"The whole structure is magnificent and it can be said that the Cusco Cathedral is one of the most beautiful and significant monuments of America. Its proportions have unique amplitude. Its towers are separated by a distance that exceeds the permitted limits in any Western example, so as to grant this first Spanish temple in the Incas capital a greater front and settling."
The first Cusco Cathedral was built in 1539 at the Suntur Wasi, current Iglesia del Triunfo, but in 1560 there was an order to build a new cathedral on the Kiswir Kancha lot, palace of Inca Wiracocha. The actual Cathedral was declared built in 1664, more than a century after.
The design is constituted by a latin-cross base, the façade has a Renaissance style, very ornamental, and it contains the best manifestations of colonial goldsmith and wood carving, as well as a valuable collection of canvases from the Escuela Cusqueña (Academy of Cusco). There are two auxiliary chapels on its both sides: Capilla del Triunfo and Jesus, Maria y Jose.
The building process had two stages. First, they constructed the Capilla del Triunfo over the old Suntur Wasi (House of God) temple. Afterwards, they erect the cathedral over the Palace of Inca Wiracocha. The Renaissance style is predominant in the façade and the inside the building, the inner decoration is rich in cedar and alder carvings. The choir and the pulpit stand out due to their beauty. It keeps an important collection of the Academy of Cusco and repoussé-silver objects.
The main Cusco church, arisen after the conquest and Spanish foundation of the city, had two emplacements before being erected on its current location. In October 1534, the first council meeting assigned it the site nowadays occupied by the Iglesia del Triunfo, in the old Sunturhuasi. Due to its small size, in 1541 it was decided to grant it a wider space in the Cusipata area, in front of the market and the Mercedarians Convent. This closeness resulted inconvenient, and in 1522 they acquired the plots of Quishuarcancha or the Palace of Huiracocha, next to the primitive temple.
In 1559, the first stone was put and the architect Juan Miguel Veramendi, residing in Chiquisaca, was convoked to conduct the works. Then, Juan Correa continued the works until 1564, when they were interrupted due to the lack of funds. In 1585, the Estremadura master Francisco Becerra, author of the Cathedral of Lima, probably carried out the definite design. After that, Bartolomé Carrión and Miguel Gutiérrez Sencio took part as main masters. The construction advanced very slowly until 1644, when the Bishop Juan Alonso de Ocón gave it a great impulse. Even though it was not concluded in 1650, the earthquake of that year did not affect the structure’s solidity and it could be totally finished in 1669.
Style and design
Due to the crucial period when it was constructed, the Cusco Cathedral inherits the Gothic-Renaissance hybridism of the great Spanish Cathedrals of the XVI century, adding to that the irruption of the patent baroque style in its enormous front-altarpiece and its monumental towers.
Just as in Lima, its storey-lounge is composed by three aisles with two sections of side chapels and a plane front wall. Its ribbed vaults, taken from the late Gothic, lay over the cross-shaped columns of Renaissance style. Here everything is made of stone and it gives the sense of great solidity, which constitutes the main difference with the characteristic lightness of the Lima Cathedral.
Many of its stone blocks have an Incan origin and were brought from the neighboring fortress of Sacsayhuamán.
Richness of Altars and Chapels
The main altar, made of silver, is one of the latest works of the whole structure. It has the shape of a baldachin and it represents the introduction of the neoclassic style to the city. It was constructed in the 1792-1803 period by the architect Villegas and the silversmith Pinelo, under the sponsorship of the Bishop Bartolomé María de Las Heras.
In spite of the sobriety of its columns, many of its decorative elements seem to stick to the baroque traditions so established in the city. All the lateral chapels are enclosed by amazing golden railings and crowns with carvings allusive to the titular invocation. It’s worth it to mention the altars of the venerated Señor de los Temblores (Lord of the Tremors) located at the Epistle side (right), which are rich in gold and silver offerings, as well as the altar of the Virgen de los Remedios (Virgin of the Remedies), Valencian devotion introduced by the Spaniard Alonso de Monroy y Cortés. In this side we can also find the so-called "capilla de la Platería" ("Silversmith Chapel"), where we can appreciate an amazing demonstration of the Cathedral treasures. Its most precious jewel is the enormous silver small temple that is used as a processional portable platform for the Corpus Christi. It was a gift from the Bishop Friar Bernardo de Serrada in 1731.
