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Religious Circuit of Cusco

Written on: Thursday November 8th, 2007

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: Cusco, Peru

Author: Julie


After resting for a couple of days by the TV, we decided to finally venture out and visit the cathedral in the main plaza. Walking down from the hostel, we took the long way around and ventured out of the Santa Clara gate. We walked by the Iglesias San Francisco, San Pedro, and La Merced. There are so many churches, chapels, and cathedrals in Cusco that no matter where you look you will see one. They were all built at different times and in varying styles but one constant has been the beautiful red stone which blends in perfectly with all the other surrounding buildings constructed with terra-cotta red tiles. Cusco is truly a beautiful city.

Our little walk took us to the central market, but it was closed. This was unusual since the markets are always open 7 days a week. We had been hearing drums, lots of talking and it seemed like there were a lot more people out than usual for a Thursday. It was soon apparent to us why when around the corner came a large protest march fronted by the Engineers Association of Cusco. I was a little nervous at first since every time they show a South American protest in the news it always seems to turn violent. Crowds and crowds of people passed us, chanting slogans, waving signs, some where dressed up in army fatigue, then came the riot police politely following them. Ten minutes past and people were still walking by us. We tired of watching them and decided to head towards the plaza and see what was happening there.

The plaza was full of people and more were arriving all the time, circling the plaza and stopping in front of the Cathedral. There were speakers set-up on the steps and the event organizers were yelling into the microphone. Unfortunately we couldn?t understand what was being said so we weren?t sure what they were protesting about. Wanting a better view, we headed into one of the restaurants that had a balcony overlooking the plaza. The restaurants turned out to be a fast food burger joint, perfect! I ordered for Kevin and I, while he watched our prime seats. We discovered that burgers here are not the same as we have at home. The burger patty has an unknown spice in it which overpowers it and they all come dripping in mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and on some a fried egg. I liked my cheese burger but Kevin wasn?t too fond of the spice unfortunately. By the time we had finished eating, there must have been a couple thousand people in the plaza: rich, poor, dressed in jeans, dressed in traditional outfits, representing professional organizations, fruit sellers, restaurant owners, etc. Allof the levels of society of Cusco, were represented. We later found out the protest was against the rising prices of basic food staples like fruits, vegetables, and meats. Most had doubled in the past year and the population was feeling the economic sting. There were similar protests planned across Peru.

Having fed our craving for hamburgers, we headed into the crowd towards our intended goal of visiting the famed Cathedral. At the entrance, we watched the crowd for a while, listening to the organizers voicing their complaints. Opportunistic salesmen made a brisk business of selling drinks, empanadas, and ice cream. At the ticket counter, we bought the Boleto de Circuito Turistico Religioso (s./35) giving us access to the Cathedral, Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus, Iglesia San Blas and the Museo de Arte Religioso.

The cathedral is actually composed of three churches combined together: Iglesia de Jesus Maria (built in 1773), the Cathedral (built in 1669), and El Triunfo (built in 1536). We entered into the first section which is the Iglesia de Jesus Maria. We were greeted at the entrance by a man named Alex who was offering his guiding services, with us deciding how much to pay him at the end of the tour. Kevin and I always hire guides if there are any available, they always turn any visit from ?oh look at that, I wonder what it is? to ?Wow, there is so much to know, this is amazing!?. I always feel bad for the tourists we see who opt not to take the guide to save a few dollars and who just walk around looking at things not knowing the wonders that surround them. Albeit, we?ve had some guides that only know basic information that is readily available on signs, but then there are the truly amazing guides that turn a tour into an unforgettable experience. Luckily for us, Alex turned out to be a wonderfully knowledgeable and passionate guide. He was able to answer any and all questions we had and was excited to share everything he knew.

Our first stop was the altar of Iglesia Jesus Maria with its baroque-style altar. It was incredibly detailed and was covered in 22K gold leaf. An interesting detail about the church was the use of mirrors, which are quite uncommon. It was considered vain to have mirrors in churches but these were added by the designers to naturally bring more light to the altar as well to highlight certain architectural details. It had many little altars set to each side of the church and each was dedicated to various saints. Alex taught us how to identify which saint was which based on symbology in the paintings or statues. Saint Gabriel held lilies in his hands, Saint Raphael had fish, Saint Michael always had demons below him, Saint Peter had keys in his hands, Saint Anthony had children surrounding him, etc.

Next we moved on to the main Cathedral building. Construction began in 1560 and took 109 years to complete. There were 60 architects involved in the construction and it is built in the Renaissance-style on the site of Inca Viracocha?s palace with blocks from Saqsaywamán. There are over 300 paintings hung, of which 10% are by European artists with the remainder having been painted by local artists in the Cusqueña style. The 18th century neo-classical main altar, made from 400 kilograms of silver mined in Potosi, Bolivia, is arguably the piece-de-resistance of the church. It is absolutely breath-taking! Opposite to the altar is the intricately carved choir, which took 10 years to construct. Above each folding seat is carved the face of a saint, martyr, or bishop. Behind the altar we saw one of the best examples of paintings from the Cusco school. It was the Last Supper painted by Marcos Zapata, featuring a red-faced Francisco Pizzaro as Judas and the main meal being Cuy (Roasted Guinea Pig), cranberries, and corn while the Apostles drank Chicha Morada (juice made from red corn).

