The Nativity of Carmen Bajo: Open Once Again

21/Diciembre/2012 | 16:11

By Lance Brashear

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Once again the Carmelite Nuns of Quito are  opening their doors to the public to showcase their greatest artistic and cultural treasure: the baroque nativity room.  

El Carmen Bajo, like all monasteries in the historical district of Quito, occupies almost a full city block.  The monastery and church are enormous structures built between 1705 and 1745. 

The Carmelite nuns of Carmen Bajo, 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. 

The Carmelite nuns 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 - one of the reasons the Carmelites were originally predisposed to welcoming the public.  Last year’s success encouraged them to reopen again this year. 

Sister Marcia de Jesus, who has lived in Carmen Bajo since 1986 explained, “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].”

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.  Because every two blocks you have a church, because 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.”

Carmen Bajo’s opening seems to be a second step in welcoming the public more frequently.

Viteri says studies have been underway for a permanent museum.  “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.”

Historian Jorge Moreno who has studied El Carmen Bajo describes the nativity room as much more than just a depiction of the birth of Christ. “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 observing the room of more than 500 figures, one quickly sees that the nativity scene of Carmen Alto is not only an expression of reverence and spirituality, but a reflection of life during the two centuries in 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.  Architecture 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 transporting a Spanish priest on his back, a common practice from the time.

Entrance to the Carmen Bajo Monastery is located on Olmedo Street between Venezuela and Manabi.  Tours are given from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.  and 2:00 p.m. to  6:00 p.m. until January 15.  A donation of $2 is requested.  Apart from the tour, the Carmelites have products available for sale. 

Tours of El Carmen Bajo Monastery

Entrance: Olmedo Street between Venezuela & Manabi

Open, Tuesday-Sunday, 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. / 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Cost: $2.00


Ciudad Quito

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