Quito: Blood, Guts and Pigeon-Shit-Splattered Peaks – Quito, Ecuador

Quito: Blood, Guts and Pigeon-Shit-Splattered Peaks

Bell tower of Iglesia de San Francisco

Bell tower of Iglesia de San Francisco

like Ecuador, suffers from a split personality. To the south the old town,
a Florence of the New World, dreaming spires and towering belfries, gleams
white in its valley beneath the high Andean sun. To the north, the new
town, with its mirrored towerblocks, swanky hotels, overpasses and roundabouts,
congested with grey, choking modernity. The contrast couldn’t be greater,
and at some 2,800 metres, clearer.

called Ecuador a monastery when he first marched in with his victorious
troops (before seducing and falling for Quito’s most renowned beauty).
Walking round the old town, you can understand why. The Church of the
sixteenth and seventeenth century here enjoyed probably more power than
the Spanish Crown. In the historic centre alone, over two dozen churches,
chapels and convents rise above the two- and three-storied houses. The
continent’s oldest church stands here, fronting its largest religious
complex. As soon as the town was founded in 1534, the Franciscans began
building their temple. As the original 200 colonists measured and square
off their parcels of land, the Franciscans swallowed up a whole hillside,
on the site of the Incan temples which the defenders razed rather than
leave to the Spanish. And then came the Dominicans, the Jesuits, the Augustinians
and all the original sin caravan of Inquisition Spain. The Cross and the
Bible were just as much a part of the Conquest as the harquebus and the

The colonists
brought sheep, along with horses, cattle and wheat. They transformed the
local countryside and economy. Quito’s families grew rich from the textiles
their Indians wove, supplying the colonial cities and building mansions
on streets which still bare their mark: Calle del Comercio, Calle del
Algodón (cotton). Although the Church owned extensive lands, Quito’s elite
funded the riches that keep tour guides in business today, and made the
city a World Heritage Site in the late ’70s. If there is one element which
courses through the city’s arteries, it is blood. The blood of the Indians
defeated and enslaved then decimated by diseases; blood on the hands of
the Conquistadors who fought over their new-found lands; blood stains
from the nineteenth century battles between liberals and conservatives;
and blood in the churches.

Plaza de la Independencia

Plaza de la Independencia

Franciscans moved fast to fill their church with imagery that would convey
Christianity to the idolatrous masses. Inside their complex, alongside
the catechism they taught practical crafts. Although at first most art
was imported from Spain (there’s a beautiful Zurbarán in the Franciscan
museum), such was the need to fill the churches and minds of Quito, home-grown
production soon became more important. By the mid-seventeenth century,
the mix of indigenous and Spanish styles developed into the ‘Quito School’.
Art historians emphasise the school’s bold colours and exuberant decoration,
but to me its greatest impact, and legacy, is gore.

In two of
Quito’s best colonial art collections, row after row of Christs have been
crucified. Without detracting from all the Virgins, gold leaf, polychromatic
statuary and suffering saints, it is these crucifixions which open a window
across the centuries to colonial Quito. I’ve never seen such blood-congealed
depictions of Christ. The artists of the Quito School slashed Him with
knives, drew pools of blood from His pores, and gouged His body with weeping
wounds. Hannibal Lecter let loose in the New World. Their intention was
to bring fear to the boil in the hearts and minds of the Indians, but
also, I believe, and herein perhaps lies the irony, to make the link in
the indigenous peoples’ minds between Christ and themselves. Christ suffered
for you, say the Catholics in Europe. But in the New World they said Christ
suffered like you: whipped and beaten and treated like a dog. But He was
saved. Just as you will be; just as soon as we’ve worked you to death.

then, like the other colonial cities of Cuzco, Lima, Potosí or
Bogotá, was founded on blood. Perhaps I’ve been reading too much
history. Or not enough. But no one denies that the great temples and townhouses
of this city were built upon one of the most unjust, cruel and barbaric
foundations the world has witnessed.

La Compania de Jesus

La Compañía de Jesús

The Jesuit church, La Compañía de Jesús, considered to be the loveliest church in Ecuador, is
a good example. It was only just completed before the order’s expulsion
from the New World in 1767 – a result of the King of Spain arbitrarily
giving his uncle, the King of Portugal, a slice of his lands which the Jesuits
refused to leave (see De Niro and Irons in The Mission). Behind its
magnificent volcanic stone carved façade, replete with bevies of
bleeding hearts and choruses of angels, its massive altars, baroque columns
and ceilings are laden, tip to toe, with gold leaf. Some seven tonnes
of ‘saint-seducing’ gold, they say. The theatricality and extravagance
of its interior are breathtaking. At its altar you’ll find the silver,
platinum, emeralds, gold and pearls which the Spanish, at unimaginable
human cost, drove the Indians to unearth, now turned into exquisite crosses,
or embroidered into the cloak of the Virgin. Such beauty.

Quito lives on. The Saturday market off the Franciscan square teemed like
a trout farm. Stalls clogged either side of the colonial chessboard-grid
of thoroughfares. Their blue awnings virtually webbed the narrow streets,
knitted with cords and ropes to hold them up, and trip me up. You couldn’t
move in some parts. A man ploughed his way through, trying to sell a six-foot
tall coat stand. It was metal and black, topped with faux gold/brass knobs,
and bobbed up and down like a demented crown.

