This essay analyzes the decorative program of Quito's Jesuit church—better known as the church of La Compañía—and the meanings of the different reflective materials that adorned it in the eighteenth century, in particular, gilded surfaces and mirrors. Paying special attention to these elements, this essay demonstrates that reflective surfaces helped shape colonial religious experience. Based on colonial sources, this essay reconstructs the wealth of La Compañía's interior, which changed significantly after the expulsion of the Society of Jesus from the Americas in 1767. It also analyzes the role of the church's shining interior in defining the building as a manifestation of the divine and in elevating religious devotion. Moreover, this essay emphasizes the role that reflective surfaces in general, and gilding and mirrors in particular, played in showcasing the alleged supremacy of Christian religion over local indigenous beliefs. Finally, it studies the significance of mirrors and specular metaphors in contemporary Jesuit theory and private devotional practices. This essay proposes that mirrors and their reflective qualities were essential in shaping the Christian identity of the colonial subject, promoting introspection and advancing the faithful's spiritual transformation. Paradoxically, indigenous symbolism surrounding reflective materials and objects complicated the success of the Society of Jesus's agenda and enabled the indigenous local population to develop a more flexible version of Christianity.
RESUMEN Este artículo analiza el programa decorativo de la iglesia jesuita de Quito, más conocida como la iglesia de La Compañía, y los significados de los diferentes materiales reflectantes que la adornaron en el siglo XVIII, en particular las superficies doradas y espejos. Al prestar especial atención a estos elementos, este ensayo demuestra que las superficies reflectantes ayudaron a moldear la experiencia religiosa colonial. Basado en fuentes coloniales, este artículo reconstruye la riqueza del interior de La Compañía, la cual cambió significativamente después de la expulsión de la Compañía de Jesús de las Américas en 1767. También analiza el papel del brillante interior de la iglesia en la definición del edificio como una manifestación de lo divino, y en la elevación de la devoción religiosa. Además, este ensayo enfatiza el papel que las superficies reflectantes en general, y los dorados y espejos en particular, jugaron para mostrar la supuesta supremacía de la religión cristiana sobre las creencias indígenas locales. Finalmente, estudia la importancia de los espejos y de las metáforas especulares en la teoría jesuita contemporánea y en las prácticas devocionales privadas. Este artículo propone que los espejos y sus cualidades reflexivas fueron esenciales para moldear la identidad cristiana del sujeto colonial, promover la introspección y hacer avanzar la transformación espiritual de los fieles. Paradójicamente, el simbolismo indígena que rodea los objetos y materiales reflectantes complicó los fines de la Compañía de Jesús y permitió a la población local indígena desarrollar una versión más flexible del cristianismo.
RESUMO Este artigo analisa o programa decorativo da igreja jesuíta de Quito – mais conhecida como a igreja de La Compañía – e os significados dos diferentes materiais refletivos que a adornaram no século XVIII, em particular superfícies douradas e espelhos. Dando especial atenção a esses elementos, este ensaio demonstra que as superfícies reflexivas ajudaram a moldar a experiência religiosa colonial. Baseado em fontes coloniais, este artigo reconstrói a riqueza do interior de La Compañía, que mudou significativamente após a expulsão da Companhia de Jesus das Américas em 1767. Também analisa o papel do interior brilhante da igreja na definição do edifício como uma manifestação do divino e elevando a devoção religiosa. Além disso, este ensaio enfatiza o papel que as superfícies reflexivas em geral, e os douramentos e espelhos em particular, desempenharam na demonstração da suposta supremacia da religião cristã sobre as crenças indígenas locais. Finalmente, estuda o significado de espelhos e metáforas especulares na teoria jesuítica contemporânea e práticas devocionais privadas. Este artigo propõe que os espelhos e suas qualidades reflexivas são essenciais para moldar a identidade cristã do sujeito colonial, promovendo a introspecção e promovendo a transformação espiritual do fiel. Paradoxalmente, o simbolismo indígena em torno de materiais e objetos reflexivos complicou o sucesso da agenda da Companhia de Jesus e permitiu que a população local indígena desenvolvesse uma versão mais flexível do cristianismo.
Since the seventeenth century, chroniclers and scholars have praised the striking wealth of Quito's Jesuit church, better known as the church of La Compañía (Figure 1). Its monochromatic stone façade provides a strong contrast with the building's bright interior, increasing the awe of the viewer. The church's decoration, elevated with a variety of reflective surfaces and adorned with numerous sculpted and painted images, positioned La Compañía as one of the most outstanding examples of Spanish colonial architecture in South America (Figure 2). Although the church's decorative program changed during and after the colonial period, the visitor can still get a glimpse of the building's eighteenth-century luster, manifested in its gilded vault and altarpieces (Figure 3).
The remarkable formal qualities of the church of La Compañía have inspired various art history studies since the twentieth century, most of which have focused on the building's construction.1 Pioneers of this discipline in Ecuador, including José Gabriel Navarro and José María Vargas, have also addressed the problems of attribution regarding some of the paintings that adorn the church's main nave.2 More recent publications have placed the history of the church and its decoration within the Society of Jesus's broader spiritual and missionary regional project.3
Despite such important contributions, the material qualities of the church's interior, which were greatly valued by the colonial viewer, have remained understudied. This essay analyzes La Compañía's reflective surfaces in relation to the particular spiritual and institutional agendas that drove the Society of Jesus in the colonial period. It also highlights the various—and sometimes opposed—symbolic values bestowed on them by Quito's diverse audience.4 Spanish, mestizo, and indigenous populations ascribed brilliant materials with religious and political agency, a fact that contributed to a complex process of evangelization and to the development of a particular take on Christianity.5 Thus, the church's gleaming decoration was discursively as important for the Society of Jesus and its audience as the paintings and sculptures that adorned the building.
