Antigua, or Antigua Guatemala to give it its full name, is a city shaped by the movement of the earth on which it stands. It was founded in 1543 and despite the ravages of several earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, it was for over 200 years the capital and economic centre of the whole Kingdom of Guatemala. This was a significant country, covering what today we know as southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
But in 1773 came the most destructive of all the earthquakes, the Santa Marta; much of the city’s political and religious infrastructure was destroyed. A proposal was drawn up to move the capital for a third time; and despite some opposition, in 1775 a royal letter was written to order the foundation of a new capital (today’s Guatemala City).
Left largely in ruins the city might perhaps have crumbled away completely; but enough fabric and people remained to keep it alive. Today it is a National Monument, and it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.
At its heart is an almost perfect grid of streets and avenues, each of them a gem. They are lined with picturesque houses, many single storey because of the constant threat from the forces of nature, and dotted with the skeletons of those ruined colonial churches.
Antigua might strike you at first, as it did me, as something of a museum piece; a colonial city preserved in aspic. Its ruined churches are frozen at the moment of destruction; its once grand houses have been turned into posadas and restaurants to cater to the whims of tourists. But you only have to walk a few blocks from the centre to discover that ‘real’ life happens here too. Visit the locals’ market; sit for a while in the Playa Union; pause for a while in one of those same churches to watch local women take a moment from their day to light a candle. This too is Antigua.
So let me take you on a tour of some of those churches; a final contribution to Becky’s month of Past Squares.
Catedral de Santiago
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 (in my feature photo above) is impressive enough.
The first cathedral on this site was constructed in 1545 but lasted less than 40 years; poor construction caused 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 seemed to be erratic and we never found it open when we were passing. We did however visit the extensive ruins that lie behind it. I 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.
Iglesia de San Agustin
Nobody we asked could tell us anything about this church, the owner of a nearby restaurant, 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. It 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.
Iglesia de Santa Clara
The convent of Santa Clara 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 façade hidden within. Even today with the convent in ruins, that façade is more or less invisible from the street but it’s possible for a fee to visit the ruins and see it and the extensive complex beyond.
With the exception of that façade the ruins are sprawling. The church forms one side of a large cloister. 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.
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. 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 façade alone probably justifies paying the entrance fee.
Iglesia el Carmen
The façade of the Iglesia el Carmen 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 façade 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.
Convento della Compagnia de Jesus
This Jesuit church and its 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.
If you visit in the morning its east-facing façade is illuminated by the sun. You can easily pick out the vestiges of the unusual (for Antigua) painted friezes that once decorated it.
The Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Señora de la Merced, to give it its full name, is one of the loveliest in Antigua; and unlike many has been fully restored. On a sunny day its vibrant yellow paint and intricate white carvings are truly stunning. Notice how short the bell-tower is; a necessary precaution in this earthquake-ravaged city.
Entrance to the church is free and it’s worth going inside to see the striking altarpiece. You do however need to pay a small fee to enter the monastery attached to one side of the church. Unlike the church this was never restored after the destruction caused by the Santa Marta quake and is rather atmospheric. At the centre of the cloister is the Fuente de Peces, said to be the largest water fountain in Latin America. It is constructed in the shape of a water lily, although you need to climb to the terrace above the cloister to fully appreciate this.
I visited Antigua Guatemala in 2010