Cusco Cathedral


By Sasha Kahn

The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin at Cusco

Cusco sits in south-central Peru, 11,150 feet (3,400 meters) above sea level. The city was founded as a fortress for the local Killke people around 1100 CE, although the area had been occupied for over 3,000 years. The fortress, known as Sacsayhuamán, was made of massive smoothed and interlocking boulders. 

By the 15th century, the Inca had taken over the region and settled at the site, continuing to use the stonework practices of their predecessors. Inca Pachacuteq renovated large swaths of the existing infrastructure and declared it the new capital of his empire. 

When wealthy Spanish Panama City council member Francisco Pizarro became aware of contact with the Inca Empire, he sought to be the first to conquer it. In 1530, he led a Spanish expedition into Peru that quickly became an invasion. After double-crossing Inca Emperor Atahualpa, Pizarro spent three years plundering the treasures of the empire before executing the former ruler. 

The Spanish in Peru ignored the precedents in Mexico of building their capital on the site of a former great city and instead began anew in Lima. Cusco was laid to waste anyway, and the invaders went about destroying, raping, and plundering as they pleased.

After the conquistadors and their weapons came the missionaries and their bibles. The ancient temple of Kiswarkancha was razed to construct a small church in 1538, but there were grander plans for Plaza de Armas at the heart of Cusco. Construction began on the grand cathedral in 1559 and took until 1654 to complete. Although Spanish priests and architects presided over the process, all of the work was done by Inca laborers.

Much of the interior of the church is painted, sculpted, and decorated by Inca craftsmen as well, who were taught Spanish religious artistic techniques  in what became known as the Cusqueña School.

An earthquake in 1650 damaged the nearly completed cathedral and the original gabled Cusco church, which was being used as an ancillary chapel. The cathedral was rebuilt, but the chapel was not. In its place, the baroque Iglesia del Triunfo or “Church of the Triumph” was erected and the Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia was built at cathedral’s other side, both in the 1730’s.  

Cusco Cathedral viewed from Plaza de Armas

Architecture of the Cathedral


The facade of the cathedral is symmetrical and organized vertically into three portions: two outer towers and one central entry; the central entry is again organized into three parts, these of equal size, with one central main door and two adjacent entries, each symmetrical as well. Horizontally, it is split in two parts, the top one made up of the extruding towers and segmental pediment and the lower made up of the rest of the building. There is a noticeable subdivision of the lower layer, especially in the central vertical portion of the building.

Central doorway (Arabsalam, Wikimedia Commons, 2018)

The decorative pediments atop the two side doors align with the split between the two stacks of columns, implying a line that would allow for the horizontal sections to be split into three equal parts. Rustication is only visible on the lowest floor near the entrances, a common theme in Renaissance architecture.

Plan and Structure

The rectangular church is supported with 14 andesite stone columns, each supporting a ribbed arched ceiling. On both the right and left sides of the building are a total of 14 chapels. The ceiling is subdivided into 24 separate niches, creating a grid of convex forms. In the middle of the church is the principal altar. The construction is made almost entirely of silver and shares resemblance in shape to the baroque central entrance.  

Image: WikiMedia Commons.
The perfectly symmetrical nave features the silver principal altar, cruciform columns, and billowing ceilings. Image: WikiMedia Commons.

Along the nave of the cathedral there is a clear axis of symmetry, as the entirety of the central cathedral building is identical on either side, save for the back right corner which connects to the adjacent Iglesia del Triunfo. The rhythm of the interior spaces and columns is singular, a simple progression that is repeated over the course of the church, in both directions, except for a slight variation in the small entry narthex.

Design and Decoration at Cusco

Exterior Design

The hierarchy of the Cathedral’s exterior orders is not immediately evident in the more traditional classical and Renaissance styles. Instead, the order must be gleaned from the wider urban context of the entire Plaza de Armas. Much of the plaza is surrounded by a series of arcades, all topped with simplistic Doric, Tuscan, or Ionic-like capitals. Only the Cathedral and the neighboring  Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús are adorned with corinthian columns. Rather than creating the classical hierarchy on just one building, the entire space now emulates a ranking, with the corinthian churches at the apex.