Paying special attention to the gilded surfaces and mirrors that were largely present in the Jesuit church in the eighteenth century, this essay demonstrates that reflectivity helped shape colonial religious experience.6 The building's decoration had, indeed, particular symbolic values for the religious community and the colonial audience. While the brilliance of gold embodied the power of the divine, the prominent use of mirrors—no longer extant—allowed the Society of Jesus to promote Christian values and the spiritual growth of the colonial subject. In general, the use of mirrors in Spanish American religious buildings has not been thoroughly addressed until now, and deserves further research. Mirrors had, indeed, an important presence in numerous churches, not only in Quito but also in other regions in the Americas, especially the Andes, as well as in Spain and other parts of Europe.7 As this essay argues, gold and mirrors played an essential religious role meant to strengthen the position of the Society of Jesus in Quito. At the same time, they provided the indigenous community with the opportunity to redefine its relation with Christianity.
Based on eighteenth-century sources, my study reconstructs the decorative program of the church of La Compañía, identifying the many objects that disappeared after the expulsion of the Society of Jesus from the Americas in 1767—especially different types of mirrors—and explores the splendor that they projected. The discussion moves, then, to analyze the role of the church's shining interior in defining the building as a manifestation of the divine and in elevating religious devotion. It also emphasizes the role that reflective surfaces in general, and gilding and mirrors in particular, played in showcasing the role of the Society of Jesus as an evangelizing institution, stressing the alleged supremacy of Christian religion over local indigenous beliefs. The last section analyzes the significance of mirrors and specular metaphors in contemporary Jesuit theory and private devotional practices. It proposes that mirrors and their reflective qualities were essential in shaping the Christian identity of the colonial subject, promoting introspection and advancing the faithful's spiritual transformation. Paradoxically, indigenous uses of mirrors and interpretations of reflections complicated the success of the Society of Jesus's agenda and enabled the indigenous local population to develop a more flexible version of Christianity.
QUITO'S JESUIT CHURCH IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
When the Jesuits arrived in the city of Quito in the late sixteenth century, the Franciscans, Mercedarians, and Dominicans had already become part of the local landscape.8 Yet in just a few decades, the Society of Jesus obtained a prominent role in the region and among local society—they not only acquired lands in the most conspicuous locations of the city but also founded a seminary.9 Local authorities and churchgoers provided the Jesuit Order with alms and lands that allowed for the construction of a large college and one of the city's most lavish temples.
The construction of the church of La Compañía started in 1605 and finished in 1765, two years before the expulsion of the Society of Jesus from the Spanish colonies.10 The building, located only a few blocks from Quito's main square, opened to the public in 1613 while still unfinished, and became the Jesuit center for evangelization in the region. The church's stone façade, sculpted in the eighteenth century, anticipates the design of its main retablo.11 A sculpture of the Immaculate Conception with the iconography of the Virgin of the Apocalypse is displayed at the center, on top of the building's main entrance. Large effigies of the most important Jesuit saints—Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Francis Borgia, and Stanislaus Kostka—frame the sculpture of the Virgin. Moreover, the central section of the façade is adorned with six Solomonic columns, some of which are decorated with flower wreaths. Originally, the façade was painted to look like marble, a choice that foreshadowed the building's wealthy interior.12
Since opening to the public, the church's decorative program has suffered numerous changes, especially after 1767.13 Some of its remaining elements include a remarkable pulpit from the seventeenth century, as well as an elaborate eighteenth-century screen that frames the access to the main nave. The altarpieces were erected and torn down more than once during the colonial period. The nine gilded altarpieces that stand today date from the late eighteenth century. Several polychrome sculptures and paintings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries still adorn the church.14 Among them are sixteen canvases of Old Testament prophets that hang on the piers that separate the main nave from the side aisles, likely commissioned by the Jesuits in the 1600s.15 Next to the entrances to the side aisles, large paintings of The Last Judgment and Hell are displayed opposite to each other (Figures 4 and 5). These works are nineteenth-century copies of the originals created by Jesuit brother Hernando de la Cruz in the 1640s.
The inventory of the church, written in 1767, attests to the original wealth of its nine gilded altars.16 Unfortunately, after the expulsion of the Society of Jesus from Quito, most of the objects that embellished them were spread into other collections or disappeared. What we see today are only the remnants of the outstanding colonial altarpieces, which were adorned not only with polychromed sculptures and paintings of saints, but also with numerous ritual objects. Members of the confraternities associated with the Jesuit church, organized according to gender and ethnicity—including white, mestizo, black, and indigenous groups—provided most of them. All the altars displayed liturgical objects such as missal stands, chalices, and patens made of silver and gold, next to objects embellished with translucent materials like crystal, ivory, enamel, and mother-of-pearl. These donations added pomp to the church's decoration and elevated its appeal, producing an overall effect of splendor meant to entice and overwhelm the senses of the faithful.
The inventory of the church also shows that there was a great variety of mirrors on display, many of which were considered luxurious objects. These were donations from members of the religious confraternities in honor of specific devotions. Mirrors that ranged from 20 to 40 cm (7.9 to 15.7 in.) adorned the main retablo and the altars dedicated to Saint Joseph, Saint Stanislaus, and Saint Luis Gonzaga.17 These mirrors were commonly placed within elaborately carved gilded frames, whereas others were displayed in frames decorated with small pieces of mirrors, or crystal. Cornucopias, which are small mirrors with intricate gilded frames and with arms to hold candles, also embellished La Compañía's altars on special occasions.18 The quality in the design and material used in the frames, as well as the juxtaposition of materials that provided different kinds of reflections, increased the mirrors' appeal.
