Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Tale Of Two Religions

By Alli Sinclair

One of the most wonderful things about living in a culture different to your own is the opportunity to have new experiences every day. When I lived in Peru, the similarities we shared surprised me and many, many times the differences had me entranced. What I loved most, though, was the Peruvians ability to hold on to their Incan beliefs and blend it with the influences of the Spanish, creating a fascinating, ever-evolving culture.

The main cathedral in Cuzco, Peru, is a classic example. Situated on Plaza Independencia, the main plaza in Cuzco, this impressive structure houses the beliefs of two religions, albeit in a dramatic fashion.

Forming an annexe to the cathedral is the Iglesia de Triunfo, built on the foundations of Wiracocha, an Incan palace. During construction of the church that started in 1559, stones from Sacsayhuamán, an Incan fortress just outside Cuzco, were used—stones that had been painstakingly cut and placed in fortress walls made without mortar.

In 1654, the church was finally finished, despite weathering a devastating earthquake in 1650 that damaged or destroyed many other churches and Incan sites in the region. Within the walls of the church are examples of the Cusqueña School of Painting, including a painting of the last supper by artist Marcos Zapata.

What a brave man Marcos Zapata must have been to create the painting he did in 1753. If you take a close look, you’ll find the centrepiece of the supper is cuy, a guinea pig popular amongst Peruvians, even today. The little rodent is eaten during many religious celebrations and I have more than one story to tell about this, but I’ll leave that for one of our “foodie” posts.

Not only is cuy present but if you study hard you’ll see there are two platters of foods popular with the Incas, including purple, red, tan, and yellow potatoes, peppers, and corn. And what would a religious painting be without controversy? The cloudy, yellow-coloured liquid in the foreground is rumoured to be chicha, an alcoholic drink the Incas make out of maize and spit (yes, we need a post on this one, too!).

Local guides at the church are keen to point out that Judas, seated to the right of Christ, is clutching a moneybag beneath the table and appears to look directly at the viewer of the painting. For generations, locals have said the image of Judas in this painting bears strong resemblance to Francisco Pizarro, the Spaniard responsible for capturing and murdering the Inca Emperor Atahualpa.

When I first visited the church, a guide told me the Incas that had been “recruited” for the construction and had inserted a stone from one of their sacred sites. This way, when the Incas attended church under orders from the Spaniards, they could brush their fingers on the sacred stone near the entrance of the church as a way to ask forgiveness from their gods for entering the Catholic church.

Carved on the wooden doors of the church are pumas, the Incan symbol for the earth, yet another indication of the Incan influence on this Catholic church.

Even though Catholicism is popular throughout South America, there are many references to local beliefs and cultures influencing “imported” religions, such as Catholicism and Protestantism. I love how people have put their own spin on religion, sometimes melding the two effortlessly. Of course, many battles were fought when the Spanish arrived in South America, and this adaption of Catholicism wasn’t without suffering, but today, the people appear to have found a way to balance their beliefs and ancestry.


  1. Lovely post, Alli. I am an aficionada of Last Supper paintings (and other artwork). I really love how the food in this one blends Spanish and Incan traditions. In many Last Supper paintings, Judas is clutching a money bag, but I've never seen him looking directly at the viewer. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Alli. I love the detail about the stone the Incas could touch to apologize to their old gods. I wonder how many other stories like that are built into the stones of buildings everywhere?

  3. Thanks Patricia! It's pretty amazing what this artist did. I wonder how it was received by the Spaniards. And yes, Judas looking directly at the viewer is interesting (and a tad disconcerting!).

    Beth, thanks! I really love that story, too. I first heard about and saw it in 1996 and it's stuck with me ever since. I would imagine there are many stones we don't know about in Latin America that serve the same purpose.

  4. Having had guinea pigs as pets I was horrified to learn that they were considered a delicacy in Peru....but then we eat lizards here so....

    It always fascinating how the native peoples of the Americas adapted/dealt with the Spaniards and Europeans. I like that they kept part of the old to create the new.

  5. Love this! The melding of cultural traditions, as you can probably tell, is one of my favorite topics. Judas seems to looking directly at you, Alli. I think he's saying don't do the rodent and spit posts during our food and beverage topics. ;)

  6. Hi geets! You eat lizards in Trinidad? For special occasions or just because? Yes, it is nice how the old can blend with the new.

    Supriya, ha! I think you're right!