A gift from the nuns of Carmen Bajo

28/Diciembre/2011 | 09:32


Once again a cloistered religious order in Quito is opening its doors to the public for the first time ever as part of a baroque art exhibit.

In July the nuns of the Santa Clara Convent hosted a baroque art exhibit and now the Carmelite nuns of  El Carmen Bajo Monastery have opened their doors for the holiday season to share their famed Nativity scene.

The Carmen Bajo Monastery and Church are   enormous structures built between 1705 and 1745, which occupy almost an entire city block in Quito’s historic district.

The Carmelite nuns, formally known as the order of Carmen de la Santisima Trinidad, are originally from Latacunga.  They relocated to Quito following a devastating earthquake in 1698 and were received by their sisters of Carmen Alto in Quito, where they remained for three years before acquiring the land where their monastery now sits.

The names El Carmen Alto  and Bajo derive from the difference in altitude between them, a result of Quito's irregular topography (In Spanish, Alto means high and bajo means low).

The Carmelites belong to a mendicant order and live cloistered lives.  This is particularly important from an architectural and artistic standpoint, as the monasteries not only shelter the nuns from all exterior contact, but protect some of Quito's most valuable art works.  The nuns wish to share that artwork with the residents of the city.

Sister Marcia de Jesus, who has lived in Carmen Bajo since 1986 explains, "We are conscious  that this monastery has pictures, works, sculptures from the 17th, 18th, and 19th century… nobody could enter due to the cloistered arrangement. So now we are giving part of our space and opening [to the public]."

Pablo Viteri, architect for the Metropolitan Institute of Patrimony for Quito (IMPQ) explains that the opening of the monastery has been a work in progress.  He says years ago the Carmelites have had the idea and intention of sharing their heritage.  I

In recent years IMPQ  restored part of the convent and church, including the nativity scene.

"We changed the ceiling and the floor. This obligated us to dismantle the nativity scene.  We took advantage of the dismantling to restore every piece," said Viteri. 

The restoration cost $200,000 according to IMPQ.

Opening the Carmen Bajo nativity scene to the public is part of the larger process of preserving the intangible heritage of the city.

Viteri explains, "At one point there was an idea to remove the Carmelites from Carmen Alto," but he insists, "This is not the idea.  Right now we have a concept of Quito – the central historical district of Quito is beautiful because of this, because it is mystical."

Viteri recognizes that the beauty of Quito derives from its unique heritage and if not careful it could disappear someday. 

"Every two blocks you have a church...you have religious monks transiting through the bustle of the city, every day – you see Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans.  You have these cloisters and though you cannot see the nuns you know they are there and you have access to them, to buy their natural medicines, a shampoo, a series of things…We must preserve this heritage which, although small now, still exists."

Whereas the Santa Clara Convent closed its doors after their baroque art exhibit, Carmen Bajo's opening seems to be a first step in welcoming the public more frequently.

Viteri says a series of agreements has been made and studies for a permanent museum are underway.  "There is an intention by the mayor's office to share this entire heritage that is in the hands of a few persons, to open it to the community."

Quito mayor, Augusto Barrera, recognizes that the cloistered convents of Quito are some of the greatest repositories of colonial art from the Quito School, particularly from the baroque movement.

"We not only have the marvelous outer façade…but we have a marvelous inner façade and probably the greatest wonder is still there," he said.

Historian Jorge Moreno who has studied El Carmen Bajo and was on hand at the opening of the convent described the baroque nativity set as an accumulated memory of images.

"It is a scene that is mounted to represent the birth of Christ, but not just these scenes…included are themes related to the life of Jesus, the life of the Virgin, and in our case, daily life."

Spending only a short time in the room one quickly sees that the nativity scene of Carmen Bajo is not only an expression of reverence and spirituality, but a reflection of life from the two centuries during which this large collection of art was amassed.

The scene is filled with European figures, Spanish characters, indigenous personalities, and "mestizos." all produced during the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Architectural elements within the nativity reflect the times.  A scene shows Mary visiting her sister and is surrounded by African descendants in Ecuador.

Class differences are illustrated through the dress of different figures – some with shoes and some without.  And in one of the most interesting illustrations, a balsa wood construction mounted on the wall shows pre-colonial Yumbo Indians, one of whom transports a Spanish priest on his back, a common practice from the time.

Barrera says, "These are stories of life. This is the baroque construction where more than just a loyal representation of history, our affections and sensitivity towards others is reflected."

Tours of El Carmen  Bajo Monastery

Entrance:   Olmedo Street between Venezuela & Manabi

Open,  Tuesday-Saturday,

9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. /  2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Cost:  $2.00