Between 1691 and 1760, a series of remarkable mission settlements was founded by the Society of Jesus in the Chiquitos territory of eastern Bolivia. Here on the semiarid frontier of Spanish South America, the Jesuits and their indigenous charges blended European architecture with local traditions.
Between 1691 and 1760, a series of remarkable reducciones de indios (mission settlements of Christianized Indians) largely inspired by the "ideal cities" envisioned by 16th-century humanist philosophers was founded by the Society of Jesus in the Chiquitos territory of eastern Bolivia. Here on the semiarid frontier of Spanish South America, now known as Chiquitanía, the Jesuits and their indigenous charges blended European architecture with local traditions.
The six historic missions that remain intact – San Francisco Javier, Concepción, Santa Ana, San Miguel, San Rafael and San José – today make up a living yet vulnerable heritage in the territory of Chiquitanía.
The idealized urban model for the missions featured houses for the Indians regularly spaced along the three sides of a rectangular square, with the fourth side reserved for the church, workshops and schools. The churches are remarkable examples of the adaptation of European Christian religious architecture to local conditions and traditions.
They resemble large houses with a gable roof overhanging a west gallery extended as a porch. Long walls defining three interior aisles divided by wooden columns and two exterior galleries, also supported by columns, constitute a unique type of architecture, distinguished by the special treatment of the carved wooden columns and banisters. The church at San José is the only exception, being of stone construction and inspired stylistically by a baroque model. In addition to rich interior decoration, many of these churches house remarkable popular art objects such as sculptures, paintings, altars and pulpits.
Unlike other Jesuit missions in South America, the Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos survived the expulsion of the Society of Jesus in 1767, though by the 1850s the reducciones system of the missions had disappeared. These traditional architectural ensembles have more recently become vulnerable under the impact of changes following the agrarian reform of 1953 that threatened the local social and economic infrastructure.