Templo San Buenaventura de Yaguaron
Permanent Delegation of Paraguay to UNESCO
Department Paraguarí, City Yaguarón
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Located 60 km outside of Asuncion, Templo San Buenaventura in the historical town Yaguaron is a well-preserved example of the colonial Franciscan Reductions of Paraguay. The Franciscan reductions, or missions, were some of the first Catholic institutions in the region and their effects can still be seen today. Their towns "reduced" the originally nomadic natives to fixed areas allowing the missionaries to better control and catechize them, while teaching them to read and write, to cultivate the land, to domesticate animals, and to create artistic works. This method of "reducing" indigenous peoples to religious and civil life was mainly carried out by both the Franciscans and the Jesuits, yet each order had their own strategies to impose a new way of life on the Guaranis in religion, economic systems, language, and culture.
The reduction of San Buenaventura was built in 1586-1587 by Friar Luis de Bolaños, with indigenous people brought from Acahay, Paraguay. Together with the reductions of the neighboring villages Altos (1580) and Itá (1585), it became one of the most prominent missionary centers due to its important artisan workshops. The main element of the traditional Franciscan village is the street grid of five-by-five blocks with a central church. The church has continued to be an important part of the history of Yaguarón and Paraguay and is now a popular tourist destination.
The church’s design is undoubtedly the most significant example of the colonial-era Franciscan architecture in Paraguay. The property consists of a rectangular building surrounded by wide galleries that protect the main body of the church from direct rain and sun and connect the interior to the courtyard. It is covered by a gable tiled, wooden roof that extends over the galleries and is supported by external and internal columns, which define the central and lateral naves. Its characteristic flat-front exterior is found in many other Hispanic-American churches of the era. The small openings of the perimeter galleries allow the best insulation of the interior with respect to the outside temperature. All doors, windows and window covers are made of wood. The bell tower is free-standing and is also made of wood. Despite the exterior’s simplicity, the interior of the church is extremely ornate and impressive.
The technique used for the construction of the building was typical of the Hispanic colonial period. The process began with building a wooden structure to support the beams, which in turn reinforced the roof. Once the roof was finished, the adobe walls were raised to basically close the open spaces since they could not support the full weight of the roof. The adobe walls have a considerable thickness, between 1.20m to 2.20m, and act as thermal insulators. They are finished with whitewashed plaster, giving the building its solid yet austere appearance.
As soon as one enters the church, the monumentality of its importance is obvious. A crucified Christ, carved from wood, is the first object to draw the eyes, then the similar but differently decorated confessionals on each side of the interior. After being restored, the confessionals have lost their original function and are now museum pieces. The ceiling, columns, and altarpiece are profusely decorated with shapes inspired by the local flora, a style that was very popular at the time.
The altarpiece, undoubtedly the highlight of the entire complex, was originally used by missionaries to introduce Guaranis to the principles of the Catholic religion. It is made of wood with intricate polychrome paintings. On the top, the altarpiece illustrates the Eternal Father reigning over Creation. Further down the piece are symbols that represent the four constitutive elements of nature: water, air, fire, and earth. A little lower, there two figures that symbolize Glory and Justice. In the main niche there is a Virgen de la Concepción and a stepped pyramid that symbolizes the effort that must be made (climbing a ladder) to reach Eternal Glory, with the mediation of the Virgin and the help of the Holy Spirit at the top of the niche. On the right side of the altar there is an image of San Miguel Arcángel killing the devil and to the left is one of San Buenaventura, the saint to whom the temple and the town had been consecrated. Above the altar table, there is a large, imposing tabernacle surrounded by the heads of angels that emerge in the middle of scrolls, and a symbolic lamb is above the door of the altar. The Sacristy was the only part of the building with a vault, which was dismantled in the restoration work carried out in 2016 and now must be reinstalled in a future restoration. Overall, the Guarani Baroque art inside the Yaguarón temple is the best example of its kind in Paraguay and the Rio de la Plata region.
There are no records of the church’s original plan, making it is impossible to know with certainty its original builders or architects. However, there is little doubt that the Portuguese carver José de Souza Cavadas played an essential role in the later construction of the temple’s altars, especially the main altarpiece. De Souza Cavadas arrived in South America in 1740 and worked as an architect in Matto Grosso, Brazil and Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he made several altarpieces. Afterwards, he traveled to Paraguay and built the magnificent interior of the Temple of San Buenaventura while also teaching his technique to numerous indigenous apprentices. These apprentices later oversaw the construction and design of a similar altarpiece in the neighboring Temple of Capiatá. The architect’s singular remaining complete work is the Temple of San Buenaventura. The others were either destroyed by fires or in the case of Argentina, by the Perón dictatorship of the mid 20th century.
