Peruvian Fusion: The Cusco School of Painting

Fusion is everywhere in Peru. Every place you look you can see the collision between Andean and Spanish cultures. It’s in the blood, in the food, in the music, in the language and it’s in the paintings. We got an introduction to the Cusco School of painting last week when we bought a ticket gaining entrance to three churches and a museum: La Catedral, La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, Iglesia de San Blas and the Museo de Arte Religioso.

Our first stop was La Catedral on the Plaza de Armas. Construction of the church started in 1559 (aided by many large stones pilfered from the nearby Sacsayhuaman fortress) and had to be re-built after the massive 1650 earthquake. In the northeast corner of the cathedral we saw the epitome of this Andean/Spanish clash of cultures in Marcos Zapata’s rendition of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” (left). What better way for an Andean painter to accept a forced-upon religion, yet still be true to his indigenous roots, than to place cuy (guinea pig) on a platter in the center of the table? It’s open to debate what the main course was for The Last Supper (grilled eel? lamb?), but I’m certain that Leonardo didn’t depict guinea pig and chicha morada (fermented purple-corn drink).

The Cusco School of Painting is a Roman Catholic artistic tradition based in Cusco, Peru during the colonial period. The tradition originated after the Spanish conquest of the Incas and is considered the first artistic center that systematically taught European Artistic techniques in the Andes. The main purpose of the school was didactic, to inculcate catholic religious values and almost all of the painters were indigenous. Ironically, the school got a boost after the 1650 earthquake destroyed most of the churches and artwork and Cusco School artists were commissioned to paint hundreds of new paintings to adorn the walls of the new structures that were being built.

Across the plaza from La Catedral is La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, which was built in 1571 (also rebuilt after the 1650 earthquake) on top of the former palace of Huayna Capac, the last Inca to rule an undivided empire. Our guidebook directed us to some paintings of catholic weddings near the entrance, where we found The Marriage of Captain Martin de Loyola to Beatriz Ñusta. In the background of this painting of a Catholic ceremony are indigenous Incas, one with an Amazonian parrot on his shoulder. It was not uncommon for Cusco School painters to use Andean flora and fauna in their paintings of religious topics.

After a quick tour of the modest Iglesia San Blas and its intricately-carved wood pulpit, we debated whether we should visit the Museo de Arte Religioso, even though it was included in our ticket. Our guidebook gave a ho-hum description of the museum and even referred to it as a “musty religious art collection.” For us, the museum turned out to be the best in Cusco, with excellent audioguide-descriptions of various Virgin Marys, warrior angels, Corpus Christi processions and Diego Quispe Tito’s zodiac paintings.

For us, the depictions of the virgens were the most interesting. Most of the Virgin Marys, like the Virgen de Belen to the left, were fairly “flat” and lacked perspective, which would be expected from a culture new to representative painting. The Pre-Columbian Andeans had superior skills in ceramics, architecture, gold and silver work as well as textiles, but painting oil on canvas was a foreign concept. Many of the Virgin Marys, along with baby Jesuses they held, were triangular in shape, suggesting the shape of apus, or sacred mountains. It’s almost as if the Virgin Mary put on a couple hundred pounds once she set foot in the New World. Making the shape of the virgin’s dress suggest the mountains that the Incas revered made acceptance of the new religion easier. In their depictions, the virgens quite often have ruddy cheeks, suggesting the cold mountain weather of the Andes, and there is always lots of detail in their dresses which is not surprising given an Andean culture obsessed with textiles and weaving. Lastly, most of the paintings in the Cusco school (with some notable exceptions: Marcus Zapata, Diego Quispe Tito, etc.) were anonymous, due to the Pre-Columbian traditions that defined art as communal.

Immediately after leaving the museum, inspired by my exposure to the Cusco School, I went on a search for a reproduction Virgin Mary painting, stopping in various shops in San Blas. There is something very noble and appealing to me about how indigenous cultures, when forced to accept a foreign religion, find subtle -- in some cases, not so subtle -- ways to express their defiance. I looked in several shops, but had difficulty finding one that had a wide enough triangular shape. Each one shown to me by a shopkeeper was turned down with the words “No es bastante gorda” (“Not fat enough”). My wife and I resumed the search a few days later and we finally found a perfectly rotund Virgen de la Merced, complete with slightly-ruddy cheeks and resplendent dress detail.


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  3. I too love how the indigenous changed things, even slightly so as not to confirm completely, such a strong culture!