The abode of a new people - Meeting di Rimini

The abode of a new people

 

‘The evangelisation of America is a topic commonly associated by many scholars with the colonisation perpetrated by the Spanish empire. The link between these events has been astutely exploited by the opponents of the Church in that continent. In fact, on the one hand, historical documents have been presented which one way or another involve individuals or groups associated with Church actions that favoured abuses against those lands and the local populations; on the other hand, the documentation emphasising the faith in the real motif that prompted the church orders to move to an unknown continent, facing risks of all kinds, sacrificing the lives of numerous martyrs and, above all laying the foundations for a new humanity, anthropologically different, whose vitality and richness are still not today sufficiently appreciated. In this regard, historical documentation exists which obstinately opposes such exploitation. This documentation is visible to all and its existence is sufficiently important and authoritative to make it a part of the historical heritage of the USA and an attraction for hundreds of thousands of people every year – we are speaking about the missions built by the Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit missionaries during the 16th and 17th centuries, in extremely hard conditions with very little or absolutely no professional architectural skills. These buildings continue even today to be admired by students and visitors from all over the world. Even though the wave of colonisation which replaced the Spanish crown in the region I refer to was incapable of understanding the aesthetic and architectural value of the churches and convents in raw brick, scornfully calling them “huts and canopies” and despising them as foreign to the dawning Protestant architecture, the architecture of evangelisation in North-America has nevertheless today been recognised as the most important historical heritage in the States of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, as well as, to some lesser degree in Florida. In these states, this architecture has defied the severe climatic and seismic conditions, as well as the hostility and deliberate neglect with which it was treated until the 20th century. The change of attitude towards this architecture of evangelisation has been radical, to the extent that it has reached the opposite extreme. And so, despite the attempt to abandon the memory of the Catholic missionaries to the implacable work of time, today it is possible to visit the cell of Brother Junipero Serra, where, with usual Hollywood precision, tourists can even see the monk’s robes folded over the precarious chair he used to sit on. The world remains astounded by such testimony whose everlasting message can never be hidden or ignored. It can only be deformed, thereby preventing a deep reflection on the reasons behind its splendour or on the motives that prompted men to convey it to such arid and isolated lands. Very often in fact, an attempt is made to satisfy the curiosity surrounding these queries by speaking of the cleverness, the personal tenacity and the individuality of the missionaries as if they were heroic “self-made men” working for their own satisfaction and glory. So far as the evident aesthetic value of this architecture of the essential is concerned, totally new in those areas but scrupulously suitable to them, this is normally valorised as something picturesque, devoid of method, like some sort of fortuitous natural formation. It is clear however, that in this case we are up against an attempt to scale things down, as well as personal and unilateral interpretations. Any serious and disinterested review of the situation clearly shows that this is not the case and that the tendentious bias of built up testimony (because this is what it is, rather than a “built heritage”) prevents us from approaching any real valorisation. These buildings provide a concrete testimony of the presence of the Church in action on earth for the only valid reason: to be a concrete sign of a presence that widens, a redeeming presence capable of growing and being effective, of persisting despite the greed and lust of the Spanish and English-speaking colonisers and their successors. It is therefore a testimony produced by the living Church, whose most interesting traits are its catholicity, its universality, capable of blending without prejudice Indian architectural culture with that of Spain ( and including in a humanly unexplainable manner, in a synthesis that appears natural, the Muslim ingredient), creating an expression deeply rooted in the great Christian tradition and, even so, free of any Gothic nostalgia, independent in its freedom. The exhibition intends highlighting these very aspects, i.e., the concrete testimony of this architecture in relation to the Christian annunciation and the myriad languages which, in a constructive and calm dialogue, stays within communion. This represents the biggest value for appreciating their buildings.’

Date

23 Agosto 1998

Edition

1998