Thursday, January 28, 2010

Santo Domingo

Plaza Santo Domingo

Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull after Columbus 'discovered' America giving responsibility of evangelizing the New World to Spain's Catholic Kings, which thus gained them the exclusive rights of discovery and conquest in America as a 'religious campaign'. The Fransiscans, Augustinians, Dominicans and Jesuits all played significant roles in christianizing the natives, and each order built churches and monasteries and convents throughout Quito. There are churches at every corner of the Centro Historico, and today I visited Santo Domingo, which sits on the square with a stature of Simon Bolivar standing in the centre. Again I had a very eager guide, who had an amazing number of facts at his disposal, and was able to share all sorts of intricate details about each painting. What made his comments interesting, were his insights about the struggles between the indigenous and the church. The priests, sometimes gently, more often forcefully, imposed their religion onto the natives, and conversion was often simply a choice for survival. Although the Europeans directed the building of the churches and the convents, it was the local people who were the actual builders and artists, and it is their work that has survived.

Tomb of a Conquistador

Once again, the courtyard of the monastery was calm and quiet, insulated from the activity outside. I could hear the students in the attached 'colegio'; the Catholic orders encouraged education, and in fact the first university of Ecuador met in a convent. The museum was full of mostly native paintings and sculptures, dark and somber, and very serious. I am starting to recognize the 'QuiteƱo' school and am able to differ it from the Cuzco School. The Quito colours are dark and the Cuszo colours lighter with much gold attached.

Our Lady of the Flowers

Seat Backs in the Rectory

When the European church leaders came to examine the convent, they found the gaudy baroque style of the natives inappropriate for their priests, who were supposed to be living lives of poverty and want, and had anything they deemed inappropriate moved out of the church. Thus there are paintings covering the walls of the corridors outside of the church and gold covered intricately carved altars displayed against the walls of the courtyard. In the museum are a few caryatids of men with women's bodies and women with men's bodies. The priests were horrified when they saw these statues ( the natives appeared comfortable with the concept) and destroyed as many as they could, and only a few remain.
Seat Backs

My guide explained that at one time all churches were covered in gold leaf, but only La Compania remains thus. The artists who built these churches and fancifully and imaginatively painted scenes from the bible, often expressed the way they saw their world. We see Mestizo Jesus and Maria, and landscapes with local vegetation or local sights, rather than European themes. The church leaders decided that there was too much excess in the churches and removed the gold from every surface except the altars. Except for the Jesuits, whose church is stunningly sumptuous. The Jesuits were ultimately thrown out of South America when the pope decided they were too powerful; perhaps that is why they did not alter their church.

Courtyard and Tower

Santo Domingo was used as a barracks at the time of the struggle between the Liberals and conservatives, and at one point the whole sacristy room was flooded from above and many paintings on the ceiling and walls were destroyed and required renovation.

We entered the church but a mass was in progress, and by the time I tried to get in after the mass, the church was closed. I wandered through the Centro and found more churches and museums to visit another day. They all appear to be closed for the afternoon hours. I found San Marcos Street, which appeared peaceful and inviting, but later I learned that it is a redlight district and not a street I ought to be wandering on. I wondered why there were so few people walking and all the establishments looked closed, and there was a moment when I did question what I was doing in an area without tourists or locals. I found myself at a corner with a 16C church next to a peaceful public garden with a fountain and well kept flower beds. On my way back to Santo Domingo, I encountered young women in green safety jackets carrying placards telling the drivers to slow down and take care of the neighbourhood.

Taking Back the Streets

Eric came home today after several days in the forest. He was in Yasuni National Forest at the Catolica Research Station. Yasuni has been in the news daily this week. The government has agreed to oil exploration in this protected area. The oil companies claim to have technology that will enable them to explore under the surface without devastating the wildlife. Of course the oil companies destroy wherever they go, so there is an uproar about this decision. Not only is Yasuni a 'protected' area for plant and animal life, it is where natives live untouched by western culture or technology. Oil drilling will mean the end of the rainforest and everything in it.

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