Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Las Iglesias

I have wanted to return to the Centro Historico for some time, to walk the cobbled streets, to visit the churches again, to enter the museums and buildings I have not had time to see, to get to know this most charming part of the city. Because it is so well preserved in the traditional colonial style, Quito was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.

Quito was a capital long before the Spaniards came, but the Incan monuments were razed to the ground by general Ruminahui, rather than allow the city to fall into the hands of the Spanish conquistadors. The Spaniards built their new capital on top of the ruins, so walking through the historical centre brings one back to the time of the Spanish empire. However, it was the local indigenous population that built the churches and painted the interiors and sculpted the magnificent altars, and the result was very much a synthesis of cultures, of the old and new world, of European and indigenous or mestizo.

The street of the seven crosses, for example, was pre-Hispanic, and connected the Incan Sun Temple which was located on the hill now called the Panecillo ( with the dancing Virgin of Quito on top) to the Temple of the Moon. It is said the seven crosses were built to appease the natives, to aid the transition from polytheistic beliefs of old to the religion of the Spaniards. The Spanish conquerers were determined to spread their beliefs throughout their new empire, and churches were built on every street in old Quito.

The churches appear hidden. On the outside, they are whitewashed and rarely reveal their treasures until one enters, often from an obscure side entrance. Once inside, one is struck by the brilliance of colour, and the astonishing use of gold on every surface. Styles are all over the place. In one church there can be Romanesque columns, Gothic arches, baroque altars, neoclassical chapels, 'Quiteno school' paintings and sculptures, Moorish ceilings as well as native motifs. Colonial Quito had its own style of art, which was different from Spain as well as neighbouring cities, such as Cuzco.

Paintings of religious themes initially look like any parallel European scene, until one looks closely and finds a llama in the manger with Mary, Joseph and Jesus, who have mestizo faces, and GuaGua and Rucu Pichincha in the background. Local artists had their own unique way of representing the stories in the bible. The churches may have been conceived and planned by the Spanish colonists, but the artists who created the buildings and the art were locals, and had their own visions and ways to tell their stories.

I made my way to the three churches I had visited with Maya; the Compania, the Sagraria and San Francisco, and then had my personal guided tour (in Spanish, for practice) in the cathedral with its museum. The doors to the cathedral are always closed, so I wondered if any of the public entered, and was told there is a daily mass early in the morning, when the main doors are open. I will have to wake up very early one morning to see that. I am interested in going to mass one Sunday, to see if there is anything unique and different in the service.

The centro historico is active and vital and alive. The streets are bustling with people and there are shops for all sorts of goods everywhere in the old town. The Ecovia goes directly from our house to San Marin, the end of the line, and the Plaza de la Independencia is a hike uphill from there. The busdriver in both directions today raced through the streets, slamming on brakes, swerving around corners, with the passengers hanging on for dear life and ploughing into one another. I felt battered and bruised when I got home, hoping that Ibuprofen would work for me, because I want to return to the centro tomorrow to visit more churches (there are so many, I will be at this project for some time).

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