Touring the Jesuit Missions in La Gran Chiquitania of East Bolivia

Typical structure of Bolivia's Jesuit missions (©Coen Wubbels)

Typical structure of Bolivia’s Jesuit missions (©Coen Wubbels)

150 kilometers of unpaved road meander through thick forest and cattle ranches in eastern Bolivia. The road takes me to my third Jesuit Mission: Santa Ana. It’s the smallest of the six missions that make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site of La Gran Chiquitania.

The simplicity of Santa Ana's church is enchanting (©Coen Wubbels)

The simplicity of Santa Ana’s church is enchanting (©Coen Wubbels)

Unlike other Jesuit Missions, the central plaza of Santa Ana isn’t meticulously kept but consists of a wilderness of tall grass and shady, ancient trees, making it a pleasant place to sit on a bench and take in the surroundings.

From here I study the small, plastered houses surrounding the plaza with decorative paintings of flowers around the windowpanes. They all date from the 18th century. Contrary to most other Jesuit missions, the walls are blissfully free from ugly advertisements.  Santa Ana is attractive in all its simplicity.

In Your Bucket Because …

  • The missions are among the best kept on the continent and a fantastic reminder of the Jesuit’s and knowledge and artistic talents.
  • You like to explore off-the-beaten-track locations..
  • A must for architecture buffs and good for anybody interested in churches and/or history.

The History of the Jesuit Missions

Beautiful statue of San Rafael, the saint you can recognize by the fish in his hand (©Coen Wubbels)

Beautiful statue of San Rafael, a saint you can easily recognize by the fish in his hand (©Coen Wubbels)

In the colonial days, indigenous people were hunted down, most notably by Portuguese/Brazilian Bandeirantes, in order to be enslaved. Opposing the badeirantes were the well-educated Jesuits came to South America with a strong sense of organization, efficiency and willpower. In an area encompassing today’s Uruguay, Paraguay, north Argentina, south Brazil and east Bolivia, the Jesuits set up reducciónes – missions. They invited indigenous people to live there, to be safe from those who hunted them down, but also to be converted to Christianity.

In Bolivia, the foundation of each mission began with the erection of a large wooden cross surrounded by four palm trees, which would become the center of the plaza. Along three sides of the plaza were (and still are) streets with tiled roof houses with narrow galleries running in front of them due to the elongated roofs that rest on pillars.

Adjacent to one side of the plaza, the Jesuits built the church, a bell tower and their living quarters around a courtyard. The missions were generally ruled by two priests and a council of indigenous people (unique in those days). In Bolivia the inhabitants comprised different indigenous groups who spoke the same language and through time grew into a new group, which today known is as the Chiquitanos.

Baroco-Mestizo Art

An example of Baroco-mestizo: the head of the pillar is an angel, its hair widens out into the leaves of a palm tree (©Coen Wubbels)

An example of Baroco-mestizo: the face carved in the pillar is that of an angel, its hair widens out into the leaves of a palm tree (©Coen Wubbels)

The indigenous people lived here of their own free will (although critics will argue that they had no real choice: outside the mission they would most likely have been hunted down) and all shared in the profits of their agricultural efforts. The missions became especially known for economic prosperity and also for their cultural wealth, both in music and crafts. Their art became known as Baroco-mestizo, which synthesized the European Baroque tradition brought by the priests with the art of the local cultures.

In the 18th century the missions had become independent centers of power — too independent for the liking of the pope. As a result the Jesuits were expelled from South America in 1776. Many missions were raided or destroyed: in Paraguay, for example, only ruins remain. In Bolivia more of the missions survived, arguably because many of the buildings were made of adobe, which can’t be reused elsewhere. (In other countries, Jesuit missions were built of stones that were subsequently used for other buildings).

The Construction of Santa Ana

The wooden cross is used in processions (©Coen Wubbels)

The wooden cross is used in processions (©Coen Wubbels)

The story of the church of Santa Ana is a bit different as it was constructed only after the Jesuits had been expelled. In the church I meet Flora, the caretaker. She is incredibly proud of her church and the place she lives. “Santa Ana is the most rustic of all missions,” she says, which in her (and my) eyes is a compliment.

Depending on your taste you will probably call the decorations somewhere between crude and rustic. The carving techniques are basic and there is limited ornamentation, with perhaps the exception of an abundance of mica used on the side altars. Today the earthen floor is covered in basic, rustic floor tiles. Most pillars have been replaced in the 20th century; their dates are carved in the wood.

I like the way mica is used as a lampshade to hide the ugly LED lights that are mandatory nowadays. It’s not exactly beautiful, but I like the thought that somebody realized those lights are just too hideous to look at, which is not common in South American churches.

Too Much of the Same?

How many churches can you see before you get worn out or feel you are seeing more of the same? On this trip it doesn’t happen. From beginning to end I am fascinated by the similarities but also the differences in the missions’ architecture, in their decorations, in their set up, in how they have been overly restored or just beautifully kept. They all have different aspects. Some have a museum, others have caretakers who love to share their story.

From here I have to choose my road to the next mission, San Miguel. I have several options and Flora, the caretaker, helps me out by indicating a narrow trail that will cut straight through the forest. My cultural sightseeing tour becomes enhanced by driving through Bolivia’s nature with its abundance of colorful butterflies, grasshoppers and even walking-sticks. The inspiration for the natural elements in the art of the Jesuit Missions is just around the corner.

San José de los Chiquitos is the only mission in Bolivia entirely built of stone (©Coen Wubbels)

San José de los Chiquitos is the only mission in Bolivia entirely built of stone (©Coen Wubbels)

Practical Information

  • Visit the missions clockwise, starting from Santa Cruz up to San Xavier – in this way you save the most beautiful churches for last. A round trip is about 700 kms, half of which is paved.
  •  To fully appreciate the missions, but to also have time to visit the museums and take a stroll through the antique villages, plan 4-6 days for a round trip.
  • Every 2 years (even years) there is a Renaissance Baroque Music Festival around May/April with the Festival Internacional de Música Barroca Misiones de Chiquitos. It is one of the most important international music festivals on the continent.

Photos by Coen Wubbels.

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