Churches, Antigua Guatemala
The convent of Santa Clara, Antigua’s fourth, was founded in 1699 for a small group of six nuns who moved here from Mexico. With support from the city’s wealthier citizens they constructed a church and convent buildings between 1703 and 1705, but these were destroyed in the earthquake of 1717. The remains standing today are those of a new church and convent started in 1723 and finished in 1734 – and destroyed in 1773.
The church runs parallel to the street with the altar, unusually, to the north. It presents quite a forbidding aspect, and passers-by would have had no idea of the ornate south facade hidden within the convent. Even today with the convent in ruins, that facade is more or less invisible from the street but 40 Q (dear by Antigua standards) will buy you admission to the ruins to view it and the extensive complex beyond.
With the exception of that facade the ruins are sprawling and you need the help of the leaflet (available in several languages and included as part of the admission) to visualise the various buildings. The church forms one side of a large cloister and on the remaining three sides are the vestiges of various rooms – the nuns’ work rooms, common room and salon. In the centre of the cloister’s garden is a small fountain, and in places the arches are beautifully outlined with bougainvillea. You can also ascend to the choir above the south end of the church to view its layout from above. The church lies open to the sky, although its walls are fairly intact as you can see in photo 3.
A few more rooms lie to the south of the cloister, beyond the large garden. Again, a bit of imagination is required to appreciate the scale of this convent during its brief period of occupation. You can get a guide to show you around but we chose to explore on our own (I’m not sure whether there’s an extra charge for the guide’s services, but a tip at least would certainly be expected). When we were there the tiled floor of the cloister was being restored and possibly because of the activities of the workmen, or possibly because of the very new and shiny tiles being used, I found these ruins much less atmospheric than others we visited in the city. Nevertheless that south facade alone probably justifies paying the entrance fee.
Antigua’s cathedral might well stand as a metaphor for the city itself: built, destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again, and finally rebuilt for a third time but on much less grand a scale. Now the ruins of its former grandeur lie in its shadows, yet even today’s more modest structure is impressive enough.
The first cathedral on this site was constructed in 1545 but lasted less than 40 years, poor construction causing its roof to succumb to the first major earthquake to assault it, in 1583. The site lay in ruins for a while, and then in 1670 it was decided to build a new cathedral. The task took 11 years and the conscripted labour of hundreds of indigenous Mayans. Hardly surprising, given the scale of the new cathedral. It had 18 chapels, a huge dome, five naves, and a large central chamber measuring 90 meters by 20 meters. Its altar was inlaid with silver, ivory, and mother-of pearl, its walls adorned with paintings by renowned European and colonial artists. This magnificent building managed to withstand the earthquakes of 1689 and 1717, but Santa Marta was too much for it, and in 1773 Antigua’s cathedral was once more in ruins
Today the structure is more church than cathedral – an early 19th century reconstruction of the front and first two bays of the original. You can go inside for a small fee, but opening hours seem to be erratic and we never found it open when we were passing. We did however visit the extensive ruins that lie behind it. Entrance was only 3 Q (much cheaper than some of the other church ruins in Antigua) and we found the crumbling stones, broken arches and faded ornamentation very atmospheric. A few signs tell you which part of the cathedral you are standing in, but for the most part it’s best just to wander, and to wonder too about the people who would have worshipped here and the power of the earthquake that transformed such a mighty structure into a pile of masonry.
Nobody we asked could tell us anything about this church – Bill Harriss, owner of the nearby La Peña de Sol Latina, included. It was only when I returned home I was able to identify it. It was built in the mid 17th century and at its height was known for its fine wall paintings and decorated altars. Unlike many of Antigua’s ruins, this one is fenced off and closed to the public, and clearly has undergone no reconstruction since it was destroyed by a series of earthquakes, culminating with Santa Marta in 1773. It was left to crumble further, and even at one point used as a stable! But they still take the trouble to illuminate it prettily at night, as you can see, and a stroll along its south side on 5a Calle Poniente will enable you to peer inside and see the monumental chunks of masonry still lying where they fell 237 years ago.
