Art of the Americas to World War I
- Introduction to the Viceroyalty of Peru
- Introduction to religious art and architecture in early colonial Peru
- Early Viceregal Architecture and Art in Colombia
- Textiles in the Colonial Andes
- Guaman Poma and The First New Chronicle and Good Government
- “Bad Confession” in Guaman Poma’s The First New Chronicle and Good Government
- San Pedro Apóstol de Andahuaylillas
- Luis de Riaño and indigenous collaborators, The Paths to Heaven and Hell, Church of San Pedro de Andahuaylillas
- Bernardo Bitti, Coronation of the Virgin
- Alonso de Ovalle, Tabula geographica regni Chile
- Diego Quispe Tito, Last Judgment, 1675
- Our Lady of Cocharcas and the Cuzco School of Painting
- The Coronation of the Virgin by the Holy Trinity
- The Child Mary Spinning
- Cusco School Artist, Saint Joseph and the Christ Child
- Conserving Cuzco School Paintings
- Parish of San Sebastián, Procession of Corpus Christi
- Master of Calamarca, Angel with Arquebus
- Melchor Pérez de Holguín, Entry of the Viceroy Archbishop Morcillo into Potosí
- Portrait Painting in the Viceroyalty of Peru
- Fourteen portraits of the Inka Kings
- Official Portrait of Bishop Luis Francisco Romero
- Portraits of Francisca Ramírez de Laredo and Antonio de Ulloa
Inca, Spanish, and Christian traditions come together in this 17th century painting of a religious procession in Cuzco (in present day Peru). At the time, much of South America was a Spanish colony governed as a viceroyalty (a viceroy was someone who ruled as a representative of a monarch—in this case, the King of Spain). Cuzco was part of the Spanish viceroyalty of Peru which lasted from the 16th to the 19th century. To make matters more complicated, Cuzco was also the former capital of the Inca Empire.
Parish of San Sebastián is part of a series of eighteen canvases (sixteen of which survive) that depict the religious festival of Corpus Christi in Cuzco. These large paintings (they range from 6 feet square to 7 x 12 feet) were painted by at least two artists and were made for the Santa Ana parish church in Cuzco, located in the Andes mountains.
Corpus Christi, meaning “body of Christ” in Latin, is a celebration of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation—the transformation of the wine and bread of the Eucharist into the actual blood and body of Christ. The religious processions that accompany this festival have been compared to ancient Roman triumphs, which generally celebrated military victories. The triumphal Corpus Christi processions celebrate Christ as victor and metaphorically allude to the triumph of Christianity over pagan religions (the Corpus Christi festival is still celebrated in Cuzco today).
In the painting, we see the Eucharistic host (the sacramental bread) along with a statue of a saint, paraded along a processional path. A bishop on the far right (see image left) carries a monstrance containing the Eucharistic host (a monstrance is a vessel used to display the host). In addition to the bishop, other members of the San Sebastián parish community—including clergy members, government officials, and leaders of the indigenous Inca population—were included in the procession, while elite citizens of Cuzco witness the procession from their windows. This annual triumphal procession signaled the dominance of Spanish colonizers over the indigenous population. Conveniently, Corpus Christi coincided with the Inca solstice celebration of Inti Raymi, or “Festival of the Sun,” leading to conflation of these festivities and aiding Christian conversion efforts.
In addition to the figures, we see a processional cart in the center, on top of which appears a statue of Saint Sebastian. These carts appear throughout the series and were based on structures used for religious processions in Spain celebrating the festival of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. The carts resemble ships’ hulls and are modified from illustrations the artists in Cuzco saw in a Spanish festival book (left). In this case, Saint Sebastian, who appears tied to a tree and pierced with arrows to represent his martyrdom, has replaced the Virgin Mary.
Leading the procession is an Inca kuraka who acts as a standard bearer (see bottom image). Also referred to as caciques, these local rulers of indigenous descent were granted privileges (cacicazgos) by the Spaniards and allowed to maintain a position of leadership after the Spanish conquest in the Andes. By the early-seventeenth century, twenty-four caciques held this hereditary office—making this an exclusive position. In exchange for their acculturation and adoption into the Spanish hierarchy, caciques were required to implement Spanish law among the indigenous population.