Eighteenth-century descriptions of the church also mention that large mirrors measuring more than 2 m (6.6 ft.) brightened its interior.19 Such mirrors were presumably on top of the pillars, next to the windows of the dome or those of the vault, as seen in the chapel of Santo Cristo de Tlacolula, in Oaxaca, Mexico (Figure 6). Similar mirrors were also used in central European churches to amplify the brightness and dramatism of their interior, multiplying the light and the visual effect of their elaborate ornamentation, as well as eliminating the weight of architectural elements.20 It is likely that La Compañía's large mirrors were actually composed of several flat crystals set together, a practice that would have lowered their cost and probably made them easier to transport.21
The inventory of Quito's Jesuit church also mentions numerous mirrors of small size adhered to silver cardboard, which probably had a more functional role.22 Instead of being objects of luxury, these mirrors were meant to increase the brightness of a particular altar. It is not clear how they were displayed, but the inventory mentions that the sacristy had a curved, wooden stand for such purpose.23 A clear advantage of these independent mirrors was that they could be placed and removed from the altars at will, directing the viewer's gaze to specific images and marking particular devotions according to the occasion. The altarpiece dedicated to Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founding figure of the Society of Jesus, had the largest number of these loose mirrors—seventy in total.
The reflective qualities of the looking-glass also made it an attractive alternative to other materials like gold or precious stones and an ideal tool to enhance decorative and ritual objects such as frontals, monstrances, crucifixes, candlesticks, and reliquaries.24 Indeed, the altars of La Compañía had frontals made of a gilded structure with embedded mirrors, similar to the frontal found in the church of Santo Domingo in Trujillo, Peru.25 Moreover, mirrors were commonly used to adorn frames, probably because they could be cut in different shapes and decorated with paint.26
An extensive assessment of the provenance of La Compañía's mirrors is limited due to the lack of information regarding their production and circulation in Quito and in the rest of the Americas. The church's inventory seems to indicate that some of them came from the Netherlands.27 Indeed, the manufacture of Venice-style crystal mirrors developed in the Low Countries since the 1560s, and there is evidence that Spain imported relatively large amounts of mirrors from Holland in the nineteenth century.28 It is also possible that the label “Dutch” served as a reference to the quality or style of the mirror rather than to its actual provenance. Very likely many of these luxury objects were brought from the renowned centers of production settled in Venice, Bohemia, and France.29 It is also possible that some of the mirrors in the church of La Compañía were locally manufactured. Franciscan Friar de Santa Gertrudis argued in his chronicles, written in the 1770s, that a German Jesuit priest living in Quito made the mirrors that measured more than 2 m (6.6 ft.).30 Although it is difficult to assess the veracity of this claim, it is true that several Jesuits from Germany participated in the refurbishment of the church of La Compañía in the mid-eighteenth century.31
It is also possible that some of the small mirrors originated in the Spanish Royal Factory of San Ildefonso. The Factory exported crystals and mirrors to New Spain and other regions of the Americas between the 1750s and 1770s.32 Presumably, these products circulated in different regions of the Americas, including Quito. Their quality was not high, not only because the factory sent products that did not sell in Europe, but also because their conditions worsened due to poor shipment.33
SPLENDOR AS NONE OTHER
Even though nowadays the interior of the church is illuminated with electricity, it is not difficult to imagine the overwhelming effect that La Compañía's reflective surfaces had on the viewer in the colonial period. Jesuit Mario Cicala, who wrote a history of Quito in 1771, narrates the ways in which the sunlight highlighted the building's beauty.34 According to his description, most of the natural light concentrated on the main nave. The windows over the arches, decorated with stained glass, and a large window facing east (nowadays blocked by a large pipe organ), allowed natural light to pierce through and be reflected by the gilded vault. The sixteen windows placed in the drum of the dome and in the lantern above brightened the transept and the main altar. Moreover, all the altars and the side chapels were further illuminated by small domes and lanterns. The main altar and most of the side chapels were also lit with numerous artificial sources, like crystal chandeliers and wooden candlesticks. Additional silver lamps illuminated the side altars.35
Colonial descriptions of Quito's Jesuit church emphasize the role that reflective surfaces, especially gold and mirrors, played in its appeal. According to Cicala, the most extraordinary aspect of the building's interior was that the overall church—including the crossing, transept, and main retablo—was fully gilded.36 Part of the charm was the cost of this decoration, which Cicala is sure to mention (over thirty thousand escudos). However, what stands out the most for the writer is the technique used for gilding, aimed at enhancing the interior's brightness. He argues that the artists had successfully gilded all the intricate carvings and arabesques of the decoration through a careful mastery of the technique. He goes as far as to explain the process of gilding, which included the use of red bole under the gold leaf and the application of a coat of varnish on top.37 Thus, the Jesuits devoted great care and expense to make the church shine.
Cicala is not the only colonial chronicler to emphasize La Compañía's shining interior. Bernardo Recio, another Jesuit writer, describes in 1773 the church as follows:
Having witnessed the beauty of our [Jesuit] churches in Barcelona, Zaragoza, Valladolid, Salamanca, Madrid, and Seville—which might be taller, larger, or brighter—none of them compares to the church in Quito. … Besides the altars, which are embellished with beautiful silver jewels and relics, the whole vault, the walls, and the columns are fully gilded. … Beautiful and large mirrors, placed in different locations, add ornament and splendor to the church.38
The word “splendor” in this case refers both to the wealth and beauty displayed in the decoration of Quito's Jesuit church and to its glittering appearance. Father Gian Domenico Coleti also puts an emphasis on the church's gilded surfaces in a letter written in 1757:
The churches here [in Quito] are rich and capable, especially ours that has three naves, with its walls, arches, and vaults covered in gold. The altars are also gilded. … The ornamentation of our church is very rich, due to its gold, silver, and craftsmanship.39
La Compañía's gilded interior and the many mirrors that populated it multiplied the effects produced by natural and artificial light. The large mirrors in particular, presumably placed next to windows and slightly tilted toward the floor, were meant to direct the rays of light into the main nave. Looking at other colonial examples, such as the main retablo of the church of San Pedro de Andahuaylillas, it is clear that the juxtaposition of mirrors and shining metallic surfaces amplified the light, increasing the building's brightness.40 The proximity of objects made of silver, mirrors, and those covered in gold also played with the effects of cool and warm light, as if showing the variety of God's divine palette. Other translucent materials, like the faceted crystal drops of the chandeliers and the mother-of-pearl that decorated some of the objects on the altars, only enhanced the splendor of Quito's Jesuit church.
