Like the sweetest fruits, the exterior of Church of La Compañía de Jesús church does little to convey the splendour that awaits within.
Located just off the sweeping Plaza Grande, the stone façade is adorned with archangels and saints, spiralled columns and a door that makes its neighbours’ look like cat-flaps. Grand though it is, it has nothing on the magic on the other side.
Gold! Solid gold and gold leaf and more gold covers every surface of the interior, gilded walls and columns, parapets and ceilings, shiny like the inside of a disco ball.
True to the Baroque style, every single space of the church is decorated with finery – if it’s not in gold it is filled with a painting of a saint in sumptuous technicolour, created by the great artists of the Quito School.
Constructed by Jesuits between 1605 and 1765 – taking 160 years to complete – the church was inspired by two emblematic Jesuit temples in Rome: Il Gesú and San Ignacio. When the Jesuits were expelled from the country in 1773 the church was abandoned and many of its artefacts stolen, so that only (only!) 52 kilograms of gold remain.
It’s not only the gold-wash that seems to be an exaggeration: the organ is made up of a whopping 1,104 pipes. As you look up at it at the back of the church, take a glance at the spiral staircases flanking it at either side. There’s something funny about the one on the right…
The pulpit is a marvel, with what looks like a bedazzled wizards hat on top of it, while original 17th century oak benches remain, engraved with angels and made deliberately uncomfortable, to prevent worshippers from falling asleep during mass.
Most extraordinary of all is the altar decked out with saints and angels, biblical scenes and patterns, topped by a dome of celestial blue, ringed by the 12 apostles. A strategically placed mirror allows you to see every detail of the dome, in all its Baroque glory.
As is befitting such an overwhelming setting, la Compañía is rife with legend and mystery. Ecuador’s first saint, Mariana de Jesús, lies buried in the church. Her sainthood was awarded after she decided to sacrifice her own life to halt the stream of earthquakes devastating Ecuador in 1645. Three days after she prayed in la Compañía for the salvation of the land she came down with a terrible illness and died. The earthquakes halted immediately.
Then there’s the tale of La Dolorosa, a painting of the Virgin Mary that a father and a son saw close and then open her eyes in a 15-minute period in 1906. The version hanging on the altar of la Compañía is a copy, but still maintains the eeriness of the original in San Gabriel School.
More recently, a fire wrought havoc on the altar in 1996, started by an overheated lamp. The church remained closed for 10 years, and when it was reopened, one face of an angel in the dome remained charred and black, as a reminder of the destruction.
With the help of an English-speaking guide, provided to all who pay the small entrance fee, you can uncover myriad other tales that add to the intrigue and power of the celestial space.
Within a stone’s throw of la Compañía is a treasure trove of museums and sites: the Centro Cultural Metropolitano with the bizarre Alberto Mena Camaño museum and its macabre wax works, the presidential palace and the changing of the guard, and the Metropolitan Cathedral.
After site-seeing, grab a coffee from one of the al fresco cafés on Plaza Grande, perfect for watching the world go by, the scattering pigeons, Indigenous women selling their wares and shoe shiners toting for business.