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Home > Galleries > Gallery 12: The Celestial Dome of El Sagrario de Quito

Gallery 12:
The Celestial Dome of El Sagrario de Quito


The Dome of the Iglesia del Sagrario de Quito. Photo: Marcelo Quiteros Mena


Unaided by optical instrumentation and guided solely by common sense, early watchers of the heavens concluded that the Earth stood at the center of a spherical universe, and that the Sun, the Moon, and the planets rotated about the Earth in perfectly circular orbits. The celestial bodies completing their revolutions about the Earth faster would be closer to it, while those taking longer would be farther away. Thus, the Moon would be the closest of the celestial bodies, followed, in turn, by Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The orbits of these luminaries defined seven nested spheres which were enclosed within an eighth—the sphere of the fixed stars, known also as The Firmament. It was furthermore believed that celestial bodies affected the course of events in all of the spheres nested within their orbits. Thus the Earth, being within the sublunar world , was affected, not just by the Moon, but by all the other celestial bodies as well.

These views of the universe were codified by Ptolemy at the beginning of the Christian era. But with the advent of Christianity, the seven planetary spheres—as well as the planets exerting their influence over them—were associated with the seven archangels that stand in the presence of the God (Tobit 12:15; Revelations 1:4) [1]. And with the various choirs of angels. Known also as the orders, hosts, or hierarchies of angels, they are the various ranks of angelic creatures that surround the throne of God. According to Thomas Aquinas, there are nine choirs of angels—the Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Domin(at)ions, Thrones, Seraphim, and Cherubim. One set of correspondences between choirs and planets was that of Robert Fludd (1574-1637), the celebrated philosopher of the occult, who visualized them in the following diagram.


Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi […] Tomus secun-
dus.  Oppenhemij: Impensis Iohannis Theodori de
Bry: Typis Hieronymi Galleri, p. 259. [2]

 As shown in this diagram, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn correspond, respectively, to Angels, Archangels, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, Seraphim. In addition, the Cherubim correspond to the sphere of the fixed stars, and the Seraphim, the highest order of them all, corresponds to the Prime Mover, which is none other than God Himself. Planets and hosts also correspond to human faculties. So the macrocosmos of the universe corresponds also to the microcosmos of the human soul.

The correspondences between hosts and planets diagramed by Fludd matched the ones mentioned in a printbook designed, engraved, and published by Crispin de Passe I (1560-1642) in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries [3]. The title of this printbook can be translated as God the Father, from whom everything [comes], Our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom everything [comes], and newest Angels, with just as many choirs of the heavens, together with their mystical works in both the Old Testament and the New.


Photo: National Library of Poland Website.

In the engravings of this printbook, planets are matched to choirs of angels as well as to archangels. And to numbers, as the table below details (the numbers of the table correspond to the levels of nesting of the spheres, where Saturn is the least nested and the Moon is the most). If we were to apply here Fludd's scheme, then Cherubim/Iophiel would correspond to the sphere of the fixed stars, while Seraphim/Uriel would correspond to the sphere of the Prime Mover.


Annotations printed on the nine engravings of the
Angelorum Icones of Crispin de Passe I.


As the correspondences in this Gallery will show, the engravings of the de Passe printbook served as models for seven of the eight sections of the Dome of the Iglesia del Sagrario de Quito, painted by Francisco Albán between 1742 and 1746 (see illustration above). By painting archangels from this printbook on those sections, Albán endowed the Dome of El Sagrario with cosmic and celestial significance, making it indeed stand for the Dome of the Heavens itself. To do this he capitalized on the symbolic power of domes and used a set of suggestive engravings as models for paintings which he then installed in a particularly apt way [4]. Domes with angelic paintings are not unique to El Sagrario. Or even to Quito, where the Church of the Jesuits (La Compañía) has a series of archangels painted on the sections of its dome as well [5]. And outside Quito we can mention the series of archangels on the dome of the Parish Church of Campillo de Altobuey, in Cuenca, Spain [6]. The iconographic sources of these two series are not presently known.

The Sagrario paintings of the Archangels differ from their engraved sources in three interesting respects. First, the painted archangels are viewed through illusionistic multilobular arches that crop the compositions tightly. This explains why the painter had to forgo of the lateral scenes found in the engravings—even though they were mentioned in the title of the printbook that served as its source. This also explains why St. Michael's banner must wave at the center of the composition rather than at the edges (PESSCA 2392A/2392B).

More importantly, all seven of the painted archangels bear instruments of Christ's passion, whereas only three of the engraved archangels do (PESSCA 2395A/2395B, 2396A/2396B, 2397A/2397B). Yet, in all seven paintings, the archangel postures are identical to those of their sources. Except in the case of Zaphkiel (PESSCA 2394A/2394B). Since he carries the lantern used in the capture of Christ on his right, he cannot flex his right leg in the painting as he does in the engraving, as that would block our view of the lantern. Beyond this, the fact that the archangels of Albán need to bear the Arma Christi can explain why he chose Uriel, who was not associated with any planet, over Raphael, who was associated with the Sun. For Uriel is bearing two objects already (a book and a scroll), thus providing a tempting, ready-made bearer, of two instruments of Christ's passion (the column and the pliers).

Thirdly, the painted archangels decidedly suppress the more androgynous features of the engraved archangels (the feminine breasts and abdomens of Gabriel, Michael, Uriel and Zadkiel; see PESSCA 2391A/2391B, 2392A/2392B, 2393A/2393B, and 2396A/2396B).

As to the painting for the eighth section of our Dome, it presents us with an angel holding two medallions which depict Mary and Gabriel at the moment of the Annunciation. It too comes from a print by de Passe, although not from our printbook. It seems that engraving has no cosmic or celestial significance whatsoever (see PESSCA 2398A/2398B). Why Albán resorted to an external source when the printbook provided him with two perfectly acceptable options (Raphael and Iophiel) is not at all clear.



1. Three of these archangels are mentioned by name in the Catholic Scriptures. They are Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael. The names and identities of the other four was a subject of much controversy. See Ramón Mujica Pinilla, Ángeles Apórifos en la América Virreinal. Segunda Edición. Ciudad de México, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1996.

2. Cited in Mujica Pinilla, op. cit. p. 227.

3. According to The National Library of Poland, this printbook was published in Cologne, where Crispin de Passe operated his own printing press between 1589 and 1611. I am indebted to César Esponda de la Campa for providing me with photographs of the archangels in the de Passe printbook.

4. This last step is, incidentally, a remarkable example of creation by installation , one of the various ways in which Colonial artists used prints in their creations. See Almerindo E. Ojeda, "The use of prints in Spanish Colonial Art: Approaching the Bolivian corpus." To appear in Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt (Ed.) The Art of Paiting in Colonial Bolivia. Philadelphia, Saint Joseph's University Press.

5. J. L. Micó Buchón, S.J. La Iglesia de la Compañía de Quito. Quito, Fundación Pedro Arrupe, 2003, p. 25.

6. Santiago Montoya Beleña, "El culto a los siete arcángeles: entre la prohibición y el consentimiento. La serie pictórica del siglo XVIII en la Iglesia Parroquial de Campillo de Altobuey (Cuenca)". Available online at