As Father Cicala explains, the abundance of glittering surfaces and the theatrical use of light were meant to create an almost-supernatural religious experience, as if re-creating a sacred landscape:
A temple so noble and elegant becomes more appealing and magnificent with rare and precious ornaments. … I will only say that when the church is adorned with garlands of crimson velvet and gold fringe, with large mirrors, with candles and crystal canopies embellished with large silver ornaments, some gilded … and the main retablo with two large crystal chandeliers, besides many other ornaments and crystal mirrors in many shapes… it really seems like an earthly paradise.41
Natural and artificial light, enhanced and manipulated by the church's mirrors, also showcased the intricate carved decoration of the building's vault, columns, and arches. Light increased the brightness of the gilded surfaces and their contrast with the white stucco and red bole applied to the background, bringing to the front the geometric shapes of the columns, the arabesques and flowers of the ceiling, and the vines of the arches. The limited use of gold in the domes also heightened the impact of representations of a divine space. Gilded frames guided the viewer to the images of archangels and bishops of the large dome over the crossing, and stressed the sculpted sun that surrounds the opening of the lantern (Figure 7). Gilded stars, columns, and swirls placed in the dome over the presbytery contrasted against the light blue background, providing a remarkable vision of the heavenly skies.
Large gilded surfaces produced a disorienting effect when hit by direct light, complicating the appreciation of the ornamentation. Even though the fully gilded main retablo is covered with intricate motifs of vines, swirls, and garlands, strong reflections impeded the differentiation of these elements. Certainly, the dozens of mirror cornucopias used to adorn it during festivities also produced and increased supernatural effects, manipulating and disorienting the viewer.42 This impression was likely intentional as the reflected light seemed to emanate from the retablo, the church's central element, enhancing the impact of the rite of the Eucharist. At the same time, these activated surfaces directed the viewer's gaze to the altar's dark niches, bringing to the front the religious effigies on display. A subtler and more nuanced effect was achieved when the altars were lit with candles, whose diffused light allowed for a greater appreciation of the retablos' delicate carvings.
The awe and wonder of the church's gilded surfaces were magnified by the workings of the looking-glass, altering the experience of devotion. By placing and removing mirrors, the Jesuits were able to manipulate and amplify the brightness of La Compañía's interior and direct the faithful's attention to particular spaces of the church. Like the candles, mirrors also altered the brightness and intensity of light in different chapels, creating an atmosphere conducive to prayer. Moreover, as seen in many Spanish American examples, the placement of small and large mirrors in church retablos emphasized the importance of a particular image or relic.43 The main retablo of Quito's Franciscan church is an illustration of this (Figure 8). It has only mirrors in the niche that displays the so-called Virgin of Quito, a sculpture that became a symbol of the city. As such, mirrors were useful tools to direct the viewer to specific spaces of the church and to emphasize particular devotions.
In the case of La Compañía, it seems that mirrors were also meant to showcase the craftsmanship of retablos and effigies.44 As art historian Walter Melion has demonstrated, the Jesuits promoted and highlighted artistic craftsmanship as a way of increasing the faithful's attention and piety.45 In his narrative Cicala emphasizes the retablo's richness, as well as its delicate and original carving:
The main retablo has three registers and large Solomonic columns, with a beautiful niche in the shape of a conch-shell of around two cañas (3 m [9.84 ft.]) where lies the most noble image of Our Lady of the Pillar, placed on top of a small column. … All the retablo is made with cedar and alder, and is fully gilded, with a cost of ten or twelve thousand escudos. Its carving is wonderful and fine, designed and built by one of our brothers from Germany, who is a celebrated architect and carpenter. … The retablo's top, which has a large imperial crown sustained by many angels, is original and ornate.46
Cicala also explains that the niches of the side chapels were covered in mirrors, showcasing their “perfect and precious images.”47 The mirrors' ability to reflect all the elements of a sculpture, which would be otherwise concealed to the viewer, helped increase the immediacy of the effigies, making them more vividly present (Figures 9 and 10). These effects amplified the naturalism of eighteenth-century sculpture from Quito, which was characterized by highly detailed anatomical modeling.48 To be sure, these images included a glossy encarne, as well as glass eyes and, sometimes, human hair and fake nails.49 These images further attracted the devotee's gaze when clothed with colorful dresses or when decorated with gilded estofado.50 The manipulation of sight and the emphasis on human and natural artifice framed the church of La Compañía as a reflection of divine creation.
For the Jesuits brilliant surfaces, especially gold and mirrors, through their multiple reflections and their almost wondrous effects, were a practical tool that served to promote religious devotion. However, the symbolism associated with such reflections also served to frame Quito's Jesuit church as God's abode and to highlight the essential role that the Society of Jesus played in the evangelization of the region.
MANIFESTATIONS OF THE DIVINE
The use of shining materials, particularly gold—frequently present in Spanish colonial religious architecture—was connected to metaphors of the divine. These associations were not only part of Christian discourse but of indigenous tradition as well, allowing the Society of Jesus to fluidly introduce its own agenda to a wide audience. The Jesuits understood the appeal that reflective materials had for the indigenous community and used them as a tool to assert the supremacy of Christian religion, positioning the shining interior of La Compañía as God's divine dwelling and as a manifestation of His presence in the region. Paradoxically, the church's glitter also created conflicting associations with Andean religious views, complicating the reception of the Christian message the Jesuits intended to convey.
