The Cuzco School

by Elizabeth Lev, appearing in Volume 44

The Post-Tridentine Catholic Restoration unleashed a wave of artistic activity well known to European art lovers. Caravaggio, the Carracci, and many more artists were offered opportunities to express their individual creativity as well as participate in the great missionary efforts of the age through the visual arts. This artistic current, however, was so powerful it coursed across the Atlantic washing up on the shores of the New World to prepare the way for what eventually developed into indigenous schools of religious art, the most celebrated of these being the Cuzco School in Peru.

Some 6700 miles from Rome, Peru was discovered by the Spanish in 1532, evangelized by the Dominicans in 1534, and was organized into its first diocese—Cuzco—one year later year under Pope Paul III. The previous Incan civilization which had flourished from the thirteenth century had already produced art and architecture, roads and textiles, indicators that this would be fertile terrain to plant seedlings of religious art.

In 1571, Jesuit Father Bernardo Bitti became the first Italian painter to make the long trip to Lima, then known as “The City of the Three Kings” for its foundation date on the feast of the Magi. The Spanish rulers had chosen the city as the capital of their newly conquered lands, rather than Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Incan Empire. The Jesuits championed the use of images in evangelization and Father Bitti’s talents introduced the Mannerist style to Lima painting—elegant, elongated Madonnas for the altars of churches and convents. His flattened perspective and love of color would exert great influence among later Andean painters. Bitti eventually found his way to Cuzco where his Immaculate Conception painting still stands today, and there he also produced a Last Judgment (now lost) which, according to contemporaries, incited conversions.

Father Bitti was soon joined by the peripatetic Matteo da Lecce, who, though he hailed from the Puglia region on Italy’s Adriatic coast, studied under Michelangelo in Rome and had painted the Dispute over the Body of Moses in the Sistine chapel before moving to Valetta to produce frescos for the Order of Malta. Matteo da Lecce’s knowledge of workshop organization and large-scale production would prove important for the formation of indigenous ateliers. The Spanish connection to the Netherlands also brought an influx of images by landscape painters such as Joachim Patanir, whose variegated topographies skillfully blended nature with more imaginary elements.

Beyond the presence of actual painters, the budding artists of the New World benefitted from the vast number of engravings produced in the studio of the great Flemish brothers Jan, Anthony, and Jerome Wierix. Eucharistic themes, holy mysteries, and sacred triumphs would provide inspiration for the local artists during the coming years.

The seventeenth century saw the rise of the first successful Cuzqueño painter, Diego Quispe Tito. Born in 1611 to a noble Incan family, Quispe Tito had easy access to the European engravings that guided his compositions. His 1675 Last Judgment reveals the influence of Raphael’s Saint Michael while his Immaculate Conception paintings resemble the images of the Litany of Loreto, a frequent theme in Italian Counter Reformation art.

Quispe Tito’s masterpiece was a series of twelve paintings for the Cuzco Cathedral depicting the stories of Christ related to signs of the Zodiac. Based on Northern engravings, the images correlated the celestial signs to biblical scenes, thus Pisces hovers above the calling of Peter and Andrew. The works, albeit of European inspiration, opened the door to the love of nature and landscape, which would become the hallmark of the Cuzco school.

Increasing art patronage by clerics and nobles brought about the establishment of painters’ guilds in 1649, another inheritance from the Old World. These were meant to ensure fair distribution of work and regulate quality, but soon the Spanish artists and indigenous painters were at loggerheads. Eventually, feeling squeezed out of major ecclesiastical commissions, and amid accusations of drunkenness and laziness, a group of indigenous painters broke away from the guild system and started the independent Cuzco school.

The hallmark of these artists was less academy and more nature, with less emphasis placed on academic rules of art and more attention paid to their natural surroundings. Depth and perspective gave way to flattened forms, and muted palettes were substituted with bright colors and gold ornament. The Cuzco school focused firmly on religious subjects, with several reoccurring themes that spoke to their particular devotions.

