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The Cathedral

Peru Viajes

Edition 2015
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Home >> Peru Cities >> Cusco Travel Information >> The Cathedral



According to history, in Inkan times the Qosqo's Great Plaza was surrounded by the Kings' palaces, built in order to shelter their "Panaka" or royal extended families. One of those palaces was the "Kiswarkancha" belonging to Inka Wiraqocha; on its eastern side it had a circular shaped building named "Suntur Wasi" that was something like a house of weapons and coats of arms. The present-day Cathedral and its two minor churches were built over those two original buildings.

A space for construction of the Cathedral was indicated at the time of the Spanish refoundation of the city in 1534. That space corresponded to the "Suntur Wasi", where effectively the ancient small church was built. Subsequently the cult necessities led to acquiring the lands close to the church in order to build the present-day Saint Cathedral Basilica that was started in 1560, over an area of about 4,000 m² (1 acre), and with original designs made by architect Juan Miguel de Veramendi. Some time before, the City Church Council had agreed upon to transport stones for the building from the "fortress"; that is, it was ordered to demolish Saqsaywaman in order to use the stones of its main walls made with andesites to be used in construction of the Cathedral. It was finished in 1654, after 94 years of work with delays and different inconveniences; designed and supervised by Spanish architects and priests, but performed with labor, sweat, tears and blood of the Inkas' descendants.

Qosqo's Cathedral is without any doubt, one of the most noticeable colonial monuments in America. Its structure belongs to the renaissance, and its ground plan has the shape of a Latin cross, with a transept that communicates with its two side-churches: the "Church of the Triumph" toward the east and the "Church of the Holy Family" toward the west. Today, the entrance for visiting the monument is through the " Church of the Triumph" that is found precisely in the same space of the ancient major church made over the "Suntur Wasi".

It is known that three years after the arrival of Spanish invaders, Manko Inka began the war willing to recover his state. The Qosqo siege was produced and there was a time in which conquerors were almost completely defeated, all of them joined inside the "Suntur Wasi". Catholic tradition tells that right by that time the " Virgin of the Descent" came down from the heaven and made the miracle of giving Spaniards strength and intelligence so that they could finish victorious. Even more, Catholic tradition also tells that by those circumstances Saint James the Greater appeared riding his horse and began killing the Quechuas (Saint James the Greater is Spain's Patron Saint and over there he is known as "Moors-Killer" while that over here as "Indians-Killer"); thus, with the help of these two divinities, invaders could defeat the Inkas. That is the reason why it is named as the "Church of the Triumph", triumph of Spaniards over the Quechuas, triumph of Catholicism over the Inkan Religion. Outside, on its facade, on both sides of its entrance there are writings carved in stone dated in 1664 narrating the miracles. The church has one nave and two aisles, six altarpieces carved on cedar wood and gilded with gold flakes. Stands out the first altar on the right hand, which is baroque and very big having a Jesus Christ statue that is almost perfect. In the central part of the church is its High Altar completely carved in granite, very embellished and gilded in parts; in its upper portion contains an effigy of the "Virgin of the Descent". In its lower part there is a wooden cross known as the "Conquest Cross" that is the cross brought by Vicente Valverde from Spain and was the first Christian cross in the land of the Inkas. There are two other neoclassical altarpieces made in plaster on both sides of the High Altar.

It is necessary to mention that most of the art works found here were made by the same epoch, in spite of that, the styles or schools are different; and they are mixed in most of the cases. The reason for this is that they were made mainly by native artists who did not have a long tradition neither defined schools in order to make works requested by Catholicism. More over, in painting in Qosqo City, the famous and recognized all over the continent " Cusquenian School" was developed. Europeans brought their techniques, styles and schools that were taught to the Inkas or their descendants, who took the artist's brush or the gouge in order to execute almost all the works of colonial art that are found in the region. Since the very beginning, the Quechua painters because of the church imposition and interests of evangelization could not freely use their imagination and were simply limited to copy scenes, pictures or paintings existing already in Europe. Therefore, they could not paint their faces, Andean landscapes, neither they could sign their art works; that is why nowadays a large amount of them are anonymous. However, the Quechua artists mixed or placed some elements of their native world and religion in their art works, normally in a hidden and/or underhanded way. Nowadays, some authors of certain art works are known because contracts or agreements celebrated for their manufactures were found.