On the other side or the Gospel side (left), we must highlight the chapels of Virgen Inmaculada (Immaculate Virgin), called La Linda (The Pretty), official patroness of the city since the XVI century; and the Capilla del Apóstol Santiago (Apostle Santiago Chapel). In the front wall, the altar of the Saint Trinity encompasses the famous Virgen del Halcón (Virgin of the Falcon) painting, a work of the Bernardo Bitti circle.
At the time of the Bishop Mollinedo, the Church received the greatest decorative contributions, regarding both altarpieces and paintings made by important indigenous masters. The Bishop’s favorite was Basilio Santa Cruz, author of the large canvases that decorate both arms of the transept made between 1691 and 1693. Those are impressive baroque creations that develop theological allegories or the devotions promoted by the Counterreformation. Some of the most remarkable works are "La Imposición de la Casulla a San Ildefonso" ("Imposition of the Chasuble to Saint Ildefonso") and "El Milagro de San Isidro Labrador" ("The Miracle of San Isidro Labrador").
The famous Zodiac series corresponds to Diego Quispe Tito, rival of Santa Cruz, which was finished in 1681 and is currently kept in the Capilla de la Platería. It is a mature work that shows the enormous technical skill of the master and its adjustment to the Flemish constitutive models and coloring.
Some of the central columns exhibit the paintings of another indigenous artist, Antonio Sinchi Roca, a descendant of the Incan nobility originating from Maras. His paintings represent the Israelite evangelists, prophets and kings.
The main pictorial work of the XVIII century is constituted by the fifty canvases about the Lauretan Litanies executed by the master Marcos Zapata in 1755. These canvases decorate all the upper part of the Cathedral, covering the arcs both from the aisles and the sacristy. Their formal conventions as well as the predilection for red and blue characterize Zapata’s style, which was a great influence for the region.
According to the layout of the main Spanish Cathedrals, the choir’s ashlar is located in the main aisle facing the main altar. Its rich baroque carving, attributed to master Giménez de Villarreal, dates from the end of the XVII century and is one of the most magnificent works of the Cusco joining. In the retro choir there are some chapels, such as the one dedicated to Nuestra Señora de la Antigua (Our Lady of the Ancient), and the external sides are decorated with large paintings of Basilio de Santa Cruz about the Virgin of Belen and the Virgin of Almudena, with the Bishop Mollinedo and the Monarchs of Spain as donors.
One of the most luxuriously decorated precincts of the entire building is the sacristy that, from the entrance, displays a collection of allegoric paintings about the church executed by Marcos Zapata in the middle of the XVIII century. In the inside, the furniture, carvings and paintings create a baroque environment of great effect. One of the walls is covered by a huge altarpiece that frames a famous painting of the "Cristo de la Agonía" (Christ of the Agony), traditionally known as the Christ of Van Dyck, since its based on a model of this Flemish master. A complete gallery of portraits of the bishops that have governed the diocese, from Friar Vicente de Valverde, is also kept here.
At both sides of the Cathedral, but in a deeper level, there are two small churches that were constructed afterwards: "Jesús, María y José" church on the left side, and "El Triunfo" church on the right side. Their stone façades, with simple fronts and niches, perfectly harmonize with the main temple.
This small temple reminds us of crucial events during the history of the conquest. Its name itself constitutes a reminder of the final victory of the Spaniards besieged by Manco Inca’s troops in this place- the ancient Sunturhuasi- when, according to the tradition, they received the miraculous help of the Virgin and the Apostle Santiago. Here they constructed the primitive main church, erecting the building, which can be currently seen, during the 1729-1733 period. The promoter of this work is the bishop Friar Bernardo de Serrada, whose shield decorates one of the lateral fronts. Its main altar is made of a finely carved stone and the main niche encompasses the "Cruz de la Conquista" ("Cross of the Conquest"), in where the ashes of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega have been resting for several years.
Jesús, María y José
Even though the first stone of this temple was positioned in 1723, its definite construction could only take shape during the 1733-1735 period, after El Triunfo church was used for the first time. Just as El Triunfo church, its main façade has niches with images of the Sacred Family that, in this case, are flanked by small three-bell gables. Its cross setting is simple and harmonious, entirely made of freestone. This structure contrasts with the decorative profusion of altarpieces and paintings. Its main altar, baroque and golden, was concluded in 1737.
It has a rich front and other silver pieces donated by the Marquis of Valleumbroso in 1745. There are several canvases of Antonio Sinchi Roca and the portrait of the viceroy Gabriel de Arregui is placed on the high choir