“Clash of Culture” hardly does justice to what happened when the Spanish showed up in South America with Salvation (and vast treasure) on their minds. Every time these histories were recounted during our visit to Peru, I kept thinking back to being a kid in Klamath Falls, Oregon and watching the devastation of the tribes and the tribal lands there. I never really understood what was going on at the time, but it was still actively being pursued in the 1950s and 1960s–although Americans prefer to not discuss it. I think one major difference between our interactions with the Native Americans (especially on the West Coast) and the Spanish interactions with the Incas several hundred years earlier was that our diseases did a more thorough job of wiping out the populations, thus there were fewer folks left to offer any resistance. The Spanish brought disease, too of course, but somehow there were more folks left who needed saving, and the Spanish Catholics were ready for the challenge.
Building cathedrals and monasteries on top of Inca temples just seems to me like adding insult to injury, but apparently this was just part of the Spanish plan. Using tricks like stagecraft mirrors scattered throughout the cathedrals, they attemped to persuade the “primitive” Inca people that here in the new church they could see their own souls, way cooler than the Sun God ever showed them their souls in the old shrines. Every effort was made for several centuries to make True Believers out of them, and erase the influence of their previous religion. The results are fascinating. The main cathedral on the square is a good example, covered inside in gaudy re-purposed gold and silver from the original temple. There is no stained glass like the European cathedrals, but there are lots and lots of mirrors, and platforms for saints surrounded by wood carvings painted in colors not found in nature (the platforms are also used to parade sculptures and paintings of the saints around town during festivals, just like the Incas used to do with their mummies…hmm.) The cathedral walls are covered with the requisite dark and bloody medieval paintings of religious subjects, with a couple of unique twists. One was the painting of the Last Supper, a Cusco-styled replica of the old classic with blue-eyed blond Jesus and disciples but with a roast guinea pig and local fruits in the center of the table, and Pisaro posing as a very dark Judas … at least, that’s one interpretation that takes very little imagination to see. Even more remarkable to me, in a very dark corner at the back of the main chapel, there is a simple sculpted stone, roped off by dusty old velvet cords. A security guard was sitting on a nearby bench when Corey pointed it out to us, but when we approached, he quickly went away. Corey called the stone the “sugar loaf”, something she picked up from a tour with her history teacher during her first visit to the cathedral while she was studying with Pro World Peru. She said it was the only remaining artifact from the original Inca temple. Apparently not too long ago, the church officials had tried to relocate the stone and remove it from the cathedral, but loud local protests prevented it. So now there it sits in its dark corner, scrupuloulsy avoided by most tour groups, with coca leaf offerings strewn on the floor around it, a symbol of enduring tradition and belief, against huge odds.
And continuing in the spirit of mixing a dark medieval Catholic heritage with a sun-worshipping primitive culture, our hotel breakfast room was adorned by a series of vivid paintings of various saints and Madonnas in elegant carved gilt frames, all with gleaming patterns of gold paint at every point of their huge haloes and pretty gold swirls at every possible spot on their garments – they looked like somebody went crazy with the gold puffy paint from the craft store! I sketched my two favorites, one with an eye-roll to Heaven that puts any teenager to shame. The really striking thing about the paintings was that in the morning light, they were eerily reflected on the glass doors, through which you could clearly see the original Inca stonework of the entry hall… it’s hard to erase or outshine history.