The facade of the Iglesia el Carnen is one of the most ornate in Antigua, which makes it well worth seeking out even though its ruins are not open to the public (though you can peer through the iron gate to get an indication of the extent of the devastation caused by Santa Marta).
The church was completed in 1728, and is the third to occupy this site. Its facade is ornately Baroque in style, and unique in Antigua, being decorated with triple pairs of columns set on podia projecting forward from the main wall rather than the niches and saints usually found on Antigua's churches. The best time to view and photograph this church is in the morning, as it’s on the west side of the street and will be in shadow later in the day. Come back later though if you want to see the traditional Mayan crafts sold by local women immediately outside – we were too early and the only signs of the market were a few colourful strands of wool lying on the cobbles, dropped by the previous day’s traders.
By the way, just around the corner on 3a Calle Oriente (walking towards 4a Avenida Norte) is a particularly attractive row of Antigua’s typical coloured houses – another good photo stop (see photo 3).
This is another church to visit in the morning, when its east-facing facade is illuminated by the sun. You can easily pick out the vestiges of the unusual (for Antigua) painted friezes that once decorated it – see photo 2 for a close-up view.
This Jesuit church and convent were founded in 1582. In 1767 the Jesuits were forced to leave the country and the buildings were therefore vacant at the time of their destruction by the 1773 earthquake. Unlike some of the ruined churches and religious buildings, parts of this one were restored and in the 19th century housed a textile factory. Today the restored portion of the convent is home to the Centro de Formación de la Cooperación Española (“Centre of Formation of the Spanish Cooperation”). It hosts temporary exhibitions and a visit to one of these would give you a chance to see inside –see the website below (in Spanish only) for information on forthcoming events.
The church however is still in ruins, and closed to the public, although when we were there we saw signs of activity. It seemed that young people studying the art of restoration were attending a course there, possibly with a view to practicing what they were learning on this particular ruin.
As a contrast to the ruins elsewhere, this is a restored and functioning church. It is dedicated to Central America's only saint, Hermano Pedro. He was born in Tenerife in 1626, and moved to Antigua, where he joined the church as a monk. He dedicated his life to working for the poor, and established schools, hospitals and shelters for the destitute. He died when he was just 41 but the poor of the city continued to turn to him, and many believed that he cured their various ailments. He was beatified on June 22nd 1980 and canonised on July 30th 2002 by Pope John Paul II, who called him the "first Canarian and Guatemalan saint." Today the sick and disabled continue to pray to him for relief or recovery. You can see just how much he is revered in the nearby Iglesia de San Francisco (see separate tip) where he is buried.
Adjacent to the church is the hospital, founded in 1663. Today it serves as a social centre for the needy, a shelter for old people, and a clinic for the treatment of malnourished children, and of physically and mentally disabled.
Confusingly, Hermano Pedro is not buried in the church dedicated to and named for him, but here in nearby San Francisco. This is one of Antigua’s oldest churches, dating back to 1579, although little of that 16th century original remains today. Instead there is a substantial largely 19th century church, with extensive ruins to one side.
The saint is buried in a large tomb on the north wall, and nearby a multitude of small stone plaques (photo 2) attest to the gratitude of those who believe themselves cured or otherwise helped by him. Outside to the left of the entrance you can see an unusual cross decorated with items associated with Christ's Passion, known as Arma Christi (photo 3).
Admission to the church is free but there’s a small charge to visit the ruins and museum attached to them. The latter is devoted to the life of Hermano Pedro and displays some of his personal belongings as well as photos from the visit of Pope John Paul II in 2002 to mark his canonisation.
If you aren’t all shopped out by now, there are a number of traditional crafts stalls within the church grounds and prices seemed cheaper than in the Artisans’ Market, although we didn’t buy anything here ourselves.
