Quito has one of the largest concentrations of breathtakingly beautiful ancient churches in all of Latin America. It is a rewarding experience to visit them, both for their majestic beauty, but also for their rich history, replete with legends, miracles, politics, and art. The best of the capital city’s churches are all within walking distance of each other in the historical district, a UNESCO World Heritage Center, the exception being the Sanctuary to the Virgin of Guápulo in the Guápulo Valley, itself a neighborhood worth visiting.
The Basilica del Voto Nacional
Basilica del Voto Nacional | @flickr.com
The largest of all Quito‘s churches, and inspiried by Bourges Cathedral in France, this awe-inspiring edifice with its towering spires is several streets northwest of the historical district. This is also the largest of all neo-Gothic cathedrals in the Western Hemisphere. Construction began in 1887 and was largely completed by 1909. An urban legend claims that a final completion of the site will occur shortly before the end of the world. For a few dollars you can tour the interior upper levels of the structure.
La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, with its ornate design and gold-leaf covering much of its vast interior, is widely regarded as the most beautiful of all churches in Ecuador. Begun in 1605 in the Spanish Baroque style, it also incorporated French and Italian Baroque, and even Moorish influence, before completion in 1765.
The oldest of all of Quito’s churches, the Church and Monastery of San Francisco began construction in 1534, and continued for 150 years. The curved steps leading up to the main entrance were originally designed for the Belvedere of the Vatican, before the plans were utilized for this structure. The church, convent, and accompanying museum contain a total 3,500 works of colonial art.
Facing Santo Domingo Plaza, the Santo Domingo Church, like the Church and Monastery of San Francisco, also began construction in the 16th century and also features a museum. From the high tower, featuring a large clock, and throughout its interior, its style ranges from Baroque to Moor. The church also serves as one of the primary showcases for Quito School of Art, noted for its realism and incorporation of indigenous themes.
Begun by priests of the Merced order in the 16th century, as a basilica, it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1660 before rebuilding began in 1701. Some of its more unusual aspects include pagan motifs, such as the stone pillars at the entrance with images of the sun and the moon, and a fountain featuring a statue of the Roman god, Neptune. It also features a library with historical parchment books and a museum with antique jewelry and paintings.
Technically a chapel that is part of the larger Cathedral of Quito, due to its large size, and its renowned art by Bernardo de Legarda, one of the most important figures in the Quito School of Art, this is regarded as an independent church.
The seat of Quito’s Archdiocese, facing Plaza Grande, this 17th century cathedral features the tomb of José Antonio Sucre, a hero of Ecuador’s independence, and a plaque noting where President Garcia Moreno bled to death in 1875 after being attacked by an assassin. There is a curious contrast between its reserved orthodox Spanish exterior and florid Baroque interior.
This Carmelite convent and church was built in 1653 and is the burial place of Santa Mariana de Jesus, the first native-born Ecuadorian to be canonized by the Catholic Church. The interior of the church features beautiful and historically important religious carvings and sculpture by artists such as Diego de Robles and Bernardo de Legardo.
The church and convent of Carmen Bajo, or “Carmen Low,” completed in 1745, is so named to distinguish it from Carmen Alto, or “Carmen High,” because it sits at a lower elevation than the latter church. The cloistered design of the building shelters the practicing nuns from the world outside, but also provides safe haven for some of Quito’s most historically valuable art, including the sculptures and paintings of 18th century Mother Superior, Magdalena Dávalos.
Dedicated to the Catholic saint and philosopher, Saint Augustine, whose life the church honors through a series of paintings on its walls, this features a moodily evocative 17th century conference hall where scholarly Catholic monks debated faith and theology. The 23 meter (72 foot high) carillon tower contains two period bronze bells.
Both a museum as well as the site of an active convent, the Santa Catalina de Sienna Church has an iconic historical resonance for dedicated Roman Catholics; the property upon which this house of worship was built in 1594 belonged to Don Lorenzo de Cepeda, brother of Saint Teresa of Avila, one of the most famous of all Catholic saints. The small museum features more than 100 works of 17th and 18th century religious art, and one can purchase, through a cloistered door that preserves the privacy of the cloistered sisters, the products they make such as wine, creams, and syrup.
San Blas is not only Quito’s oldest church, dating back to 1573, but the first specifically intended to serve the indigenous population, where Ecuador’s first Mestizo priest performed mass. The walls feature classical, baroque-era portraits of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus, as well as Mary Magdalene and the apostle, John. The ornate altar features sculptures, not only of the namesake Saint Blas, but the philosopher-saints Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, along with Sebastian, Barbara, and Domingo.
El Belén is the site of Quito’s first official place of worship, if not a church. It began as a hermitage as 1546, but the area has a historical resonance preceding that as a sacred spot for the native Quitus population, who named it “Chuquiguada,” or “spear tip.” It was nearly a century later, however, in 1640, when an actual church was constructed, with the name Santa Cruz de Belén, but the church now seen today on Luis Sodiro between 10 de Agosto and Gran Colombia was constructed in 1787.
This historically and architecturally important church is not located in Quito’s historical district, but rather several kilometers north at the base of the Guápulo valley, itself worth walking down to for the views, art galleries, taverns, and old-style architecture along its cobblestone path. Both the valley and the church get the unusual name from an indigenous mispronunciation of “Guadalupe.” It originated as a hermitage in 1956 and is now part of the campus for the SEK International University.