The economic boom of Yaguarón occurred around 1755 when the town became a center for the cultivation and processing of dark tobacco. The town is also famous for being the birthplace of one of Paraguay’s most famous dictators, Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia. His home is now a history museum near the Templo de San Buenaventura.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
The main values of the Templo de San Buenaventura de Yaguarón are:
Antiquity and Singularity: The church of Yaguarón, built in the 16th century, is the most complete existing example of the temple typology from the Guarani area, which includes modern-day Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia. Corresponding to the urban settlements of Franciscan origin, the building is in the town’s center square and serves as a focal point around which the population develops. This type of church was characteristic during the 17th- 19th centuries, yet very few examples remain standing today in the region. It’s singularity as one of the best preserved and last remaining Franciscan churches of the time justifies its universal value.
Historical importance: The temple serves as an evocative reminder of the colonial era and is a living testimony of the past ways people used space for religion. The communal living system of the Franciscan Reductions played a significant part in the region’s history and culture; the effects of their settlements and works are still seen today. The church itself is an urban landmark within the city of Yaguarón and is a tool for historical education and tourism.
Architectural quality: The church’s fidelity in style and typology of its time is evident in the quality of its constructive and decorative details, distribution of space, and pristine level of preservation.
Criterion (ii): The church demonstrates cultural exchange and importance in architecture through the following:
- The adaptation of traditional European design in creating a functional church apt for local climatic conditions through the creation of galleries that separate interior and exterior of the temple, which protect both the adobe walls and the parishioners from the incidence of frequent rains
- The adaptation of the foreign church design using locally available materials, such as the wood of the roof and pillars, the sand of the adobe walls, and the interior paint, is an example of human adaptation of a foreign architectural typology to the environment in which he lives, which allowed him to respond to a need and at the same time create a bioclimatic architecture. The construction of this building represents an exchange of culture and values between the Franciscans and the local indigenous Guaranis and by unifying their skills they were able to construct a building of an unknown scale to the region.
- The reinterpretation of design to the local area in the decoration of the intricate interior of the church. It can be said that the European Baroque style was reconceptualized to the regional context by the Indigenous and mestizo painters and sculptors who imposed their own expression to the formal style. They used decorative motifs of the local flora and fauna to create intimate art inside the temples, resulting in a syncretism of styles that is now recognized as American Baroque. The altarpieces have more than just a religious value; they represent the symbiosis of the two very different cultures.
Criterion (iv): The Temple of Buenaventura is a statement of early Franciscan presence in Paraguay, a period of immense transformation in the Americas as a whole. It was the first time for many to encounter humans from another hemisphere, let alone try to adapt to one another’s cultures.
The urban pattern of modern-day Yaguarón is based off the historic design of Franciscan origin, very peculiar, that consists of placing the church isolated in a great green square that it is established as a central element conferring to the life of the town a sacred sense.
The building is characterized by its monumental value, its urban and landscape-environmental value.
The San Buenaventura de Yaguarón Temple is framed within the so-called colonial style, belonging to the 18th century, a period of Hispanic domination. It corresponds to a typology of buildings with perimeter galleries that responds to a climatic requirement of our environment, where the galleries not only serve to shelter from the rains but also as a strong element of social integration, becoming the transition between the public and the private space. The building was built in the usual manner of the time, resolved with a structural system of pair and knuckles where the thick adobe walls (between 1.20m to 2.20m wide) are simple enclosure.
The church is a symbol of Paraguayan colonial religious architecture and a paradigm of Guarani baroque art. It is the most representative example of the type of church in traditional Guaranitic area (Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia).
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
Due to its technological characteristics and the climatic conditions of Paraguay, the monument has undergone several renovations since its construction. Despite the passage of time and these renovations, the building continues to preserve its original design, shape and materials, making it the best testimony of a colonial Franciscan temple in the Guarani area. Throughout the years, the building has maintained its relationship with the community and its original function of religious worship. It continues to be the spiritual center and a symbolic representation of the city of Yaguarón.
State of conservation and restorations: Despite difficulties like abrupt temperature changes, high humidity, extreme heat in the summer, constant torrential rains, and termite damage, the church has remained. It has survived many wars and revolutions, unlike many similar places. In 1922 Paraguayan Civil War a group of revolutionaries used the church as the "barracks, market, kitchen and stables, ... and the images were taken down from the altars", as described by the writer Josefina Plá.
The restorative works were carried out over the years and have managed to keep the temple in an excellent state of conservation. The first restoration took place at the end of the 19th century, then another in the middle of the 20th century, in which the main altar was completely dismantled, classified, cleaned, then put back in their respective places. They also restored the side altars, the two confessionals, the doors and the windows. Thanks to this meticulous work, the church was able to regain its former splendor. Later works included a total renovation of the temple’s electrical system, the implementation of a new lighting and sound system for liturgical celebrations, and a perimeter protection fence for the sculptures (sacred images) inside the Temple with the corresponding signs. Finally, the roof area above the sacristy was also repaired
The building maintains intact all the characteristic elements of a Franciscan mission temple: its perimeter gallery, its wooden bell tower, its exterior simplicity, and the interior complexity of its altars and images. Furthermore, its location in the middle of the large plaza gives clarity to what was the most important urban-sacred space in a Franciscan-Guaraní village; it is necessary to emphasize that in most Paraguayan churches from the same period, this important space does not exist anymore.
