San Francisco de Lima
A jewel of Latin American baroque art
WHEN the arts of Latin America are discussed outside the continent, the first thing that springs to mind, for both specialists and the general public, is the exceptional pre-Columbian legacy. Colonial art, both sacred and profane, was long considered a provincial outgrowth of the manneristic and baroque art of the Old World, and attitudes towards it have been very slow in changing. Yet this period produced important works in architecture, sculpture, painting and gold and silver work, of which the Convent of San Francisco de Lima is one of the most outstanding examples.
In 1535, the Emperor Charles V ordered the conquistador Francisco Pizarro to earmark two sites in the urban plan of Lima then under preparation, to be used by the Franciscans to erect their church and convent. Situated right in the centre of Lima on the banks of the River Rimac, these lots (with later additions) formed the largest area ever to have been occupied by a convent in the New World: one eight of the area of the colonial city which had 14,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the seventeenth century. On 4 February 1656, an earthquake destroyed a major part of the church and convent. The Portuguese architect Constantino de Vasconcellos, who lived in Lima, was entrusted with the task of rebuilding the complex, generally known as the Convent of San Francisco, which now comprises the churches of San Francisco, La Soledad and El Milagro, with their cloisters, patios and outbuildings.
The problem facing Vasconcellos was how to erect a monumental church able to withstand earthquakes. His solution was twofold. On the one hand, he built a barrel vault resting on solid pillars, a technique which allowed for the construction of tall and resistant structures. On the other hand, the building materials he used were wood and a mixture that the conquistadors had borrowed from the Indians: quincha, a conglomerate of rushes, mud and plaster. Both light and relatively elastic, quincha is considered to be an earthquake-resistant material, and was later to be used for a whole series of buildings along the coast of Peru, for which San Francisco was the model. Thanks to these building methods, the complex has survived the earthquakes of three centuries.
While the profuse ornamentation of the Convent of San Francisco is clearly inspired by European art, in the Spanish mudejar, manneristic and baroque styles, the materials are an original response to local conditions. With the exception of the "altarpiece-portal" and the lateral portal, both of stone, the whole church, including the towers, some 35 metres in height, are made of quincha. This makes the whole complex look like a giant clay sculpture.
The most talented artists of the day--goldsmiths, silversmiths, sculptors, painters and wood carvers--contributed to the ornamentation. A factory was even set up to produce painted and glazed tiles (azulejos) to decorate the outbuildings. San Francisco thus became a sort of college of arts and crafts. After the death of Vasconcellos, his disciple, Manuel de Escobar, from Lima, completed the work in 1672. It is to him we owe the beautiful lateral portal.
As in the case of most baroque churches in Spanish America and in contrast to European and Brazilian Baroque, the architectural groundplan of San Francisco is very simple: three 7-span aisles, a transept and a presbytery. Decorative exuberance spills over the facades, altarpieces, domes and towers. Wealth of form makes up for modesty of materials: the church is literally covered in relief decoration.
The two bossed towers flank a stone "altarpiece-portal". It dates from 1664 and is the work of Vasconcellos. Damian Bayon, a Argentine historian, describes it as "stone chiaroscuro proliferation", a lavish but harmonious mass of sculptures, niches, frontispieces, windows and pilasters. …