One of the world’s most Catholic countries (92 percent of the population identifies as Catholic), Argentina has a four-century legacy of outstanding churches. Although many need a little TLC, these beauties teem with wonderful art and architecture as well as some fascinating bits of national history. These are my favorites.
#1 Salta Cathedral (Salta)
In the friendly city of Salta, where I was attuning myself to Latin traditions, of, say, going out to dinner at 10 p.m., I was staying at the charming Hotel del Antiguo Convento, just a few blocks from the city’s main square, July 9 Plaza. I would stroll down here every night to enjoy the convivial atmosphere, the cool breezes drifting in from the Andes, and the most beautiful church in Argentina, Catedral de Salta. When an earthquake destroyed the old building in 1856, this new cathedral rose in its place. Completed in 1882 and declared a national monument in 1941, the cathedral is dedicated to Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Open well into the night, it’s a pleasant place to visit once the sun goes down and the exterior—one of the world’s top five things that are pink—is illuminated in an inviting display. Featuring one of the world’s top five domes, the cathedral also sports two bell towers, and its façade is embellished with frilly cream-colored angels, friezes, swags, pilasters, volutes, and balustrades. Under the quatrefoil window, in the central broken pediment, the Eye of Providence, in a little triangle and shooting out glorious rays of light, watches over passersby. I entered through one of the three arched doorways into a magnificent space. The beautifully painted elegant barrel vault ceiling rises high above the nave, flanked on both sides by aisles with blue domes, Stations of the Cross, and elaborate side chapels to the likes of St. Roche and St. Joseph. Dozens of wood pews march up toward the altar, past the pair of pulpits and the pilasters with gold Corinthian capitals. From my place under the dome painted with clouds and with figures around the rim, I admired the fantastic altar piece, a circular display of golden figures and details. The cathedral employs a masterful use of color, except for the floor—a dizzying geometric pattern in grays and whites that would make Q*bert feel very much at home.
#2 Basilica of St. Francis (Salta)
One of the tallest belfries in the Americas beckoned me to the gorgeous Basilica San Francisco. The third church on this site, built in 1759, almost went the way of its predecessors, following a fire a couple of decades later. Masterfully rebuilt, the basilica is an irresistible presence in downtown Salta. Sporting bold red and yellow colors on the terra cotta façade, complemented by gleaming white columns, the basilica blends neoclassical and baroque styles. The 164’ belfry, completed in 1882, rises four stories of decreasing height, with the top three decorated with balusters and urns. It houses a bronze bell made from cannons used at the Battle of Salta during Argentina’s War of Independence. Pillars, arches, festoons, volutes, and carved panels adorn the façade of the basilica, which also features a prominent frieze that translates to a dedication “to the optimum and maximum of God, to the blessed Virgin Immaculate Mother of God, to Saint Francis and Saint Diego.” Above the three arched entrances, false curtains, made of stucco, are one of the basilica’s most delightful details. Inside, the single nave, under a tastefully restrained decorated barrel-vault ceiling, leads to the main altar with a reredos rich in marble of different colors and with more than a dozen Corinthian columns. The magnificent dome features the Four Evangelists in the pendentives, colorfully painted alongside their symbols on a sky-blue background. The dome itself measures 32’ in diameter and rises more than 78’ high. Seven rows of rosettes in recessed blue panels lead up to the painting at the top of the lantern, where cherubs frolic in a field of flowers. Just like Salta Cathedral, this basilica was declared a national monument in 1941. It, too, is illuminated at night in a fiery glow.
#3 Basilica of the Holy Sacrament (Buenos Aires)
I almost missed the most beautiful church in Buenos Aires. I was on my way to my hotel, Rooney’s Boutique Hotel, from the Retiro neighborhood when a fortuitous glance down a narrow side street rewarded me with a view of this gorgeous building, and I was quick to see it up close. In the early 1900s, the aristocratic Mercedes Castellanos de Anchorena, who owned the nearby San Martín Palace, commissioned the construction of the church on her land, which she donated to the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, because, she said, if she lived in a palace, so should her God. Consecrated in 1916, the Basilica del Santísimo Sacramento presents an eye-catching façade. I stared up at the central tower that soars 164′, noting the statue halfway up of St. Peter Julian Eymard (founder of Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament) and two angels kneeling in front of him. Shorter towers flank either side of it, and all three feature arches and a verdigris beehive dome, which are capped by cupolas topped with a cross. Walking between the entrances to two crypts, I entered the basilica, designed in an eclectic style that mixes Romanesque, Gothic, and Byzantine styles. The lavish interior made a lasting impression on me, with its employment of bronze, gold, silver, blue granite, white and red marbles, precious wood carved by Flemish masters, and Venetian mosaics—materials personally selected by the superior brother of the congregation. Brilliant stained-glass windows line the clerestory above the arched galleries and the walls of the semi-circular apse above the elaborate altar. The groin ceiling, tile floors, and stone columns contribute to the basilica’s opulence. The original organ, made in 1912, contains nearly 5,000 pipes and remains in full working order, and, as the largest church organ in Argentina, adds to this gorgeous basilica’s renown.