And they
were selling everything. You name it. Crappola Central. And the noise:
everyone shouting their wares, everything must go, sale now on, un dolar,
un dolar, compreme aqui, remate, remate, las medias, las medias, compreme
aqui, a la orden, los interiores, aqui aqui, un dolar, un dolar
… And
through this fish farm of commerce swam more traders, ambulant ones with
their wares on trolleys, or on crates dragged by fraying string: women
carrying platters of pink-iced cakes, big chiseljawed black men selling
fruit punches, popsicles, boiling tripe (at least it looked like innards…)
in buns, vegetables, alarm clocks, fruit, and more sock and glove sellers
than I’ve ever seen. It seemed as many people were selling as shopping.

People tried
on shoes from stalls stacked high with fake Reeboks and Nikes there and
then. Mothers squirmed their daughters in and out of frilly skirts. Beneath
the Iglesia de la Merced, flower stalls outdid each other with buckets
of polychrome exuberance to rival any seventeenth century tableau. And
all this amid beautiful seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century
houses, with their occasionally brightly-painted facades, their wrought-iron
balconies, their tall imposing doorways, their age and their dignity.

The faces
of the Indian women selling their fruit and food, huddled against white-washed
walls, their coloured shawls bright and vivid struck me. Sometimes babies
or small children were slung to their backs, muffled in warm wool layers,
weeny feet wriggling, bright eyes wide. Many come from the weaving towns
around Otavalo, their necks layered with cheap amber-gold necklaces, dark
brown hats perched on their heads, meshed pony tails falling down their
backs. They chatter in Quichua, in short staccato bursts. I stood by one
at one point, just watching people go by. I looked down to see what she
was hawking. Two pigs’ snouts in a lime-green bucket sniffed back at me.

Trinkets for sale in front of San Francisco

Trinkets for sale in front of San Francisco

the shadow of the twin-towered Franciscan church, dozens of stalls sold
religious trinkets, statues and candles. There were pink-cheeked baby
Jesuses alongside models of saints alongside “India’s finest” sticks of
incense. I bought a candle for 5 pence. Inside, through the great doors
propped open by the disfigured and the deformed, I sought out a small
room in the penumbra where two tables danced with flames. I lit it and
planted it and shed a salt-sweet tear.

Only a part
of the ceiling in the vast church remains of the original. The rest is
a sorry replacement of rococo leafy frivolity, which probably appeals
to old biddies who like frilly coasters under their cups of tea. The original,
a fantastic wooden Mudejar pattern, still floats above the choir and organ.
At its heart lay an eight-pointed golden star, the sun, with eight planets
ringing it. The Moors had such a beautiful conception of how to bring
heaven to earth. With only maybe five inches of masterful relief, they
spanned light years.

Ice cream man with Iglesia de San Francisco in background

Ice cream man with Iglesia de San Francisco in background

the cobbled corner of the stone-washed, melancholic square, an old man
with a sailor’s cap stood by his wheely stall, selling ice creams. It’s
cold enough to leave them out, set on a block of ice. On his stand splurged
a big cow pat of white and pink, adorned with a hedgehog of upended wafer
cones. The installation was finished off with a sprinkling of multicoloured
hundreds-and-thousands. Formaldehyde that, Damien Hirst.

Heading towards
the City Museum, along streets clogged with buses belching black diesel
fumes, palls of smoke swirling in their noxious wake, you pass one of
the old convents. The other is wedding-cake pink, but this one is still
austere, white, and crumbling. Here, the women live in nun-confinement.
You can walk up to a revolving hatch in a great big carved door, talk
through a grille and buy their products – honey, soaps and jams. I wonder
what their conception of the outside world is.

In the Museum of the City, in a stairwell hung a series of three paintings by a modern
Quiteño painter, Jaime Zapata. They were remarkable, depicting
scenes of the conquest. The middle one showed the arrival of the Spanish.
It was divided down the middle, with the Indian world on the left, and
the Spanish/European on the right. A line bisected the two worlds, except
in the middle where it bulged as the Conquistador reached through with
pincer fingers to grab the Indian’s necklace. At the Spaniard’s feet,
rubbish and debris lay strewn, while on his arm there was a watch, and
atop his helmet a crucifix. The top part of his face was skeletal, his
jaw a steel plough, and his armoured body robotic. Greys and browns washed
over his side of the painting, while on the Indian’s, colours sang.

Also in the
City Museum, an add-on exhibition ran off one of the beautiful cloisters.
The building used to be a hospital, caring for the poor and the sick.
The exhibition was housed where the patients lay on beds of straw in small
stone cots built into the wall. It was eerie walking round even now. But
this one big, long room was part of a project to encourage children of
Indian communities from around the country to draw and paint and tell
of their towns. It was a riot! All these pigeon-shit-splattered mountains,
and clouds that only children seem to see, and fields of poster-paint
green, and people, houses, cars, roads, fields, forests, smiling suns
and life wherever you looked. Two rows of these metre-square canvases,
one above the other, spun a web of colour around the whole room. After
all the displays I’ve seen this week of blood and guts and gore, I think,
in future, I’ll seek out the children’s vision of this country.

To read more about Quito and Ecuador, visit the website that Dominic is working on: Ecuadorial.com.

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