History in Stone:

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Panama’s churches

By Howard V. Walker

The Santiago Apostle Basilica and the San Juan de Dios Chapel are two colonial jewels built by the Spaniards almost five hundred years ago. The Basilica is one of the first founded by the colonizers in the American Pacific coast and it is the only one that is still standing. Among its architectural features the high tower is the most outstanding. From there it is possible to see Natá and Aguadulce as well as the major and minor altars.

The Santiago Apostle Basilica and the San Juan de Dios Chapel are two colonial jewels built by the Spaniards almost five hundred years ago. The Basilica is one of the first founded by the colonizers in the American Pacific coast and it is the only one that is still standing. Among its architectural features the high tower is the most outstanding. From there it is possible to see Natá and Aguadulce as well as the major and minor altars.

The Catholic Church has tremendous influence, not only in the culture, but also in the architecture of Panama. Well preserved examples of these building can be found all over the country, even in the most remote areas. This is the first article of a series that seeks to find the origins of these ecclesiastic legacies through time. One of the rewards in travelling throughout Panamá is to visit the nation’s churches, not only in the capital city but also in attractive smaller towns and villages as we journey province by province. They belong especially to the rich legacy left by the Catholic Church in the five hundred years since its establishment ‘en Tierra Firme’ with the creation of the first diocese, namely Nuestra Señora Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien, which was celebrated recently on the 19th.of September. We do not have to belong to the Catholic religion to appreciate the beauty and significance of these architectural treasures-emblematic and recorders in so many ways of the cultural history of the ‘New World’. White-painted long side walls accentuate the contrast to the more elaborate principal church facades, pseudo baroque or classical in style. Interiors, two or four aisles wide, house carved altar sculptures combining the skills of local and imported artists. Like the writer, many no doubt have their favorite places. Apart from the capital’s well known monuments, there are many to choose from.

The Santiago Apostle Basilica.

The Santiago Apostle Basilica.

To name a few: the exquisite but quite different churches of Los Santos and Parita are surely high on everyone’s list. Portobelo’s minimalist facades contain the famous ‘Black Christ’. Nata’s four-aisled Santiago de Apostol needs little introduction. The famed basilica’s impressive towering wood columned structure and boarded roof arrest our attention It has been said of the Gothic cathedral builders that they never trivialized religion. The same may be said of the builders of our own heritage church buildings. This five hundredth year anniversary is a good time for us to explore and learn more about the architectural/cultural history of the unique isthmus which we now call Panama.

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