Another interesting combo with a functioning church attached to a much larger structure in ruins. The visit is hauntingly evocative. Within the church is the tomb of Hermano Pedro, a Saint who is credited with healings. Part of the visit includes rooms full of crutches and braces that became unnecessary once sufferers were cured. If you walk to the church of Hermano Pedro (not too far away), you will encounter handicapped and stricken people hoping to be cured too.
The cathedral, as with many churches in the city, was heavily damaged by a series of earthquakes in the 16th and 17th centuries. Building began in 1542 but the original structure was demolished in 1688. The current edifice was built btween 1669 and 1680. The quake that broke camel’s back was in 1773 and lead to the relocation of the nation’s capital from Antigua to Guatemala City. Many of the damaged churches and cathedrals were left abandoned or reutilized but without rebuilding or removing the resulting rubble. The cathedral was renovated between 1780 and 1820 to include a scaled-down worship area that is in use today. This area was just the entry hall for the original structure.
The façade which faces the Parque Central has also been renovated and is beautifully lit at night. Visitors can tour the unrestored areas of the cathedral in which one can get an idea of how large the original cathedral was before the earthquake. The large boulders still in the spots where they fell also gives one and indication of why renovations were never made. Be sure to go down to the small underground chapel accessible via a set of stairs behind the former altar.
This is a large cathedral on the northern end of the Parque Central. It dates back to the 16th century, when Antigua was the capital of the region. Inside it has been lovingly restored, so you can see the beauty of the sculptures and woodwork inside. The rear is also under restoration, the portion that collapsed in the numerous earthquakes. It is an easy place to check out, being so close to the center of town.
On the park’s east side, the cathedral was founded in 1542, damaged by earthquakes many times, badly ruined in 1773 and only partially rebuilt between 1780 and 1820. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, Antigua’s churches had lavish baroque interiors. but most - including this one - lost this richness during post-earthquake rebuilding. The cathedral is being restored, but it will never regain its grandeur. Inside, a crypt contains the bones of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, historian of the Spanish conquest, who died in 1581.
The interior is unimpressive but holds a carving of Christ by Quirio Cataño, who also carved the famed Cristo Negro of Esquipulas.
Located on 1era Calle Pte., just three blocks north and a half-block west of the Central Park, the yellow and white La Merced church boasts the most intricately decorated facade in all of Antigua. Truly a work of art, a visit to the Iglesia La Merced, and to the Covento Mercedario next door, must be a part of any traveler's stay in Antigua. Entrance to the convent costs a mere Q3 ($0.39) - a great bargain.
It seems to me that I read somewhere that the fountain inside the Convento Mercedario is the largest colonial fountain in all of Central America. Worth a second look. If you would like to check out a few more pictures of the La Merced Church and Convent, please take a look at my "La Merced" Travelogue.
It is here that you can visit the tomb of and celebrate the work of Central America's only saint, Hermano Pedro. He lived during the 17th century and is known for his work for the poor, capped by his opening of a hospital specifically for their care. He was made a saint in 2002 which led to a visit to Guatemala by Pope John Paul II.
The church structures date from the 15th century but most of what can be seen (functional and ruins) is from later restorations. Inside the operating portion of the church are many monuments to Hermano Pedro including a striking mural on the south wall. His tomb is in an area on the north side of the church and features very nice wooden carvings on its sides. In the ruins area of the church is a museum dedicated to the saint with some of his personal belongings on display as well as great photo documentation of the Pope's visit in 2002. Be sure to check out the wall paintings to the right as you pass through the admission gate to the ruins portion of the grounds. Admission to the church and tomb is free.
Outside the church is a small crafts market with several stalls of textiles, masks, etc. Check these out and also Gigantes, the craft store across the street (7a Calle Oriente).
One of the oldest stil standing churches in Antigua, this church was built in 1579 and still stands despite being damaged by earthquakes many times. One attractions of this church for the faithful is the tomb of Saint Hermano Pedro de Betancourt who is credited with converting many of the local Mayan population to Christanity.
This partially restored cathdral, located on the Parque Central, is small but lovely. It is being slowly restored. You can go to the back to get in to see the restoration underway and the ruins of the old Bishop's house.