Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Panamá Part 4: Casco Viejo's Plaza Independencia & the Golden Altar of Iglesia San Jose

Panamá's famous Altar of Gold is located within Iglesia San José. Later in this posting, I will tell you about the legend of the Golden Altar. Plaza Independencia, and the nearby Iglesia San José (St. Joseph Church) are both located in Casco Viejo, Panamá City's Old Town. In addition to showing you both of these sites, I will also provide some of Panamá's 19th Century history. There is a great deal to see in Casco Viejo, including a wide variety of architecture from the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries. Many of these beautiful old structures are grouped around four major plazas. Unfortunately, our tour only allowed us part of one afternoon to explore Casco Viejo. A thorough investigation of all of the interesting sites could take several days. I encourage anyone considering a visit to set aside enough time to see as much as you can of this World Heritage Site.

Plaza Independencia 

Catedral Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción is the Plaza's centerpiece. Plaza Independencia is also known as Plaza Catedral and Plaza Mayor. The Catedral is one of the largest churches in Latin America. As the seat of the Archdiocese of Panamá, it has had two predecessors. The original seat had been established in 1510 at Santa Maria la Antigua del Darién on the Caribbean Coast. In 1519, it was moved to Panamá Viejo on the Pacific Coast. Following the destruction of Panamá Viejo during Captain Henry Morgan's raid in 1671, the Archdiocese was again transferred. When Panamá City (now called Casco Viejo) was founded in 1673, the Archdiocese finally arrived in its present location. Plaza Independencia got its name because it was here that independence from Spain was proclaimed on November 28, 1821, and independence from Colombia was declared on November 3, 1903. Both announcements were delivered from the steps of the Catedral.

The church's Renaissance style facade is sometimes called the "Jesuit" style. The first version of Casco Viejo's cathedral was a rather unimpressive wood structure, hastily erected in 1674. A few years later, in 1677, a devout parishioner contributed the sum of 14,000 pesos. The funds were used to dismantle the remains of the old Panamá Viejo cathedral so that the stone could be used to construct the new one.  However, it was not until 1688 that the first stone for the current building was laid by Bishop Lucas Fernandez de Piedrahita. Work continued in fits and starts for the next 108 years. In 1737, a great fire devastated Casco Viejo, severely damaging the partially-constructed cathedral. The bells, which had survived Panamá Viejo's destruction, melted in the 18th Century conflagration. By 1749, all but the towers and the ashlar-stone facade were complete. In 1751, Bishop Francisco Javier de Luna Victoria y Castro began to supervise the project and the pace picked up. Born in 1695, he  was the first Archbishop of Panamá native to the isthmus. The Bishop died in 1777, before the church was finished. The Neo-classical bell towers were built between 1762 and 1796, during the last stage of construction. The towers are 36 m (118 ft) in height and are inlaid with mother-of-pearl from the Gulf of Panamá's Pearl Islands.

A statue of Manual Amador Guerrero stands in the Plaza in front of the Catedral. Dr. Manual Amador Guerrero (1833-1909) was a prominent physician who helped lead the successful movement to gain Panamanian independence from Colombia in 1903. He became a surgeon after graduating from the Universidad de Magdalena. For the last 30 years of the 19th Century, Dr. Amador Guerrero was associated with the Hospital Santo Tomás, an institution that had served Panamá's poor since the colonial era. During his tenure, he reorganized the hospital and acted as its Superintendent in addition to his duties as a doctor. In 1904, a Constituent Assembly elected the doctor as the first President of the new nation of Panamá. His wife, Maria Ossa de Amador designed the first flag of the Republic of Panamá.

Our Casco Viejo guide is clad in a pollera, the traditional dress of Panamá. Along with our Caravan Tour Director Pedro Palma, she shepherded our group as we walked a circuitous route up and down the narrow streets of Casco Viejo. It must have seemed to them a bit like herding cats, but they both managed to maintain their good humor. The role of cross-isthmus trade has been critical for Panamá since 1514. In that year Spain's King Phillip II directed the conquistador Pedro de Arias to build roads to connect the Caribbean and Pacific Coasts and to look into the possibility of a canal. The King wanted to facilitate the transport of Peruvian gold and oriental luxuries back to Spain. Panamá Viejo, and its successor Casco Viejo, were founded as key Pacific ports for this purpose. The trade flow continued throughout the colonial period and into the 19th Century, gaining great impetus from the California gold rush of 1849. In 1850, an American-owned railroad company began construction of a 76.6 km (47.6 mi) line across the isthmus. The project cost $8 million and as many as 10,000 lives before it was finished in 1855. It was one of the shortest railroads ever built, but it was a huge achievement against stupendous obstacles, including bottomless swamps, raging rivers, and deadly diseases. On a macabre note, the work was partially financed by the selling the corpses of workers who died during construction to medical schools for practice autopsies.