To maintain their status, it was necessary for caciques to prove their indigenous heritage. Caciques were often the subject of portraits that sought to authenticate their sitters’ political position. These images derive from traditional Spanish portraiture (the visual representation of rulers was not an established tradition in Inca culture). Cacique portraits, such as the Portrait of Don Marcos Chiguan Topa, included panels of text that referenced the subjects’ indigenous heritage. Additionally, elements of traditional Inca costumes were often employed to emphasize the caciques’ Indian-ness and therefore validate their positions as kurakakuna.
Caciques were sometimes depicted wearing tunics that evoke indigenous textiles through their intricate designs, as well as crowns that included a mascapaycha, a red-colored fringe that covered the forehead that was traditionally a symbol of Inca royalty. It was traditionally worn on the crown of the Sapa Inca (or “unique Inca,” the preeminent ruler during pre-Hispanic times). Breeches and long sleeves with lace were often added as traditional Spanish elements.
Costume: Inca + Spain
The cacique depicted leading the procession in the Parish of San Sebastián canvas wears an Inca tunic (uncu) with modifications to incorporate Spanish costume elements, like lace sleeves. The highly detailed garment, which includes a sun face on the front, is meant to indicate Andean nobility. The cacique’s crown also features a mascapaycha to distinguish his status. The crowns of the caciques depicted in the series were accompanied by other details such as feathers, flowers, birds, and rainbows. This particular mascapaycha in Parish of San Sebastian features a rainbow topped with a silver globe with feathers and banners, as well as two curiquenque birds, all typical of pre-Hispanic Inca noble insignia.
The mascapaycha as an emblem of Inca royalty was adopted by caciques during the colonial period to reference their descent from previous Inca rulers and imply their legitimate status. This detail marks the cacique as an Inca elite, yet acts as a sign of difference between this indigenous figure and his Spanish colonizer to whom he is subjected. Through participation in these Corpus Christi processions, caciques were able to bear the emblems of their indigenous heritage while proclaiming their loyalty to the Spanish state.
Incorporating the viewer
In the foreground of the painting we see fourteen people of diverse ethnicities, alluding to the heterogeneity among the population of Cuzco. While the procession’s standard-bearer wears regalia indicating his pre-Hispanic roots and political status, the figures in the foreground do not appear in Incaic costume. These citizens seem distanced from the elite cacique who actively participates in the festivity because of their lack of status symbols, as well as their cropped appearance at the bottom of the composition. Because of this distinction in social status, the onlookers at the bottom of the canvas, along with the viewers outside the canvas, participate only indirectly in this procession.
Performance in Colonial Spanish America
The participation of caciques in Christian festivities like Corpus Christi may be read as a performance of their “otherness” as distinct from their Spanish colonizers. This performance aided in converting the indigenous populations to Catholicism and strengthening Spanish control. By wearing the mascapaycha and other traditional costume details, these Inca elites embody the pre-Hispanic rulers from whom they claim to descend. This depiction of indigenous performance in a European, Christian festivity draws attention to the conflation of Inca and Christian traditions that may allude to both a celebration of indigenous heritage as well as subordination to Spanish dominance.
Essay by Caroline Gillaspie
Thomas B. F. Cummins, “We Are the Other: Peruvian Portraits of Colonial Kurakakuna,” in Transatlantic Encounters: Europeans and Andeans in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Kenneth J. Andrien and Rolena Adorno (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 203-231.
Carolyn Dean, Inka Bodies and the Body of Christ: Corpus Christi in Colonial Cuzco, Peru (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).
Want to join the conversation?
- In the second paragraph, it says that this painting and its series of paintings "were painted by at least two artists". Is there any known information about these artists? Were they local to Cuzco or the surrounding region?(3 votes)
- They may have been neither, but itinerant colonial painters, bent on making their fortune out on the hustings before returning to the imperial center to live out their lives.(0 votes)