Quarai Mission

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Quarai Mission


Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. The largest stoneas opposed to adobemission church in New Mexico is Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception of Cuarác, now called Quarai (Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Cuarác), which dates from the seventeenth century. Franciscan missionaries built the first chapel on this Pueblo site in 16151620. Today one may still see fragments of its stone walls. With its single-nave design, polygonal apse, and dirt floor this small church was typical of other New Mexican missions built between 1598 and 1630. The structure was razed to the ground in 1625 when building began on a new, more monumental stone church. In 1632 this church became the seat of the Inquisition in New Mexico. In 1678 the inhabitants abandoned the site due to Apache attacks, and the church was left unfinished. Today the remains of a one-hundred-foot-long nave with walls rising thirty to forty feet and the friary still stand. In comparison to other New Mexican missions, Quarai was unusual because it was built of stone.

Hybrid Structure. Quarai is a richly syncretic monument, combining traditional European traits with Islamic and indigenous influences. The basic structure was European. The second church was cruciform in plan, with chapels forming the transept. Northeast of the nave could be found the sacristy. The churchs massive walls consisted of flagstone courses, or horizontal layers, enclosing rubble fill. The floor was made of finished flagstone. On the 1625 Quarai facade one may see remains of two towers as well as a lintel and window above the main door. Indo-Christian frescoes finished the original interior walls. The roof was also inspired by Pueblo architecture. Vigas, resting on corbels, with latías, or thin wood branches, filling the interstices, formed the flat roof. These branches were arranged in herringbone patterns, a ceiling design unique to New Mexican colonial architecture. The friars based their herringbone design on geometrically patterned wooden ceilings in Mexico and Spain which have their ultimate roots in Spanish Islamic art and architecture. Thus, Quarai combined traits of European, indigenous, and Islamic architecture.

Baroque Effects. The lighting effects of Quarai indicate familiarity with the latest European developments in window solutions. The Quarai church had an unusual number of windows on the facade and the west nave wall, and as a result it must have been well lit. In addition, a transverse clerestory window created dramatic lighting effects on the altar. This window was placed at the roofline facing the altar where the sanctuary roof raised two to three feet above the nave, as in the Pecos church. It created a hidden light source of the type fashionable in seventeenth-century European Baroque churches which allowed light to stream dramatically and symbolically onto the altar.

Open Chapels and Architectural Hierarchies

Open chapels, which appear in missions throughout the Spanish empire, are the most significant architectural form created after the conquest. These structures, built to encourage open-air religious worship, take several forms. The type most frequently built in New Mexican missions is the elevated open-air chapel. At Ácoma, Pecos, and Quarai builders incorporated open-air balconies into the church or cloister facade. Friars preached from these balconies to the Indian converts gathered below in the atrium, or church yard, which served as an outdoor church nave. Scholars have advanced many theories to explain the creation of such chapels. Open chapels may have consciously imitated indigenous open-air temples, a fact which the friars hoped would facilitate conversion to Christianity. They also functioned to create and maintain social and racial hierarchies. For example, in sixteenth-century Mexico only Spaniards were allowed to worship inside the main churches. Native Americans and mestizos prayed in the open air. According to the friars, this was to keep the naive, childlike Indian converts away from the corrupting influences of the worldly Spaniards.

Sources: John McAndrew, The Open-air Churches of Sixteenth-Century Mexico: Atrios, Posas, Open Chapels, and Other Studies (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965);

James Early, The Colonial Architecture of Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994).

Indo-Christian Cloister. The Quarai mission complex, like other Spanish missions throughout the Americas, also included a cloister or friary, a portería (porters lodge), and a baptistry where new converts or babies were baptized. The portería was located east of the church facade on the cloister exterior, an arrangement seen in Mexican missions. It probably functioned as a waiting room for Indians wishing to consult with the friars. Behind the portería was the square friary, which was probably two stories in height. Fragments of Indo-Christian frescoes, consisting of an orange band framed by black lines, have been found within the friary. Surprisingly, two indigenous kivas also have been located within the cloister compound. Kivas, which are round-roofed indigenous structures often built underground or partially underground, are sacred sites for the performance of native ceremonies and rituals. Earlier scholars assumed that these two kivas were pre-Hispanic structures and that the Franciscans built their mission on top of them as an act of domination, a common practice in Mexican mission building. A recent theory, however, challenges this interpretation. Archeological evidence indicates that the kivas were built at the same time as the cloister and thus must have been intentionally planned by the Franciscans. How these kivas were incorporated into Catholic ritual, however, remains unknown.


Bainbridge Bunting, Early Architecture in New Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976);

Mary Grizzard, Spanish Colonial Art and Architecture of Mexico and the U.S. Southwest (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986);

George Kubler, The Religious Architecture of New Mexico in the Colonial Period and since the American Occupation (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990);

Trent Elwood Sanford, The Architecture of the Southwest: Indian, Spanish, American (New York: Norton, 1950).