How Cusco, Peru’s Cathedral Honors Both Quechua & Spanish Heritage
Cusco Cathedral was our first stop for sightseeing on our first full day in Cusco. We walked down to the city’s Plaza de Armas and saw this big cathedral dominating the center of town. And as if it weren’t big enough, it incorporates two smaller churches on either side of it. To the left is the Templo de la Sagrada Familia (Temple of the Holy Family) and to the right is La Iglesia del Triunfo (Church of the Triumph).
Sitting in the Plaza and looking up at the churches, one of the statues on the Church of the Triumph really struck me.
I think all too often we see angels depicted as namby-pamby, floating around in the air and strumming harps. This angel, by contrast, is kicking the devil’s butt! I just love it!
We started our tour in the Templo de la Sagrada Familia, and hired a guide to tell us about it. The fee for a personal guide was about $10, and it was money well spent. Our guide was very familiar with the cathedral, the local history, and the religious symbolism.
There were plenty of Quechua symbols in the Catholic art that decorated the cathedral because in many cases, local people were the ones creating the works of art. Take, for instance, the painting of the Last Supper, Cusco native Marcos Zapata painted in the eighteenth century:
This painting has a lot of interesting details to distinguish it from a European last supper. Probably the most notable difference is that the meal’s main dish is cuy — the Peruvian delicacy of guinea pig! Also, Jesus and his disciples are drinking chicha, which is a traditional Peruvian corn drink.
As for other interesting aspects of the painting, note that the only figure besides Jesus who is looking out at the viewer is Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. All of the men in the picture have their hands clasped in prayer or reaching toward Jesus. However, Judas’ hand is below the table, clutching a money pouch. What was really eerie, though, was that when we looked at Judas while walking past the painting, his eyes seemed to follow us.
Another notable piece of art in the cathedral was what our guide called Black Jesus:
It is a statue of Jesus made of mixed materials and covered in alpaca skin. Most scholars agree that native artists created the statue around 1570. In 1650, when there was an earthquake, the religious leaders grabbed the statue and carried it around the town square, praying for an end to the earthquake. When the earthquake tremors ceased, the statue became known as Señor de los Temblores, or Lord of the Earthquakes, and the patron of Cusco. Each year, the people of Cusco take it out of the cathedral on Holy Monday and carry it in a procession.
It is a tradition for the faithful to throw red flowers at it, symbolizing the blood of Christ. Sticky residue from the flowers, along with a buildup of soot from candles and oil lamps placed at the statue’s feet for prayers, are the reason why the statue is now black. They say, however, that the legs underneath the skirt are still very white!
Throughout the tour, our guide pointed out how the artworks done in a way that would appeal to the locals. For instance, Mary was often depicted with her arms obscured from view and wearing a mountain-shaped skirt with a river running around its hem. This depiction identified her with Pachamama, Mother Earth to the locals.
Another item of interest in Cusco Cathedral is the main altar. Covered in embossed silver, it is visually striking and quite unusual.
But that’s not the only place you will see an abundance of silver. There is also a silver room, which is one of the side chapels in the cathedral. It contains many gleaming silver items, including an embossed silver bier dating back to 1712. Parishioners carry Black Jesus on the bier in the Easter Monday procession. Another impressive item is a large trellis in the form of a small temple. Covered with more than 370 pounds of silver, the trellis features a pelican piercing his own heart with his beak, symbolizing supreme love and self-denial.
We really enjoyed our tour of Cusco Cathedral, and learned a lot about the local people from our guide. I highly recommend checking it out if you’re in Cusco and want to learn more about the area!
Cusco Cathedral is on the Plaza de Armas in Cusco. Open daily from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Admission for non-Peruvians is $9 for adults and $5 for children.
This article originally appeared on the author’s travel blog, travelasmuch.com