The (Almost) Forgotten History of The Mission of San Ignacio Miní
The name Argentina comes from the Latin word for sliver 'argentum', and it is indeed a country rich architectural heritage, especially in its main cities. Some of the finest architectural ruins in the country are in the north and the San Ignacio Miní mission is a site that has ruins in an architectural style that is unique to Latin America.
The mission played an important part in the history of northern Argentina and in a dramatic period of the history of the continent. The site was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.
The Mission of San Ignacio Miní
The mission, which was originally a complex of religious buildings, private housing, and workshops, was built during the Spanish colonial period. During this era, the Catholic Church was given special privileges and granted extensive lands. The Spanish often granted these rights in remote areas since they believed the Church would convert the native people and ‘civilize’ them.
The original mission was found by priests from the Jesuit Order in 1692. It was constructed in what was then virgin rainforest in a region inhabited by the Guarini people. The Jesuits were successful in converting the local people to Christianity and persuading them to adopt a sedentary lifestyle. As a result, the mission expanded over time, and the locals built homes around the churches, engaging in craft and trade.
By the 18 th century, the mission had become a small town with a population of between 3,000 and 5,000 people, most of those being Guarani.
Details of the carvings along the walls (Scabuzzo, F / CC BY NC-ND 2.0)
San Ignacio Miní was part of the Jesuit Paraguayan province, an area dominated by the Jesuit controlled missions, who protected the indigenous people from slave raiding parties. The province became a state within a state, with its own Guarani militia who often clashed with Brazilian slave traders, as portrayed in the 1986 movie The Mission. There was even a printing press at the location that produced works in the Guarini language.
However, conflict and the 1767 expulsion of the Jesuits from all Spanish territories meant that the mission declined. During the various wars that plagued the region after the collapse of Spanish and Portuguese Empires, the mission was destroyed by a Brazilian force in the early 1800s.
The area only became part of the modern nation of Argentina in the 19 th century after the War of the Tripartite Alliance.
Preservation of the Site
After its abandonment, the mission was soon overgrown and hidden by the encroaching rainforest and finally forgotten until the 1890s when it was finally rediscovered. The mission was visited by a Brazilian expedition in 1903 which reintroduced the world to the splendid remains, although many of the connecting walls had collapsed due to the weather and neglect.
As the fears for the future of the site were valid, San Ignacio Miní was placed on the World Monuments Watch List In 1996, which led to a series of initiatives that are ongoing to preserve the historic remains.
What Can Be Seen At San Ignacio Miní
The remains are some of the most impressive to have survived from the Jesuit period of rule in the region. The original mission which was built around a square can still be seen. However, much of the original mission has been lost and there are only traces of the cabildo, or council house left.
The extensive ruins of the church, which was designed by an Italian priest in the style reminiscent of Baroque, also integrated elements from the local indigenous Guarani culture and has been described as Guarani-Baroque. The original church was 210 feet in length and its walls were five feet thick.
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The graceful carvings embellishing the entrance of the church (CC BY 3.0)
The church entrance is well-preserved, most of the walls are standing and there are still impressive buttresses and arches. Delicate carvings of angels and saints adorn the entrance as well as some walls, but the roof has long since collapsed. The building was built using local red sandstone and at sunset the ruins make striking impression.
How To Get San Ignacio Miní
The World Heritage Site is located in the town of San Ignacio, not far from Argentina’s border with Brazil and is close to the main bus terminal. An admission fee is required to enter, and it is only possible to visit the mission during opening hours. In the evenings multimedia show is displayed on the walls of the church and tells the story of the mission. Guides are available and there is plenty of accommodation near San Ignacio Miní.
Top image: Ruins of San Ignacio Miní, Argentina Source: By Juan / CC BY 2.0
By Ed Whelan
Barbacci, N. (2008). Capacity building program for the Conservation, Management, and Sustainable Development of the Jesuit Guaraní Missions of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. In 11th US/ICOMOS International Symposium
Jackson, R. H. (2008). The population and vital rates of the Jesuit Missions of Paraguay, 1700–1767. Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 38(3), 401-431
McNaspy, C. J. "The archaeology of the Paraguay Reductions (1609–1767)." World Archaeology 18, no. 3 (1987): 398-410