Today, on the church's central columns there is an incomplete collection of the twelve original canvases representing the Jesus Christ's parables, with the twelve year's months, the four seasons and their zodiac symbols; painted around 1681 by the Quechua artist Diego Quispe T'ito. He was born in the present-day San Sebastian town located toward the city's east; perhaps he learned painting in Europe so that would be the reason why he has a strong Flemish influence. Quispe is the Cusquenian School creator and its highest exponent, he is also author of the canvas found in the Cathedral representing the "Virgin of Bethlehem" and many other ones spread all over the country.

In colonial times the churches had catacombs in order to keep corpses of wealthy or important people, today, in the open crypt of the "Church of the Triumph" there is a coffer containing half of the ashes belonging to the renowned half-breed Cusquenian chronicler Gomez Suarez de Figueroa known as Garcilaso Inka de la Vega. The ashes were brought by the Spanish King in 1978 from the Cordoba's Cathedral.

Toward the west of the "Church of the Triumph" there is a gate adjoining the Cathedral Basilica; after crossing it, there are different paintings standing out two enormous ones painted by Basilio Santa Cruz Pumacallo who was another famous representative of the XVII century Cusquenian School. Normally, it is found that canvases made by native artists are not perfect, they almost always miss proportion and projection, and have some mistakes; one of the Santa Cruz Pumacallo's canvases represents "Saint Christopher's Apotheosis" in which the projection is deficient, the saint has a too big head for his body, and there is no refraction that would happen when having his feet submerged inside the water, a phenomenon by which objects look like broken; but, it is a nice canvas. The other painting in front represents Saint Isidore the Husbandman, the farmers' patron Saint. Around the gate there are also some other canvases made by Martin de Rivera, all with frames carved in cedar wood and gilded with gold flakes. For gold-plating of frames, grates, altarpieces and altars the technique of the " Gold Flake" or " Gold Leaf" was used. At first, the wood was carved and polished then it was smoothed with chalk or gypsum, subsequently the surfaces were smeared with "Bol de Armenio", a type of glue over which thin 18 karat gold plates were placed, therefore, the golden surfaces are not painted but they contain solid gold.

The Cathedral has one nave and two aisles: the "Epistle Aisle" toward the east, and the "Gospel Aisle" toward the west. Advancing toward the right side, through the "Epistle Aisle" one enters the chapel where some Silver objects are displayed. This chapel, like the others has a very nice grating made in gilded cedar wood; inside the chapel stand out, the "Silver Tower" or "Baldaquin" made built in 1733 by Bishop Fray Bernardo de Serrada using part of a legacy of Dean Dr. Francisco de Goyzueta Maldonado. That Silver Baldaquin is annually used in order to transport the Monstrance and the Holy Sacrament during the Corpus Christi procession. There are also silver frontals, incense burners, litters, candelabra, etc., all of them made of silver. The frames and structures of all big objects were made in cedar wood and covered with plates of beaten silver.

