[url=http://www.Granma.cu]http://www.Granma.cu[/url] | BY MIREYA CASTAÑEDA

Tour with architect Orestes del Castillo, from the City Historian’s Office

BAROQUE should not always be synonymous with profusion or excess. There is also a majesty in simplicity. Beauty in modest constructions. A tour of Havana’s historical quarter is affirmative of that.

For the last five years, the City Historian’s Office has been regaling Havana residents and thousands of visitors with the opportunity of appreciating the multiple jewels of the city in explorations with specialists, thanks to the Routes and Walks program.

This time, as City Historian Eusebio Leal says, “let’s take a walk” around religious architecture, in the hands of professor and architect Orestes del Castillo, one of the people responsible for the colossal restoration works being undertaken by the City Historian’s Office. He outlines the tour in his office just before we set out. Given the space that it conforms, it could be said that the walk will be almost a triangular one.

THE GREATER PARISH AND THE PIRATES

A small plaque recalls the second Parish Church of 1575, built in stone (the first was a humble clapper board hut on the space occupied by the Castilla de la Real Fuerza) in what was subsequently the Palace of the Capitanes Generales.

“It is the oldest religious monument,” affirms architect Del Castillo, “erected in memory of María de Cepero y Nieto, on the spot where that young woman was praying when she was killed by a shot from a harquebus, possibly fired during one of the pirate attacks on Havana.

“This place was completed in 1791 as the seat of the City Council and it is now the City Museum. One of its rooms displays objects from the Greater Parish.

MAJESTIC SANTA METROPOLITANA

Constructed before 1870, it was in 1795 that a Pope Pious bull conferred the title Majestic on the Santa Metropolitan Cathedral. It is both majestic and baroque. “It is the finest example of Cuban religious baroque architecture. The best achieved. Constructed in stone; jaimanita, like the rest of the buildings in these places, on account of its great durability, although it is porous, which hinders finely worked details; that being the reason why Cuban baroque is much more restrained and less laden with ornamentation.”

According to the professor, the Cathedral has experienced various interventions. “The most notable of all and one that has succeeded in recovering a closer aspect was undertaken at the end of 1997 for the visit of Pope John Paul II.”

RESTORING SAN FRANCISCO EL NUEVO

The San Francisco el Nuevo Church and Convent is located on Cuba and Amargura. “Dating back to the 18th century, it was initiated by Franciscan priests from Mexico and its now transformed facade has reminiscences of highly ornamental Mexican Baroque architecture, as well as the portico and lateral elements. These triangular pediment already show a certain neoclassical influence.” The building is currently being completely restored by the City Historian’s Office, and at the back, there has been a very important archeological discovery of a monk’s burial ground in a small patio.”

CONTROVERSIAL SANTA CLARA CONVENT

Cuba Street is an architectural treasure. Walking down it toward the Bay, you come across the Santa Clara de Asis Convent, seat of the Order of Saint Clare until a scandalous operation in the 1930’s provoked the Protest of the 13, headed by Ruben Martínez Villena, and it was bought by the Cuban state. Now restored, it is the headquarters of the Conservation and Restoration Center (CENCREM).

The convent virtually covers four blocks. Constructed for cloistered nuns, the project began in 1613, and its most famous residents included the then Countess of Merlin, the great chronicler of colonial Havana, who managed to escape from its confines.

“The main facade of the convent is on Sol Street. It is a very primitive structure with certain neoclassical elements; for example, the columns (the first totally neoclassical building in Havana was the Templete in 1828). Very restrained, simple, its interior patio with a completely surrounding garden and arcade is incredibly beautiful.”

BROTHER JERONIMO IN THE ESPIRITU SANTO CHURCH

Still on Cuba Street and now at Acosta, we arrive at the Espíritu Santo Church. The oldest of Havana’s still-existing churches, its origins go back to 1638. “With a very simple facade with a pediment, it began with one nave. The beautiful artistic interlacing work on the wood of the roof still remains. Later, a second nave was added, with a similar roof.”

Extremely simple and modest, that does not detract from the beauty of its hardwood altars and wonderful altarpiece that closes the higher altar, a Baroque work. Moreover, the church houses the remains of Brother Jeronimo Valdes (discovered in 1936), who was Bishop of Havana and founder of the Royal and Pontifical University and the Charity and Maternity Home.

LA MERCED AND SYNCRETISM

The cornerstone of La Merced Church (on Cuba and Merced Streets), a beautiful building in the Italian Baroque style was laid in 1755, but the church was inaugurated in 1792. Here Professor Del Castillo quotes the architect Joaquín Weiss. “If the cathedral marks the climax of Baroque in Cuba, La Merced is its descent into neoclassicism.”

One of the most sumptuous churches in the city, with great wealth in its ornamentation, it has a wide central nave and two side aisles, all three covered by vaults supported by an arch linking the three naves. The central cupola lends it a special light.

This Catholic church is also the object of syncretic visits, as the religions originating in Africa venerate the Virgin of La Merced as Obbatalá.

ARS LONGA

Having reached the Avenida del Puerto we make a stop in the air-conditioned ancient Parochial Church of San Francisco de Paula, now a concert hall and headquarters of the Baroque musical group Ars Longa. Dating back to the early 18th century, still in Baroque style, its interior is now spectacular, with stained glass windows executed by Rosa María de la Terga, and works by Zaida del Río, Nelson Domínguez, Roberto Fabelo and Cosme Proenza.

ALONG THE ALAMEDA DE PAULA

“We are passing along the avenue where the distinguished colonial families used to go. It was an obligatory place. We are reliving those times.”

Somewhat further along from the beginning of the avenue, the Orthodox Russian Cathedral is under construction according to the plans of architect Jaime Rodríguez Cunill. “Recently, a senior representation from that Church laid the cornerstone of the church and a cross that marks the place. The Cathedral is to be built with all the requirements of its religious rites, which demand a certain architectural expression. There have been disputes over this church, given that some people do not think that a temple of that typology will fit in Havana.”

SERENITY OF THE LAST STOP

The tour ends in the Lesser Basilica and San Francisco de Asis Convent, constructed in 1734. The complex consists of the church; two cloisters, north and south; and a chapel. “It was restored in 1994 and is one of the most valuable examples of Cuban Baroque architecture. A great complex, similarly in jaimanita stone, lined with wood on the intermediate floors and roofs.”

Conserved in its original characteristics, it now has diverse uses: the Basilica is a spectacular concert hall and the cloister galleries are devoted to exhibitions: sacred art in the north cloister and the others for sculpture and paintings. The Chapel of the Third Order is now the theater for the section of La Colmenita that cares for children with disabilities. The south cloister, with its beautiful and tranquil garden, is dedicated to the memory of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

At the expense of the garden space the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of San Nicolás de Mira was constructed there in 2003-2004.

“The project and construction was a work by the City Historian’s Office. The building, the iconography, the elements of the liturgy and the ornaments were donated by the Greek Orthodox Church. It’s a little piece of Byzantine in Havana.”

The Cathedral, and the San Francisco el Nuevo, Espíritu Santo and La Merced and the Greek Orthodox Churches are still open for worship. Moreover, there is the large and active Asath Israel synagogue on Acosta and Picota, Protestant places of worship and Cuba’s only mosque in the Casa de los Arabes.

As Eusebio Leal said, Havana’s historical quarter is an ecumenical space. When you visit Havana, come closer to its most famous churches.