A uniquely Cuzqueño subject was the Angel with Arquebus, a depiction of an archangel dressed in fashionable attire of an Andean aristocrat holding a long-barrelled gun. Devotion to angels was encouraged after the Protestant Reformation, and versions of the celestial beings, from chubby putti to winged militants proliferated throughout Europe. The Cuzqueño version abandoned the typical iconography of swords and flowing draperies, in favor of magnificently impractical outfits, complete with lace collars and puffed sleeves, a sartorial way of representing the effortless triumph of angels over sin. The slender arquebus, the Renaissance weapon of choice, recalls the flaming sword of the archangel Michael famously seen over the papal fort Castel Sant’Angelo. The mixture of themes and images drawn from the military, nobility, and fashion was a distinct contribution of the Cuzco school.

Saint Joseph and the Christ Child by the Cuzco school, eighteenth century. Image: Museum, Museum Expedition 1941, Frank L. Babbott Fund

Saint Joseph, the patron saint of Peru, also provided inspiration for the artists of Cuzco. Devotion to Joseph was transplanted from Europe to the New World via Spain. And while Old World artists struggled to abandon the traditional iconography of an aged Joseph, the New World embraced the youthful, vigorous foster father of Jesus with ease. Resembling the adult Christ, the Cuzqueño Joseph was often spotted solo with his young son, not only his protector, but the conduit to his grace. As with their other subjects, the Cuzco painters lavished attention on outfits of the holy duo. Both Christ and Joseph wear robes densely stamped with gold leaf in a variety of floral or feathery patterns. The design evokes the cumbi cloths, expensive, finely woven textiles reserved for nobility, while the red sandals of the Christ child were worn only by Incan elite. Even the odd bulbous shape of Joseph’s robe alludes to the local landscape, recalling Pachatata, the companion mountain to the sacred site of Pachamama on Lake Titicaca. In what would come to be the signature of the Cuzco school, the image is framed by native flora and fauna, particularly the brightly colored birds of the region.

Our Lady of Cocharcas Under the Baldachin by the Cuzco school, c.1765, now in the Brooklyn Museum collection. Image: Museum, bequest of Mary T. Cockcroft

The Cuzco school also created distinctive Marian iconography. The Madonna of Cocharcas was an image connected to the miraculous healing of an Andean convert that soon became a popular local shrine. Cuzqueño painters produced many versions of this beloved Madonna, some of which can be found today in major museums. In the canvas kept in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, Mary wears the bell-shaped dress reminiscent of the Pachamama mountain, stamped with a flurry of golden designs. Within the rough Andean landscape, people from the great melting pot of colonial society—Spanish, indigenous, mestizos—all make their way to the massive figures of the Virgin and Child dominating the center of the canvas. Other interpretations emphasize local flowers or miracles associated with the shrine, but all take place outdoors and teem with jubilant, colorful life.

The names of these artists were rarely known, with Marcos Zapata and Pedro Nolasco being two of the more famous. The school nonetheless relished its uniqueness, referring to their “new art” in contracts and describing themselves as “masters of our art.” One of the greatest efforts of these teams of artists was the execution of eighteen canvasses representing the Corpus Christi procession at Santa Ana parish in Cuzco. These large paintings, averaging about six feet square, recall the ancient triumphal processions of Rome, replete with floats, chariots and duly awed spectators. Brightly plumed local birds soar amid neatly arrayed balconies, a local chieftain in traditional costume poses next to a statue of Saint Sebastian represented as a Renaissance nude. The New and Old Worlds unite in these spectacular panels, especially in the variety of faces peering out from every angle, a testament to almost 200 years of intermarriage.

The Cuzco school flourished for over a century, and even European collectors started demanding their works. Their extraordinary output reached record levels in the eighteenth century when two artists were asked to execute 435 paintings over the course of seven months. This rapid overproduction led to the eventual dismissal of the Cuzco school as mere pious decoration, and the style all but disappeared by the time the country gained independence in 1824.

Today, however, these anonymous masters still have much to teach us about evangelizing through art and celebrating the local, individual, and unique in a universal message.

As art history rediscovers the Cuzco school during our present struggles with identity and individuality, perhaps these anonymous masters can offer some inspiration for evangelizing through art. These painters celebrated their local traditions and their unique customs, yet never lost sight of the big picture, the universal message of salvation.