Between 1691 and 1760, a series of 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 the Chiquitano blended European architecture with local traditions.
Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos
The Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos are located in Santa Cruz department in eastern Bolivia. Distinguished by a unique fusion of European and Amerindian cultural influences, the missions were founded by the Jesuits to convert local Chiquitano tribes to Christianity.
The six former missions that remain intact were collectively designated as a World Heritage Site in 1990:
- San Francisco Javier
- Santa Ana
- San Miguel
- San Rafael
- San José
Between 1691 and 1760, a series of remarkable reducciones de indios (mission settlements of Christianized Indians) was founded by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in the Chiquitos territory of eastern Bolivia. They were largely inspired by the "ideal cities" that had been envisioned by 16th-century humanist philosophers.
The interior region bordering Spanish and Portuguese territories in South America was largely unexplored at the end of the 17th century. Dispatched by the Spanish Crown, Jesuits explored and founded eleven settlements in 76 years in the remote Chiquitania – then known as Chiquitos – on the frontier of Spanish America.
Here on the semiarid frontier, now known as Chiquitanía, the Chiquitano blended European architecture with local traditions. They built churches (templos) in a unique and distinct style that combined elements of native and European architecture.
The indigenous inhabitants of the missions were taught European music as a means of conversion. The missions were self-sufficient, with thriving economies and virtually autonomous from the Spanish crown.
After the expulsion of the Jesuit order from Spanish territories in 1767, most Jesuit reductions in South America were abandoned and fell into ruins. The former Jesuit missions of Chiquitos are unique because these settlements and their associated culture have survived largely intact.
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 1850's the reducciones system of the missions had disappeared.
A large restoration project of the missionary churches began with the arrival of the former Swiss Jesuit and architect Hans Roth& in 1972. Since 1990, these former Jesuit missions have experienced some measure of popularity and have become a tourist destination.
A popular biennial international musical festival put on by the nonprofit organization Asociación Pro Arte y Cultura, along with other cultural activities within the mission towns, contribute to the popularity of these settlements.