With beautifully carved porticos and interiors dripping with gold leaf, Potosí’s churches are amongst the finest examples of the mestizo-Baroque style, in which Christian European and pre-Christian Andean symbolism are combined. The churches were built partly as a straightforward expression of religious faith, but gratitude for the wealth of Potosí also played a role: whereas Catholic churches almost always face west, those of Potosí look south towards Cerro Rico. They were also part of a determined effort to convert the indigenous population: with hundreds of thousands of indigenous people from different ethnic groups spending time in the city as workers under the mita system, Potosí offered a perfect opportunity for inculcating the Catholic faith. As well as the many churches and convents built for their own use, the Spaniards built fourteen parish churches for exclusive use by the indigenous mitayos.
In time, Christianity gained widespread acceptance amongst the indigenous population, at least on the surface. But as responsibility for building and decorating Potosí’s churches passed to indigenous and mestizo craftsmen and artists, a very distinct religious vision began to emerge. From the second half of the sixteenth century the religious art and architecture of Potosí began to incorporate more and more indigenous religious motifs in a style that became known as mestizo-Baroque. The sun, moon and stars – central objects in traditional Andean religion – appear alongside images of Christ and the saints, with the Virgin Mary represented in triangular form like a mountain, clearly conflated with the Andean earth goddess Pachamama.
These developments did not pass unnoticed by the Spanish authorities, but allowing a little Andean religious imagery into the decoration of churches may have seemed a small price to pay for getting the indigenous population to accept Christianity, albeit superficially.
Despite their beauty, however, these churches were the product of slave labour, and they could scarcely conceal the contradiction between the avowed Christian beliefs of the Spanish mine owners who funded them and the brutal reality of the mining regime these same men controlled. It was said that though God ruled in Potosí’s 34 churches, the Devil laughed in his six thousand mines.