San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Real Alajuelans Give Life to Church Murals

TheAgoníaChurchon the east side of Alajuela is not especially old as far as churches go. The present building on busy Calle Ancha dates from 1935 and replaced an older, adobe church built in the 1920s. However, the interior of the church brings to mind the Spanish colonial splendour of older, more graceful houses of worship.


One of Alajuela’s principal churches, the Agonía is a common landmark for finding addresses or locations in thisCentral Valleycity northwest of the capital.


The church’s unique treasure is its striking murals by Spanish artist Joaquín Claro, known by his first initial, J, or Jota. Painted directly onto the walls in 1956, the murals have since been restored so that the brilliant colors and details stand out as if they were painted yesterday. But what makes these murals unique is that Jota Claro included living people in them.


There are three big-as-life paintings. In a little side room with the baptismal font is St. John the Baptist pouring water over the head of Jesus as they wade in the River Jordan.


Apart from its large size, the picture is typical for a baptismal area.


On the left-hand wall of the sanctuary, about halfway to the altar, we encounter an Alajuela of the past. This mural shows a gathering of Alajuela’s Redemptorist priests and brothers earnestly listening to a red-robed Monseñor Juan Vicente Solís, the bishop at that time. To the side are several señoras who were prominent in the parish for their work with the poor and the sick.


By far the most distinguished of the paintings is on the right-hand side, opposite the priests and bishop. It shows San Gerardo María Mayela, the patron of the parish and the neighborhood, and protector of women and children. San Gerardo was a Redemptorist priest who was born in Italy in 1726 and died there in 1755. On his feast day, Oct. 19, children of the parish parade to Mass wearing black cassocks with white colors to resemble the saint.


In this almost life-size painting, he is surrounded by an admiring group of 25 women and children dressed in 1950s style and standing or kneeling to pray. They were real parishioners of the time who lived in the neighborhood and attended the church.


Fifty-four years is a long time, and the identities of most of the people in the picture are today forgotten.


But one of the little girls in the painting, wearing a white dress and charcoal-colored shoes, with her hair in braids wound around her head, is 4-year-old Ani Brenes, today a nationally known figure as an author of children’s books and a consultant with theUniversityofCosta Rica’s education faculty and the San José libraries.


“The picture was painted from a photograph so we wouldn’t have to stand still that long,” Brenes recalls. She doesn’t remember too many of the names, but that’s her aunt, Herminia Herrera, kneeling in front of the saint, wearing a yellow dress and a scarf, as was the custom of that time.


Some of the women are wearing aprons, and others, mantillas or head scarves; it was a more formal time when women covered their hair in church. A pair of twins is also depicted in the picture, Brenes remembers.


At the time, Brenes lived with her aunt, across the street from the church, where they attended Mass and other activities, she says.


Depicting real neighbors from another era as it does, the painting is well known and loved in the Alajuela community.


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