Arts & Tradition

The Cusco Cathedral: A Mystical Place Between Two Civilizations

Larger than life: Art that inspires us through the ages
BY Ariane Triebswetter TIMEAugust 20, 2022 PRINT

Cusco, Peru, the former capital of the mighty Incan empire, is filled with an abundance of archaeological sites from a previous culture and breathtaking views of the Peruvian Andes. Within this city is one of South America’s best-preserved colonial buildings: the Cusco Cathedral.

Built between 1560 and 1654, this impressive cathedral stood in place of an Incan palace named “Kiswarkancha,” which had served as the residence of former Cusco ruler, Viracocha, a century before the Spanish invasion. Spanish conquistadores took over the site and transformed it into a Catholic cathedral, formerly known as the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin. Spanish architect Juan Miguel de Veramendi designed the cathedral in the shape of a Latin cross, with a three-aisle nave and only 14 pillars to support the roof. Its architectural style, Gothic-Renaissance with a touch of Baroque influence, was typical of 16th-century Spain.

Colonial and local artists both contributed to its unique interior design. Bright gold engravings contrast with the dark tones of the stone walls and columns—stone repurposed from the Sacsayhuamán, a nearby holy Incan structure. Statues, paintings, relics, and religious artifacts of both cultures are placed throughout the interior. The artistic legacy of both cultures is represented throughout by paintings from the Cusco school of art, which began with 16th-century Spanish settlers teaching Renaissance techniques to indigenous artists. Later, local artists added stone statues and engravings referring to Incan mythology, such as the carved jaguar head on the cathedral’s doors.

This blend of cultures connects Catholic tradition with local symbolism. It is a major site of colonial art and a hybrid of two civilizations.

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An aerial view of the Cusco Cathedral nestled in the Peruvian Andes. The cathedral is located on the Plaza de Armas (main square), and is connected to the Iglesia del Triunfo (Church of Triumph), the first Christian church built in Cusco, and the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús (Church of the Society of Jesus). Both churches were constructed around the same time as the Cusco Cathedral. (Colin W/CC BY 3.0)
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Sixteenth-century Incan artwork and religious artifacts are found in the lavish interior of the Cusco Cathedral. After its initial construction, stone statues and engravings referring to Incan mythology were added, such as jaguars on the doors. These animals were worshiped in Aztec, Mayan, and Incan mythology, and local artists incorporated them into this religious European structure. (Rodolfo Pimentel/CC BY-SA 4.0)
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A closer look at Cuzco Cathedral’s vaulted ceilings, which commonly occur in European Gothic architecture. The lavish and detailed decorations follow the ornamental Baroque style, contrasting with the purity of the Gothic-Renaissance style. (Rodolfo Pimentel/CC BY-SA 4.0)
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The Cusco Cathedral’s silver altar, in an elegant Neoclassical style. The cathedral also has a secondary altar made from local alder wood. (Gérard/CC BY-SA 4.0)
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The highly-decorated sacristy in Cusco Cathedral contains allegorical paintings by Marcos Zapata, an 18th-century artist and native of Cusco, as well as portraits of Cusco’s bishops above the doors. (Rodolfo Pimentel/CC BY-SA 4.0)

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Ariane Triebswetter is an international freelance journalist, with a background in modern literature and classical music.
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