The Luminosity of Peruvian Churches

by Hans S. B. Roegele, appearing in Volume 16

In November of 2008 I went up into the mountains of Peru for a month. There I saw over fifteen towns and villages, traveling by a combination of train, bus, minivan, station wagon, motorcycle, and my own two feet. Much of my transportation was older than I am, and had a disturbing tendency to stall. Yet even as I watched the miles go by, it seemed as if time as well were slipping by. In those areas of desperate poverty, I saw houses built from adobe mud without windows or doors, streets with no paving, and people pulling plows in fields. Men with typewriters set up business in the streets to produce letters, and knife sharpeners wandered with their wheels on their backs. At the center of almost every village, and often enough the village life, was a Catholic church, usually from the colonial period, with its original altarpieces, pulpits, and decorations. As the weeks went by, I noticed extraordinary similarities between them on several levels. While at first glance, they seemed similar to Spanish churches, I quickly saw I was wrong, and that these were Andean churches: particular products of convulsive shifts in Christianity, architecture, global balances of power, and Andean building traditions and religious customs.

Exterior and interior views of the Chuch of Santiago Apostol in Corporaque, Peru. Photos: Author

The white church of Santiago Apostol sits high on a score of steps, at the top of a sloping plaza. Around it are earth colored one and two story houses; mountains and volcanoes frame it in the distance. Starting at 6 a.m., my bus had climbed five thousand feet up single-lane switch-backed dirt roads, before I transferred to a minivan that sputtered and jerked along the canyon’s edge to the town of Corporaque and Santiago Apostol. I wanted to see the church because Santiago Apostol is one of the oldest churches in Peru. When it was built, the last Inca emperor was still holding out against Spanish soldiers in the jungles. I would see that the church captures a transitional moment. While recognizably a late Renaissance church, the classical detailing and ornament has subtly morphed, and a simple architectural space has been made liturgically complex.

Twin, plain-plastered stone towers flank a central square composition. This composition consists of three levels of orders: composite at base with a triumphal arch motif; above it a plain attic level; and at top a heavy, Romanesque Corinthian in an open, roofed loggia. The proportions and profiles of many of the classical elements seem odd: a result of Andean builders interpreting a style they had only seen in line drawings.

Inside the space is simple: a rectangle about as wide as it is tall (27 feet), and about 100 feet deep, with an open wood roof structure. The final 20 feet of the space is separated into a sanctuary by a step and a frescoed arch. There is a modern pulpit and altar, while the baptismal font is in a chapel by the narthex. Thirteen altars crowd the space by the sanctuary, six on each wall, plus the high altar. Each is roughly six to eight feet wide, and projecting on average three feet, with one niche for a sculptural figure or group. Some have columns with capitals on the base and top, or entablatures without cornices, or pediments that angle at almost forty-five degrees. Behind them at eye level a fresco runs along parts of the wall. At first glance it seems almost rococo with its light colors and lines, but a repeating pattern of condors and local fruits is discernable between the urns. The fresco runs to the narthex, where it shows Christ on the cross, surrounded by Seraphim. This motif is repeated at the arch and narthex, and is almost a local signature by the builders.

The high altar is taller than even the masonry walls and seems as though it would like to burst through the roof. Like most of the side altars, it is fashioned from masonry, finished with plaster, and painted a mix of light blue and white. The altar has two levels of Corinthian columns, with three bays on each level. These columns are more classically correct than the side altars. While the high altar’s bottom center bay houses the tabernacle, raised 10 feet from the sanctuary floor on a ziggurat-like pedestal, the five other bays have niches for sculptural figures (due to current restoration work, some artworks have been removed). Most unusually, steps rise from either side of the high altar and curve behind it. This is the only way to reach the tabernacle. Behind the high altar, at the level of the tabernacle, and not visible from anywhere else, are the ruined remnants of another, possibly older, altar.