Further in, is the Vestry also known as the "Pictorial Chamber" because of the so many canvases found inside it. The paintings in the very upper side represent some biblical scenes, lower are Saints of the Catholic Church from all over the world, and even lower a canvas collection with full body images representing the bishops and archbishops of Qosqo, since the first one Vicente Valverde. Inside the same inclosure there are colonial wardrobes and trunks carved in cedar wood where ceremonial clothing of priests and some other Catholic ritual elements are kept. Inside here, behind a carved door there is a safe box where the Cathedral valuable jewels are kept, including crowns, adornments, etc., made in 18 and 24 karat gold. The most valuable object may be the monstrance that has a weight of about 22 kilos (48.62 pounds) of gold and 5 kilos (11 pounds) of silver, and it is adorned with more than one thousand precious stones, the most abundant are pearls, diamonds and emeralds. Inside the vestry is also one of the two altarpieces that were not gilded in the Cathedral. That altar has twisted baroque columns and in its lower central part it contains a canvas of a Crucified Jesus Christ that was ascribed to the Flemish painter Van Dyck. However, serious studies demonstrated that it is a Cusquenian School canvas by which the author is anonymous. As in many art works of the same type, that is not a perfect painting as the Christ's body does not seem to be a man's but that of a woman because of the strutting hips, legs, belly, and flesh consistency; perhaps a woman was used as the model, otherwise that was the way how the Quechua artist perceived Jesus Christ.

Going out from the vestry towards the right, in a corner of the church is the altarpiece of the Lord of Unupunku (unu:water; punku: doorway). Tradition believed that the whole Cathedral was built over a lake which waters could be seen when lifting the flagstone located in front of that altarpiece; but, that is only a drainage channel taking water from a spring (all over the Qosqo valley there is a huge amount of natural water springs). On the east side of the altarpiece there is a great canvas representing Jesus Christ and his apostles in the Last Supper by which the artist is Cusquenian painter Marcos Zapata. It is not a perfect painting but it is perhaps the most famous in the Cathedral because on the middle of the table there is a tray containing a roasted guinea pig, which is the par-excellence main dish in the Andes inherited from the Inkan Society and consumed only in the most special occasions. Likewise the Quechua artist placed on the table goods such as papayas and hot peppers, that is, elements of his ancestral world.

Going on, behind the present-day High Altar is the Apostles Altarpiece that is supposed to be the Cathedral's primitive High Altar; it is carved in lambran (alder-tree) wood and without any gilding. It contains statues of the apostles with Saint Peter in the middle lower part; its style is confusing because it has churrigueresque and rococo elements. Ahead, in the other angle, already in the "Gospel Aisle" is the altarpiece of the Holy Trinity that was a gift given by Juan de Salas y Valdez (he was the owner of the house where today is the Libertador Hotel); that altarpiece was made by woodworker Martin de Torres in which stands out a painting of Virgin Mary and baby Jesus Christ playing with a young kestrel, painted by Italian Jesuit Bernardo Democrito Bitti. That canvas is one of the few artworks in this church made by foreign artists. To the western side of that altarpiece is another huge canvas representing the Easter Lamb, also made by Marcos Zapata. It contains Jesus Christ and his disciples on the upper side; lower is King David and his harp, and Mary Magdalene and Saint Peter close to a cock. There is an interesting stairway painted in the right lower part which is suspended in the air. Continuing towards outside, on the right hand side is the chapel of the Nativity Virgin which is somewhat austere. In front of it is the crypt where the corpses of Qosqo's bishops and archbishops are kept. Over the grate iron gate is an anonymous huge canvas representing the 1650 earthquake that destroyed the city; it was made paint by Alonso de Monroy y Cortes, where it is seen that one century after the Spanish invasion the roofings of the houses were already made with red tiles, the great Inkan Plaza was already divided into two sectors, and also the image of the "Lord of Earthquakes" is observed. In 1950 we had another bad earthquake in the city, likewise in Inkan times in 1350. Therefore, traditionally it is suggested that Qosqo has big earthquakes every 3 centuries.

