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Religion understated in Chilean church design and personal style

  • The Immaculate Conception Church, in a wealthy section of Santiago, seems designed to prevent the proliferation of flowers and altar shrines that are characteristic of Chilean popular Catholicism.
  • Virgin and child image in a home in Algorrobo, Chile, in a locally popular style of embroidery.
  • A rural chapel north of Algarrobo, Chile.
  • A large roadside shrine to the Virgen de Andacolla, at the intersection that leads up to Andallo in the mountains. The blue metal shed protects the many candles left there from the wind.
  • Our Lady of Andacollo, in the Cathedral church, La Serena, Chile. Andacollo is an inland mining town.
  • Cathedral church, La Serena, Chile.
  • Nazareno image at the Dominican church, La Serena, Chile.
  • Marian plaque on bedstand, Algorrobo, Chile.
  • Father and son praying at Church of Mercy, Santiago.
  • Prayers at an altar to the Immaculate Conception, Church of Mercy.
  • Religious goods for sale in front of a church in Santiago, Chile.
  • Holy cards and books for sale at the checkout counter in a convenience store, Santiago.
  • At the noon Mass, people hold up their holy cards of the Virgin, which they purchase and use to represent a prayer intention, for blessing.
  • A roadside shrine, off the PanAmerican highway on the Pacific at Palo Colorado, honors the Virgin. The site is flanked by an unusual number of Chilean flags.
  • Parishioners seeking blessings after Mass at Jesus the Worker parish, where San Alberto Hurtado ministered.
  • The national Shrine of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, a vast space, but very sparsely attended on a Sunday in March.
  • A statue of the Immaculate Conception, built in the early 20th century, occupies the high point of the metropolitan park in Santiago, Chile.
  • While the Santiago Immaculate Conception statue includes a large shrine area and shows some signs it is a devotional site, it appeared one day to be mostly frequented by those who wanted a premiere view of the city.
  • A new park with an image of San Alberto Hurtado in Santiago, Chile.
  • Parish of the Apostle James, in a poorer neighborhood of Santiago.
  • Daily Mass chapel at the Cathedral in Santiago, Chile.

Visually, the Chilean cultural landscape is full of conflicting signals about the place of Catholicism today. On the one hand, a visitor occasionally comes across large, well-tended shrines to the Virgin or to a saint or to Jesus’ crucifixion, or crosses or Marian statues on top of hills, and one can find a church in every neighborhood or town, though the exteriors of these are often fairly understated. Almost without exception, the public religious images one does see are Catholic. Oftentimes it is hard to tell whether many of these visual manifestations are more historical legacy than lived religion. Streets and subways stops are named after saints but most of those are older phenomena. Still, some are fairly recently named, e.g. after the canonization of Chilean native Alberto Hurtado. In 2000, the country issued a new  500 peso coin bearing the image of a beloved Chilean cardinal, Raúl Silva Henríquez, who died the previous year. 

On the other hand, one might walk for a long time in a crowd, or travel a great distance by car without seeing any visible religious images. Chileans rarely wear crosses or religious medals. Chileans almost never display Christian symbols outside their houses. Almost never does one see religious (or secular) decals or stickers on car bumpers or windows. Inside cars, though, religious symbols like rosaries hang in perhaps 20 percent of cars. And shrines do sell rosaries, holy cards and small religious trinkets. Once in a while, one sees a religious statue in a store, or holy cards for sale there, but these are not typical. Animitas are, in many parts of the country, the most consistent form of religious imagery. 

The visual style of Chilean Catholic churches varies widely, including a small number of colonial churches that survive, many 19th-century confections with numerous shrines whose candles and flowers mark them as active places of devotion, and more contemporary churches – both in rich and poor neighborhoods — whose design leaves no place for such devotionalism. Gothic styles are rare, and 20th-century churches only occasionally imitate a Spanish colonial revival style.

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