From the outside San Francisco de Quito is quite imposing, with a complex that all-together is larger than almost all other Latin American colonial buildings with the process of its creation taking well over a century and a half (1534-1680). Yet it is the gold-plated interior along with a collection of magnificent fresco paintings that proves to be the most impressive part of this colonial building. Yet, perhaps in part due to its splendor, legends have arisen about its creation as being the work of demons and a pact with the Devil himself.
According to legend, the indigenous man Cantuña was hired by priests to construct the church, stating that in exchange for a large sum of money, the church would be completed in six months. Naturally given that the task of completion was monumental, Cantuña was not able to advance much into the construction despite having organized a large section of local indigenous people to aid in the task. In his hour of anguish, the Devil appeared to him with the promise of helping him complete the church by daybreak of the following day in exchange for his eternal soul.
Reluctantly Cantuña accepted but with the condition that all stones be placed in order to finish the building. Feverishly an army of demons appeared and advanced quickly in its construction, ultimately finishing by midnight. It was then that the Devil reappeared to claim the soul of the man but Cantuña pointed out that a stone had not been placed, thereby voiding the deal. The reality was that Cantuña had secretly taken one of the stones and hidden it, yet the Devil despite knowing he had been fooled, could not force the indigenous man to pay the ultimate price. Frustrated and embarrassed, Lucifer sank back into the fiery pits of hell.
The reality is that the church was not built overnight but gradually added to for much of its history. Due to its iconic location and history it remains a crucial part in religious and civic celebrations such as the annual procession on Good Friday. The Mannerist (late Renaissance style) is much different from some of its Latin American contemporaries that employed more baroque styles. Yet the simpler exterior design of the church hides the magnificence of the interior where gold bathes the Baroque and Mudejar (Spanish Muslim) style altar and chapels in a very impressive display of opulence. This splendor along with the thousands of paintings that line the walls and elaborately detailed ceiling are further reasons why UNESCO recognizes the church as a World Heritage site.
The church was one of the first places I visited in Quito after I had begun my training for Peace Corps as I had read about how impressive the interior was. I wondered to myself as to whether it would really be all that great but nothing could prepare me for that spectacle. Virtually every inch of the walls were lined with gold, the lights of the church only helping the walls shine even more brightly. The unique blend of architectural styles might not seem to work at first and indeed there is a big difference from the more simplistic exterior and the fantastic detail of the interior. On three different occasions I’ve gone back to visit and the sight is no less impressive every time. From my first time visiting alone to the next few times taking others to share in the visual spectacle, San Francisco de Quito is one of the best churches that I’ve ever visited.
With the church of San Francisco de Quito standing where the palace of Inca ruler Atahualpa’s palace once stood, and with the large plaza still serving as a market center for indigenous Ecuadorians, the church maintains a significant as well as symbolic importance for the people of the country. Whether you subscribe to the belief in the legend of Cantuña and church building demons or the official narrative of a century and a half of construction, there is no denying that you’ll be awed by your visit to Quito’s most iconic and emblematic church.