“La Merced constitutes a unique layout case because it is the exact opposite of most of the façades of other temples, in where the front is located between the towers. This peculiarity as well as the proportions of its elements and the interpretation of the same motives already used in other Cusco works, emphasize the profoundly half-caste character of this building“.
Description: The baroque-style church was erected between 1657 and 1680. The sacristy keeps its most valuable treasure, an amazing monstrance of gold and precious stones. Its foundation dates of 1536, and some of its most remarkable items are the baroque-style tower, the baroque-Renaissance cloisters, the choir decorated with plateresque-baroque ashlar, numerous carvings and paintings of colonial art, and a monstrance made of gold and precious stones that is 1,3 meters high and weighs 22 kg. and is crowned by an immense siren-shaped pearl, which is considered the second largest of the world.
The religious order of the Mercedarians was founded in 1223 by the French Saint Pedro Nolasco aiming at reimbursing the captives. One of the oldest religious congregations of the city is La Merced, whose foundation dates of the conquest time. It is known that the community was related to Diego de Almagro, partner and rival of Pizarro, whose mortal remains rest there. Therefore, when Almagro started the expedition to Chile, he took two Mercedarians of Cusco as chaplains: Friar Antonio de Almanza and Friar Antonio de Solís.
In Cusco, the church and convent were founded by Riña Sebastián de Castañeda in 1535. The plot was donated by the Marquis Francisco Pizarro with all the attributes granted to him by the conquerors right.
At first, they intended to construct a majestic church and a convent that were destroyed by the earthquake of 1650. The current building was erected a few years later. The church has two fences in the entrance; the main one faces Espinar Street. It just has a tower with a Cusco-baroque small bell. Nowadays, the church has the title of Minor Basilica granted by the Pope Pius XII in 1946. The architects of this building were also Spanish but the construction was executed by Quechua bricklayers. Inside of it, there is a main wide gallery and two relatively narrow corridors. Its main altar is neoclassic with six solid Corinth columns and in the central part is the Señora de la Misericordia (Lady of Mercy). Towards the end, there are other altarpieces with different images, among which stand out the Señor de Huanca (Lord of Huanca) and the Cross of the Priest of Urraca, which are covered with silver plates. Besides, here we can find the image of the Señor del Tambo de Montero (Lord of the Tambo of Montero) that, according to the tradition, was lashed every Friday night by the Jewish people of Cusco. The church also has a choir. Inside the crypt that is located under the main altar of the church are buried the mortal remains of Gonzalo Pizarro, brother of the Marquis as well as the mortal remains of Francisco de Carbajal, whose head was fried in oil and sent to Lima; the body of Diego de Almagro el Viejo (partner of Pizarro), and the body of Almagro el Joven (son of Diego).
The convent’s cloister is the most beautiful and amazing structure within the complex. It is square-shaped, has two floors, and one arc-shaped entrance with thick and solid rectangular pillars that exhibit the Corinth columns carved on their front sides. To make it short, it was a detailed and wonderful work carried out with andesites. The second cloister, from 1650, is relatively simple and more modern. The first cloister has canvases representing the life of Saint Pedro de Nolasco that were painted by Ignacio Chacón in 1763. In addition, Basilio Pacheco painted the enormous canvas representing the benefactors of the order, which is located near the staircase that leads to the second floor. In the second level, there is a collection of canvases representing the life of Saint Augustine, which was moved after the destruction of the Saint Augustine church and the convent.
In this convent there is a cloister that is used as a museum, in where they exhibit the consecrated vessel to be revered by the people. This sacred object is 1.2 m. (3’4″) high and it weighs 22.2 kg (49 pounds). The sun was made of gold with a baroque style by Luis Ayala de Olmos in the XVII century.
Towards the lower part is the image of Nuestra Señora de la Misericordia (Our Lady of Mercy) and a pretty siren that is on her knees and whose body is made of a pearl. Below, is the pedestal that was made by Manuel Piedra during the first years of the XIX century with a neoclassic French style; in the centre it has a Paschal Lamb and below it there are two pelicans representing the Christianity.
Alfonsina Barrionuevo wrote: “…it has one thousand five hundred diamonds and gems, six hundred and fifteen pearls, one amethyst, one topaz, three emeralds, many dozens of rubies and other precious stones”. There are also anonymous canvases, among which the most remarkable are the “Crowning of the Virgin”, painted by Bernardo Bitti; the “Sacred Family”, attributed to Rubens; and the “Crowning of the Virgin” and a “Saint Family” attributed to Diego Quispe Tito. Here we can also find the manuscripts in a parchment; a small Christ carved in ivory; the precious metal in for of crowns, incense burners, candelabra, etc. There are also Chinese small bottles and 8 chasubles embroidered with gold and silver threads that belonged to Raer Vicente Velarde (partner of Pizarro). In this cloister, the Scriptures are kept where there are other canvases; at one side of the entrance there is an interesting canvas made by Ignacio Chacón, which represent the Virgin Mary feeding her baby at the same time Jesus and Saint Pedro Nolasco. In this first cloister we can also find Francisco Salamanca, a native from Uros in Bolivia who was famous during the first decades of the XVIII century due to his skills as a speaker, poet, musician, painter and a composer of Quechua and Aymara carols. He spent his last 30 years imprisoned and he died in 1737.
Towards the Cusco baroque
The primitive church, concluded in the middle of the XVI century, was totally destroyed by the earthquake of 1650 and subsequently replaced by the current temple. This building was erected in the Espinar small square, in one angle of the old Cusipata or Council meeting square. Its main front, of a Renaissance style, is not as known as the lateral front, which was used as the regular entrance since it faced the street. This work was raised during the 1651-1659 period. The masters Martín de Torres and Sebastián Martínez participated in this construction, turning the old Renaissance design into an altarpiece-type creation that expresses the transition towards the typical Cusco baroque.
The inner part, composed by three wide aisles, comprises a harmonious set of baroque altarpieces that contrasts with the severe neoclassicism that characterizes the main chapel. The quality of the transept’s altars, both representing the style imposed by Martín de Torres, is remarkable. Next to the Gospel we can find the altarpiece that belongs to Saint Pedro de Nolasco (1663), which was decorated with paintings of Martín Loayza, among which it is worth to mention “La Conversión de San Pablo” (“The Conversion of Saint Paul”) and “La Conversión de San Eustaquio” (“The Conversion of Saint Eustaquio). On the opposite side, it is possible to see the altarpiece of La Soledad (1660), assembled by Pedro Galeano, which includes some canvases of the Spanish painter Juan Calderón
The best canvases
The top of both lateral aisles is decorated with two large canvases of the XVII century. These canvases represent Saint Pedro Nolasco being transported by angels to the choir (1666), painted by Marcos Ribera, and the martyrdom of Saint Laureano (1612), early work of the Indigenous master Basilio de Santa Cruz. This painting shows the praying portraits of Laureano Polo de Alarcón and his wife, benefactors of the Mercedarian convent, whose burial chapel should have been located here. In the upper part of the main aisle there is a series of outstanding lunette-shaped canvases that narrate episodes of the Virgin’s life. These canvases were painted by an anonymous Cusco master towards 1704. They are complemented with the enormous lunettes of the choir, concluded in 1708, one of which shows the praying portrait of Francisco de Salamanca. Around those years, it was carved the choir ahslar, which includes wreathed columns and elliptic medallions with relieves of different saints.
The paintings of the church
The artistic richness of the Mercedarian convent is as outstanding as that of the church. At the porch, the visitor will be received by two canvases of battles that highlight the significant participation of a Mercedarian priest, Friar Diego de Porres, in the conquest and evangelization of the High Peru. On the porch we can also find the portraits of two guardians of the convent: Diego de Vargas Carvajal and his wife Usenda de Loayza y Bazán, who is wearing the scapular of La Merced on her elegant suit according to the fashion in the reign of Philip III.
The main cloister
It constitutes a real master piece of the Cusco baroque. Here, the stone
treatment imitating the wood carving reaches its most achieved expression. Its construction was started after the earthquake of 1650, and it continued even after 1663. Everything is made of stone, contrasting the rest of small Cusco cloister in where stone and bricks have been alternated.
Its semicircular arcade lies over wide pillars repeated on the upper floor. This structure is particular due to its decoration with bosses and the Corinth columns that lean against the pillars, covered with the motives of scales and diamonds that characterize the altarpieces of Martín de Torres and his circle. That is why the cloister design is attributed to Torres, even though some researchers prefer to relate it with the activity of Diego Martínez de Oviedo, who belongs to the subsequent generation.
The founder’s life
The main ornament of this cloister is constituted by the pictorial cycle about the life of Saint Pedro Nolasco, founder of the order, which was carried out during the second half of the XVII century. These are anonymous works, although some authors ascribe them to Gerónimo de Málaga. Several scenes, such as the Death of the Saint, included the figure of the bishop Manuel de Mollinedo, suggesting that he might have participated as patron of the work. You should not forget to visit the Mercedarian museum, which exhibits liturgical jewels and some extremely significant canvases, as well as the cell of Father Salamanca, Mercedarian religious man who died in here with saintliness fame. Currently, the second cloister and the rooms adjacent to the convent are being restored by experts of the Peru-Spain Agreement.