La Merced and Galería Nacional de Arte
One block south of the square is a large building that houses both La Iglesia de La Merced and the Galería Nacional de Arte. Originally a convent built in 1654 by the Order of Our Lady of Mercy (merced), the property was seized by the Honduran government in 1829, when a secularization of convents was declared, and converted into a university. Over the next century and a half the building saw various incarnations, including as a barracks and as a cockfight arena. The building became an art museum in 1985 and has housed the National Gallery of Art since 1994.
La Iglesia de La Merced features a beautiful gilded altarpiece flanked by two smaller retablos. The Galería Nacional de Arte (Plaza La Merced, tel. 504/237-9884, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Sun., US$1.30 admission) is a small but fine art museum, perhaps one of the best in Central America. A printed guide in English is available to borrow during your visit.
The gallery traces the evolution of Honduran art, beginning downstairs with rooms dedicated to prehistoric pictographs and petroglyphs, stone and ceramic art from the Mayan era, and a stunning collection of colonial paintings, sculptures, and gold and silver religious art. The pieces were all chosen for their visual beauty as much as (if not more than) for their historical importance.
Be sure not to miss the three works by José Miguel Gómez, considered the most important Honduran painter of the colonial era. Upstairs, several rooms contain paintings from classic Honduran artists Pablo Zelaya Sierra, Carlos Zuñiga Figueroa, and José Antonio Velásquez, as well as lesser-known painters and sculptors, such as Virgilio Guardiola and Aníbal Cruz.
For such a small, economically deprived country, Honduras has produced an unusual number of fine visual artists, and the museum is an excellent tour of the country’s artistic history. The artwork is laid out tastefully and with good lighting, and the historical progression allows visitors to appreciate the development of Honduran art. Art aficionados should not miss this museum.
Next to the church and art gallery is the Palacio Legislativo, or National Congress. It’s known laconically by locals as El Sapo (The Frog) because the bizarre architecture makes it seem as though the building is about to hop away.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition