Sunday, June 19, 2011

Guatemala Part 8b: Antigua, a window into the past

View from Las Capuchinas Convent window. Notice the extraordinary thickness of the walls, no doubt a precaution against recurrent earthquakes. Looking at Antigua's ruins is bit like viewing one of those prehistoric flies, famously encapsulated in amber. Even the fact that they are ruins doesn't detract from this impression, because they were largely created in one cataclysmic moment, not over a long period of decay. For nearly 100 years, the ruined churches, convents, and other buildings lay as they fell. Although many decorative elements were stripped away, to be reused at the new capital of Guatemala City, the greatest part of the structures stand--or lie--as they were when the dust cleared that awful day in 1773. There are almost three dozen such structures in Antigua, most of them having some religious association. In fact, it is astonishing how much of the old capital of Santiago de Guatemala (now Antigua) was devoted to religious purposes. For this posting, I decided to focus on just three sites, each with unusual features. The first, unique in all Latin America, is administered by the government as a national monument; another still functions (in part) as a church; the third is privately-owned and entirely a ruin. Once again, I have relied heavily on Elizabeth Bell's "Antigua Guatemala, The city and its heritage", for background on the sites I will show.

Las Capuchinas Church and Convent

Las Capuchinas Church and Convent. Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza is one of the most unusual religious structures of its kind anywhere in Latin America. It is under the care of the National Council for the Protection of Antigua and is open to the public every day between 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM. Built between 1726 and 1736, the church and convent became known by the nickname Las Capuchinas, from the brown habits worn by the nuns.

Supporting arches over the main sanctuary. The domes are long gone, but the government has built frameworks over the spaces, covered with translucent material to allow light to flood the interior while protecting the site from rain. Santiago already contained 4 convents when Capuchin nuns (Las Capuchinas) approached the Spanish King in Madrid for permission to build their own. This petition was opposed by Santiago's Ayuntamiento (City Council), who claimed that another convent would be unaffordable. All the other convents were supported by dowries brought in by novices (beginner nuns). Since some of the convents were quite large, this tied up a considerable portion of the town's wealth. King Phillip V decided in favor of Las Capuchinas when he understood that the convent would be devoted to helping poor women and would not depend upon dowry income. In addition, Santiago's history relates how religious property was repaired again and again using government funds after the town's almost innumerable earthquakes. Las Capuchinas themselves requested and received such funds in 1751. With so many religious edifices in town, the Ayuntamiento's coffers could be emptied by even moderate quakes.

View of Las Capuchinas' main courtyard, surrounded by the cloister. The complex is quite large and, in addition to the church seen earlier, included, according to Elizabeth Bell, "administrative offices, workrooms, bedrooms, a dining room, kitchens, hot water baths, and an infirmary with a dining room and kitchen." The convent was a world unto itself, and had to be, because the nuns were not allowed to leave the premises except in extraordinary circumstances such as earthquakes. Many of the novices accepted by Las Capuchinas were penniless, making funding of the convent's operations a constant problem. Most of the nuns were thus required to live a very spartan lifestyle compared to nuns in convents with large dowries who lived in relative luxury compared to Las Capuchinas.

Ground floor view of the central courtyard and fountain. The life of the nuns revolved around prayer and everyday chores. Some of these included caring for orphans and abandoned children from the community, and running a school and a hospital. Why would a woman join a convent like this and subject herself to such a disciplined and spartan lifestyle? Some were motivated by piety, but apparently many of them had little choice in the matter. In Latin America, women's options for self-sustaining employment in the period up to the early 20th Century were almost non-existent. Families who couldn't marry off a  daughter, or single women with no other means of support, saw the convent as a refuge.

Short but massive pillars surround the central courtyard. These are typical of the efforts taken to support the structure against earthquakes. In 1726, the first 5 nuns arrived from Madrid, and construction of Las Capuchinas began under the supervision of Diego de Porres, a famous architect of the time. Although the Ayuntamiento was skeptical of the convent, in many ways edifices like this became public works projects employing hundreds of workmen, artisans, and artists. Thus the wealth of the Catholic church, and donations from from well-to-do residents of Santiago, were redistributed in ways that provided large-scale employment in the community.

Relics from the ruins are displayed under the courtyard arches. Archaeologists have recovered a large number of relics from the site, many in damaged condition. The first four (above, left to right) are statues of saints, now decapitated. Others are parts of wall decorations and on the far right is stone tub.

La Capuchinas contains a small museum. Displayed are various day-to-day artifacts, such as this  pieced-together vase with a checker-board design. Near the museum entrance is a small sign forbidding the taking of photographs inside the museum. I didn't notice it and had already taken several photos before a guard gently but firmly called my attention to it. As there were a great number of interesting objects in the museum, I put my camera away with a good deal of regret.

