almost life-like statues of saints inside, and ponder about lives that have been dedicated to God.
If you liked this review of San Juan Cathedral, you’ll enjoy more when you actually visit the place.