Two young girls stroll through the Plaza in front of Palacio Municipal. The Palacio is an early 20th Century building constructed in the Neo-classical style. In addition to housing the municipal government (similar to a US county government), the second floor of the Palacio is occupied by the Museo de la Historia de Panamá. The building was designed in 1907 by Italian architect Genaro Ruggieri, the same man who designed Panama's National Theatre. Although the building is a 20th Century creation, it has the distinction of housing the oldest continuously functioning government body on the Western Hemisphere's mainland. Panamá City's municipal government is a descendent of the one established in 1510 by Diego de Nicuesa at Santa Maria la Antigua del Darién. The current building was dedicated 400 years later in 1910.

The cupola of the Palacio Municipal is bracketed by two sets of Neo-classic sculptures. The sculpture on the left depicts the Greco-Roman god Mercury kneeling at the feet of the goddess Athena. The right-hand sculpture shows a standing man holding a pick and a seated youth holding various fruits. The municipal government's long history was, and is, a source of great pride for the isthmus community. In the late 19th Century, Panamá was still part of Colombia. and its leaders were bitterly frustrated because they sensed they had become a neglected appendage of the Colombian nation. However, they also desperately wanted a cross-isthmus canal. The canal idea was not a new one. After some experience with Panamá's wild interior, Pedro de Arias informed King Phillip of the project's enormous potential cost, difficulty, and overall impossibility given 16th Century technology. However, the vision would not die. In 1529, one of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa's former lieutenants suggested four possible canal routes, one of which is close to the actual route chosen almost 400 years later. During the 18th Century, such figures as Benjamin Franklin and the German philosopher Goethe advocated for an isthmus canal. During the 1820s, the South American Liberator Simón Bolivar sent engineers to Panamá to investigate a route but, in the end, took no action. The explorer Alexander Humbolt also suggested an isthmus canal, but in Nicaragua rather than Panamá.

A trim and handsome young policeman walks across the Plaza. Although there are drug gangs that operate in the poor areas on the fringes of Casco Viejo, there was a strong police presence in the Old Town area where we visited. As early as 1826, the US tried to negotiate a canal treaty with Colombia (then called New Granada). However, the New Granadans backed away, fearful of becoming a US colony. In 1835, Col. Charles Biddle wanted to build a railroad, but the idea was scuttled by President Andrew Jackson, who favored a canal but took no action. In 1848, the New Granadans became fearful of British intervention and signed a treaty making the US the guarantor of isthmus neutrality. The opening of the isthmus railroad in 1855 led to more proposals for a canal. The deluge of Gold Rush enthusiasts, and their attitude toward Panamanians, caused resentment among the isthmus population. After riots broke out in 1856, the US Navy landed marines. This was the first of many military interventions to follow. During the last half of the 19th Century, there were sporadic US efforts to secure a canal agreement, but Americans were distracted by the US Civil War and the problems of westward expansion. In 1863, New Granada renamed itself Colombia, and by 1879 the Colombians were fed up with US inaction. They signed a deal with Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French builder of the Suez Canal. However, digging a canal through the flat sand of the desert was not the same as pushing one through the swamps and jungled mountains of Panamá. By 1888, the French effort went bankrupt. The last efforts to revive de Lesseps' project was abandoned in 1894. The Colombian government, based in Bogatá, then rejected a US proposal to complete the project. These twin failures had profound effects on Panamá's trade dependent economy. By 1903, Panamanians had had enough. They decided to separate from Colombia and go it alone.

Tomás Arias was one of the junta that led Panamá to independence. His statue stands in Plaza Independencia in front of the Palacio MunicipalTomás Arias (1856-1932) was a businessman and politician who was born in Panama City and educated in Panamá, Jamaica, and the United States. Like many other leaders of the independence movement, Arias was from an elite family. Also like the others, he had served the Colombian government in a variety of posts including Treasury administrator, assembly deputy for the Department of Panamá, representative to the Colombian Congress, senator, and government secretary. The new Republic of Panama was fortunate to have such enormous experience available in its initial leadership. After the separation from Colombia, Tomás Arias served the Republic as foreign minister, consul to Mexico, and chairman of Panama's National Assembly.

Iglesia San José and its Altar of Gold

The rather nondescript Iglesia de San José houses Panama's famous Altar of Gold. The church is only about two blocks from Plaza Independencia. Iglesia San José was built as a replica of the original Augustinian church, destroyed during the pirate attack on Panamá Viejo. Construction on the new church in Casco Viejo began in 1671, shortly after Panamá Viejo was abandoned. The unfinished church and its Augustinian convent were inaugurated in 1675. Work on Iglesia San José continued until 1677.