Farther ahead is the "Choqonchaka Virgin" or "Mary's Sweet Name" Chapel; it has a very adorned with Cusquenian baroque altarpiece -many call this baroque "Crespo Cusqueño" (Cusquenian Curly)-. Inside, is the effigy of the "Immaculate Conception Virgin" that is very similar to the "Pretty Virgin" found also in this cathedral; that statue was brought from Choqonchaka that was an enormous and rich farmstead in the Lampa province of Puno which incomes served for sustaining the chapel where today the church's ciborium is also sheltered. Advancing towards outside, one crosses the transept that has a doorway leading to the church of the "Holy Family" in which side walls are two other huge canvases painted by Basilio Santa Cruz Pumacallo representing the "Chasuble Imposition to Saint Ildephonsus" and the "Saint Philip Neri Ecstasy". The other paintings around the gate were made by Martin de Rivera. Advancing always toward the cathedral's main gate is the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception Virgin, traditionally known as "The Pretty" because of the features shown by her effigy. The chapel has a very nice gilded baroque altarpiece made by wood assembler Martin de Torres, and a frontal covered with plates of beaten silver with the coat of arms belonging to Manuel de Mollinedo y Angulo, who was considered as the biggest protector of colonial art in Qosqo. He was native from Madrid and supported actively by the end of the XVII century the manufacture of paintings, altarpieces, pulpits, and many other artworks, not only in the Cathedral but in many churches of the city. Advancing more is the Chapel of Saint Joseph that has a gilded altarpiece with the statues of Saint Joseph and baby Jesus Christ. This, in spite of the artworks that shows is the most austere chapel in the church. In front of this chapel there is a canvas made by Basilio Santa Cruz Pumacallo entitled "Royal Saint Mary of Almudena", a Virgin that is revered in Madrid.

Following towards the church's main gate is the Chapel of Saint James the Greater, who is Spain's Patron Saint because of the help he gave (according to tradition) to the Spanish people while the Moorish invasion. He was also declared Qosqo's Patron Saint in 1651 when Catholic Church considered that he helped Spanish invaders in order to defeat the Inkas after the city's siege by Manko Inka in 1536. He is known as "Moorish killer" in Spain and over here as "Indians killer". Inside the chapel is the statue of the equestrian Saint; its altarpiece is made of gilded cedar wood where there is a painting representing the Saint killing the Quechuas Manko's partisans. In front of this chapel is the altarpiece of the Lord of Transfiguration. Ahead is the Carmen Virgin Chapel, also with a gilded cedar wood altarpiece; on the lateral walls are two canvases painted in the present century and which author is Francisco Gonzales Gamarra.

Around here are the Cathedral gates overlooking the Main Square. The central gate is known as the "Pardon Gate", the one on the east side as "Epistle's" as well as its aisle, and the western one as "Gospel's" as its aisle. This cathedral has two towers on its facade; the western one or "Gospel Tower" shelters, according to a legend described by Alfonsina Barrionuevo, a captive Quechua prince, who stays prisoner in a solitary confinement in which the entrance is unknown and the day when the tower will fall down he will get his freedom and will join his people reestablishing the Tawantisuyo. She says besides: " When the earthquake on May 21, 1950, the venerable ayllus' (communities) old men awaited for weeks destruction of the tower that was cracked in three parts. It was in vain because it did not fall down and was reconstructed by Spain. But they keep their hope and believe that some day the prediction will be fulfilled". This same tower supports the famous major city's bell " Maria Angola" that is 2.15 meters (7 feet) high and weights 130 quintals (5,980 Kgs.; 13,216 pounds); it was cast in 1659 and according to tradition its name comes after a black slave freed-woman native from Angola who threw to the crucible where the metal was being melted about 25 pounds of gold. Its sound was heard as far as Urcos, about 40 Kms. (25 miles) away from the city; nowadays the bell is cracked, it has a hoarse sound and it is rang just in special occasions.