Consider the effect: the worshipper is surrounded and dwarfed by holy images in powerful architectural frames. From above, light pours down, and is reflected from the white walls. The Holy Family is at eye level to the right but dressed as local potentates. This is a church designed to fill the eyes with sacred imagery. Yet theological concerns rather than aesthetic drove this emphasis on images, and those came directly from the seismic events happening in Europe.

By the early sixteenth century, Protestant theologians were challenging traditional church design on many levels. Theologically, they questioned the validity of most of the sacraments, and aesthetically they rejected use of most artwork. At the Council of Trent in 1563, the Catholic Church reaffirmed its positions, just as Santiago Apostol was being built. The Council directed that visual images were to be used as aids for instruction, devotion, and evangelization. Thus the Real Presence, the priest’s active role in transubstantiation, the intercession of the saints, the efficacy of good works, and all of the other sacraments were to be stressed rather than denied. The presence of the crucified and risen Christ was indicated by artwork. Framework for the imagery already existed. Under common Habsburg rule, Flemish and North German freestanding carved altarpieces (retablo and reredos) made their way to Spain. Among others, El Greco adapted the retablo as a framework for his artwork, but expanded and gilded. Where the Flemish retablo was a triptych with doors that could be closed, the Spanish retablo was a permanent altarpiece with multiple bays for carved figures and paintings. Gilding was important to the conception of the complete sacred work; figures as diverse as Abbot Suger and Saint Charles Borromeo had identified light with divine qualities, and those materials that reflected it were presumed to add to that effect. Thus some altarpieces also incorporated mirrors.

While the European Catholic Church was concerning itself with existing and wavering Catholics, the Church in Peru was trying to reach a population unfamiliar with Christianity. The Church would soon insert images in the retablo done by an indigenous school of artists depicting Christian figures in Peruvian contexts. Combined with the side altars that were also typical, the high altar would form a unified presentation of the order of the universe, the panoply of the saints, and on an aesthetic level, a glimpse of heaven.

The High Altar at Santa Rosa in Arequippa. Photo: Author

Painting and sculpture were crucial to this unified presentation. Early on in the conquest, European masters arrived in Peru who took on apprentices. Apprentices in the Cusco opened their own shops and formed a school of religious painting that lasted until the nineteenth century, known for its clarity and simplicity. Saints were always shown with the symbols they were known by: the Virgin Mary frequently appeared as Marie Regina, or the Queen in her Glory, with gold leaf applied to the painting. Sometimes allegorical, cartoon-like paintings were produced to illustrate a theme. One such allegorical painting shows the doctors and fathers of the church rowing the ship of the Church, while the pope steers, and the angels are engaged in battle with Turks and devils. Many of the figures spout captions, and some hold books that they wrote. These were all useful pictorial aids for instruction in the faith, especially for those concepts that were difficult to grasp. This tendency toward clarity occasionally overreached. For a time, the Cusquena School produced portraits of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit as three identical bearded men in heaven, seated side by side. The motif was declared heretical, and the painters reverted to showing God the Father as a Mosaic figure, Christ a younger man seated to this right, and the Holy Spirit a Dove above. Culturally, the Cusquena School also represented an extraordinary integration of Indians into Spanish culture: some historians estimate up to 90 percent of the artists producing paintings and sculptures in the Cusquena School were Indian or mestizo.

