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Brass Rubbings

Captain Morgan's Altar

On the churches of Panamá City.


In the late seventeenth century, the British and Spanish empires traded blows frequently in the Caribbean, in no small part because of constant British privateering of Spanish merchantmen. In one of the more celebrated episodes, Thomas Modyford, the British governor of Jamaica, commissioned the Welsh pirate Captain Henry Morgan in March 1670 “to do and perform all manner of exploits” to ensure the preservation of British interests in the Caribbean. By December, Morgan had amassed the greatest pirate armada ever seen in the Caribbean. His prize was Panamá City, the second-largest city in the Western Hemisphere, and a critical entrepôt for Spain. Though Morgan knew that the two European kingdoms had reached a peace agreement months before, he and his buccaneers invaded Panamá anyway, and by late January the notorious pirate and about twelve hundred men had reached the city.

The Spanish defended the city poorly. An ill-conceived defense of Panamá by Governor Don Juan Pérez de Guzmán y Gonzaga featured, among other miscalculations, an attempt to make the Spanish cattle stampede to confound the pirates. But the cows, confused by the gunfire, turned on their own keepers. As they prepared for defeat, Don Juan’s forces set fire to many of the city’s buildings. Its inhabitants attempted in vain to hide various treasures in wells, cisterns, and behind walls. One such treasure, so the legend goes, was a golden church altar, which priests painted with black oil to resemble tar and deceive the plundering pirates. One Fray Juan asked Captain Morgan for alms to complete the altar. Morgan jokingly replied that the cleric was more pirate than he, and donated a fistful of coins.

The tale is almost certainly apocryphal: the altarpiece’s late Baroque style bespeaks an eighteenth-century design, and local records indicate it was not covered in gold until 1915. Today it rests in San José Church, one of many venerable churches in Panamá City’s historic Casco Viejo, the old city, which is known for its cobblestone streets and colonial architecture. San José was originally a convent of the Augustinian Recollects, whose presence in Panamá dates to 1612, though the church was likely not built until the year Captain Morgan arrived, if not later.

San José was left in ruins after a fire in 1737 and only later rebuilt a third time. Then, in 1832, the nation of Greater Colombia, of which Panamá was by then a backwater province, banned convents; the Augustinians sold the building and left the country, only to return in 1898. The church’s twelve-meter-high altar is made of bitter cedar, and it features eight Solomonic columns on two levels, with statues of the Augustinian friar Saint Thomas of Villanova, Saint Joseph and the baby Jesus, Saint Clare, Saint Clare of Montefalco, Our Lady of Consolation, and Saint Augustine. To its immediate left, an often-overlooked marble altar to the Blessed Sacrament, less ornate, offers a quieter place for prayer. The interior of the church is divided into three naves, one of which contains Florentine stained-glass windows whose beauty is unfortunately obscured by the dull white walls upon which they rest. And though there are a few other elements to commend the church—such as a wooden raised pulpit a third of the way up the pews—San José is actually the least impressive of the churches of Casco Viejo.

My personal favorite is the humble Oratorio San Felipe Neri, inconspicuously concealed to passersby on Plaza Bolívar because of a nondescript building attached to the former atrium of the church. (Visitors must come through a side entrance with sliding glass doors.) Originally built in 1688, the church, like San José, burned down in 1737, and yet again in 1757, though its grand colonial-era pulpit was preserved. Its bell tower, which is heard more than seen, contains mother-of-pearl inlays from the Pearl Islands in the Gulf of Panamá.

In the nave of San Felipe Neri are forty-five marble tombstones on the mortared tile floor, most memorializing nuns who served the parish in the nineteenth century. Fourteen cloisonné glazed and enameled stations of the cross line the church’s ancient walls, while a large choir loft is accessible via a winding and somewhat terrifying wooden staircase. Through the original entrance and into a side room is an incredibly intricate miniature nativity scene—apparently maintained year-round—consisting of more than three thousand pieces from Spain and Italy. Its cycle begins with the Visitation and ends with the Flight into Egypt; it retained my children’s interest for half an hour.

Most tourists are naturally drawn to the much larger, cream-colored church on the other side of the plaza from San Felipe: Saint Francis of Assisi, where, while strolling on Saturday evening dates, my wife and I regularly stop to admire elaborate Panamanian weddings. San Francisco, whose twenty-five-meter bell tower is visible for miles, enjoys quite a bit of light because of its white brick walls and marble floors, as well as the church’s high stained-glass windows, less obstructed by adjacent buildings. But the most wonderful aspect of the church is its magnificent pastel-colored, Venetian-made mosaic high altar featuring lesser-known saints such as the Polish Jesuit Andrew Bobola (the Jesuits ran the church for most of the twentieth century).

San Francisco’s eight side altars offer many opportunities for reverential devotion, though the same cannot be said for the church’s bizarre modern artwork, including a massive canvas in various shades of blue memorializing the pandemic, depicting masked Panamanians clutching naked children while a naked choir with naked flutists performs in the background. Another painting at the front of the church shows Jesus in a charismatic pose as dark waves envelop him (my eight-year-old son later told me it induced nightmares). There is also a marble baptismal font commemorating the five-hundredth anniversary of the evangelization of the Americas in 1992 and a colonial-era wooden image of Saint Francis of Assisi with his stigmata.

