Peruvian Fusion: Corpus Christi

Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Quechua people celebrated a fruitful harvest by honoring the Father Sun ("Tayta Inti”) in the presence of his “children”, the mummified remains of the Inca kings (“mallki”). The mummies were adorned in fine clothing and jewelry and were paraded about the main plaza in lavishly decorated litters, while the Quechua people gathered and celebrated with traditional Andean foods. When Francisco Pizzaro arrived in Cusco in 1533, I can only imagine the reaction of the priests in his conquering party: “Hmmm…pagan deities, mummies…this will have to go.”

As a replacement ceremony, the Spanish priests instituted the feast and procession of Corpus Christi ("Body of Christ") in Cusco and virgins and saints were paraded around the main plaza in place of mummies (which were burned) and the Tayta Inti and the Pachamama (mother earth) were put on the back burner in favor of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Since the feast and procession of Corpus Christi was coincidently held each year around the same time as a southern hemisphere harvest (May/June), it was a logical substitution. The Inca chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega observed that the first Corpus Christi was held in Cusco in 1550, perhaps as early as 1547. In 1572 the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo instituted Corpus Christi in all Peruvian provinces.

This past June, more than 450 years later, my daughter and I ventured to the Plaza de Armas and obtained second-story balcony seats at a corner restaurant and ordered lunch shortly before noon. We were there to watch the entrada (the entrance of the saints) without getting mobbed by the crowd below. The first saint was San Antonio from the San Cristobal parish, who slowly moved past us with his beard, staff and light blue robe embroidered with silver. He is the patron saint of swineherds and was single; as such only young unmarried men hold up his litter. Next up was San Geronimo from the parish of the same name, dressed in a broad red hat and robe and holding a pen in his right hand and a silver model of a chapel in his left hand. More saints continued: San Cristobal held the Christ child while standing under a palm tree, San Sebastian shaded by a tree with arrows in his chest and the easily-identifiable Santiago charging forward on his white horse with sword in hand. Once we’d finished our unappetizing lunch, we’d wished instead that we eaten what most of the Cusquenas were eating. Everyone was eating chiriuchu (roasted guinea pig with toasted corn and potatoes) washed down with either beer or chicha.

During the entrada a total of 15 saints and virgins parade around the plaza, after having been carried by a couple dozen men from their respective parishes. The statues are left in the cathedral for 8 days at which time they depart and head home. The highlight of the entrada is the impressive silver “Carroza” carriage that is paraded around the Plaza de Armas midway through the entrada. It contains the bread – the symbolic body of Christ – and is topped by a chalice decorated with the image of the Holy Sacrament. As the centerpiece of the entrada, it effectively replaced the ruling Inca’s litter from Pre-Columbian times.

An interesting thing to note about Corpus Christi is that over 750 years ago the festival was started as a way to re-consolidate religious belief and reinvigorate Catholics in Europe. Corpus Christi officially celebrates the belief that the Eucharistic bread contains the real presence of Christ. By the 13th century, religious belief was becoming diffused by the older cult of the saints. The numberous saints with their relics and the dismembered parts of holy men and women (skeletons, locks of hair, toes, etc.) were more tangible symbols of faith and served to keep religious focus decentralized. By re-focusing belief onto the Eucharist with a formal religious ceremony – controlled by priests – the Catholic Church was able to re-consolidate their power over the populace. If it worked in Europe, why not in the New World?

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