Nicoya, Culture, Gallery

San Blas Museum, the colonial city’s best kept secret

Esta publicación también está disponible en: Español
Translator: Arianna Hernández

The sun begins to shine on the back of the church, and it’s difficult to clearly distinguish the figures that adorn the façade, even in the shade.

It’s hard to say exactly, but this square in front of the San Blas Church in Nicoya was almost certainly the place where the Chorotegas also had their main square to perform ceremonies.

The Spanish built churches and raised crosses in places that were the most sacred for the indigenous people. Today, 500 years later, that church is still there. Flames have consumed it, earthquakes have broken it, but it rises again. And it has so much to tell us that it is not just a temple, but also a museum: the San Blas Museum.

The Voice of Guanacaste spoke with Nicoyan researcher Mario Rojas to find out some interesting things about the church. So the next time you visit it, you’ll notice these details. 

1. The façade 

The details on the church’s façade are easier to identify around midday, when the sun begins to illuminate the front of it. In the upper part, you can see a corn plant, which highlights this element that’s so sacred to indigenous culture.

A little lower down, there’s a heart with the phrase “Viva Blas” (Long live Blas) and just below that, there’s a clock brought from Germany. For a time, the parish was administered by Franciscan friars. One of them was Friar Ángel de Olot, who was responsible for bringing the clock and for other improvements to the temple in the year 1924.

Exactly below the clock, you’ll see a triangular shape that stands out from the rest of the figures. It’s a representation of the miter, the hat used by Saint Blaise (San Blas).

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2. The floor

Upon entering the church, you’ll see a floor beneath your feet that is hundreds of years old. This floor dates back to the same year when the temple was built, in 1644. At this point, Mario took the opportunity to talk to me about two different positions regarding how old the temple is.

The Ministry of Culture’s Heritage Center carried out archaeological investigations and they say that it was rebuilt in the mid-19th century, after an earthquake in 1826 left the temple badly damaged. Therefore, if it was finished after independence, it’s not a colonial temple. But oral tradition says otherwise.

In 1988, Nicoya’s parish priest, Ricardo Vargas, interviewed a Nicoyan named Guadalupe Mora and transcribed the conversation into a small text. “Don Lupe,” as he was known, said that he interviewed centenarians who lived in the mid-19th century and they had no recollection of the temple being rebuilt.

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3. The baptistery

Upon entering the temple, you’ll find a baptismal font from 1644 on the left. At that time, the baptismal fonts were outside the temple, since it was a custom that to be part of the Church, you first had to be baptized.

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4. The litter chair

Next to the baptistery, you’ll find a small carved wooden structure. On the informational plaque, it says that “it was used to transport the priest to bring viaticum to the sick.” Viaticum was given when someone was very sick and the priest came to give him communion. Later this litter chair was used as a confessional.

“We need scientific studies here to determine if this wood is so old because it says it’s from the 17th century, but the best thing to do is check things through studies such as carbon 14,” suggested Mario.

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5. Witness and archaeological windows

During restoration work after the 2012 earthquake, the foundations of the 1644 temple were discovered under the altar, and they decided to leave two “windows” so that the public could observe them, as well as a “witness” (a kind of window to observe the interior of the wall) in which the materials used to reinforce the building’s walls can be seen, such as sand, limestone, stone, known as calicanto, and carbon fiber.

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6. The bells

To the right of the main entrance, you can find the old church bells. These were also replaced by Friar Ángel de Olot in 1924, after they cracked. One of them says “Soi de San Blas de Nicolla” (I’m from San Blas of Nicoya) and harkens back to the completion of some repairs in 1831. The other bell is dated 1768.

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7. Burials

Although you can’t see it, you’re walking on top of very ancient burial grounds. During the repairs to the temple in 2015, they found 15 human skeletons. Some of them had ceramic objects, which suggests that indigenous practices were kept for a long time after colonization.


8. Wooden saints

Throughout the church, you’ll see ancient wooden saints with layers and layers of peeling paint. Some of them are John the Baptist, Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint Isidore the Laborer.

Oral tradition says that the image of Saint Francis is from the time when the parish was founded. “So this image dates from 1544. That’s what oral tradition says, but it would be necessary to see if it’s really so,” Mario emphasized.

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9. The mystery of San Blasito

There’s an image that you won’t be able to see during the tour: the church’s first Saint Blaise. The figure of the saint that you will find is more than 100 years old, but it’s not the first one they had in Nicoya.

According to Guadalupe Mora’s memoirs, that first image was small (which is why it was called “San Blasito”— Little San Blas) and had the attire of the Orthodox Church, such as the round miter and the staff with serpents. The Orthodox Church is more present in Eastern European countries such as Armenia, where Blaise of Sebaste was born, revered as San Blas.

This church has been separated from the Catholic Church since the year 1054. Perhaps that’s why the parish priest in 1862, Jesús Barquero, didn’t like that image and asked three people for help to bury it behind the altar and swear that they would never say anything.

One of the people that helped confessed what happened before he died and Guadalupe Mora heard his grandmothers say that people didn’t like that father because of what he did. The text states that people used strong phrases such as “that damn priest who buried San Blasito.”

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Mario is convinced that the focal point of Nicoya’s most important stories is here, between these thick, cold white walls.

“Talking about the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe is talking about that transition between the indigenous and the Catholic. Talking to you about San Blas also converges here. Talking to you about the entire history of Nicoya will always be related to the temple,” he affirmed.