A short walk from San Felipe through narrow alleyways will land you in the Plaza de la Independencia, over which towers the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Santa María la Antigua, also known as the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, one of the largest churches in Central America. Construction began on the cathedral in 1688 following a commission by Pope Adrian VI, though the building was not consecrated until 1796. Seven limestone steps, representing the seven deadly sins, lead up to the entrance of the church and were the site for the readings of the Panamanian Emancipation Declaration from Spain in 1821 and the Separation of Panamá from Colombia in 1903. The entrance is flanked by two mother-of-pearl-plated towers, once the tallest structures in Latin America.

Ten stained-glass windows brighten the cathedral’s interior, while a crypt underneath the altar—a striking rose, turquoise, and golden marble structure—is the burial place for the archbishops of Panamá. Among the church’s curiosities include Pope Leo XIII’s cross, which promises a one-hundred-day indulgence to those who kiss it and recite the Lord’s Prayer; a chair in which Pope Francis sat during his 2019 visit and consecration of the restored high altar; and the bones of Saint Aurelius, one of the forty-eight martyrs of Córdoba, killed during the Umayyad caliphate of Abd ar-Rahman II. An eight-ton, Polish-made pipe organ covered in twenty-three-carat gold leaf with three thousand tubes of wood and metal is put to good use during state funerals, which are held here.

Two blocks from the cathedral is the church of Nuestra Señora de la Merced, “Our Lady of Mercy,” the only church in Casco Viejo to retain its original wooden ceiling—sunlight peeps through the dilapidated rafters. The church, which is located beside the original entrance of the walled city, would have been the first structure to greet approaching visitors. During the destruction of the original city in 1671, Captain Morgan used it as his barracks. Afterwards, parishioners transferred the stones from the original Baroque façade of 1620 to their current location. The move to Casco Viejo was completed in 1680.

Among the seven side altars built in the early twentieth century—some of which contain plaster “articulated mannequins” of Jesus—the most interesting is that to Saint Hedwig. Panamanians follow the tradition of praying to the medieval Bavarian saint for a home by placing miniature houses at her feet; there must have been more than one hundred the day I visited. To the left of the wooden and stone high altar is the baptismal font, a replica of the one used to baptize Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the Spanish conquistador who first explored the region and crossed the Panamanian isthmus to behold the Pacific. A modest yet pious painting of Our Lady of Antigua, patroness of Panamá, is contrasted by stained-glass windows with an off-putting neorealist character, unintentionally, one hopes, reminiscent of Soviet propaganda posters.

The property surrounding the Nuestra Señora de la Merced was remodeled—some might say haphazardly—in preparation for the 2019 World Youth Day in Panamá. A small outdoor museum contains a colonial-era well, a fountain, and the oldest bell in Casco Viejo, as well as an annoying two-minute Spanish and English audio track that loudly (and endlessly) plays on repeat. The upstairs sacristy was likewise turned into a museum that includes a bizarre hologram with images of fire descending on a ciborium, “intended to offer you a warm welcome.” More reverently, the church also has two small atriums, one a chapel to the Virgin that includes an eighteenth-century painting of Mary and another a mausoleum honoring Our Lord.

Two other churches are open during the tradition of the Seven Churches Visitation on Holy Thursday. One of them, the Chapel of John Paul II, also known as the Chapel of the Presidency, is within the presidential compound and accessible only during Holy Week. The other, the Church of Santa Ana, a short walk outside Casco Viejo, may have been founded as early as 1560, though there are no records of it until its consecration in 1674. It is named after the Count of Santa Ana, Mateo Izaguirre, a wealthy patron. Unlike the churches of Casco Viejo, which have been the beneficiaries of extensive (and expensive) restoration efforts, the crumbling Santa Ana, despite once being one of the most popular churches in the city, is now overgrown with weeds and in serious need of repair.

In even worse disrepair is the conspicuous Church and Convent of the Society of Jesus, whose large property, situated equidistant from the cathedral and San José Church, lies in the middle of Casco Viejo. It was built in 1741, and it once hosted the first university in Panamá, the Royal and Pontifical University of San Javier, until the authorities expelled the Jesuits in 1767. The building was destroyed by fire in 1781 and then again by an earthquake in 1882. Despite constant restoration activities across the old city—watch out for the sparks from welders on second-story platforms!—the building lies falling to waste, regrettably with no immediate plans for a rebuild.

Weary pilgrims can watch the sunset over the ruins of that giant Jesuit edifice, as well as the spires of the other churches in Casco Viejo, from one of several sky bars in the old city, which John John le Carré described in The Tailor of Panama as possessing “the filth and elegance of seventeenth-century colonial Spain.” One can even sip a cocktail made with Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum, though, with apologies to its namesake, I wouldn’t recommend it. Panamá’s own Ron Abuelo Añejo XII is superior, though the best rum for your dollar is either Venezuela’s Diplomático or the Dominican Brugal. If you’re not tippling too late in the evening, you’ll even hear the ancient church bells echoing across the roofs out into the tranquil waters of the Gulf of Panamá.

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Casey Chalk is the author of The Obscurity of Scripture: Disputing Sola Scriptura and the Protestant Notion of Biblical Perspicuity.