I never expected that the most astonishing thing in Quito wouldn’t be a gigantic winged angel overlooking the city, nor the chance to stand with one foot on either side of the equator, nor watching how chocolate gets processed from bean to ingot.
No, it was finding a 12th century French Gothic cathedral on a hillside overlooking the city, with a gigantic crypt underneath for the city’s late and revered. I mean, no… It’s not a real gothic cathedral in the sense that Chartres or Beauvais is real… But it looks like a gothic cathedral, it’s vaulted like a gothic cathedral, it has flying buttresses like a gothic cathedral… And it even has gargoyles. Admittedly, the gargoyles are all based on traditional Ecuadorean wildlife — a Galapagos turtle as a waterspout is decidedly scary —but they’re clearly gargoyles. And the Lady Chapel is a reasonable facsimile of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. (No photos here of that, because they have signs up all over the place saying, “no tourists, no photos”, but I was oblivious to that until an entity tapped me on the shoulder and said, “read the damn signs, please.” so I did, got a clue, and left.)
Gothic Cathedral. FRENCH Gothic cathedral. In the heart of the Spanish dominions in the New World. Not finished until after independence — in other words, a Spanish cultural project to convert the natives, but one which the natives decided to finish on their own, in the style of their own conquerors’ rivals back on another continent. With their own touches of course. And their own late and great down in the crypt, a la Newton and Wellington under Saint Paul’s (and they’d like Shakespeare down there too, but the old magician out foxed them, “cursed be he who moves my bones…” How … Prosperous).
Truth be told, not finished until the advent of rebar and reinforced concrete. This cathedral is less lath and plaster, like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, and more like St. John the Divine — stone foundations and guts of mortar. But it’s not whole-hog imitation: the Ecuadoreans at some point decided, “we need this particular project finished. Like, now.” And so they did. Concrete and rebar, aluminum tile for the roof, some cast concrete gargoyles like Guayaquil lizards, and call it done.
But why? Why build the single largest Neogothic building in the western hemisphere, to energetically devote Ecuador to the Sacred Heart of Jesus?
And I’m sure there’s an answer in the historical record somewhere. I bet that I could even find it — my Google Fu is pretty strong (wikipedia has an informative article, but this article is less about the historical record and more about myth-making and connectivity between past, present and future… So look it up if you want, but know it will dispel some of what I’m saying here).
So… Human origins… It has to be something like this: There’s a Jesuit with a penchant for Gothic architecture in the history of New Spain, or a group of Dominicans who don’t like the whole Baroque movement, or maybe some Augustinian canons who want a proper cathedral, not some overdone wedding-cake of a Baroque church that says more about Spanish power than the glory of God.
We’ll ignore the portrait of Jesus of the Sacred Heart over the main altar for the moment, the one with the color-changing neon lights that makes Jesus go first blue, then red, then yellow, then green, then blue again…
But from an esoteric standpoint, I think that the reason has less to do with human wishes, than a need for a cathedral to connect New Spain’s Catholic conversion project with the Old European Catholic conversion project. Remember the Doctor Who episodes where someone puts on a headset to listen to the news and take calls, and it turns out to be the thing that starts converting people into Cybermen?
I think there’s something about the Land-Faith interface that requires a gothic cathedral. It probably requires a Romanesque cathedral, and some catacombs, too, actually. And I’d be very, very surprised to find out that no such things existed in Ecuador. But there has to be some way, architecturally, to link the energies of the Christian faith, all the way across the ocean from Palestine/Israel/Galilee, through Byzantium and Rome and France and Spain, across the ocean, and across the High Andes, to override and overrule Quitoan temple platforms and Inca pyramids. This basilica is kind of like a beacon.
And there are plenty of amazing Baroque churches in Quito. Don’t get me wrong: they’re amazing and beautiful. But the architectural form was too “young” for the Catholic church, for it to really grab the people here by the brains and the balls and the heart, and say, “Be Catholic.”
And it’s clear this church is LOVED. There was an Ecuadorean GLBTQ trio in the courtyard when my father and I came out of our tour inside. They were posing for photos, gaping at the size of the cathedral (well over an American football field in length, and maybe wide enough to play soccer inside, if you cleared away chairs), and thrilled to be here. This wouldn’t be the reaction of a typical crowd of American teens confronted with a visit to a cathedral, particularly not teens with all sorts of reasons to feel alienated by the establishment. Inside, there were all kinds of visitors… Some foreign, like us, some there to pray, and some, quite clearly, Ecuadorean tourists, come to gawk and stare and adore if not necessarily to pray.
All this on a Monday mid-morning.
This church isn’t Ecuador’s Mother Church. It wasn’t even really started until the 1880s, and wasn’t consecrated until Pope John Paul II made the trip out to Quito in 1988. It’s not the seat of the archbishop, nor the primate of the country. Not that I can tell, anyway. But it not only consecrates all of Ecuador to the Sacred Heart — it helps join the land to a foreign tradition, and helps make it part of the native landscape.
This place doesn’t hum like Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It doesn’t have the bass undertones of St. Peter’s in Rome. It doesn’t carry the weight of martyrdom like Canterbury, or vibrate like Lindisfarne. It’s not as mystically connected as Stonehenge.
But it will be, someday. And like any great sacred structure, it carries past forms into the present moment, and pushes them forward into the future. This is about as Catholic a building as it’s possible to build. And yet, there are six pointed stars, and five pointed stars, and Darwinian lessons, woven into the very fabric of the building. Rules of geometry and proportion, dynamics of weight and balance, systems of stress and force and pressure, all on a hillside in Quito, ten thousand feet above sea level.
Did I mention the Eye in the Triangle?