Within the block where the temple is located, there are all the necessary attributes to express the exceptional universal value of the property, and these attributes are in an acceptable state of conservation, while adequately protected.
The general condition of the building and the surrounding area, which is profusely forested, is good. The site is also an important tourist destination in the country. Approximately ten years ago sanitary services were built in a corner of the plot, in a semi-buried form, which has not affected the spatial reading of the temple located in the middle of the square. In the area surrounding the temple-square there are some buildings, the typical houses with front galleries that, without having particular architectural values, contribute to define the urban morphology and environmental features that impact the identity of the city and the harmonious relationship between the historic building and its physical context.
Comparison with other similar properties
The literature on Hispanic-American architecture of the colonial period highlights the existence of a specific type of temple in the Guaranitic area, comprising areas located in present-day Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, also including a region of Bolivia; like wide surrounding galleries to protect against rain and humidity, a wooden beam structure, and walls that could be stone, adobe, or tapia. Such features also appear in the churches of the missions of Moxos and Chiquitos, in the current territory of Bolivia. In addition, in the case of the Franciscan towns, the church is located in the middle of the plaza, which is an atypical situation in the context of the Spanish missions. It should be noted that there are no remaining churches of this early-stage design in Argentina, Brazil or Paraguay.
Although this type of building and construction was characteristic of the primitive churches of the Jesuit Guaraní reductions, in which the wooden structure was independent and the adobe walls were not load-bearing, having no remaining churches of that first stage in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay; and those of the last missionary stage, where a stone construction system was used, are in a state of ruin, except for the church of San Cosme and San Damián, the only one that is still in use today.
Among the differences with the churches of the Jesuit missions of Moxos and Chiquitos, Bolivia (inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1990), there is the juxtaposition of the austere exterior Yaguarón temple with whitewashed walls and its profusely decorated baroque interior; the churches in Bolivia have decorated exterior walls. The free-standing wooden bell tower of the temple in Yaguarón is also different, most Bolivian Jesuit churches have incorporated the bell tower to the church. The location of the Yaguarón church in the middle of the plaza in the style of the Franciscan reductions is unlike the Jesuit missions, where the temple appears as the backdrop to the plaza. Finally, the Yaguarón temple is built entirely of a wooden structure with adobe walls, unlike Bolivian Jesuit temples where volcanic stone was used in some enclaves, or even in the façade wall.
In relation to the four other temples of Franciscan origin that represent the same typological characteristics in and geographical area of Paraguay (see below), the temple of Yaguarón is the oldest by far and most intricate. In all these churches the main façade has been modified over the years, losing their typologies of periphery temples; Yaguarón has the only temple that fully preserves its typological and religious authenticity.
- Iglesia Dulce Nombre de Jesús de Piribebuy (1753): the main masonry façade includes a bell tower made of the same material
- Iglesia La Candelaria de la ciudad de Capiatá (1769): suffered significant modifications over time, the largest being the elimination of the naves and their corresponding artwork. The freestanding wooden tower mentioned in an 1841 inventory was also demolished. Today it still has the main masonry façade.
- Iglesia San Agustín de la ciudad de Emboscada (1777): past events include the destruction of the original bell tower, which was originally a free-standing structure like that of Yaguarón, the addition of a masonry façade with a central bell tower, whose characteristics formally and typologically alter the original conception of the work; the replacement of wooden pillars and beams with concrete ones, and the replacement of the old brick floor by reconstituted granite tiles inside the temple.
- Iglesia San Lorenzo de la ciudad de Altos (1822): It has a masonry tower built in 1895.
The following are similar properties of contemporary Franciscan temples in Argentina:
- Iglesia del Convento Franciscano de la ciudad de Santa Fe: it has a single nave, and the tower is attached to the outer façade. The front of the church has a museum wing which was previously the old convent. It is not a peripheral temple, nor is it located individually in the middle of the square as in the case of Yaguarón, since it is part of a building complex.
- Parroquia de Santa Ana de los Guácaras de Corrientes: It has a single nave with external lateral galleries, a masonry façade and bell tower, and it is not a peripheral temple. Its location is also not in the middle of the square.
This architectural type is characteristic and is the representation of the churches of the Guaranitic area (Paraguay, Bolivia and northeastern Argentina) corresponding to a specific period of Hispano-American history, and the fact that it is a peripteral Christian temple constitutes an exceptional quality, not only in the regional but also in the international sphere.