On Appearances and Façades

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At first sight, Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is a typical Spaniard colonial plaza defining the center of a sleepy – almost forgotten - town. It takes some time and acquaintance with characteristics of various cultures to find out the violent cultural clashes that defined the shape of this extraordinary place. Flowers, grass, ornate lamps, triangular and round gardens, all these are fine and expected. The first sign of something unusual is two similar cathedrals on adjacent sides of the square. To those unfamiliar with churches it may be even difficult to differentiate between them; both feature two towers and similar architecture. Yet, one is broader and less elaborate in design; its name is Catedral of Santo Domingo. The more dramatic one is the Iglesia La Compañía de Jesús. Even in this short paragraph there are already problems; I mentioned two cathedrals, and yet, the second one is just a church ("iglesia" in Spanish). Yet, I made no error; a complex history generated even more complicated architecture and linguistics.

"Cathedral" is a term referring to Christian church containing the seat of a bishop or a archbishop, depending on the importance of the "metropolis" (literally "mother city," the geographical area of the institution; sometimes "diocese" is also used for this). Yet, cathedrals are often the most impressive edifices in a city, thus the term is also borrowed for any impressive churches, as the Jesuit one in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, the abovementioned Iglesia La Compañía de Jesús. A cathedral which houses a monastery is also known as minster or abbey. A cathedral which is important enough may also carry the title of basilica, as is the case with St. Peter, the seat of the Holy See. There are several types of basilicas, but this is of no relevance to this article. More often than not, cathedrals keep extensive and important collections of art, especially sculpture, paintings, stained glass and frescos. The art may include both, ecclesiastic and secular works. Many of them took centuries to build and decorate and thus are main destinations also for non-Christian travelers and pilgrims.

As said, in Cusco there are two almost identical churches, one of them got the title of cathedral and is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco, while the second is denominated just "church" as if it was a small chapel in a forgotten village. That means intrigues in the hide. Unluckily for the hasty traveler, answers hide elsewhere. For centuries Cusco has been a destination for others and not a source by itself. "Poor Incas!" many tourists say while looking at piles of large stones. Yet, the Incas were neither a people nor a culture; they were a militaristic clan from the Tiwanaku area that crossed the Titicaca Lake westwards, settled down in Cusco and founded a short lived dynasty with the help of Aymara and Quechua slave-work. As with the Incas, the answers with regard to the two cathedrals originated far away. Again, the common perceptions in the actual revival societies of the area are wrong. Nowadays, the Church is linked with colonialism here and blamed for pretty much everything, while even the proudest animist must acknowledge that slavery was inherited from the Inca regime, and that until 1767 the church defended the native people.

"Iglesia La Compañía de Jesús" literally means Church of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. They were founded in 1534 by St. Ignatius and soon spread out to the whole world. They are best known in education, intellectual research, cultural pursuits, missionary work, giving retreats, hospital and parish ministry, promoting social justice and ecumenical dialogue. Nowadays, the Jesuits form the largest single religious order of priests and brothers in the Catholic Church.

Jesuit missions in Latin America were controversial in Europe, especially in Spain and Portugal, where they were seen as interfering with colonial enslavement by royal governments; oddly enough all South Americans - more often than not of Quechua and Aymara ancestry - I did speak with on the topic defended the colonial actions against the Jesuits, providing a good example of state propaganda results. Only the Jesuits stood between Native Americans and colonial slavery. The Jesuits formed Christian Native American towns called "reductions" (Spanish: Reducciones, Portuguese: Reduções), within these towns the people were free, while their bothers outside them worked as slaves in mines or farms. Needless to say, European emperors weren’t happy with the Jesuits’ position. The result is known as the Suppression of the Jesuits in Portugal, France, the Two Sicilies, Parma and the Spanish Empire in 1767; they were expelled from the colonies. Since then, they are still strangely seen as an enemy in South America, which apparently still functions on imperial rhetoric.

Understanding that, everything begins to fall into place. In 1571, the Jesuits began the construction of the most magnificent church in Cusco, on the eastern side of the Plaza de Armas. Not surprisingly, the Archbishop of Cusco didn’t want a second cathedral in his town. The parties appealed to Pope Paul III, but before his answer arrived, the Jesuit church was finished. A cathedral in design, a church in title. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1650; the modern building was inaugurated in 1668. This is one of the best examples of colonial Baroque architecture in the Americas; a similar one being the San Francisco Church in La Paz. Its interior is spectacular, especially the gilded altar. The golden altar is decorated with wreathed columns, and features a panel of the Transfiguration attributed to the Flemish Jesuit Diego de la Puente, and an image of the Virgin. Other interesting works of art include a Crucifixion by Cristo de Burgos near the main altar and a picture of Saint Ignatius de Loyola – founder of the Jesuits - by Marcos Zapata. Next to the entrance is a painting showing Peru's mestizo character. It depicts the granddaughter of Manco Inca marrying the man who captured the last Incan leader, Tupac Amaru. It is worth noting that "manco" is a Spanish bad transliteration of an Aymara-Quechua title; "mallku" is the modern – and more accurate – spelling.

Nearby, the Latin Cross shaped Cathedral of Santo Domingo is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco, on the northern side of the Plaza de Armas. The building was completed a few years before the reconstruction of the Jesuit church ended, in 1654; almost a hundred years after it was began in 1559. The cathedral, has a major collection of art and archeological artifacts and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Wider than the Jesuit temple, the cathedral was built in Gothic-Renaissance style with a baroque influence on the façade that renders it very similar to the Jesuit site. The main points of interest in the cathedral include its two altars, the original alder-tree at the back, and in front of it, a neoclassical embossed silver one, which is currently active. The right tower of the cathedral keeps the Maria Angola Bell. It is 2.15 meters high, and weighs almost six tones. Cast in 1659, it was named after the Angolan slave who threw gold into the casting crucible. The sacristy displays a collection of paintings by Marcos Zapata from the 18th century and a crucifixion painting attributed to the Dutch artist, Anthony Van Dyck. The Black Christ is taken outdoors each year in the Lord of Miracles Procession in October, in commemoration of the 1650 earthquake; it got its color from centuries of candles smoke and dust. The art collection is extensive and worth of a separated entry.

Yet, more hides in this entry. Both churches were built on the ruins of Inca structures. The cathedral was built atop Kiswar Kanchar, atemple dedicated to Viracocha. The Jesuit temple was built atop the palace of Inca Huayna Cápac. Other Inca remains can be seen below the modern structures. Judging appearances and façades, most tourists would repeat time and again: "Poor Incas! Bad Jesuits!" Some travelers, would look under the surface and find a complex reality – where façades and piles of mighty stones count for very little - fighting to be heard; a complex reality where the desire for freedom is the only common denominator.
Plaza de Armas

Cusco, Peru


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