Corinthian capitals, rustication, and baroque elements (Seufers On The Road, 2019).
View across Portal Belén (Matthew Williams-Ellis, 2014)

Although many of the decorative choices on the facade are plateresque and classical in nature, the church’s construction timeline allowed baroque elements to sneak in. Broken segmental pediments, curvaceous ornamental decor, and small, dense columns are all reminiscent of the Baroque entering the Spanish and colonial mainstream.

Interior Design

Most of the interior is distinctly in the classical Renaissance style. Surfaces are split into basic geometries: rectangles along the earthen ground floor and heavenly semicircles above. Along with the main silver altar, some of the side altars are heavily plated with gold, and the central choir space is blanketed in so much fine wooden decor it begins to border on Churrigueresco. Every aspect of the church is defined by symmetry. Even down the outer aisles of the nave, the much larger engaged piers are cut to look identical to their freestanding counterparts to maintain perfection.

Cedar choir stalls depicting saints, popes, and bishops (Flickr user zug55, 2010)
Engaged (left) and freestanding (right) piers create symmetry (Karikuy Tours 2019)

Some of the interior elements of the cathedral derive from medieval roots instead. Most notably, the church rejects the classical Renaissance ceiling typology: usually a surface that features painting, relief, or coffering in order to create a sense of volume. Instead, Cusco Cathedral’s ceiling is expressive of its form like in medieval churches, with star-shaped rib vaults punching  24 hemispheres into the otherwise flat roof. The vaults extend from 14 cruciform piers. The cruciform columnar section was reintroduced in many Latin American churches, a remnant of the medieval past. 

A Form of Resistance


The first Cathedral was hastily built atop the site of Kiswarkancha, an ancient Inca temple. When growing wealth and demand called for the construction of a larger church, the Spanish forced Quechua slaves to dismantle much of Sacsayhuamán a nearby holy site made of monolithic stones. The stones still make up the foundation of the Cathedral, and Sacsayhuamán sits in ruins to this day. (Image: WikiMedia Commons.)

The Cusco School

Native Quechua people were not only forced to construct the new Spanish buildings, they were forced to learn the artistic techniques that characterized Renaissance Spanish art. The subject of all of the art produced was required to be religious, and if native artists wished to include their own symbolism, it had to be done covertly. The famous paintings at the Cathedral are done by Quechua masters Diego Quispe Tito and Marcos Zapata. Right: Virgin of Carmel Saving Souls in Purgatory, Circle of Diego Quispe Tito, 17th century, collection of the Brooklyn Museum

The Last Supper

The most famous painting in the church and a premier examples of Cusco School art is Marcos Zapata’s “The Last Supper.” The painting displays an incredible attention to detail learned from the Spanish. The contents of the table, however, are a sign of continued cultural efficacy among the Quechua. Instead of paschal lamb, the main dish is a Viscacha, an Andean chinchilla that in traditional stories was guardian of  mountains and lakes.  

The Choir Benches

What immediately draws the eye in the choir are the saints, popes, and bishops that lord above each seat and the carved detail work that fills in the remaining space. Under each armrest lies a secret the enslaved craftsmen managed to keep from the Spanish: carved figures of large women with naked breasts. Each of these is likely a representation of the Pachamama or “Mother Earth.” She is the most important deity in traditional Quechua belief. 

Keeping Their Stories Alive

The forced religion and labor that the Spanish inflicted upon the Quechua was all part of an effort to wipe away their histories and incorporate them into the new society, albeit as second class citizens. Open forms of rebellion were quashed and punishments were severe. The builders, carvers, and painters of the Cusco Cathedral rebelled in much more subtle ways. They used their expertise to insert little elements of their histories to be enshrined in the church forever. Beyond the benches and The Last Supper, other secrets are hidden in the walls of the church. Some have been found, like a carving of a jaguar, a symbol of strength throughout Mesoamerican cultures, on the entrance doors.   Other hidden stories are only rumored, like the conical dress of the central Virgin Mary statue representing a connection to the mountains and the Pachamama. Many of the church’s hidden Inca messages likely have yet to be revealed. 

No place was more emblematic of the totality of the Spanish conquest: the Roman Catholic cathedral constructed at large expense with the stones of their native holy site, built atop a major ancient temple in the heart of the former capital city. Yet even here, the Quechua story remains, clinging to the cathedral’s doors, its walls, its carvings, and its art.  


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