Chiquitania's Jesuit Missions: The mixed-culture arts & architecture

Vanesa Zegada | Live the World

November 23, 2022

In the 17th century, Jesuits arrived in this region with the mission of evangelizing the natives. But this did not end up as the typical story of the conquerors and conquered ones; this ended up being a story of coexistence, that left a beautiful and valuable legacy.

© iStock/jarcosa

To accomplish their task, Jesuits founded eleven self-sufficient towns in the Ch[iquitania area]( called the Jesuit Missions. San Xavier, the first one, was established in 1691.

As expected, each Jesuit Mission had a church but – except the one of San José – those were not the typical catholic buildings. The local materials and style were incorporated and mixed with the European architecture, creating something representative for both groups: this is what catches the attention to these constructions.

© iStock/DC_Colombia

The same way, many signs indicate that Europeans and indigenous lived harmoniously, exchanging knowledge, culture, and sharing in their communities - contrary to what happened in other areas of Latin America during that same period.

Six of the eleven Jesuit Missions have been declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1990: San Xavier, Concepción, San Miguel, San Rafael, San José, and Santa Ana.

© iStock/jarcosa

The Missions of San Ignacio, Santiago de Chiquitos and Santo Corazón have not been declared World Heritage Sites, because their churches were reconstructed and not restored as the first ones, but still are charming places to visit.

Finally, San Ignacio de Zamucos was abandoned and nothing remains of it, while San Juan Bautista is in ruins in the current village of Taperas.

The artistic legacy of the Jesuits was incorporated into the local culture and is maintained till nowadays.

Wood carving is part of this inheritance. Beautiful examples of this art decorate the interior of the Mission churches. The town of Chochis also has valuable artworks in its sanctuary.

On the other hand, as soon as the Jesuits realized that the natives had a prominent musical aptitude, they brought important musicians and music instruments manufacturers from Europe to the area. The music of the Missions achieved such a level that was often compared to the one played in masses in the wealthiest cities of the area. More than 5.000 music sheets from the 17th and 18th century, written by indigenous and Europeans of the Chiquitania - found during the restoration of the Missions churches- are proof of this influential music culture.

Honoring the musical legacy of the region, every two years, the “International Festival of American Renaissance and Baroque Music” takes place, with concerts in the Jesuit Missions and other towns of the region.

The Festival is enrolled in the circuit if the most important early music festivals of the World and has the participation of people from many countries. For several days, near a thousand local and international musicians gather to play the music written in the Chiquitania centuries ago, in more than one hundred concerts.

© iStock/jarcosa

The cultural mixture that took place in this area, where the natives and Europeans lived together in peace and equity, has created an incredible cultural legacy, kept until nowadays. The visitors are invited to experience through the architecture, artistic representations, and traditions of the Jesuit Missions this unique mixture of cultures.

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