#4 Basilica of Our Lady of Piety (Buenos Aires)
The current Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Piedad is a far cry from the original church that was erected here. In 1762, Manuel Gómez, who owned much of the land in this area, and his wife, blessed with great wealth but no children, sought permission to build a church to thank God for the former. With permission granted, a brick church with tile roof was erected and lasted for about a century. In a severe state of disrepair, the church was demolished, and in 1895 this new church opened. Created by father-and-son architects Nicolas and José Canale, the basilica’s grandiosity is somewhat stunted by both its position on the corner of two fairly narrow streets and its sober neo-classical façade, with two corner towers and 10 Corinthian columns supporting a sculpted pediment of a Pietà. Inside, however, it’s simply striking—a mélange of color, gold-topped Corinthian columns, broad arches with rows of sculpted roses on their soffits, altars, and stained-glass windows. Four side aisles flank the main nave on which I trod. On my way to the altar, past the lovely pulpit, I looked up at the intrados of the dome that’s virtually invisible from the street. A ring of stained-glass windows between pairs of Corinthian pilasters circles the dome below the coffers, and a chandelier hangs from a long chain attached to the oculus. On top of the marble altar, an unusual Pietà places Jesus on the ground, rather than in Mary’s lap, and a striking mural above it on the dome of the apse adds another splash of color, heavy on the blues and pinks. In 2017, this minor basilica was declared a national historical monument — a definite highlight of your visit to Buenos Aires.
#5 Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires)
Hugging the northwest corner of Plaza de Mayo in the heart of the city, the Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires holds a special place in the hearts of all Argentineans. The very wide entrance of the city’s main Catholic church was built to impress, even though it was late to the game. The cathedral was consecrated in 1791, but the Neoclassical façade wasn’t completed until 1863 and looks more like an ancient temple or a courthouse than a Catholic church. One dozen Corinthian columns (representing the Twelve Apostles) support the pediment over the portico. A frieze of dentils, garlands, and cherub heads with wings runs across the entire width and wraps around to the sides of the building. Above it, the sculpted relief represents Joseph’s reunion with his brothers and father, Jacob, in Egypt—a nod toward Argentinian unity after some civil wars. I passed under this wonderful work of art and entered the cathedral, walking down the central aisle on a mosaic tile floor under a barrel ceiling. Halfway down, a singular mosaic of three nails used to crucify Christ reminds you of His fate; the mosaic-tile floors on the side aisles feature runners of lilies. Two identical pulpits are suspended on the walls leading to the altar. Among the side altars, wall frescoes measuring nearly five feet by more than three feet, stained-glass windows, and muscular arches, I found elements of the colonial past: The gilt wood altarpiece, created in the Rococo style, dates from 1785, and the oldest item in the cathedral—a sculpture of the crucified Christ—was made in 1671. Of utmost importance to the Argentinians is the mausoleum of General José de San Martín. Resting on a base of marble of various colors, the black sarcophagus contains the remains of the man who liberated Argentina, as well as Chile and Peru, from Spain. Lighted by an eternal flame and guarded by Soldiers of the Grenadier Regiment, it’s surrounded by three life-size female figures representing those three countries. But the cathedral doesn’t rest solely on its history—not long ago, the current Pope Francis led Mass here as archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1998 to 2013.
- Basilica of Our Lady of Mercy (Basilica de Nuestra Señora de La Merced, Buenos Aires, 1900)
- Church of the Savior (Iglesia del Salvador, Buenos Aires, 1887)
- Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar (Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, Buenos Aires, 1732)
- Basilica of St. Nicholas of Bari (Basilica San Nicolás de Bari, Buenos Aires, 1935)
- Cathedral Basilica of the Holy Saviour (Catedral Basílica de San Salvador, San Salvador de Jujuy, 1760s)
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