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Churches of the Altiplano

Date of Submission: 01/09/1998
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Council of National Monuments
Coordinates: Southernmost: 20°32' S ; Northernmost: 17°43' S Easternmost: 68°42' W ; Westernmost: 69°58' W
Ref.: 1187

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During the Colony, the Tarapaca area was the setting of a rather complex cuitural process, invoiving the contribution of the Quechua, Tiahuanaco, Inca and Aymara people, that resulted in a sort of ethnic and cultural "melting pot". The most tangible reflection of the encounter between the Spanish and Tarapaca worids are the numerous chapels and churches built at the time. The area was colonized early by the Spaniards. The conquest of Chile inaugurated a traffic which wouid intensify in the period of prosperity of the great silver mines in Alto Peru, specially Potosi, discovered in 1545. Ores were transported through this arid region for being shipped in Arica, port from where mercury for the mining exploitation was brought inland. In turn, the area supplied Alto Peru with food, particularly cattle and agricultural produces from the scarce oasis of the region (Pica, Matilla, etc.). After the decadence of the Potosi mine, in the second half of the XVII century, the region suffered a period of decline, which was surmounted thanks to the nitrate industry boom of the XIX century. At the end of the XVI century, the first missionaries arrived at Tarapaca. They came with the mission of evangelizing the natives of the place, building for that end small temples whose design and construction fall within a style generically known as "Andean mestizo". The group is composed of at least fifty churches. Similar in shape and built following the same rudimentary construction technique based on stone and adobe, mud and wild straw (coiron), and the peculiar local wood, these churches show some differences arising from the geographic, productive and social characteristics of each place. However, they clearly constitute a group, and a quite representative one of an spontaneous architecture, of popular- not professional- origin, which kept its continuity for centuries. The missionaries rose the temples at the edge of pre-existing small villages, without altering the layout of the latter. Still, some times the new church was built outside the village, causing it to move to be nearer the temple. On very rare occasions the church was boilt in a town of purely Spanish foundation. A special case is that of churches which are reaily sanctuaries. The most noteworthy case, along with Parinacota, is that of Isluga. According to the Aymara conception of the worid, Isiuga is a ritual center for being the place where the two parts of their worid, or sayas -up and down- split up. Due to its character of ceremonial center, this village remains uninhabited throughout the whole year, except for festivities and commemorations, dates on which it is full of people, music and traditional dances. Historically, the only inhabitant of Isluga is the so called "fabriquero", guardian of the church. The houses of the village also have a ceremonial connotation; they are only inhabited for the festivities, and their most important room is that in which the family rituals are held. Most of these churches have a single nave, always small in size and calculated to welcome the villagers (Parinacota: 5 x 22 meters). On rare occasions there are lateral chapels. In some churches, the walls have been reinforced with strong buttresses (Isiuga). For special festivities attracting a larger number of the faithful, the atrium was useu, an outdoor space delimited by a low wall, inside which there are "poses" (platforms) for piacing the Holy Sacra ment or figu res of saints du ring processions. The churches are rather low and have two-slope roofs. The towers are also of small height, consisting in a closed volume -sometimes divided into two bodies, one on top of the other- with few gaps. They are either attached to the main building or separated from it, inside the atrium. They lodge centenary bells. On the outside, the ornamentation is concentrated on the façades, resulting in fine pieces of work in stone , sometimes incorporating col um ns, a nd wh ich generally present motifs that are characteristics of the Baroque: volutes, flowers, fruits, human figures, etc. On the inside, altars and retables are the outstanding elements. They are of adobe, carved stone or wood, extremely colorful, and highly 8aroque in style. These churches lodge images from the Quito and Cuzco schools, and from workshops of Lima, Potosi or Chiloé. They are pieces made of wood which have been dressed with great care and detail.