Tower of Retreat. There is a circular tower-like structure to the north of the cloister area. This 2-story structure is unique among convents in Latin America. The second floor (seen above), was once domed but is now open to the sky. Around the edge of the circular patio area are doorways to the 18 cells for the novices.

Novice cell in the Tower of Retreat. The cells were without bars, but could otherwise have doubled as cells of a prison. Contents of this cell would have included a bed and a few personal items including a bible and no doubt a cross on the wall. The niche next to the window probably contained a statue of the Virgin Mary or other saint. Some windows looked out on gardens, or faced one of the huge volcanoes surrounding Antigua. The unlucky inmate of this cell could only see a blank wall out her window.

A single massive pillar supported the whole structure. In the circular room below the cells, this huge pillar rises to the ceiling. The area around it was used for food storage. Visitors seem to have been unable to resist the temptation to leave personal graffitti, i.e. "Rodrigo loves Maricela" or the Spanish version of "Kilroy was here".

The laundry room. One of the many chores filling the days of the nuns was laundry. The area around the 4 basins is filled with water, fed by a fountain on the far wall. The stone railing is indented at each of the 4 basins so the laundresses can get close to their work. Each basin has a drain at its curved end so the water can be removed. The whole set-up is rather cleverly constructed. While photographing this room, I caught a brief glimpse, as through a window, into long-lost time. I imagined a group of 4 nuns gathered around the laundry, each at her station, sharing the latest convent gossip as they worked to clean their habits and other linens.

A fountain feeds the laundry tub. I was struck by this rather cheerful little face decorating the fountain. Not every aspect of life in the convent was humorless. How kind of the unknown artist to include such a feature to lighten, even slightly, the spartan life of the nuns.

Las Capuchinas' nuns could at least enjoy hot baths. I found these stone tubs in a small room off to the side of the cloister area. From Europe's Middle Ages up to the mid-18th Century, baths were viewed negatively as risky to one's health. Wearing clean clothes was considered more important than maintaining a clean body, other than the hands and face. However, by the time Las Capuchinas was constructed, opinions were beginning to change, hence the inclusion of these baths in the convent. Still, with only two tubs for all those nuns and children, it is unlikely that baths were a daily occurrence for most nuns.

San Francisco Church and Monastery.

Maya women hurry toward one of several entrances to Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco el Grande. San Francisco el Grande still performs some religious functions, although much of the original structure is in ruins. It is one of the most visited sites in Antigua, partly because it contains the tomb of Santo Hermano Pedro who, it is claimed, can perform miracles even after his death. Testimony to this ability appears in the innumerable small offerings and pictures left by people who believe one of his miracles has helped to them. The Franciscan friars arrived in 1530, very early after the Conquest of Guatemala. Under the old encomienda system, local authorities promptly assigned the income from 120 Maya villages to the friars. The Franciscans were quick to move from the original Santiago de Guatemala to the one that later became Antigua.

The church and monastery were almost completely destroyed in the 1773 quake. What we see today is largely the product of a reconstruction conducted in the 1960s. Apparently one of Santo Hermano Pedro's miracles was that his tomb and chapel remained intact and have continued in uninterrupted operation through the centuries. The original church built by the Franciscans was the usual humble adobe and thatch structure. After it was damaged in the 1565 quake, they began to collect donations for a new church. Work finally started in 1579 and continued for the next 120+ years.

Cross containing all the implements relating to the Crucifixion. I was puzzled by the objects attached until Jorge enlightened me. The biblical story contains mention of reach of these objects. Not long after work began in 1579, San Francisco el Grande became a major cultural center. Theology, canonical law, philosophy, experimental physics, and mathematics were subjects taught at the Santa Buenaventura school operated by the Franciscans. It even had its own printing press. The complex included a library, art and music rooms, and a chapel noted for its beauty. Many famous artists and architects of the 16th and 17th Centuries worked to beautify the Franciscan complex. The carved wooden ceiling of the church is said to have been unequalled in all of Guatemala.

An unusual pool graces the courtyard next to the church. Dry now, the circular pool was divided by walkways in the form of a cross. In spite of damage from recurrent quakes over the centuries, the Franciscans continued to improve, expand, and beautify their church and monastery. Although San Francisco el Grande was officially inaugurated in 1702, work continued even after that date. The complex eventually covered 4 city blocks and included a 3 story hospital.

A pair of angels stand guard over an entrance into the church from the patio. The angels appear to holding incense burners and together they support an object with a sunburst emblem at the top. The beginning of the end for San Francisco el Grande was the severe quake of 1717. Not only was the complex badly damaged, but the reconstruction was faulty. The stone buttresses erected to strengthen the buildings were not property attached. When the great quake of 1773 rocked Santiago, most of the wonderful Franciscan complex collapsed. For the next 200 years, the ruined buildings lay where they had fallen, except, as noted previously, Santo Hermano Pedro's tomb and chapel. In the 1960s, the Church was rebuilt but few of the current furnishings are original. In 1983, during the Civil War, Franciscan Friar Augusto Ramirez Monasterio was murdered by the national police. In 1992 he was declared a martyr by Pope John Paul II.  As for Santo Hermano Pedro, he was finally canonized in 2002.

