Churches of the Altiplano

 

Church with separate tower in Machuca
Church with separate tower in Machuca

Empires cannot be built and maintained by force of arms alone. Arms and the threat of arms may be required to forge, defend and overturn empires but long term empires require at least some level of consent from the governed. Economics dictate this too; sustainable empires need to provide a net economic benefit to the imperial power or they quickly become unsustainable.

 

So successful empires quickly develop strategies for ‘light touch’ imperial management which enables small number of imperial administrators to manage large amounts of territory. A key to achieving this is sensitivity to the cultures being governed, and pragmatic accommodation whenever possible. This was true of the British America and it was equally true of the Spanish Empire in Latin America.

There is clear evidence of this accommodation with local cultures and beliefs in the design churches of the Altiplano, the high Andean plateau which spreads across northern Chile, and parts of Bolivia and Peru. These churches were designed to reflect the supremacy of Catholicism whilst also absorbing and integrating local beliefs and gods, notably the worship of the sun and Mother Earth.

There were a couple of key ways in which this was done. The first was to separate the church and the bell tower. The bell tower represented both the call to Christian worship and a monument to the sun. The body of the Church then represented the body of the Mother Earth welcoming people in to worship.

Hall 2013-03-17 7075These churches also became places where people could worship both the Christian god and their own god. In one church we saw at Toconao this was made explicit at the front door of the church where there was a lamb carved to one side of the doorway, and a llama to the other. Inside there were two small chapels to each side of the nave; one originally dedicated to Christian worship and the other to local gods. People were allowed to worship their own gods as long as they did so within the context of the church.

Church and tower at Machuco
Church and tower at Machuco

 

Bell tower at Toconao
Bell tower at Toconao

 

Side of church at Toconao, showing one of the side chapels
Side of church at Toconao, showing one of the side chapels

 

 

 

 

 

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