True Civitas Needs the Spiritual: Santa María Reina de la Familia

by Richard Sammons, appearing in Volume 44

Santa María Reina de la Familia in Ciudad Cayalá, Guatemala, was completed in 2022.

A newly built city in Guatemala near the capital, Ciudad Cayalá, has miraculously arisen over the past decade, primarily due to the efforts of a trio of architects, Maria Sánchez and Pedro Godoy, with their mentor Léon Krier. With herculean determination, cajoling, persuasion, and judicious compromise, they have accomplished what few others have, creating a city for today’s age that is pure yet full of character, picturesque yet monumental.

The project begs comparison with the new town of Poundbury in England, designed by Léon Krier almost thirty years ago. While Poundbury shows its growing pains and missteps, which are sorely evident yet remain to memorialize this learning process,with Ciudad Cayalá, its faults could only be called grammatical. Whereas Poundbury struggles to find its feet in regard to style and scale, looking a bit like a free-for-all, Ciudad Cayalá seems a mature work. The scale is Roman and the style is assertively classical, but it seems entirely at ease with its modern construction techniques and contemporary uses.

At the center of the city is the church of Santa María Reina de la Familia. The church was intentionally sited so that it is always in view. Its presence reassures us that this development is not merely a commercial exercise to sell real estate. The developer surely would have preferred to have at the town center something that could be monetized, but our trio insisted on the church, against a myriad of expert opinions, knowing that if a place is to have a soul, it must focus on the spiritual, not merely tolerate it. Ciudad Cayalá is more than “live-dine-shop,” the ubiquitous mantra of developers pandering to new urbanists’ ideas without the civitas or urbanity. Cayalá aims for true civility, not merely selling “community” or lifestyle (though it achieves both).

Architecturally, the church is a Latin cross plan surmounted by a low dome with a free-standing campanile linked to the church by a colonnade.

A smaller chapel behind the main church was built first and used for Mass while the church was being constructed. This smaller structure served as a test run and is a domed Greek cross which complements the later construction. There was originally a smaller campanile, which proved undersized for the complete composition and was replaced by the current one due to the lobbying of the citizenry. The dome can be seen in relationship to the nearby Pacaya Volcano—much as the hills around Florence, Italy, echoed the dome of the Duomo di Firenze.

A smaller domed Greek cross chapel is located behind the main church and was the first structure built on the site.

The spirit is Baroque and yet it remains simple and austere. It employs the same basic style as the rest of the town, with white stucco and bush-hammered concrete that is almost indistinguishable from stone. The stucco is top coated with a cementitious sealer and broomed with horizontal strokes, which pick up the light, giving the surface a crystalline glimmer of a white-washed Greek village. The secular buildings are roofed in clay tile, with the church being the only building tiled in blue.

The church of Santa María Reina de la Familia sits so naturally that it looks like it has always been there. Though convincingly authentic and regional, it could not have been built in colonial times; there are far too many hints that the architect was selecting and adapting from a more extensive palette of forms. The façade is based on a familiar triumphal arch motif, introduced by Alberti at San Francesco in Rimini and later at the Basilica of Sant’Andrea in Mantua. Above the side arches are aedicula. Breaking the typical scaenae frons, these aedicular motifs wrap around to the side, breaking the billboard-like frontality of the Baroque façade.

The axes of the main church, the chapel, and the campanile are all set at different angles, addressing different approaches from the streets, which flow into the non-orthogonal plaza. Here Krier’s influence is evident, as well as Camillo Sitte, who eschewed dogged symmetry.

Upon entry, the church’s interior speaks of economy, yet it is not unlike other churches before they receive the  familiar accretions, with their color and ornamentation marking the presence and passing of generations of the faithful. The side chapels and monuments will come later.

Interior of Santa María Reina de la Familia
View toward the choir loft

The walls are adorned only with the Stations of the Cross, and the front is graced by a fine altarpiece. Both were painted by Andalusian artist Raúl Berzosa.  The paintings are realist, but in a Pre-Raphaelite way, and are obviously contemporary, not forced stylistically.

Reredos with paintings of the Crucifixion, Holy Family, Saint John Paul II, Saint Josemaria Escrivá, and the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The composition of the well-carved and gilt wooden altarpiece resonates with the triumphal arch motif of the façade. Six images grace its surface: two on the left, two in the middle, and two on the right. Depicted on the lower left is the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia) with Christ, at bar mitzvah age, in a white tunic and red sash. Joseph looks as if he just uncovered his head. This image is paired, opposite on the lower right, with a scene of Christ toiling in his father’s workshop. He carries a piece of lumber over his shoulder. A rack on the wall contributes the horizontal element of the cross—a visual foreshadowing of the central scene of Christ on the cross.

Above this central image of the crucifixion is the Coronation of the Virgin. To its left, on the upper left above the Holy Family, is an image of Saint John Paul II; to its right, on the upper right above the image of young Jesus in the carpenter shop, is an image of Saint Josemaria Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei who was canonized by Saint John Paul II. The altar is adorned with an eighteenth-century silver relief depicting the archangels.

Floorplan of Santa María Reina de la Familia

Even in Catholic Latin America, it is rare that such an ambitious church would be built today. Its capacity of 700 is often surpassed on any given Sunday, making it the center of the community spiritually, culturally, and societally. With humility, I must applaud Maria and Pedro for creating this beautiful building, the symbolic heart of the city. They have built something beautiful, a monumental work that will be beloved by generations to come.