Architecture developed with art. Consider later examples from the nearby town of Yanque, and the façade of the Jesuit Church in Arequippa, where traditional Andean flat relief carving with stylized figures and plant motifs have been integrated into a baroque façade. Within that time period four basic architectural types developed, some common to Spanish America. Within Peru, churches had the same siting, approach, scale of altarpieces, and Andean influence on ornament and details. Santiago Apostol represents the simplest and smallest type. The next type simply increased the nave, and added two side chapels, such as the cathedral at Andahuaylas. It has essentially the same interior design as Santiago Apostol, but wider (40 feet) and about 160 feet deep. Just as at Santiago Apostol, the walls are roughly as tall as the nave is wide, covered by an exposed roof structure. Close to the altar are small side chapels, facing each other. The third type is commonly found in wealthier urban parish churches, and is the familiar Latin Cross plan, with side aisles. This usually does not have side chapels, other than two in the transept commonly dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament and the Virgin Mary. The final type is generally reserved for cathedrals and is common throughout Spanish America. It is a three-aisle plan, with the side aisles lined with shallow chapels. The dimensions of the main and side aisles are generally consistent with the other plan types; conceptually it is almost as though the cathedral at Andahuaylas has had a Santiago Apostol added on both sides, and the common walls broken through with arcades. Volumetrically, the buildings generally had one or two simple towers flanking an elaborate central composition. Reflecting frequent earthquakes, proportions tended toward low. The remainder of the exterior was simple. These plan types and the disposition of elements within them would remain consistent in Peru—and arguably still form the template for churches built today. Even when builders experimented with the Gothic style in the nineteenth century, they used one of these four types.

At least in Peru, the adoption of the baroque and rococo was limited to the liturgical elements (such as pulpits and altars) and as flat compositional elements on the main façade. The architectural spirit remained a sober late Renaissance. There are practical explanations (frequent earthquakes limited the ability to construct elaborate vaulting characteristic of the baroque), but these are at best partial reasons. The austere classicism of Phillip II’s time, which vanished in Spain, found solid roots in Peru and set the tone for future design. Even more so than in Spain, Peruvian churches expressed materials and structure clearly. Coupled with the Andean influence on ornament, this contrast between ornate and gilded elements, and the simple architecture give Peruvian churches much of their distinctiveness. Behind this lie the decisions of many patrons, and their reasons are beyond the scope of this article. However, we can see one church that embodies many of the conflicting pulls of design. We leave the mountains for Lima, and a church Pizarro himself founded.

The Cathedral in Lima, dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist. Photo: Author

Lima today has seen more than a decade since the last terrorist bombs went off, and now the main problem in the streets is an overabundance of cars, from new black government sedans to the rickshaw-like mototaxis. Those taxis usually deposit modern visitors on the far side of the Plaza des Armas, and once passed the shoeshine boys and riot police, the cathedral is reached. Upon entering, it seems as though one is in a luminous and large mosque. Light filters in indirectly from windows above, and the massive 10-foot-square piers block any visual end to the space. Lanterns produce all other optical effects; one is placed in each side chapel, and others appear at points along the main aisle. However, move to the left, and the visitor finds himself or herself at the end of the 200-foot-long nave, looking directly at the high altar and able to comprehend the entire space of the cathedral. That space is divided into three parallel aisles, the center aisle about 35 foot wide and a similar height to the top of the main order and side aisles about 22 foot wide, each of those flanked by a continuous row of deep side chapels. The sanctuary is simply a raised portion of the last two bays of the center aisle, with no apse or ambulatory behind it. In plan the church is almost two squares, with one of them given over to the sanctuary area.

While the first impression is of serene space, closer inspection, and a bit of historical knowledge, reveals a design that was caught between several periods. The Lima cathedral was begun in 1582, likely from plans of a student of Juan de Herrera, known for the austere late Renaissance chapel at the Escorial. Herrera’s plans for the cathedral of Valladolid show a striking similarity to the plan for the cathedral at Lima. The geometric rationalism of Herrera’s plans meant that wherever the rhythm of the bays was interrupted—such as at a crossing—it was very noticeable. Similarly, the cathedral at Lima has two broader bays just before the sanctuary, where the pulpits and the steps up to the sanctuary are. The vertical elements are not as simple as at the Escorial or Valladolid: thin, painted, and gilded ionic plasters stack against each other, to support a reduced entablature, from which spring Gothic ribs over sail vaults. The plan also deviated significantly from Herrera’s model to return to the medieval: originally the choir sat in the middle of the nave, matching Cusco’s, and keeping with the medieval tradition of Spanish cathedrals. Since choirs typically had a stone outer wall that was between 10 to 15 feet tall, the altar would have been difficult to see for most people in the church.

