The San Ildefonso College is a museum and cultural centre in Mexico City, considered to be the birthplace of the Mexican muralism movement. The museum has permanent and temporary art and archaeological exhibitions in addition to the many murals painted on its walls by José Clemente Orozco, Fernando Leal, Diego Rivera and others.
San Ildefonso began as a prestigious Jesuit boarding school, and after the Reform War, it gained educational prestige again as National Preparatory School. This school and the building closed completely in 1978, and then reopened as a museum and cultural centre in 1994.
The complex is located between San Ildefonso Street and Justo Sierra Street in the historic centre of Mexico City. The museum hosts temporary art and archaeological exhibits focusing on both Mexican and foreign cultures.
It is also an active participant in the effort to revitalize the historic centre of Mexico City, offering space for cultural and business events, using the money earned to support its public cultural functions. There is also a gift shop in the patio of the Colegio Grande that offers handcrafted jewellery, ceramics and textiles as well as publications relating to temporary and permanent exhibitions at the museum.
The history of this place dates back to the second half of the 16th century when the Jesuit order appeared here. Almost 200 years later they were expelled, but San Ildefonso remained an educational institution until the end of the 1970s. The last twenty years saw the place become the cultural centre of the city.
The Jesuits arrived in Mexico in 1572. They founded numerous colleges both in Mexico City and in the outlying provinces, but the most important of these was San Ildefonso, founded in 1588.
Although administered by friars, the education here was not solely dedicated to religious matters. San Ildefonso was not a college in the modern sense of the word, but rather more like a boarding house and school. In the early 18th century, student population at the school grew so much that a need to expand the building arose. Work was begun in 1712 and completed in 1749.
In the 18th century the school was one of the most important educational institutions in Mexico City, along with the University. However, the Jesuits were expelled from all Spanish lands, including Mexico, by Charles III in 1767. The management of the school was then given to non-monastic clergy, and the school declined.
The building was also used for other purposes, such as accommodating soldiers from the Spanish Army, being a temporary site of the Jurisprudence School and housing several departments of the School of Medicine. During the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the French intervention (1861-1867), American and French troops used this building as barracks.
San Ildefonso was converted into the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, or National Preparatory School, in 1868. The initial purpose of the school was to provide the nucleus of students for the soon-to-be-reconstructed Universidad Nacional (National University), later National Autonomous University of Mexico, which was re-established in 1910.
In the 1920s, soon after the Mexican Revolution, the government sponsored mural paintings with themes focusing on Mexico’s history and politics of the post-Revolution era. San Ildefonso was one of the very first public buildings to be painted this way. Painters who contributed mural work include Ramón Alva de la Canal, Fermin Revueltas, Fernando Leal, José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jean Charlot.
In 1929, the Preparatory School became part of the newly-independent university system, being designated as Preparatory #1 for a short time. As part of the student revolts of 1968, some students hid inside the building, which resulted in an occupation from the Mexican Army, who entered the building by shooting a bazooka round on its 18th-century front door. Its name was soon changed back to Escuela Nacional Preparatoria and remained so until 1978, when it closed completely.
In 1992, the building was renovated for an exposition called “Splendours of 30 centuries”. Two years later, the complex was opened permanently as a cultural centre and museum administered jointly by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, National Council for Culture and Arts and the government of the Federal District of Mexico City.
Although it no longer provides access inside the complex, the large façade that runs along almost the entire length of San Ildefonso Street is the original one, with a wide pedestrian zone between it and the street. The building is also covered with murals, which began to appear in 1920s.
The façade is covered in tezontle, a blood-red porous volcanic stone, with windows and doors arranged unevenly and pilasters dividing the façade horizontally. These windows and doors are framed with jambs and lintels in cantera, a greyish-white stone. Vertical pilasters made of chiluca, another kind of white stone, divide the façade, which has two levels, with the lower one being larger. Most of the façade belongs to the Colegio Grande, or the original section of the College.
There are two extremely large portals done in cantera. On the far left of the pedestrian zone is the stone portal of the Colegio Chico. This is the oldest intact section of façade, and it is adorned with estipite pilasters. Either they or the estipite designs on the Kings Altar of the Cathedral are the first uses of this design in New Spain. This portal has a relief named “La imposición de la casulla a san Ildefonso” (Putting on the chasuble on Saint Ildefonso of Toledo) and opens to a hall that leads to the largest patio.
The portal leading to the Colegio Chico has a relief called “Saint Joseph as patron of the Jesuits” as well as one called “Virgen del Rosario”, both done in tecali. This portal opens to a hall that leads to a smaller patio.
Colegio Grande or Large College is the largest and the original portion of the complex. It consists of one large patio, surrounded on all four sides by simple rounded arches, hallways and rooms and one smaller patio called the “Patio de los Pasantes.” That part of the school has three floors with a monumental staircase and contains the majority of the murals of San Ildefonso, most of which were done by José Clemente Orozco between 1922 and 1927. The staircase connecting the three floors has Orozco’s mural “The Origin of Spanish America,” but the upper portion of the staircase contains works by other artists.
The southern wall of the stairway leading to the third floor is occupied by a mural by French artist Jean Charlot entitled “The Conquest of Tenochtitlan.” This work covers an aspect of Aztec history for the first time and is also noted for the use of metallic encrustations on the necklaces worn by Aztec lords. The northern wall contains a piece called “The Festivities of the Lord of Chalma” by Fernando Leal. The work is recognised for its use of bright colour on the dancers and is considered a notable example of neo-Baroque style.