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date: 19 August 2019

Missions of South America in the 16th–18th centuriesfree

  • Carmen María Fernández-Salvador

From Darién to Tierra del Fuego, religious orders founded missions that served the double purpose of converting native populations to Christianity, while incorporating new territories under imperial dominion. In this region, missions typically occupied frontier lands, that is, the intermediary, often violent, spaces between the Portuguese and Spanish Empires, and between different cultures and peoples. While various religious orders engaged in missionary work early in the colonial period, notably the Franciscans, the most important contribution was made by the Jesuits in the 17th and 18th centuries (see Jesuit Order, §4(ii)).

Jesuit missions had an international character. Missionaries from Italy and Central Europe not only brought with them engravings and images from Europe. Many of them, trained as painters or architects, also introduced new artistic traditions. This is the case of the German Jesuit architects, Leonard Deubler (d 1770) and Georg Winterer (fl. c. 1730), who worked in the mission of Mainas, in the Amazon, and the Swiss, Martin Schmid in Chiquitos (Bolivia). In the 17th century, Flemish painters, Louis de la Croix, Philippe Viveros, and Philippe Lemaire (Felipe Lemer), were active in the Jesuit missions among the Guaraní (Paraguay), while the 18th century saw the arrival of Italian artist, Giuseppe Brasanelli (1659–1728), who built various churches and decorated them with his own altarpieces, paintings, and sculptures. Years later, Giovanni Battista Primoli built the stone churches in Miguel, Trinidad, and Concepción. The circulation of works of art and artistic traditions also occurred at a regional level. Paintings and sculptures from Cuzco and Potosí adorned the Guaraní churches and the missions in Moxos and Chiquitos. Jesuit missionaries traveling from Quito to Mainas often brought paintings and sculptures with them. Works of art were also produced in the town of Lamas, in the Peruvian Amazon, and sent to Mainas. Often workshops were established for the training of indigenous artists. Among the Guaraní, local artists were skilled in the arts of painting, sculpture, and retable making. In Chiloé (Chile), indigenous workshops also produced wooden retablos and sculptures for local churches.

In terms of architecture and urban planning, Jesuit missions in South America devised a wide range of solutions in response to local needs and the availability of materials. The Guaraní territory housed the largest Jesuit mission, with more than seventy-five churches in different towns. The reductions followed the model first put into practice by the Jesuits in Juli (Peru). The church and the missionary’s residence opened to a central square, with family residences enclosing the remaining three sides. A miserere chapel and a tower stood next to the church. As in Mexican 16th-century convents, chapels or crosses, to be used in religious processions, stood at each of the four corners of the square. Following the design of early Christian architecture, Guaraní churches had three or five aisles. Initially, the churches were made of wood. Between 1690 to 1725 stone-carved facades were added to wooden structures. After 1725, the whole structure was built with stone. As in the Jesuit churches from metropolitan centers, architects introduced domes and vaulted ceilings.

In Moxos and Chiquitos, towns followed the layout of Guaraní reductions, with the church, the Jesuit residence, miserere chapel, and tower on one side of the square, while single-family houses occupied the remaining three sides. However, there were also significant differences. As evidenced in the church of San Javier in the Chiquitos region, adobe and wood were the preferred materials. Wood-carved columns, the shaft adorned with spiral grooves to simulate the shape of Solomonic columns, stood at the entrance of the building and separated the central nave from the aisles in the interior of the church. Most striking was the use of mural paintings adorning the façade and the presbytery.

In New Granada, Jesuit missions were established in the 17th century in Choco (Colombia), but soon after they were handed to the secular clergy. Missions were also founded in Darien (Panama) in the 18th century, but apostolic work was thwarted by epidemics and by the threat of pirates. More successful were the missions in the plains of Casanare, Meta, and Orinoco rivers, which were established in proximity to haciendas that provided economic support for missionary work. As in Moxos and Chiquitos, churches in these towns were built of perishable materials, such as wood, adobe, and palm. An exception was the church of San Miguel de Macuco, which combined different materials such as stone, wood, brick, and adobe.

A unique solution to local demands was developed in the Archipelago of Chiloé (Chile). Here, the Jesuits put into practice the “circular” mission. This referred to the itinerancy of missionaries who performed apostolic work traveling from one settlement to another, following a circular circuit. Churches in Chiloé stood next to a square, as at other missions. These were made of wood, with a high tower rising from the center of the roof. Settlements were loosely organized, with houses dispersed over a vast stretch of land. Local workshops produced polychrome wood sculptures to adorn churches, while itinerant missionaries also traveled with portable altars, which were used for catechesis.

We know about the architecture in the mission of Mainas from accounts written by Jesuit authors, such as Manuel Uriarte, who worked in the Amazon until the expulsion of the order in 1767. These accounts speak of the interest of 18th-century builders in continuous experimentation, and of the encounter between local and imported materials and techniques. Sometimes, builders sought to reproduce the appearance of Jesuit churches elsewhere. In imitation of European churches, palm trees, and bricks were painted with local pigments, mimicking the color and texture of marble and jasper. At San Ignacio de Pebas, the altarpiece imitated the retablo of Jesuit church in Quito. Barniz de Pasto, a type of lacquer made from the resin of a local tree, was used to decorate ephemeral architecture. At the same time, a cross that was erected outside the church of San Pablo in Napo was ornamented with mother-of-pearl, a decorative technique that was brought from Asia.

Missionary art and architecture in South America was marked by continuous experimentation. Missionaries from Italy and Central Europe brought artistic traditions and architectural forms that were adapted to local needs, availability of materials, and new techniques. Most of the missions were established by the Jesuits, who imprinted on them the order’s international character.


  • Uriarte, M. J. Diario de un misionero en Mainas. Iquitos, 1986.
  • Gutiérrez, R. “Propuestas urbanísticas de los sistemas misionales de los jesuitas.” In Un reino en la Frontera: Las misiones jesuitas en la América colonial, 173–184. Quito, 2000.
  • Bailey, G. A. Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America 1542–1773. Toronto, Buffalo, and London, 2001.
  • Gutiérrez, R. “Las misiones circulares de los jesuitas en Chiloé. Apuntes para una historia singular de la evangelización.” Apuntes 20, no. 1 (2007): 159–167.