The scriptures explain that reflective materials were conspicuous in holy environments, such as Heavenly Jerusalem or Solomon's Temple. The latter was a basic reference for religious architecture as it was believed that God himself had provided the building's design to the king.51 The book of I Kings (6:19–22) explains that the room destined to house the Ark of the Covenant in Solomon's Temple was covered in pure gold and contained gilded wooden altarpieces. Other passages evoke the transparency and reflectivity of Heavenly Jerusalem, with its walls and stairs made of crystal, and which was sometimes represented with a mirror on top.52
These associations did not escape Jesuit scholarship of the early modern period. Authors like Juan de Pineda, Martín Esteban, and Sebastián Barradas wrote extensively about the Temple of Solomon.53 Probably one of the most influential studies was Juan Bautista Villalpando's Ezechielem Explanationes, published between 1596 and 1604. In this book Villalpando explains that God was the true architect of the Temple.54 He also argues that the Temple had overwhelming amounts of gold and riches that, according to his own calculations, cost the staggering price of 2,812,000,000 Spanish ducats.55 Villalpando links the wealth of the Temple, including its gold, silver, and other rich complements, to its glory, ensuring that this wealth could be possible only through God's intervention.56 It has been suggested that these texts were an important foundation for the increasing preference for gold in baroque interiors.57
There is no doubt that these associations were present in the minds of the Jesuits who visited their church in Quito in the eighteenth century.58 As previously mentioned, Mario Cicala argued that the building's gilded interior looked like an earthly paradise.59 Bernardo Recio also compares the church to Solomon's Temple due to the building's lavish display of gold.60 This last comparison was further inferred by the use of Solomonic columns instead of the popular estípite columns to decorate the church's façade and altarpieces.61 As such, the profuse use of reflective materials in Quito's Jesuit church was meant to transform this interior into a divine setting.
The reflective interior decoration of Quito's Jesuit church also symbolized the enlightening power of Christ's Word and showcased the Jesuits'—and by extension, the Spanish Empire's—successful missionary efforts.62 The Bible establishes that the scriptures worked as mirrors, reflecting divine knowledge into uneducated peoples. As said in the book of Wisdom (7:25–27): “Wisdom is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty. … For she is a reflection of the eternal light, untarnished mirror of God's active power, and image of his goodness.” Local missionary texts also describe the power of illumination of the gospels, in contrast with the evil darkness present in the lives of nonconverted gentiles. The Jesuit Manuel Rodríguez writes in 1684:
The first four missionaries have performed wonders. … Since 1641, they started to reduce the souls [of the Maynas], which are without light and live hidden in the darkness of their gentilism, to our Holy Faith.63
Father Andrés Zárate also uses a similar metaphor to explain the so-called Christian enlightenment of the indigenous people at the missions:
It is true that the Jesuit Fathers were angels of light [for the people at Maynas] and helped them get rid of their vices and darkness, because there is no doubt that the [Christian] doctrine, the sacraments and the good deeds of the Jesuit Fathers … have eradicated vices and ignorance.64
These interpretations put an emphasis on Christ's Word as a source for illumination, stressing the importance of evangelization in the institutional discourse of the Jesuit Order, which was materially manifested in La Compañía's shining decoration.
The importance of the Society of Jesus for the success of the Spanish Empire's pursuit of religious conversion is also suggested through the use of mirrors in Quito's Jesuit church. The altar of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the Society of Jesus's most prominent founding figure, used to display the largest number of mirrors in the building. The disproportionate number of such objects in this altar, compared to other altars of the church, not only emphasizes the importance of Loyola, the first Jesuit saint, but also draws from a larger Jesuit tradition that posited him as God's specular image. Enlightened during his visionary experiences, Saint Ignatius is presented as a faithful imitator of Christ due to his capacity for enlightening the rest of the world.65 The interpretation of Ignatius as Christ's mirror can be seen in the painting of the Glorification of the Saint by Andrea Pozzo at the church of Saint Ignatius in Rome. As art historian Evonne Levy has suggested, in this painting Ignatius works as a specular image of the Lord, redirecting His divine light to the world.66 The angel that holds a mirror inscribed with Christ's initials also helps radiate Ignatius's light.
Similarly, the chronicles about Jesuit missions in the Amazon posit Loyola as pure light, a substitute for Christ in starting the fire of faith in others. These texts also describe Jesuit missionaries as worthy followers and specular images of their father Ignatius, working like sparks and rays of light, and spreading the Christian Word to the heathen.67 In this context, Jesuit missionaries are seen as carriers of what they called the “sun of justice” or the light of the gospels. The mirrors placed in the altar of Saint Ignatius highlighted the capacity of the founding father of the Jesuit Order to spread the godly message around the world, as well as the missionary role of the Society of Jesus as a whole in the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
The association between the church's shimmering interior and the divine probably had a wider interpretation for the colonial audience, especially the indigenous community. As anthropologist Nicholas J. Saunders has shown, Amerindians developed an “aesthetic of brilliance” that shaped their culture before and after the arrival of Europeans to the Americas.68 By embodying light and light-infused natural phenomena, shining materials and objects—metals, minerals, shells, feathers, ceramics—were believed to manifest cosmological power and divine energy. Brightness was synonym with sacred positive forces associated with life and good health, usually channeled in rituals led by high-ranking members of the population, such as shamans and community leaders. Shiny matter thus articulated indigenous political power, moral authority, and the supernatural, operating in the liminal space that connected divine and earthly experiences.
