Churches of Cusco: Art with Incan Wings, Part 2

When we got back to Plaza de Armas we went right to the cathedral. When we showed our credentials verifying we were priests we were received with such deep respect and warmth. We were given an audio guide and discovered the extensive art of the cathedral complex that consists of three churches.

There were altar retablos covered with mirrors. The art historian pointed out that mirrors were considered a sign of vanity in European art but in pre-Christian Incan art the mirror was considered as a sign of character. Only an honest person could look in a mirror. So when the Spanish opened up a studio under the direction of Bitti the Incans did not simply copy European art but transformed it into an American idiom. The art critics continued to stress the symbiosis of cultures. 

The guide continued to point out this transformation that the church encouraged in her mission to present the Gospel in a way the Native Americans could not only understand but see expressed in their cultural idiom. For example there are Madonnas everywhere in high carved altar retablos covered with gold but Mary does not look European but Incan. Her garment is triangular evoking the sacred mountain and Pacchu Mama that is the earth mother from whom life comes. Our Lady still appears with child although she holds Jesus. This again is a Native American motive to show Mary is the new Eve, the mother of those born again through faith in her son Jesus.

In the cathedral there is a huge Last Supper and in the middle of the table is a plate with a guinea pig. This again is a pre-Christian symbol of the fellowship and joy that is part of a meal shared with friends. Once again we see a Native American incorporating his pre-Christian symbol system within a religious painting and bringing it new meaning. There was another Madonna presiding over the reconquest of Spain but there are llamas in the painting. The entire tour kept speaking of the American art that was an important part of evangelization.

We then went to the Bishop’s home which still functions as his home and office however all the public rooms are a museum. The guide pointed out how the Native American artists preferred the Flemish details they studied because of the beautiful cloth, so they developed their technique of gold filigree when gold was applied then worked into rich texture and there was a fondness of incorporating local flora and fauna.

From the museum of religious art housed in the archbishop’s palace we went to the Jesuit church. We were given a great tour. Our guide spent some time talking about a large canvas that you see as you enter the church. In the center is saint Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Jesuit order. To his right is his brother and next to him his son standing next to his Incan princess bride. In the upper left hand corner stands the Incan king and queen with their daughter who will marry Saint Ignatius’ nephew. Then to the right we see the granddaughter of the Incan King who is the daughter of Saint Ignatius’ nephew being married in Spain into the highest and powerful Borgia family. The guide said this painting had a political purpose, to show that the church saw the merging of the white European culture and the brown indigenous culture to be the future of a new culture. The painting is clear in its message.

The nave is dominated by a huge golden altar retablo. It is the most splendid church in Cusco. Then she took us to the crypt to show us the indigenous motifs in the frescoes over the altar .

San Blas in Cusco

San Blas in Cusco

We concluded with a visit to Saint Blas in which is a pulpit designed and executed by an indigenous artist. This Native American has Henry the Eighth and Queen Elizabeth I in the flames of hell under the pulpit. The pulpit is an enormous wooden carving celebrating the virtues triumphing over the vices through preaching. It is an explosion of Catholic doctrine mediated through the evangelists and doctors of the church. It is an incredible example of the skill of the Native Americans.

This was a long day however I stood back with a greater appreciation of the exceptional synthesis of culture that was brought about in the colonial period. That evening I returned to the cathedral to enjoy one last look and say a prayer for the people of Peru.