The Latin American Dome

While browsing an art newspaper a familiar image jumped out at me - the interior of a colonial church in the Andean town of Andahuaylas. I have passed through several times; it lies on the road between Cuzco and Ayacucho. Though I am atheist to my rational core, in Peru a great joy has been to sit quietly in ancient musty Baroque churches adorned inside and out with mestizo imagery (a blend of Spanish Catholic Baroque and the native Inca art forms of Peruvians who labored for Spanish masters). The article reminded me that when I saw this church the beauty of its interior was “dulled by centuries of grime, bat droppings, earthquakes and dodgy restorations”. Now the little San Pedro Apóstol church is restored, and they are grandly calling it The Sistine Chapel of the Andes.

Even such a tiny church has its Baroque dome. A smooth circular shaped dome was probably beyond the skill of local craftsmen. The photos [here and here] show a crude vaulted ceiling of wood beams. But the intention was to recreate the awe-inspiring impression of a dome.

I was straight away reminded of a book -- The New World Of The Gothic Fox -- written by the Chilean liberal economic historian Claudio Véliz in which the dome is a symbol for the centralizing and authoritarian Baroque political culture of Latin America -- “concentric, symmetrical, intolerant of impediments and formal imperfections … the dome embraces and connects all parts under it”. Véliz joined the concepts of Isaiah Berlin with the architectural symbolism of John Ruskin and spun a gripping history of the developmental differences between the lands of English ‘gothic’ foxes and Spanish ‘baroque’ hedgehogs.

Véliz wrote that the Counter-Reformation, Inquisition, and crusade against Protestant heresy gave Spain and her colonial administrators a sense of security about the spiritual wellbeing of empire. The confidence was manifested in Baroque ornamental pomp and ceremony (“glorification of obstinacy” since the Spanish treasury was bankrupt for much of the colonial period). Spanish Baroque architecture in remote parts of the empire was a literal metaphor for the mode of social, political, and economic organization which -- like Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog -- valued “one idea”, one purpose or “single, universal principle”.