The Cuzco School of Painting
In 1688, a group of indigenous artists initiated a legal battle that would change the course of artistic production for the rest of the colonial period. Tensions between Spanish and indigenous artists working within the same guild came to a head eleven years earlier, when a group of native artists withdrew from participation in the creation of a triumphal arch for Cuzco’s Corpus Christi procession (a feast commemorating the institution of the Holy Eucharist). Both parties accused the other of drunkenness and a poor work ethic, undoubtedly fueled by the tensions that arose from Cuzco’s hierarchical guild system, which prevented non-elite indigenous artists from assuming master status.
This ultimately led to the formation of an independent indigenous painting workshop known as the Cuzco School of Painting. The legal success of the indigenous painters liberated them from the strict dictates of the Europeanizing styles they were expected to emulate. The Cuzco School developed a unique artistic signature characterized by a bright color palette, flattened forms, indigenous symbolism, and a profusion of gold ornament.
Cuzco School paintings came into such high demand that they were exported to patrons residing in far-flung cities located in present-day Chile and Argentina. In a 1788 publication entitled Fundación de la Real Audiencia de Cuzco (Foundation of the Royal Audience of Cuzco), the author even mentions the existence of a market for Cuzco School paintings in Italy.
Our Lady of Cocharcas
One iconic example of this new Cuzco school aesthetic is an eighteenth-century painting, Our Lady of Cocharcas, which depicts the Virgin within an elaborate canopy. The painting commemorates the inauguration of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Cocharcas in 1623. She wears a mountain-like conical dress that visually referenced the Virgin’s association with Pachamama, the Andean mother earth. The gold leaf appliqué draws the eye to the center of the composition, highlighting the Virgin’s resplendent vestments.
The artist does not attempt to model the dress’s gold and beaded ornamentation around the body; the Virgin looks stiff and flat. This does not by any means take away from the vibrancy of the composition, however. The scene teems with life, populated by hordes of pilgrims paying their respects to the Virgin. Religious and secular themes seamlessly coexist in the background, which features faithful devotees alongside playful scenes of everyday life.
Paintings of sculptures
This painting belongs to a broader genre of colonial Andean statue paintings that depict not the Virgin herself, but a representation of the statue of the Virgin that was brought to the town of Cocharcas by an indigenous man named Sebastián Quimichi. A native of Cocharcas, Quimichi embarked on a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin of Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca (which straddles the modern-day border between Peru and Bolivia) in search of a cure for his injured hand.
Moved by the healing powers of the Virgin of Copacabana, he raised funds for the construction of a copy of the Copacabana sculpture so that he could bring it back to Cocharcas to inspire devotion of her in his hometown. The painting depicts the moment in which the statue of the Virgin of Cocharcas is transferred to her newly consecrated sanctuary, celebrated by an astoundingly diverse population of pilgrims, including priests, indigenous peoples, mestizos (the child of a Spanish man and an Indigenous woman), and Afro Peruvians, both old and young, male and female.
Cuzco School paintings like Our Lady of Cocharcas introduced Andean renditions of Catholic subjects that strongly resonated with their viewers and patrons, serving as emblems of piety and local identity.
The longevity of the Cuzco School
Marcos Zapata’s Last Supper, located in the Cuzco Cathedral, speaks to the longevity of the Cuzco School style in highland Peru. Painted in 1753, the image lacks the bright color palette and gold leaf that characterized many of the earlier paintings. Nevertheless, Zapata retains a similar anecdotal rendering of illusionistic space and compositional intimacy seen in images like Our Lady of Cocharcas.
Zapata’s desire to imbue his paintings with local flavor is clearly seen in his depiction of the culinary delicacy awaiting the diners’ lips. While European artists usually depicted an empty platter at the center of the table (or at times containing the Paschal Lamb), Zapata has filled the requisite platter with a roasted vizcacha, a small rodent native to the Andes. These kinds of subtle inclusions gave Cuzco School paintings a resolute “Andeanness” that appealed to local knowledge and wedded them to the cultural contexts in which they were conceived.
Ananda Cohen-Aponte, Heaven, Hell, and Everything in Between: Murals of the Colonial Andes (University of Texas Press, 2016)
Emily A. Engel, “Visualizing a Colonial Peruvian Community in the Eighteenth-Century Paintings of Our Lady of Cocharcas.” Religion and the Arts 13, no. 3 (2009): 299–339
Carol Damian, “Artist and Patron in Colonial Cuzco: Workshops, Contracts, and a Petition for Independence.” Colonial Latin American Historical Review 4, no. 1 (1995): 25–53
José de Mesa and Teresa Gisbert, Historia de la pintura cuzqueña, 2nd ed. (Lima: Fundación Banco Wiesse, 1982)