In the early nineteenth century a major renovation was undertaken. The choir stalls were moved from the nave and installed in the sanctuary. A new altar was installed. It is an elegant silver-plated columnar screen, almost reaching the bottom of the vaulting, with two graceful curved stairs ascending from the sanctuary. Whereas the wooden side altars glow from overhead light, the main altar reflects the light back toward the visitor. This architectural element is clearly scaled to the entire church. Were the high altar finished in plaster and had its bays filled in, it would bear a striking resemblance to the high altar of Santiago Apostol. Thus we have the irony of colonial cathedral design in Peru: holding on to medieval layouts and elements, they obscured the clarity of the spaces, and the overwhelming impact of the images. Nineteenth-century cathedrals completed Herrera’s work and remade their spaces along the lines of the other three church types in Peru.

Church of the Virgen Peregrina. Photo: Author

Many modern Peruvian churches have largely abandoned the colonial style of architecture and the colonial rectangular plan. Modern churches tend to be square in plan, with low ceilings. However, many of the characteristics we first saw at Santiago Apostol remain. One example will serve. The church of Virgen Peregrina sits in a fairly grim middle- to working-class area south of the historic center of Lima. In the middle of concrete apartment blocks rising five and six stories, the parish has carved out a green block. The church itself is a delicate looking timber frame structure, with an exposed metal roof and polished concrete floor. The outer timber posts are filled in with brick. One suspects the architect had a small budget. However, much has been accomplished within that. The walls stop short of the roof the entire perimeter, and resting on the glow of natural light, the roof seems to float. The posts are laid out to form three aisles, and the central aisle is stressed by the roof being raised another two feet above it. The remnants of a high altar may be seen in the green sanctuary wall that has gilded borders framing the tabernacle and crucifix (at the center) and sculptures of four saints. Figures and prints of the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, and Child Jesus are mounted to the walls along the side aisles with racks for candles before them. While the plan is square, the architect has chosen to stress the linearity of its central aisle. The church itself is about 35 feet wide, similar to Andahuaylas. Even though the high altar has been much reduced, the congregation is still facing a prominently placed tabernacle, crucifix, and images of the saints, while surrounded by other holy images. As in all of the modern churches I saw, the images are done in traditional, representational styles, and are painted and sometimes clothed, just as in colonial churches. The church has a gated plaza before its entry and the front elevation is stressed by the placing of a small bell tower at the gable. Intentionally or not, the architect has used light, images, space, and procession to point us back to 1563 and Trent.

A statue for veneration dressed in traditional attire in the Church of the Virgen Peregrina continues the practice began in colonial churches. Photo: Author

This article has spoken of the continuity of church design in Peru. One could also interpret it as a stagnation of ideas to match the absolutism, and often brutality, of the colonial and republican regimes. However, traveling through Peru, I was continually surprised by its churches. Within the framework outlined here, they manage to be unique, inspiring, and despite their massive size, luminous. Herein may lie the answer for the long survival of the Peruvian Catholic church. Simple (and cheaper to build), yet capable of containing much complexity, these buildings reflected the culture that imposed them and the culture that adopted them, while satisfying the theology. This grand compromise seems to have been satisfying to all. Today 89 percent of Peruvians identify themselves as Catholics, and two thirds of those actively participate. Personal observation bears out the extent to which worshippers pray before all the altars, often making a round before the daily Mass. At any time of day, I never found an open church that was empty. Since life in Peru is still urban rather than suburban, the colonial churches are still important parish centers, and many have up to four well-attended daily Masses. Whatever the opinions of liturgical consultants, architects, and modern theologians, the people may still be demanding churches that they know and that have inspired them during the last few centuries.