Our last visit was to the oldest chapel in Cusco: El Triunfo. The original was built out of cedar but was destroyed in the devastating earthquake of 1650. The second one was built of more resistant granite stone which still stands today. It holds a painting by Alonso Cortès de Monroy depicting the ravage of Cusco after the earthquake. To the right of the altar, we saw the altar dedicated to El Señor de los Temblores or Lord of the Earthquakes. The altar features a statue of a brown-skinned Jesus, made darker over the centures by the constantly burning candles lit by the parishioners. So strong is the belief in El Negrito (his nickname) that fresh flowers are delivered daily to adorn his altar. This faith was reinforced during the 1650 earthquake when believers carried his statue around the city and the aftershocks ceased shortly thereafter. In the basement, a crypt contains vaults dedicated to the richest members of society and also the vault for Garcilaso de la Vega, a famous Peruvian writer born in Cusco in 1539. He had a Spanish father but an Incan mother. In his 20s he joined the Spanish army and went to Spain where he was shot in the leg. His wounds ended his army career and he became a writer. He is most famous for being one of the few to write honestly about the conflicts between the Spanish conquistadors and the Incas.

These were just a small sample of the highlights we saw in the Cathedral and our tour ended much earlier than we wanted. Our tourist ticket gave us access to 2 more churches and a museum so as we said our good-byes to Alex, Kevin asked if there were other guides available at the other churches or if Alex could accompany us. He said he had worked at all of them and knew them well and could of course join us. We were thrilled! So, off we went to Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus. It is located on the opposite corner to the Cathedral and rivals it in grandeur and opulence, as intended by the Jesuits. There was a bit of a rivalry between them and the Franciscan monks who built the Cathedral. It started being built in 1568 but was entirely destroyed in the earthquake. It was rebuilt in 17 years and held its first mass in 1668. As it grew, the original chapel became the catacombs. It is 21 meters high, 12 meters wide and is in the Baroque style with large swirled columns. Everything is covered in 22k gold leaf and it has balconies for the use of the richest families of Cusco. Most of the statues are made from alabaster and its crowning glory (literally) is its 50 meters wide cupola in the center. Like the Cathedral, the main altar is incredibly ornate with gold leafing applied over intricately carved cedar wood. Along each side, various altars are dedicated to the saints including to Saint Ignacius de Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. The order was expelled from Peru by the Spanish in 1767 for protecting the rights of the indigenous people and were only allowed to return in the 1950s. We were able to climb the stairs of the bell tower and get a view of the plaza below us. By then the protest had disbursed and only a few people remained. Back down the stairs we went and into the old chapel which is now considered the catacombs and also a night musical hall for classical pieces. There was a large hole in the middle of the room and we could look down into what Alex says are 4 tunnels leading away from the church towards the Cathedral and a few other places. Because the church had also been built on top of an Incan palace, these tunnels are left over from the Incan times and might explain how the last Inca was able to sneak out of Cusco when the city was surrounded by the Spanish army.

The second to last stop of our tour was to the Museo de Arte Religioso in the old Palace of the Archbishop. Inside was an excellent collection of religious paintings, mostly depicting scenes in Cusco in the 17th and 18th century. Most impressive was the building itself with massive Moorish-style doors, carved-cedar ceilings, stunning stained-glass windows, and beautiful tilling everywhere.

Our tour ended at the Curch of San Blas, located in the same named neighbourhood of Cusco. It is the oldest Adobe-style church in Cusco and is famous for its marvellously carved wooden pulpit. It is a very simple church inside but the pulpit is considered one of the best examples of wood carving in the world. Some way it is carved from one piece of wood, but X-Ray analysis in the last few years has proven that it is made from multiple pieces of wood. At the top of the pulpit is an actual human skull, the legend says it is the skull of the carver, but no one has ever been able to confirm if it is true or not.

Our tour ended after 3 hours and we walked back with Alex to the plaza. He was a really nice guy, really easy to talk with so we invited him to join us for a beer and snack at a restaurant around the corner. He accepted and we spent an enjoyable 2 hours talking about life in Cusco, his ambitions (he?s studying Art at the university), and travelling. When it came time to say good-bye we paid him 50 soles which seemed to surprise him. We both felt it was worth every centimos. So, if you are ever in Cusco and wanting a fantastic tour of the churches, ask for Alex and you won?t regret it. Kevin has actually become a church convert since this tour. His motto has always been ?You see one church, you?ve seen them all? but Alex has shown him how to appreciate each one of them based on its beauty and history? when you know what you are looking at.

The Cusco School of Art

Excerpted from Frommer?s Peru

The colonial-ear Escuela Cusqueña, or Cuscu School of Art, that originated in the ancient Inca capital was a synthesis of traditional Spanish painting with local mestizo elements ? not surprising perhaps because its practitioners were themselves of mixed blood. Popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, the style spread from Cusco as far as Ecuador and Argentina. The most famous members of the school were Diego Quispe Tito, Juan Espinosa de los Monteros, and Antonio Sinchi Roca, even though the authors of a large majority of the works associated with the school are anonymous. Most paintings were devotional in nature, with richly decorative surfaces. Artists incorporated recognizable Andean elements into their oil paintings, such as local flora and fauna, customs, and traditions and representations of Jesus looking downwards, like the Indians who were forbidden to look Spaniards in the eye.