The main nave of the church, showing the Altar of Gold. The Altar itself was carved in the Baroque style popular in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The rest of the interior has been remodeled in the less-flamboyant Neo-classic style. In addition to the Altar of Gold, the church's single nave contains several other elaborate retablos, including one on either side of the altar area and two more on the right wall.

The Altar of Gold fills the entire end of the church's nave from floor to ceiling. The Altar has three levels and contains six niches. Five of the niches contain statues of saints or other religious figures. The top level contains a painting surrounded by a circular frame. The structure is not actually made of gold, but of carved mahogany covered with gold leaf. The figure on the second level in the center niche is San José, for whom the church is named. At his left is Santa Clara de la Cruz de Montefalco. To San José's right is San Tomás de Villa Nueva. On the bottom level to the left is Nuestra Señora de Consolation, and on the right side is San Agustin, patron of the Augustinian Order. In the bottom center is an elaborate cylinder that was closed at the time we visited.

View of the elaborately carved cylinder at the bottom center of the Altar. It is clearly constructed so that it can be opened, but what it contains remains a mystery to me. I have not been able to determine its contents. Just below the cylinder, Christ appears on a tiny crucifix. There is a wonderful legend about the Golden Altar and the pirate Captain Henry Morgan. When, in 1671, the residents of Panamá Viejo heard that the dreaded marauder was hacking his way through the jungle from the Caribbean side of the isthmus, they panicked and began hiding their valuables. At the time, an Augustinian monk named Juan de Villa de los Santos was in charge of the church.

Nuestra Señora de la Consolation, holding the Christ Child. This version of the Virgin Mary is especially revered by the Augustinians. As Captain Morgan's pirates drew closer, Juan the monk was faced with a difficult problem. The Altar of Gold was much too large and cumbersome to move. If Juan left it as it was, the pirates would no doubt hack it to pieces in order to carry off as much of it as they could. They would, no doubt, have been particularly angry to find that the altar was only covered with gold leaf, rather than solid gold. Who knew what sort of barbarities they might commit in their frustrated rage?

San Agustin, patron of the Augustinian Order. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354 AD - 430 AD) was an early Christian philosopher and theologian. He is recognized as one of the four most important Doctors of the Church and his writings heavily influenced early Catholic doctrine. In Panamá Viejo, Juan the monk wracked his brains for a solution to his dilemma. He hit upon the idea of disguising the Altar as something greedy pirates might overlook. Gathering the few parishioners who had not fled into the jungle, he began to paint the great structure with albayalde (silver oxide).

San José, holding the Christ Child. San José is the patron saint of workers and the protector of the Catholic Church. When Captain Morgan himself burst into the church, eager to pillage it of its gold, he found a black altar rather than one of shining gold. The pirate chief grumbled that he had been badly misinformed and that this was a poor example of an Augustinian church. Juan the monk worked hard to confirm this impression. He pleaded poverty and even suggested that the Morgan should make a donation to help complete an unfinished part of the church.

The circular painting at the top of the Altar shows God holding the Scales of Justice. Above his head is a triangular halo, representing the Trinity. The ploy of Juan the monk worked! He persuaded the pirate captain to make a magnificent donation of 1000 ducats. The story has a charming end. While turning to leave after giving his donation, the Captain looked Juan in the eye and said "I don't know exactly why, but I suspect you may be more of a pirate than I am!"

Detail of the Baroque carving. Here you can see the fine carving of the artists who created the Altar of Gold. According to the legend, the Altar of Gold was not destroyed in the great fire that consumed Panamá Viejo.  It was cleaned and restored and shipped to a rebuilt Iglesia San José at the new site of Panamá City--now Casco Viejo. Unfortunately, recent professional examinations of the Altar indicate that it was probably created some time after the fall of Panamá Viejo. Historians and archaeologists can often be terrible spoil sports! I prefer the legend.

This completes Part 4 of my Panamá series. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, and you would like to leave a question or comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments box, PLEASE also leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. I especially like the story of Juan the Monk's righteous perfidy, which I imagine was helped by the nondescript appearance of the iglesia, and also the tale of the partial financing of the railroad by selling the corpses of its unfortunate workers.

  2. I would like to thank you both for your excellent blog (s). It has to be a labour Of love and ongoing dedication. I often wonder how many scholars, especially young ones source you. I would, if a younger student, do it all the time. Your references are very good and appreciated. Considering myself an older scholar, still learning at 64, your blog is such a treat. I am guilty of binging, apparently all the rage. I save them then view a bunch at a time. A great entertainment and learning experience all rolled into one. Currently in Axixic which makes it better to me.
    THX, All the best.


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