Before the arrival of the Europeans to the Americas, Andean cultures considered metals particularly powerful because they could be manipulated and transformed to produce highly reflective objects.69 In effect, gold, silver, and copper are largely present in a variety of Andean archaeological contexts related to sacred rituals.70 As Saunders argues, metalworking was tightly linked to spiritual and social aspects of American communities. It allowed indigenous groups to define their relationship with the sacred, and to bring order to the world.71
Indigenous reliance on gold and its reflective qualities becomes apparent when looking at the technologies developed by Andean cultures since c. 400 BCE. The pre-Hispanic groups who inhabited the north and the coasts of today's Ecuador masterfully worked a copper-gold alloy called tumbaga, which was mainly used to create body ornaments and ritual objects.72 Indigenous groups preferred this alloy over pure gold because it had a lower melting point and was resistant and malleable at the same time. More importantly, these cultures engineered different processes to give tumbaga pieces a surface that was highly reflective, comparable to that of gold.73 The addition of silver and copper to gold also produced objects with a larger variety of reflections that ranged from green to yellow and silver, and that were probably charged with distinct symbolic meanings.74
The Incas, who occupied the region of Quito for several decades, were also keen on using reflective materials to connect with the sacred—especially with Inti, the sun deity—and to assert their political supremacy.75 Gold, in particular, was a defining symbol of warfare and triumph, whose reflections could be manipulated to destabilize the Incas' opposition. The Sapa Inca, or Inca emperor, was also considered Inti's son and as such was an embodiment of sacred light and was believed to control and provide life-giving energy.76 The Incas developed a complex set of values linked to light reflection and learned to produce objects with enhanced shine by manipulating their structure and shape, especially when making goods considered prestigious or sacred.77
The disorienting qualities of reflective surfaces, as experienced in the church of La Compañía, were also known by the Incas, who used brilliant materials to confound the viewer, modify patterns of seeing, and provide religious objects with agency.78 For instance, the gold image of Punchao—a representation of the sun deity—was fixed to a rectangular sheet of polished gold that, when hit by potent Andean sun rays, reflected light with such strength that it obscured the figure, hiding it from the viewer. A comparable experience was produced by the Coricancha, Cuzco's main temple, which was covered with gold plates and surrounded by an artificial garden made of silver and gold.79 The Incas used a similar technique to display relics and other sacred objects by carving highly polished niches on rocks, producing a mirror-like shine. In these examples, the blinding rays that seemed to emerge from sacred objects embodied their divine and protective powers. Light, thus, animated images and activated their capacity to look back at the viewer.80
After the Spanish conquest, the Catholic Church accommodated and even promoted indigenous beliefs, although through forceful association with Catholic rituals. Despite the fact that at the early stages of the conquest, missionaries wanted to fully eradicate local religions, they soon realized that some Christian and indigenous beliefs needed to be bridged for a more successful conversion.81 In the end, Christian missionaries were forced to accept that indigenous groups, especially those living in rural areas, would not renounce their ancestral beliefs and rituals. Even though evangelization and extirpation campaigns had been quite brutal, Andean religion was deeply embedded in communal life and the agricultural calendar.82 The resilience of Andean cults did not negate the presence of Christian practices, especially in the cities. On the contrary, Andeans accepted and integrated numerous Christian symbols and rituals in their cultic experience, expanding their conceptual religious framework.83
The continuing use of brilliant materials and objects was a helpful tool to link Christian and indigenous traditions. The elaborate celebrations of the Corpus Christi, which had replaced the indigenous festivities of the Inti Raymi—associated with the worship of the sun deity—since the sixteenth century, provide an example of this practice. Although on the surface the Corpus Christi was fully Christian, indigenous communities endowed it with special meanings associated to the cycle of the sun and its effects on agriculture. In the eighteenth century, these festivals had become increasingly pompous.84 Among the various social groups that participated in these festivals were indigenous dancers who wore highly decorated costumes adorned with gold, coins, mirrors, and jewelry.85 Dancers had an important role in pre-Hispanic festivities related to the June harvests—such as the Inti Raymi—and, after the conquest, became an integral part of the celebration of the Corpus Christi, punctuating particular stages of the procession.86 In the past two centuries, this festival has established even stronger connections with indigenous communities, and the costumes of the dancers have become increasingly adorned with reflective objects. These brilliant materials linked Andean and Christian religious symbolism, associating the Inti Raymi and other Andean celebrations with the Corpus Christi. Thus, although the original intention of this festival was to stress the triumph of Christianity over local “idolatry,” it effectively emphasized indigenous rituals and ancestral views of the cosmos.87
Although it is not probable that the Jesuits fully understood indigenous symbolic preference for reflective materials, it seems clear that La Compañía's shining interior posited this building as an embodiment of the divine for the whole colonial audience. The Jesuits likely understood that this decorative choice would be appealing for Quito's diverse community, attracting white, mestizo, and indigenous groups to worship in their church. Certainly, for the Jesuits the gilded ornamentation, whose brilliancy was heightened by the placement of mirrors in different parts of the building, was meant to showcase the supremacy of Christian religion in Quito, and the essential role that the Society of Jesus played in the supposed success of the Spanish campaign of evangelization. However, for the indigenous audience the message was probably more complex, as metallic surfaces and reflecting mirrors were closely associated with pre-Hispanic cosmological views and with their own understandings of indigenous political agency. As such, reflective surfaces engaged the colonial audience in different—and sometimes conflicting—ways and complicated the reception of Christian religion as Europeans understood it. Instead, La Compañía's glittering interior presumably helped expand the conceptual framework of Andean Christianity.
MIRRORS OF PERFECTION: REFLECTION AND SELF-REFLECTION
Among the many reflective surfaces displayed in Quito's Jesuit church's decoration, mirrors had an intended effect that was directly related to the Spanish project of evangelization. Metaphors surrounding the nature of the mirror, especially in connection with notions of personal reflection and self-reflection, are also implicit influences. These specular metaphors were not exclusively directed at indigenous communities, but at the city's whole colonial population, including people of Spanish descent. As such, the reflective surfaces of La Compañía's interior decoration engaged with viewers of various ethnicities, all grouped under the wings of the colonial regime and its official religion.
