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date: 19 August 2019

Missions in colonial Latin Americafree

  • Clara Bargellini

Since religious conversion was believed to justify conquest, Spanish and Portuguese colonists quickly began establishing missions to instruct the original inhabitants of the “New World” in the Roman Catholic faith. This work was first entrusted to members of religious orders: principally, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians. By the end of the 16th century in New Spain, the friars had trained natives not only in religion but also in European art and architecture. This involved invention and accommodation, as well as major technological change, seen, for example, in the introduction of metal tools and vaulted spaces. The stone churches and monasteries of central and southern New Spain, situated within large, enclosed atria with open chapels for outdoor liturgy, and adorned with altarpieces and wall paintings, are monuments to European teaching and expertise, and to native knowledge and skills (see also Missions of New Spain in the 16th century).

Later mission efforts were entrusted to the same religious orders, but also to the Jesuits, founded in 1540, who arrived in the Americas towards the end of the 16th century (see Jesuit Order, §4(ii)). By the 18th century, missions had been established throughout the continent, in regions that were usually distant from mestizo urban centers. The Franciscans in New Spain had reached New Mexico and areas to the east of the Sierra Madre as far as Texas, while the Jesuits had missions to the west, reaching Baja California in the late 17th century. Though few relatively intact Jesuit mission buildings survive in Mexico, there is evidence of references to early Christian basilicas and of work by architects from metropolitan centers, where paintings and sculptures for the missions were acquired. Franciscan architecture in the northern mission areas, such as in the Sierra Gorda of Querétaro, sometimes recalls the spatial arrangements of earlier missions in central Mexico: a church within an atrium, an open chapel, as well as corner posa chapels. After the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, the Franciscans took over former Jesuit sites, and were responsible for monumental buildings and neoclassical innovations as far north as California and Arizona in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Distinctive buildings and processes characterized the missions of South America, especially those established by the Jesuits, beginning in 1609 in what is now Paraguay, among the Guaraní, in areas with few European colonists. The missionaries, many of them from central and southern Europe, introduced monumental architecture and planned villages, and trained the indigenous peoples in sculpture, painting, music, and other European arts, including printmaking. Their mission sites in Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, with the remains of large churches, sculptures, and wall paintings, are eloquent witnesses to a grandiose utopian project, based on the conversion, but also on the conservation, of native societies, separate from Spanish and Portuguese settlements. The same ambitions guided the establishment of the Chiquitos missions of Bolivia. There, a Swiss Jesuit, Martin Schmid, knowledgeable in architecture and music, like others of his order, promoted the construction and decoration of unique churches in local materials around the middle of the 18th century, shortly before the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767.

See also Missions of South America in the 16th–18th centuries.


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