In front of the "Pardon Gate" is the Pardon Altarpiece that was made built by Bishop Mollinedo y Angulo in 1678. In its central part is the painting of the Nativity Virgin or The Ancient, that was a gift for the city from King Charles V who ruled by the first half of the XVI century; she holds in her arms a baby Jesus Christ and her clothing is very well adorned with a brocade or "stew" made with golden paint. Originally, on both sides of the "Ancient Virgin" there were two paintings made by Quispe T'ito representing "The Virgin's Descent over the Sunturwasi" and the "Apparition of Apostle Saint James in the Main Plaza"; those canvases were taken away by order of President Marshal Agustin Gamarra, some decades after that Peru got its independence from Spain, thye were considered offensive to Peruvian nationality. Replacing them are two other canvases that according to some authors belong to the brush of Corvacho, and according to some others to Gonzalez's; they represent the "Saint Clare's Confession of Faith" and the "The Capuchin's Choir". Inside the building, around the cathedral's interior upper cornice, there is a series of 50 canvases painted by Marcos Zapata in 1755, named as "Our Lady's Lauretan Litany".

Advancing towards the right side, by the "Epistle Aisle", is the Remedies Virgin Chapel, in which baroque cedar wood altarpiece is a canvas of the Virgin and a baby Jesus; over their heads there are silver crowns superposed over the painting fabric that was made painted by Alonso Monroy y Cortes in Valencia (Spain). The painting was moved to Mexico, Lima, Huancavelica and finally brought to this city by the same Monroy y Cortes in 1646. Tradition tells that he had to fulfill the Virgin's will of being brought to Qosqo's Cathedral after having received a miracle from her; part of the miracle is represented in the triptych canvas existing on the chapel's right side wall. A little ahead is the Chapel of the Perpetual Succor Virgin; her effigy is about 30 cm. (12 inches) high, made of beaten silver, and occupies the central portion of the baroque gilded cedar wood altarpiece. Toward her right side is the Saint Joseph's sculpture and to the left that of Saint Rose of Lima (Peruvian Dominican Saint [1586-1617] canonized in 1671; she is the Patroness of Peru, America and the Philippines). In front of this last chapel is the altarpiece of Saint Anthony of Padua, in which central part is the Saint's statue who is Patron Saint of travelers, beggars and sterile women. In this altarpiece, by the feet of the Saint, it is frequent to find letters of single women asking him to grant some fiancees for them.

Farther on, always in the Epistle Aisle is The Lord of the Staff Chapel, that has another gilded baroque cedar wood altarpiece. In its central portion is a Jesus Christ sculpture, seating down and holding a staff, symbol of authority. On both sides of this Christ are statues of Saint Cecil and Saint James the Less, and above the sculpture of Archangel Saint Michael. In front of this chapel is a canvas representing the Bethlehem Virgin that belongs to the brush of Diego Quispe T'ito.

Continuing deeper inside is the Chapel of the Lord of Earthquakes, the most famous Jesus Christ in the cathedral, considered as Qosqo's Sworn Patron Saint and whose day and procession is every Holy Monday. Catholic Tradition tells that the sculpture was a gift given by the King of Spain Charles V for Qosqo City, and arrived by the middle of the XVI century. It was brought by ship and he was first named as "Lord of Storms"; because as Catholicism tells he had calmed down the wild sea that threatened the ship bringing to him. Nevertheless, some decades ago when making the restoration of the sculpture it was discovered that in its manufacture the technique of the Cusquenian "T'eque" was used. Therefore, it was made in the Qosqo region on the basis of maguey or century plant (Agave americana) and perhaps the funds were sent by the mentioned King. The current name "Lord of Earthquakes" was set after 1650, when the ancient Capital of the Inkas was hit by a catastrophic earthquake. According to Catholic tradition, to quickly stop the earthquake some faithful people took that effigy in procession; before the earthquake, that Jesus Christ was forgotten in a dark corner of the church. This is a black Jesus Christ, not because paint was used to give that dark color to the effigy but simply because the materials used to make it were oily, which because of its centuries and the influence of the smoke of candles became dark. The original altarpiece was made in gilded cedar wood like the other ones in this cathedral, but unfortunately there was a fire that burned it and the one that is seen today was made on plaster. That new altarpiece is neoclassical and nowadays the city's faithful people are covering it slowly with plates of beaten silver. This is one of the wealthiest Christs in Peru because of the large amount of jewelry he has among which there are golden crowns, nails, etc. The original crown of the Lord of Earthquakes, that had a weight of 1.3 kgs. (2.87 pounds) of solid gold was stolen in the 80s. His new crown is also golden but lighter. The nails he has on the hands and feet are made of solid gold with hundreds of precious stones. On both sides of the black Christ are sculptures of the Sorrowful Virgin and Saint John the Baptist.

