They say that such was the magnificence of San Francisco Church in Colonial times, that King Felipe II of Spain —when approving the construction of its emblematic towers— boasted he could see them, sitting on his throne, looming over the Atlantic Ocean. They were an important addition to the church—aesthetic, grandiose—but they also reveal something else; the evolutionary character of this unique religious edifice, one that has grown with the city, one that has transformed over time, both in its decorative aspects, in in most basic architecture and, of course, in the hearts of the citizens faithful to its prowess.
Everyone’s church should have the attributes of a chameleon; it must have the wind’s slithering reach; it must be able to penetrate, from its undaunted, proud and stately position over the squares and noble residences that surround it, the farthest alleys and secret corners; impregnate with faith the soul of every Quito native, of every bourgeois home, but also of every dive full of scoundrels that will eventually return to its glorious atrium to ask for forgiveness for their wrongdoings during the most important penitent act of the year, during Semana Santa, when the world witnesses a record people dressed in purple walking the streets carrying crosses and a ring of thorns during the procession “Jesús del Gran Poder”. From the moment this religious icon was erected with sticks and straw until the day its two dominant towers were hoisted to the heavens, the church of San Francisco was conceived to reach every Quiteño alike. And thus to adapt to the times, change perspective as society evolves…
San Francisco holds within its walls the greatest diversity of decorative styles in Quito, with Romanesque frescos, spectacular Moorish ceilings, horror vacui in the purest Baroque form and yes, graffiti, graffiti of our contemporary age, as younger generations write their prayers out to the chapels, because San Francisco is one of South America’s most venerated, beloved visited churches, one that continues to reach Quiteños far and wide, in their homes and their streets.
For historian José Gabriel Navarra, Iglesia San Francisco represents “South America’s most interesting architectural construction of the 16th century.” According to his research, San Francisco was the oldest of South America’s major churches completed before 1600; for this reason he even labeled it a “top of the line” church —that is, the first of its kind and style— in the entire American continent. However, its façade, and more importantly, its architectural motifs confused academics. Some saw traces of El Escorial (which was thought to have been completed at the same time as San Francisco) or feel it features clear examples of Baroque flare (a style that was only barely established in Spain), which means that San Francisco would have inspired artistic development in Europe or, what is even more uncanny, that the Baroque magically took hold in two different world regions at the same time.
New research, however, led by historian Susan Webster, resolved the mystery upon discovering that the church had several additional constructions; the third of which was completed in the first half of XVIIth Century. This explains the different styles, the fact that the architects already had El Escorial as a template as well as Baroque designs to model their plans, which were then mixed with the more ancient medieval patterns of earlier constructions.
This does not mean that San Francisco Church is any less pioneering an edifice; it offers new light and a fascinating twist to a multifaceted construction, one that was created in stages; this variegated design is central to the church’s history. Cantuña Chapel, for example, was completed in the 1580s, a clear architectural representative of the second version of the church, and is still, in Webster’s eyes, “top-of-the-line” of its architectural style as one of the most enduring examples of Early Colonial architecture in the Americas. But that earlier version was different: the entire church was originally oriented the other way around, the apse facing east, the complete opposite of today’s current position and façade overlooking San Francisco’s stone square. The church we visit today is made up of three different creations.
Evolution is what makes the largest, most imposing religious complex in the Americas, so interesting. New lands were acquired to relocate the convent’s cloisters toward the northern quarters of the church, where they are currently located. This expansion accounts for one of the continent’s most idiosyncratic buildings, one which continued to grow and change with the times, dominating the interest, faith and religious zeal of Quiteños, and perhaps the hidden reason why it is always such an amazing, alluring site to visit and admire.
Only in Ecuador
The Church of San Francisco is the largest religious complex in America… but not only that, it is also one of the oldest churches in the Americas and being one of the oldest, one of the most important, deeply emblematic for the citizens of Quito who frequent it daily: a living museum of faith and fervent Latin American spirituality.
Photos: Murray Cooper