A Lesson in Colonialism at Cusco Cathedral

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Of Gold, Guinea Pigs, Last Suppers, and a Somewhat Swarthy Jesus

So many travelers make haste for Machu Picchu in Peru, they might overlook important sites in Cusco.

So many travelers make haste for Machu Picchu in Peru, they might overlook important sites in Cusco.

So many visitors are in Cusco, Peru either on their way to or from the nearby main attraction, Machu Picchu. My own stay in Cusco is little more than an afterthought, an interim point as I make my way back from Machu Picchu and toward Lima, and then on to New York. I don’t have much planned for my stay of a day and a half in Cusco, but somehow I find myself outside the Cusco Cathedral, more formally known as Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, on Plaza de Armas.

 

There is more to Peru than Machu Picchu. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

There is more to Peru than Machu Picchu. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

For many years, I avoided churchly visits, thinking somehow that visiting a place of worship without being one of the worshippers was wrong. Now, I go to these places to appreciate the art and the history. That I do not happen to be a churchgoing Catholic no longer bothers me. Churches, to the extent they are staffed, tend to welcome everyone, no matter what their spiritual calling. And there is so much to see inside of them.

I am perhaps more ambivalent about stepping inside Cusco Cathedral because it so blatantly represents a conquering by colonizers. Not only do the Spanish invaders vanquish the local people, they also feel the need to convert them and also to build a cathedral on a site of importance to the Incas and also to use stones from the nearby Sacsayhuaman, another important site. Decimate one; build the other.

See syncretism in play at Cusco (Cuzco) Cathedral in Peru. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

See syncretism in play at Cusco (Cuzco) Cathedral in Peru. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Who conducts a visitor’s tour probably largely influences the information that will be imparted. I am fortunate to go on a tour led by a man of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage. So I learn that this cathedral, for which construction began in the year 1560, has a few amusing elements, including a painting of the Last Supper by Marco Zapata featuring the local cuisine (guinea pig) and representations of Jesus as more of a swarthy, dark-skinned fellow rather than as the emaciated, tall, white guy we see in so many other works of art.

I am surprised to learn that Saint James, known as Sant Iago, also has a role here in Peru. Apparently he somehow helped the Spanish defeat the Incas. There is a chapel dedicated to him in the cathedral.

See some gold, guinea pigs, last suppers, and a somewhat swarthy Jesus at Cusco Cathedral in Peru. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

See some gold, guinea pigs, last suppers, and a somewhat swarthy Jesus at Cusco Cathedral in Peru. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Here in Cusco Cathedral, there is also a statue of Black Jesus, who purportedly turned color from all of the smoke that blew on him over the years. He is credited with saving people during a major earthquake in Peru. To me, the stone looks as if it were always black. Black Jesus, in statue form, makes appearances in other churches in Peru. There is one in the town of Machu Picchu.

Cusco Cathedral is worth a visit, full, as it is, of rich, glorious religious art, but also of history, not always imparted in a serious tone. Yes, the locals were colonized and converted, but their spirit was not put down.

Images of the cathedral are sparse as interior photos are not permitted. To see pictures of the interior  and to learn a bit of the cathedral’s history, pick up a copy of Cusco’s Cathedral and the Church of the Society of Jesus (ISBN: 9786124571923) by César Chacón Rosasco and Gretel Bardález Zambrano (in English and Spanish).

—Lori Tripoli

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