Monday, April 11, 2016

Costa Rica Part 5: Zarcero's topiary garden & the Church of San Rafael Archangel

The steeples of Iglesia de San Rafael Arcángel are framed by Zarcero's remarkable topiary. The fanciful shapes of the main plaza's hedges caught my eye when our Caravan tour bus stopped for a break. Zarcero is located on Highway 141, 67 miles north of San José, the capital of Costa Rica. The town is the largest of Canton #11 in the Province of Alajuela. Each of Costa Rica's six provinces are divided into cantons, the rough equivalent to a US county. Zarcero is very clean and well-kept and its population is prosperous, with a literacy rate of 93%. Not surprisingly, this agricultural center has one of the lowest crime rates in the country. The main crops grown in the area are coffee, vegetables, and livestock. Fittingly, the city is named after a plant, the sarsaparilla vine (Smilax ornata). Sarsaparilla has been used medicinally by the indigenous people of North, Central, and South America for thousands of years.

Parque Francisco Alvarado occupies a city block that it shares with the church. The park is a popular gathering place for local people and a regular stop for tourists heading to northern Costa Rica. As you can see, the town is spread along the slopes of a valley in the mountains. At the time of the Spanish Conquest, the area was part of the domain of the indigenous Cacique Garabito. A cacique is a tribal strongman or chief. The first European settlers did not began to trickle in until 1854, with the arrival of José Zumbado and his wife Solis. A small chapel was built in 1892, on the site of the current church. The first cement water pipes were laid in 1910, as a gift from the government of Cleto González Viquez. Zarcero did not gain the status of town until 1915, when it was named the seat of the canton that was created at the same time. Three years later, in 1918, the government of Federico Tinoco Granados officially declared Zarcero to be a city.

A small girl cavorts among the tunnel of topiaries. The topiary in the park was created by Evangelista Blanco Brenes. He was commissioned by the city government in 1964 to maintain the green areas opposite the church. Señor Evangelista took it upon himself to plant pine and cypress trees and  to shape them into whimsical patterns. For his work, Evangelista Blanco received the 2013 National Prize for Popular Culture. After more than 40 years, he still personally trims his creations. The line of arched plants, each looking like the letter "M", stretches out from the front steps of the church. The shapes are irresistible to children and adults alike, who constantly wander through them.

Furry green faces peer down from the top of a thick hedge. Topiary has been described as "the art of living sculpture." Wandering about, you never know what might be around the next turn of the path.  European topiary dates back to Roman times and the word comes from topiarius, meaning landscape gardener. The fanciful shaping of plants was described by Pliny the Younger, a lawyer, author, and magistrate of ancient Rome. The first Roman topiarius may have been Gnaeus Matius Calvinus, one of Julius Caesar's friends.

A rose garden is bordered by what looks like the handles of a basket. In the background, you can see the ridged back and long neck of a green dinosaur. The Romans may have been influenced by ideas filtering across vast distances from Japan and China. Those ancient Asian societies also practiced topiary, but from a different point of view. They were trying to mimic the appearance of aged pines which had been shaped by the wind. The Japanese art of bonsai, or miniature pine trees, is an expression of this.

View from the steps of the church. Off to the right of the green arches, you can see a leafy green beast about 3 meters tall. It might represent a monkey, but who knows? Apparently only Señor Evangelista. European topiary disappeared with the onslaught of the Dark Ages but was revived in the 16th century. It became popular both in the grand gardens of the elites and as decorations for simple cottages. The practice once again fell out of favor in the 18th century after it was satirically panned by the writer Alexander Pope.  Revived yet again in the mid-19th century, topiary has remained popular through the 20th and into the 21st centuries. Today, it can be found in gardens throughout the world.

Looming over Señor Evangelista's creations is the twin-towered Iglesia San Rafael Arcángel. The simple, original chapel was replaced in 1895 by this stately creation. The church was dedicated by Bishop Bernardo Augusto Thiel Hoffman, the second bishop of Costa Rica. It is part of the Diocese of Alajuela in the ecclesiastical province of Costa Rica. The grey stone of the walls and towers is nicely set off by the red roof and tower caps.

The interior of the church is filled with colorful decorations and designs. There is a single nave, with a corridor on each side, supported by rows of columns.

View of the ceiling, toward the choir loft at the back of the nave. At regular intervals, candelabras hang down to provide lighting. In modern times, however, the candles have been replaced by electric lights. Each segment of the ceiling is painted with a different coat-of-arms. Notice the graceful arches supported by the columns. Unlike Protestant churches, Catholic churches tend to place the choir to the rear of, and raised above, the sanctuary area. This is to avoid distracting the congregation and to enable the choir to face the altar area while the mass is going on.

The altar area is open and airy. Some Catholic churches, particularly of the 17th century Baroque style, are so overly decorated as to bedazzle and confuse the mind. Others, from the Neo-classic style of the 18th and 19th centuries, tend to to be very spartan in their decoration. The Iglesia de San Rafael Arcángel strikes a nice balance between the two.

This completes Part 5 of my Costa Rica series. Next time, we'll vist the Dakota Coffee Estate. If you have enjoyed this posting, or have questions, please reply in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can reply.

Hasta luego, Jim

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