Jesuit Missions Argentina

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It was time for some history. So much of our South American journey had been about landscapes, geology and geography, but we hadn’t had much in the way of history. The Argentine battles for independence, and the Uruguayan temple to the industrial revolution excepted, we had mostly been admiring what nature has to offer.

But long before the factories, or even the British, came the Jesuits and their 30 missions spread across present day Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.

We expected to see some ruins and learn a little bit about the missions, but we got so much more. We left with new appreciation for archaeology, architecture, engineering, art, music, and even civics.  Not to mention the power of helping a civilisation to flourish rather than asking it to conform to your own beliefs. The Jesuits blew us away, and made this part of the trip entirely worth it.

Who were the Jesuits?

You’ve seen them in movies, and if you’ve seen “The Mission” with Jeremy Irons, this is the place we’re talking about. They’re the kindly looking monks in brown robes who, in the 17th century, travelled deep into the jungles of South America to make Catholics out of the natives, and perhaps pave the way for the Spanish and Portuguese crowns to pick up some gold, silver and territory along the way. I thought the Jesuits no longer existed, but I was corrected. Even the (Argentenian) Pope himself is Jesuit.

The missions first and foremost offered the Guarani peoples’  protection from Portuguese and Spanish slavers who had based themselves in Sao Paolo and Asunción (Paraguay) respectively.  The Guarani were nomadic hunters, who lived in small tribes and occasionally got into fights with their neighbours. When the slavers started coming, they had very little to protect themselves, and the walls of the missions offered a sanctuary.

The missions were built according to a pretty well defined set of plans.  Natives were housed in long houses stretching out perpendicular to a long grand entrance leading to a large open square that set the scene for the imposing cathedral at the far end.  To one side was the school, and the other the widows and orphans home. There was a town hall, workshops, cloisters, and personal and communal gardens. And of course, a cemetery.

Although differing in size, decorative touches, and the extent to which they survived pillaging, burning, jungle encroachment, and plundering, all of the missions have the same overall plan.

Each married couple was given a plot of land as a personal garden and a home.  The longhouses were divided into smaller homes, one per family, which is one of the few cultural changes the priests insisted upon when the Guarani came to live at the mission.  

They traditionally had lived 200 – 300 people in a single longhouse, and polygamy was common. The church wasn’t too keen on having polygamists as their newest converts, so that part of their culture was changed — and of course the cannibalism.

They worked at their own land and at trades for three days each week, and on the communal crops that were used for trade such as cotton, tobacco, and cattle ranching three days. On the seventh day, of course they rested.

Children were given an education, and at about age 12, they entered an apprenticeship for a trade.  The girls – most of them newly married at this age – would run their households, and work at spinning, weaving and clothmaking.  The boys would go on to become stonemasons, engineers, artists, musicians, carpenters and other tradesmen.

The central square served as the marketplace for trading, a community meeting place for social lives, speeches, protests, and all of the parts that make up a community.  It was the heart of the mission community.

The Jesuits left the Guarani chiefs to govern the mission themselves, and to handle all of the administration.  There would be about 5 – 6 chiefs from various tribes living at the mission at any one time, and the mission leadership rotated to a new chief each year — so they all got their chance to do things their way.

At an average of 6,000 inhabitants per mission, the governorship was a pretty big job, and like in any hierarchical society, the chiefs still got to strut around being chiefs, and enjoying special privileges — just not the privilege of multiple wives, which at times was a bit of an issue.

Prior to becoming devout Catholics, the Guarani worshipped nature, with the concept of a good god and an evil god at the heart of their belief system.  They were constantly searching for the “good place”, and so it’s not such a stretch to see that they could have accepted Christianity so willingly.

They were also enchanted by the European music and art that the priests shared with them, and as it turns out they were beautiful musicians and artists as a whole.  They took the European styles and added their own flavour to make their art an independently recognised style all their own.

The missions were originally built of wood and straw, but eventually were rebuilt in stone as the mission established itself.  For the first ten years, the mission wasn’t taxed, but after that, they were required to send taxes back to Europe, which is what many of the communal crops and cattle were used for.

All of this was accomplished with just two resident priests per mission.  Two priests, who learned the Guarani language and customs, rather than asking the Guarani to learn Spanish or Portuguese.  Sure it’s another form of colonialism, but one that had less negative impact on the existing cultures than other colonialist agendas.

The missions were wholly independent, and eventually this started to irk the King of Spain.  For reasons that are still not entirely clear to me on the whole, he ordered the missions to be abandoned and burned to the ground.  I’ve heard everything from jealousy over the self-sufficient nature of the missions that were thriving without interference from the crown, to open rebellion.  (Mark and Austin have watched the Mission, but I keep falling asleep each time I try to watch it, so I’ve no idea what it gives as the reasons.

The missions today

The Jesuit Missions of South America were active for more than 150 years.  After they were burned, they lay in ruins at the mercy of the jungle, until the late 1800’s, when European colonists from Germany, Poland, Czech Republic and Russia emigrated to the area.  The colonists not only plundered the missions for building materials, but they started to re-use the consecrated ground of the mission graveyards, which then remained in constant use until the early 1990’s.  

The missions are in various states of decay, preservation and restoration.  At Yapeyu’, only the tile floors of the church remain.

Santa Ana is well preserved in terms of the layout of the structures, the church walls, and the modern graveyard.

Loreto was mostly in ruins, overtaken by the jungle.  But the somewhat out of place chapel built to look like the Parthenon in Greece is being restored.

You can see individual touches in each of the missions.  A child’s footprint in a floor tile, the curved stone staircases found only in the one mission with an Italian priest, or the baroque ornamentation of the cathedral at San Ignacio Mini’.

The stunner

San Ignacio was the largest of the Argentenian missions, and has been more comprehensively restored than the others.  Surrounded by blazing Azaleas, the longhouses still stand along the dramatic entrance to the mission (or more accurately, they stand again after being rebuilt).  The red sandstone of the cathedral shows the detailed and beautiful carving that was all done on site by the resident Guarani stonemasons. While you would expect this kind of ornamentation of it’s European contemporaries, you’d never expect to see something so beautiful rising from the jungles of South America 300 years ago.  And yet it stands.

We left the missions with a new appreciation for the ability of a people to adapt to a different way of life, and for the achievements in architecture and civil and mechanical engineering that were accomplished by “naked savages.”  It reminded us to never take a civilisation for granted, and never make assumptions about their capabilities. Because the Guarani of the Jesuit Missions proves all of it wrong.



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