In the Jesuit tradition, the mirror was commonly used as a metaphor for the natural world, because the world was defined as a reflection of the divine.88 A clear example of such interpretations is included in Johannes David's Duodecim Specula, a book that described twelve different types of specular images, from common mirrors to visionary experiences. Of particular interest here is the illustration of “The Mirror of Nature,” which shows a couple looking at a reflection of God's Creation on a looking-glass.89 In this image, the act of seeing is made obvious to the viewer by the projection of rays that emerge from the couple's eyes that pierce the image of the world to reveal the heavens. As if summoned by contemplation, a vision of God surrounded by angels appears behind the mirror. Several scenes that provide different paths to approach God through the contemplation of nature frame the central image. However, these theories also indicate that human nature, stained by original sin, limits its capacity to understand these reflections and to discern divine truth in the earthly world.90 As specified in Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 13:12), our knowledge remains imperfect and only at the end of times, at the moment of our judgment, will we know in full.
Jesuit theory reconciles the paradox surrounding the nature of reflections, which are both revelatory and incomplete, through the concept of Christian imitation. Christ, made in the image of God, was considered God's perfect mirror.91 So, even though the faithful lack the qualities to completely discern divine truth by themselves, they are able to acquire spiritual knowledge by following the teachings of Christ. The contemplation and reflection of Christian teachings are subsequently manifested as human virtues. Thus, Christ and virtuous men and women can also be considered as divine mirrors of God. This idea is illustrated in David's allegory of “exemplary mirrors,” which shows an altarpiece with the effigies of Christ and the Virgin.92 These specular representations of the divine are surrounded by images of Christian saints, presenting to the viewer different role models to imitate. As this image illustrates, emulation was seen as a viable path to further spiritual growth.
These complex theories did not remain in the realm of the theoretical. On the contrary, they were translated into devotional practice. As seen in several portable retablos from the Americas, most of them produced in the eighteenth century, mirrors were associated with and used for private devotion. Most of these altars were dedicated to the Virgin probably because she was commonly referred to as the “Mirror of Justice,” and considered the true reflection of her son, Jesus.93 Similarly to Christ, Mary was seen as a figure free of mortal sin and thus positioned as an impeccable role model for the faithful, especially women. Quito's monastery of the Immaculate Conception holds in its collection two remarkable examples of eighteenth-century portable altars displaying images of the Virgin that are profusely adorned with mirrors of different sizes.94
As previously mentioned, mirrors in such portable altars had a decorative purpose, creating contrasts with other reflective materials like gilded wood. Candles placed in front of the mirrors also elevated the moment of prayer by enticing the senses. In an example from the Patricia Phelps collection, we can see candleholders in front of large mirrors in the bottom row.95 However, many of these mirrors were also meant to provide a reflection of the devotee at the moment of prayer, triggering introspection and self-analysis.
As the Franciscan Abbess of Ágreda (1602–1665) clearly explains in her book Mirror of Perfection, by learning about the Virgin's virtues, the viewer was capable of acknowledging their own mistakes: “Pure mirror of all virtues, that shows all my abominable mistakes, I devoutly ask you to let me see my reflection so I can correct them.”96 The mirrors that adorn altars dedicated to the Virgin thus have a double purpose. On one hand, they refer to the symbolic nature of the Virgin as Christ's mirror. On the other hand, they direct the devotee to contemplate their own reflection and compare it to that of the Virgin. Acknowledging the differences between the Virgin's and the faithful's behavior, between the Virgin's virtue and the viewer's lack of it, produces a change in the faithful's actions.
Specular metaphors also appeared in devotional books such as the Truthful Mirror, by Jesuit Paolo Segneri (1624–1694), which were meant to guide the devotee in the moment of introspection. Segneri's text is a compilation of daily meditations, exercises, and prayers destined to increase the reader's self-awareness and piety. Among the exercises proposed by Segneri are constant comparisons between the reader's actions and those of Christ and Christian saints. As in the examples related to the Virgin's worship, self-reflection brings to the front the faithful's shortcomings and sins, prompting humility and repentance.
The mirror that I present to you will show you your inner self, not what you appear to be. … This book will teach you about the lives of saints and about your own nothingness.97
However, what is different about Segneri's book is that his exercises of introspection are at the same time self-effacing. Undoubtedly, the comparison between the virtue of the devotee and that of Christian saints evinces the devotee's nothingness. Segneri emphasizes that true Christians recognize that they amount to nothing because all good things, including their own virtues, come from God. The book also prompts the reader to acknowledge their intrinsic blindness in terms of divine knowledge, improved only through God's holy grace. As Segneri argues, the reader not only needs a pure soul but also God's supernatural help to understand divine will. Illumination thus comes from the devotee's self-reflection and subsequent destruction of their own reflected image.
This act of self-reflection, which goes hand in hand with the act of self-erasure, is connected to contemporary theories that framed the looking-glass as a deceptive object.98 As mirrors are only capable of reflecting a person's exterior, they focus only on physical, not spiritual, beauty. Thus, a mirrored image can conceal vices and sins as well as promote vanity. This reliance on improving the body instead of the spirit could derail viewers in their search for spiritual growth. Such specular metaphors also emphasized the banality of the body and of earthly life, as seen in David's allegory of the “Mirror of Self-Contempt,” which shows a man who finds his insignificance through the mirror of death.99 This emblem stresses the inevitable decay of the physical body and the realities of the human condition. These meditations also extended into devotional practice. Objects like the so-called Polyptych of Death, a portable box that includes a mirror, a portrait, and several memento mori, allowed its owner to ponder about their perishable body.100 This is particularly evident in one of the scenes of the Polyptych that shows a priest holding a mirror that reflects his skull instead of his face.