In the central nave is the Cathedral's High Altar which neoclassical structure is carved in cedar wood and gilded with gold flakes; today, the front surface of the altarpiece is completely covered with beaten silver plates. That silver was donated by Dr. Manuel Boza (a curate of the Santo Thomas town in present-day Chumbivilcas province) for the Qosqo's Cathedral represented by bishop Bartolome de las Heras. That curate was owner of some silver mines and had ordered to make plates of that precious metal in order to cover his church's corridor for the bishop's arrival. The bishop asked to take the plates with him in order to cover the cathedral's High Altar. On the altar's silver frontal there is an inscription suggesting the work as gift of de las Heras Bishop, dated in 1803. In the altarpiece's middle upper side is the statue of the Assumption Virgin; the whole Cathedral was dedicated to her. On the columns before the High Altar there are two small pulpits, made by Martin de Torres, which are used in order to read the Gospel and the Epistle during the Catholic services. Leaned to a column in the central nave is the pulpit, carved in cedar wood by the most famous Quechua woodcarver born in the Andes whose name was Juan Tomas Tuyro Tupaq. In the pulpit's basin are sculptures of Saint Luke, Saint Mark, the Immaculate Conception Virgin in the center, and on the other side Saint John and Saint Matthew, all separated by twisted columns. In the back close to the stone column is the Saint Paul's image; above is the very adorned sounding board in which top is another Saint Paul sculpture.

On the cathedral's central columns there are canvases representing Saint Luke, Saint Matthew, Saint Gregory Magnus, Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine, belonging to the brush of painter Antonio Sinchi Roqa . He was a descendant of the Inkan Nobility, native from the Maras Village in present-day Urubamba province. He also has some other canvases in the church of the "Holy Family" currently closed because its restoration works were abandoned after that a light earthquake in 1986 damaged its structures.

In front of the High Altar is the Cathedral's Choir that is a woodcarving master work. According to some historians it is a work of Diego Arias de la Cerda. But what happened really is that he managed the funds and possibly also designed the choir. Therefore, it was a team of expert native artists that made possible its manufacture; it is carved in cedar wood with a very complex baroque style. It has carved images of 42 male Saints of the Catholic Church from all over the world and on the upper side 38 female Saints and Virgins. It has two levels of armchairs, the lower one has 24 places while that the upper one 40; the armchairs have elbow supports that also served to place candlesticks. Downwards, those same elbow supports present female figures with native features showing their naked breasts and a bulky belly that according to tradition represent the "Pacha Mama" or "Mother Earth" of the Inkan Religion. Every armchair has a folding seat that is known as "mercy" because when having very long time ceremonies this folding part allowed attendants to stand up and stretch their legs. Deeper inside, in the middle of all the armchairs is the central throne or "Episcopalian Seat" that is wider and more adorned than the others. Behind that seat is a small altarpiece carved in ebony wood that was possibly brought from Spain as this wood is found just in Africa. In its central portion is the image of the Assumption Virgin, and over all this is the Lion and Castile's coat of arms belonging to the Spanish Catholic Kings; all carved in cedar wood. In the middle of the choir is the revolving lectern or music stand (today it is fixed to its base) that served in order to place the musical scores used by musicians. On the lateral walls' upper sides there are two organs that worked with wind produced by bellows, today they are not used any more but are important relics because they were made in Qosqo.


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