The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, also known as Cusco Cathedral, is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco. The cathedral is located on the Plaza de Armas. The entire building was built between 1560-1654,
Adjacent and joined to the cathedral is the smaller Iglesia del Triunfo, the first Christian church to be built in Cusco. The Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, also on the Plaza de Armas, was built at a similar time as the cathedral.
The Cathedral, in addition to its official status as a place of worship, has become a major repository of Cusco's colonial art. It also holds many archeological artifacts and relics. The cathedral was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the City of Cuzco listing in 1983.
The Incas built the temple known as Kiswarkancha on the main square in Cusco. It was the Inca palace of Viracocha, ruler of the Kingdom of Cusco around a century before the Spanish colonists arrived. The aboriginal name of this city was Qusqu. Although it was used in Quechua, its origin has been found in the Aymara language. The word itself originated in the phrase qusqu wanka ("Rock of the owl"), attending to the foundational myth of the Ayar siblings.
Near to the Kiswarkancha was the Suntur Wasi, an armoury and heraldry centre for the Inca royalty. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Cuzco, they decided to take down the temple and build their Christian cathedral in that prominent site.
Basilica Cathedral of our Lady of Assumption
The cathedral's construction began in 1559 on the foundations of Kiswarkancha. It is shaped like a Latin cross. The location of Viracocha's palace was chosen for the purpose of removing the Inca religion from Cusco, and replacing it with Spanish Catholic Christianity. Because 1559 was only 26 years after the conquistadores entered Cusco in 1533, the vast majority of the population was still of Quechua Inca descent. The Spaniards used the Incas as a labour workforce to build the cathedral.
The original designs for the 1-acre (4,000 m2) large construction were drawn by the Spanish architect and conquistador, Juan Miguel de Veramendi. His design of a Latin cross shape incorporated a three-aisled nave, where the roof was supported by only 14 pillars. Over the 95 years of its construction, the building work was supervised by Spanish priests and architects, until its completion in 1654.
Most of the stones from the building were taken from Sacsayhuamán, an Inca holy and defensive structure located on the hills above Cusco. Due to its large size, much of Sacsayhuamán remains intact. Just as the temple of Viracocha was removed and the holy stones of Sacsayhuamán were employed to build the cathedral, the intentional desecration of Inca religious architecture, once the Spaniards learned that the very sand spread on Cusco's main plaza was considered sacred, they removed it and employed it in the cathedral's mortar.
The Gothic-Renaissance style of the cathedral reflects that of Spain during the period of the Spanish conquest of South America and also Cusco. There is also evidence of Baroque influence in the facade on the Plaza de Armas.
The Incas incorporated some of their religious symbolism into the cathedral, for example, the carved head of a jaguar (an important god or religious motif found widely through much of ancient Peru) is part of the cathedral doors.
There are many Catholic artifacts within the Cusco Cathedral, some of which are fine pieces of colonial craftsmanship. These include the following:
- Altar: The cathedral has two altars, the original lambran (alder-tree) at the back, and in front of that, the neoclassical embossed silver altar, which is currently used. The silver altar was originally cedar wood covered in gold flakes, but in 1803 (according to the inscription on the front of the silver panel), Heras Bishop donated the silver to be beaten and applied to the altar.
- Maria Angola Bell: The north tower of the cathedral supports the famous Maria Angola, a bell that is 2.15 metres high, and weighs approximately 5980 kg. It was cast in 1659 and named, according to local tradition, after an Angolan slave who threw gold into the crucible where the bell was being made. As the bell is cracked, it is rung only on special occasions. It has been claimed that the bell is audible from more than 20 miles away.
- Sacristy: The sacristy, a highly decorated part of the cathedral, displays a large collection of allegoric paintings by Marcos Zapata from the 18th century. Also, many portraits of Cusco's bishops hang in the cathedral, beginning with Vicente de Valverde (see 'artwork'), the first resident bishop of Cusco. Within the sacristy, a large, dark painting of the crucifixion is commonly attributed to the Dutch artist, Anthony van Dyck. Some local guides say it is the work of the Spanish artist Alonso Cano, from the 17th century.
- Black Christ: This wooden crucifix is black from centuries of smoke and dust. The Black Christ was not cleaned during restoration of the cathedral interior in the 1990s, when the burning of candles was ended. The crucifix is taken outdoors each year in the Lord of Miracles Procession during Holy Week, the Monday after Palm Sunday, in commemoration of the 1650 earthquake.
Much of the artwork in the cathedral originated from the Escuela Cuzquena (Cusco School of art). This was a school that was built by the Spanish to educate the Incas and their descendants with the methods and disciplines of European renaissance style artwork. This school was famous throughout the colonial Americas, but the Quechua painters were limited to painting scenes of European and Catholic importance. The restrictions imposed on the Inca artists meant that they were not permitted to sign their own artwork, so much of it is unidentifiable. Here is a list of some of the most notable pieces found within the cathedral:
- Pintura Senor de los Temblores. The oldest surviving painting in Cusco, which depicts the whole of the ancient city during the 1650 earthquake. Many of the townspeople can be seen carrying a crucifix (see the 'Cathedral Artifacts' section) around the Plaza de Armas, praying for the tremor to end.
- Vicente de Valverde. A portrait of the friar who became a bishop at Cusco, after accompanying Francisco Pizarro on his conquests.
- Christ's 12 Parables. An incomplete collection of twelve paintings by the Quechuan artist Diego Quispe Tito. There were initially twelve canvases (completed in 1681) to depict the twelve months and zodiac symbols of the year, incorporating the parables of Jesus into the pictures.
Iglesia del Triunfo
The Church of Triumph, to use its English translation, was built in 1538, just three years after the conquistadores settled in Cusco. It was built over Suntur Wasi, which was an Inca ceremonial building adjoining the palace of Viracocha, in a similar way to the way that the Cathedral is now adjoined to the earlier Iglesia del Triunfo.
The name of the Church of Triumph derives from the history of the Spanish settlers in Cusco. At one point, presumably between 1533, and 1536, the Spanish were cornered by a besieging army of Incas, led by Manko Inka. The final stand for the Spanish was in the Suntur Wasi, before its demolition, and just as it seemed that they were on the verge of defeat, the Spanish miraculously managed to drive back the Incas. The Catholic conquistadores attributed this victory to Saint James the Greater (the patron saint of Spain), who was reported at the time to descend from heaven to drive back the Incas. This is why the church is called the Church of Triumph, and also why there is a statue of St. James atop a horse within the Church, depicting him slaying an Inca.
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