Specular reflections, especially those partial and fleeting reflections produced by the small mirrors that adorned the side chapels of La Compañía, underlined the ephemeral nature of the human body. The Jesuits intended to direct the faithful to see their own reflection while praying in front of these chapels and comparing it to the reflections of the virtuous Christian mirrors embodied in the many statues and relics on display. The faithful's broken and ephemerous reflection contrasted with the full-bodied images of Jesuit saints, like Ignatius of Loyola or Francis Xavier, forcing devotees to recognize their own nothingness and contributing to the self-effacing character of spiritual introspection. This contrast served to increase viewers' awareness regarding their spiritual state and to advance their inner transformation. Simultaneously, it highlighted the virtuous qualities of important Jesuit founding figures and of the Society of Jesus as a whole.
Interestingly, Amerindian cultures also used mirrors to see and understand the divine, even before the arrival of the Europeans. Indeed, shamans, priests, and sometimes rulers used such objects to facilitate visionary experiences, usually with the aid of hallucinogens.101 In these mirrors, authority figures were able to access the sacred world and witness events that ordinary people could not see, as well as acquire divine wisdom. As archaeological findings have shown, mirrors were used in similar ways in pre-Hispanic Ecuador.102
Considering the uses of mirrors by Amerindian cultures, it is possible that the indigenous devotee also understood the mirrors displayed in the altars of the church of La Compañía as a threshold to approach the divine. This threshold would connect indigenous viewers to their Andean deities, whose power was manifested in the many brilliant surfaces adorning the altars, and likely in the Catholic saints on display, which were commonly seen as Spanish huacas.103 This interpretation was in conflict with the self-effacing qualities of mirrors in Christian doctrine because indigenous viewers would not have considered their reflection necessarily in negative terms. On the contrary, these reflections were perceived as symbols of social and moral authority as they associated viewers with privileged political and religious indigenous figures. These contradictions illustrate the complexity of Andean Christianism, which was characterized by the conjunction of beliefs officially deemed incompatible and provided indigenous groups with various options to express their own version of Christianity.104
It is not possible to ascertain whether the Jesuits understood the larger implications of the use of reflective surfaces for the Amerindian viewer. However, the paintings displayed in the building's main nave and entrances were meant to state with utmost clarity the supremacy of Christianity over indigenous “idolatry.” The display of mirrors of different types went hand in hand with the painted decoration of the church, which supported and guided the faithful in their spiritual improvement by emphasizing the consequences of earthly actions in the afterlife. The large canvas of The Last Judgment, located next to the entrance to the building's south aisle, warns the viewer against the only two options available after death. The symmetrical composition of the painting provides the same weight to both possible futures, making them equally vivid. As this painting underlines, no one is spared in this judgment: royalty, the priesthood, and laypeople are all called to fulfill their destiny. The bright red flames of hell and the violence of the demons that control it create a grim picture for the viewer. The grimness of this possible future is explained in further detail in the painting of Hell, placed across The Last Judgment, next to the church's north entrance. This work emphasizes the future of the damned, providing numerous explicit scenes of the types of tortures that sinners suffer in hell. Bodies pierced, cut, and burnt were meant to deter the viewer from the many paths that led to eternal damnation. To make this painting even more didactic, a variety of labels explain the different sins that could lead to this gruesome future. Thus, the scenes shown in this image foreshadowed the consequences of living a sinful life and of divorcing daily actions from Christian spirituality.
On the other hand, the paintings of Old Testament prophets, who gently guide the viewer from the main entrance to the church's altar, highlight the communion with Christ as the only path to reach eternal life. Depicted in full length and in a life-size format, each prophet is placed before a deep, receding landscape. Scenes of the prophet's life are shown in the background, and his prophecies related to the life of Christ are presented as visions in the sky. These paintings provide hope and guidance in the teachings of Christ and his prophets. The banner with the text placed within the pictorial space associates such visions with specific passages of the scriptures, making their message easier for the viewer to study, understand, and remember. The prophets' rhetorical language raises the paintings' immediacy and adds emphasis to their Christian message. In addition, the sermons administered from the pulpit helped to add clarity to these paintings.105 The didactic nature of The Prophets and their showcasing of Christian teachings guided viewers in their search for illumination. In this context, the many reflective surfaces that adorned La Compañía worked in tandem with its painted decoration, helping the faithful internalize the essence of Christian doctrine, as well as recognize the importance of introspection for a happy afterlife.
This essay addresses the discursive agency of reflective surfaces, especially gilding and mirrors, in promoting the supposed religious success of the Society of Jesus and, by extension, of the Spanish Empire. The reconstruction of the original decorative program of the church of La Compañía defines the connections between reflective materials and the sacred that were meant to reinforce the role of the Jesuits in the evangelization of the Americas. Gold and mirrors were intended to promote Christian supremacy and to deter indigenous “idolatrous” practices. Overall, these reflective surfaces framed the interior of the church as a space inhabited by the divine, where spiritual improvement and revelation become possible. Private contemplation and introspection, triggered by the multiple associations surrounding the looking-glass, should also have prompted the faithful to analyze and reconsider their behavior, furthering spiritual improvement and maybe guaranteeing an afterlife in heaven. However, indigenous symbolism surrounding brilliant materials and objects complicated the establishment of Christian religion as understood by the Spanish regime. Instead, La Compañía's gleaming decoration allowed the indigenous local population to define Christianity in its own terms and to further the resilience of ancestral Andean religious beliefs. In general, this study shows that reflective surfaces shaped colonial religious experience, a premise that should be considered not only in the case of the church of La Compañía, but also in that of many examples of Spanish American religious architecture with similar characteristics.