The Golden Altar in San José Church

St. Joseph Church holds one of this country's greatest treasures, the Golden Altar. The church, consecrated to Saint Joseph, is located in the Old Town sector of the capital city at the intersection of Avenue A and Eighth Street. 

This colonial structure was built from 1671 to 1677 and is an indulgence in baroque details with strong influences from indigenous or colonial art. A skylight above the Golden Altar illuminates it with daylight.

The altar is not actually golden, but made of mahogany wood covered with gold leaf in the 18th century Baroque style. The church itself is a historic gem; of its 3 naves, the left one has 4 windows that were made in Florence, Italy and installed in 1963, representing Saint Rita of Cascia, St. Augustine, Our Lady of Consolation, and St. Joseph.

When the decision was made to relocate the city to what is now the Old Town area, the friars of the Order of Augustinian Recollects decided to move their church to the new town. The convent and church were inaugurated in 1675, as visitors can read above the main entrance.

The Golden Altar is shrouded in legend. Tradition has it that this altar was one of the few things to survive the English pirate Henry Morgan's attack in 1671, when he sacked and burned Panama City; however, studies on the style of the altarpiece date it to the 18th century, which puts this version of the story in question.

According to the legend, when Morgan attacked and burned the city now known as Old Panama, the order of St. Joseph was constructing a stone church on the outskirts, near Puente del Rey. The church at that time already exhibited its high altar, the greatest golden treasure of the time.

It is said that at the time of the looting, a monk named John from Villa de Los Santos was in charge of the church. Warned of the impending attack, he covered the golden altar with a black oily mixture of albayalde (silver oxide) that would make it appear unfinished. When Morgan arrived at the church he grumbled about the Order's poverty, and so monk John begged him for alms, on the order of a thousand ducats, in order to complete the altar. The story goes that, after a long laugh, Morgan exclaimed, "This layperson is more of a pirate than I am," and ordered for the money to be given to the monk.

The images one can see on the Golden Altar are of St. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus Christ; St. Thomas of Villa Nueva, on the top right; Saint Clara of the Cross of Montefalco, top left; St. Augustine below St. Clara; and Our Lady of Consolation, holding the baby Jesus on her lap. Above the altarpiece and within a circle is the Eternal Father, his head framed in a triangle symbolizing the Trinity. With his right hand he blesses the world, while the left hand holds a scale, symbol of Justice supporting the Universe.

Come to St. Joseph Church and let yourself be enveloped in the history and legend of the Golden Altar.