La Concepción Church and Convent

Iglesia y Convento de la Immaculada Concepción de Maria. This ruin is unlike the previous two. It is neither operated as a national monument, nor as a religious facility. La Concepción is privately owned and completely unimproved. Still, it contained some interesting features, not the least of which was its "fly in amber" appearance of having just fallen down. At first, we could find no way to enter. However, after a few minutes of poking about, a woman came out of a store across the street and asked if she could help us. She took us to a gate and hailed another woman inside who may have been the owner, or possibly a caretaker. The owner/caretaker and her children appeared to be living inside of one of the ruined structures. After a suitable propina (tip) was exchanged, she unlocked the gate and let us wander around at will, but did not offer herself as a guide. The woman from the shop came in with us and, using Spanish we could just barely understand, showed us around.

Local residents stroll by massively damaged stone walls. The 1773 earthquake must have been terrifying as it smashed great stone buildings like they were paper mache. I could well understand the decision of the colony's Captain General to order the abandonment of Sanitago after such a long history of devastating quakes, culminating in the utter destruction of the one in 1773. He had had enough.

Local dog surveys the ruins of La Concepción. This photo was taken inside the main church, looking back toward what was once the altar area. The church was once part of the oldest and largest convent in Santiago de Guatemala, before the town was destroyed and--after its abandonment--became Antigua. The convent was founded in 1578 by an Abbess and 3 nuns who arrived from Mexico. Up to then there had been no facility for nuns in Guatemala. They named their complex Iglesia y Convento de la Concepción Immaculada de Maria (Church and Convent of the Immaculate Conception of Mary). The convent grew to house more than 1000 nuns, servants, and young children. It was quite wealthy, because most of the nuns brought dowries with them from prosperous families in the area. The ground covered by the church and convent was huge, consuming almost 6 city blocks. Most of this area now contains shops and homes, but the old church seen above and the opulent remains of Sor Juana de Maldonado's quarters are still in existence. Sor Juana was a nun from a wealthy and aristocratic family.

A mysterious entrance to the underworld. Our impromptu guide flagged me over and gestured that I should follow her down these steps. Gingerly, I did so. They led down into a large, bare room, unlighted except for that coming from the entrance above.

As my eyes adjusted, some odd holes appeared at the base of the underground room's walls. A bakery? A store room of some kind? I turned to my guide with raised eyebrows. She gave me a long, significant stare and whispered "tumbas." They were once tombs!

An area we didn't visit contains the apartments of Sor Juana Maldonado, the nun from the wealthy family. In the 1620s, Sor Juana used her family's resources to make herself comfortable in her new convent home. Elizabeth Bell reports that Sor Juana's suite included "galleries, a private garden, hot baths, and a half a dozen servants". Also included were an altar "decked with jewels, candlesticks, crowns, lamps, and covered with a canopy embroidered with gold... " This was all rather extreme, even for an era that allowed rank its privileges. Local legend holds that she got away with it because the bishop was her lover. I mused about how many Maya villages were required to provide the income to allow such a lifestyle for a woman who, theoretically, was supposed to be living in poverty and chastity.

Hand-embroidered Maya huipil. How does a huipil come into this story? After we finished wandering about the ruins of La Concepción, our guide invited us across the street to visit her store. "Ah!" I said. "Now I understand her motivation in helping us". Still, we couldn't have seen the ruin without her, so we felt obligated to at least view her wares. Have I mentioned before that the Maya are incredibly entrepreneurial? Before we got out of the store, she had sold us not one but two huipils! They were indeed beautiful, and Carole was inclined to buy something like this before our trip ended, so it might as well have been at the shop of our impromptu guide. It certainly made a nice end to this story!

This concludes my posting on our visit to Antigua, Guatemala. Our next adventure was a long trek up to Guatemala's ancient Classic Era Maya site of Tikal, located in the center of the remote, heavily-jungled, limestone plateau of Petén. I hope you enjoyed Antigua as much as we did. There was so much we didn't see that we are determined to return before long. If you would like to comment on this posting, please use the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Beautiful photos of the ruins. I was able to imagine, as you did, the lives of the nuns within those walls. The earthquake must have been a nightmare, bringing down those massive walls.

    I like Carole's huipil, she chose well. I wouldn't be surprised if the self-appointed storekeeper/guide didn't do that routine on a regular basis.

  2. It seems to me that the ruined or restored churches,convents and cloisters of Latin America are endlessly fascinating and beautiful, whether the wanderer has a whit of religion or not!

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If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim