A mystical place between two civilizations


Cusco, Peru, the former capital of the mighty Inca Empire, is full of archaeological sites from an earlier culture and breathtaking views of the Peruvian Andes. In this city is one of the best preserved colonial buildings in South America: the Cathedral of Cusco.

Built between 1560 and 1654, this impressive cathedral replaced an Inca palace named “Kiswarkancha”, which had served as the residence of the former ruler of Cusco, Viracocha, a century before the Spanish invasion. The Spanish conquistadors took over the site and turned it into a Catholic cathedral, formerly known as the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin. Spanish architect Juan Miguel de Veramendi designed the cathedral in the shape of a Latin cross, with a three-aisled nave and only 14 pillars to support the roof. Its architectural style, Gothic-Renaissance with a touch of Baroque influence, was typical of 16th century Spain.

Colonial and local artists both contributed to its unique interior design. Shiny gold carvings contrast with the dark tones of the stone walls and columns, a repurposed stone from Sacsayhuamán, a nearby sacred Inca structure. Statues, paintings, relics and religious artifacts from both cultures are placed throughout the interior. The artistic heritage of both cultures is represented throughout by paintings from the Cusco School of Art, which began with 16th-century Spanish settlers teaching Renaissance techniques to native artists. Later, local artists added stone statues and carvings referencing Inca mythology, such as the jaguar head carved on the doors of the cathedral.

This mixture of cultures connects the Catholic tradition with local symbolism. It is a high place of colonial art and a hybrid of two civilizations.

An aerial view of Cusco Cathedral nestled in the Peruvian Andes. The cathedral is located in the Plaza de Armas (main square) and is connected to the Iglesia del Triunfo (Church of the Triumph), the first Christian church built in Cusco, and the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús (Church of the Society of Jesus). Both churches were built around the same time as Cusco Cathedral. (Colin W/CC BY 3.0)
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16th-century Inca artwork and religious artifacts can be found in the lavish interior of Cusco Cathedral. After its initial construction, stone statues and carvings referring to Inca mythology were added, such as jaguars on the doors. These animals were revered in Aztec, Mayan, and Inca mythology, and local artists incorporated them into this European religious structure. (Rodolfo Pimentel/CC BY-SA 4.0)
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Let’s take a closer look at the vaulted ceilings of Cusco Cathedral, which occur commonly in European Gothic architecture. The sumptuous and detailed decorations follow the ornamental Baroque style, contrasting with the purity of the Gothic-Renaissance style. (Rodolfo Pimentel/CC BY-SA 4.0)
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The silver altar of the Cathedral of Cusco, in an elegant neoclassical style. The cathedral also has a secondary altar made of local alder wood. (Gerard/CC BY-SA 4.0)
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The highly decorated sacristy of Cusco Cathedral contains allegorical paintings by Marcos Zapata, an 18th-century artist from Cusco, as well as portraits of the bishops of Cusco above the doors. (Rodolfo Pimentel/CC BY-SA 4.0)

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