No visitor to Cusco should leave without familiarizing themselves with the Cuzco School of Art (Escuela Cuzqueña), a Roman Catholic artistic tradition based in Cusco, Peru during the Colonial period, from the 16th to 18th centuries.
During the early part of this period, European artists were sent by the Spanish to Cusco, where they formed a school to teach the Quechua people and mestizos how to draw and paint. The resulting works were intended to be didactic, a tool to assist the Spanish in their efforts to convert the native people to Catholicism.
The paintings of the Cusco School are characterized by their predominant use of the colors red, yellow, green and blue, as well as lavish gold leaf. They also display a syncretic mix of Andean and European Catholic imagery, which the Spanish Church approved on the basis that these images purportedly assisted the native people in learning the foreign values of Catholicism/Spanish society.
Where To See It
The most impressive collection of art from the Escuela Cuzqueña is found in magnificent Catedral de Cusco, overlooking the Plaza de Armas. Built on top of the Inca Wiracocha palace, it was completed in 1649, after 100 years of construction. Multi-lingual audio guides are available for free at the entrance which provide a useful introduction to the works inside.
Inside the cathedral, one can find over 54 oil paintings by Marcos Zapatos within the arches of the basilica’s litany. Known as the “pioneer of Cusqueño art”, he is the first artist to create a series of hand crafted mestizo paintings with original designs based on the life of saints. Be on the look-out for his painting of the Last Supper, where one can see a cooked cuy (a guinea pig, historically served by Andean people during special celebrations) displayed on the table before Christ, waiting to be eaten.
Other interesting highlights include the impressive Altar of the Virgin of the Asuncion, which is made up an impressive 1706 kilograms of silver, the High Altar and its impressive 200+ year-old organ, as well as Cross of the Conquest, the wooden cross that Pizarro carried from Spain on his journey to Latin America.
Entrance to the cathedral alone is 25 soles or you can buy a 40 sole ticket that also allows you entrance into the Templo de San Blas and the Museo de Arte Religioso.
El Museo de Arte Religioso
The Museo De Arte Religioso is located on Hatunrumiyoc, a pedestrian alleyway lined with magnificent Inca stonemasonry which is particularly known for the 12 Angled Stone that is part of the remaining wall from an ancient palace.
Built on top of the ruins of this palace of the Inca Roca, now owned by the Archbishop of Cusco, it now houses an impressive collection of colonial art including some wonderful pieces from the Escuela Cusceña.
Be sure to keep an eye out for the paintings of the Virgin Mary in mountain-shaped dress, depicted in that manner as the mountains were sacred to the Quechua people, as well as the paintings of the Corpus Christi procession, which incorporate depictions of Christian religious pageantry with imagery from the Incan Inti Wasi festival.
If you’re taken with the paintings you’ve seen and wish to take one home as a souvenir, there are a number of art shops across the way from the museum that can sell you a decent replica, with or without the ornate gold frame!
Tara Leigh has traveled extensively in South America, where she had a wonderful time enjoying the food, taking in the sights, and meeting the people of that fantastic continent. She wrote this article on behalf of Aracari Travel, specialists in cultural tours in Cusco and all over Peru.