Thursday, December 4, 2008

The art of Colca Valley

by Francisco Stastny

Whoever visits the Colca valley for the first time finds a natural spectacle of unusual beauty which tends to lie continually renewed. From the moment when the road begins its descent from the high country around Chivay, what is going to be a permanent feast for the eyes comes into view: the snow capped peaks, the deep gorge where the river runs, the cultivated fields of changing colors, and the regular outline of the villages dotting both sides of the ravine. The image is fascinating and the visitor soon perceives that the animation of this panorama is found in something more than the simple beauty of the natural setting. It is the human presence and its close link with the geographical ambiance which produces the feeling of exaltation. It is a landscape transformed by the creativity of the Collaguas, people who have shaped it through the centuries with their architecture, their agricultural terraces and their very presence. Wherever one looks the extensive skirts of the mountains have been worked into a system of terraces designed with a wise mixture of geometry and art which has tamed the landscape. There are few places like this valley. Here one can see with great clarity that the ancient Peruvians' knowledge of topography allowed them to design their agricultural terraces with an elegance which reveals an evident aesthetic and landscaping intention. The play of volumes and undulating outlines of the zone around Tres Lagunas, for example, or of the diverse amphitheatres of terraces, are models of monumental architectural design which combine the beauty of a park with the utility of an agricultural field in an association characteristic of Incan art.
The polichrome figures of the peasants dressed in their bright clothes dot the fields, roads and villages wherever you look. In their design and the elements which compose them these costumes have much in common with Spanish fashion of centuries past. The skirt caught up in the belt brings to mind the saints of Zurbarán who make the same gesture in order to carry in the "pocket" thus formed a bunch of flowers or some other tribute of their sanctity. But the many-colored design of the embroidery which covers the cuffs, bib and border of the jubón (jacket) is an inheritance from the mestiza morphology of the art of America. And the fact that these embroideries are applied with sewing machines certainly gives the lie to those who despair of viable creative solutions coming from the encounter of traditional Andean culture with western technology.
Impressive stone structures complement the images of the Colcan landscape with a monumental dimension. The imposing structures of the parish churches rise up in the plazas in striking contrast with the smallness and modesty of the streets laid out around them. As in medieval Europe, one sees here the centuries of effort made by agricultural communities, who poured the majority of their energy and their labor into raising a tribute to their beliefs. Dedicated to exalting the official religion, these works bring together the aspirations of the whole population, channeled and directed by the "curacas" of both factions of the village, "hanansaya" and "hurinsaya", who guided them in collaboration with the priests.
Some of these churches are examples of exceptional architectural quality which show in their structure the fascinating relationship of this strategic inter-Andean valley with the two great focal points of artistic expansion which are found to the south and the north: Arequipa and Cusco.
The great church at Yanque is directly related to the first. It was the main Franciscan missionary center in the valley. The harmony of its vigorous towers and the rich ornamentation of its reliefs make this church one of the most important monuments in the early mestizo style. Constructed as it stands today in 1691-98, by builders and stone cutters brought from Arequipa and headed by Master Ignacio de Aldana, it is contemporary with one of the first notable works in this style, the church of La Compañia de Arequipa. Its manner of ornamenting in relief, nonetheless, is completely different. It represents a parallel experiment rather than a derivation from the southern example.
In the church of La Compania we find rhythm and formal concentration accentuated by the architectural members and deep carving which hides the background to play with the density of shadows. The church in Yanque is quite the opposite: a subtle, airy design, shallowly carved, which climbs the facade of the church without covering.the plane of the wall and almost without interfering with the architectural rhythm. The main portal represents Saint Francis of Assisi surrounded by saints of his order and Dominicans, each one in an oval shield which emerges like a flower from the undulating stems which surround them.
On the side wall, on the other hand, the architectural grammar has been respected more. An exterior arch spans two vigorous buttresses with a design, even more tenuous than the former, which depicts the figure of the "Virgen Inmaculada" below a tympanum and flanked by a foliage design, in which the mysterious motif of the sirens appears.
Many other churches of the valley are worth seeing. Perhaps the most important after that of Yanque, although somewhat off the beaten track, is the church of Tisco, which combines in one harmonic and original conception some of the most beautiful features of both artistic centers. From Cusco comes the great oval window in the main facade and the design of the towers; from Arequipa, the relief treatment of the notable 18th century lateral borders which enclose the portal.
The church of Lari, at the other end of the valley, is the most grandiose structure of the whole region. A true antiseismic bastion reinforced with solid, vertical profile buttrusses strengthens the Latin cross design and allows the roundness of the only raised cupola in the Colca Valley to stand out.
No less fascinating are churches like that of Cabanaconde which, although late (reconstructed after the earthquake of 1784), offers beautiful stone carving which combines neoclassic themes with solutions of light fantasy and popular taste in the handling of the architectural grammar, both on the exterior and in the retables. Or like Coporaque and Madrigal, the two churches which conserve in their elongated plan and their classic, entablatured portals, decorated with cherubs and large rosettes, a clear link with the earliest 16th century structures in the region. In Coporaque, facing the side portal (and almost hidden by a bull ring constructed in the atrium), we find one of the purest late renaissance (c. 1565) facades preserved in Peru, that of the chapel of San Sebastian, in itself worth a visit to the Colca Valley.
Whoever takes the time to walk through some of the villages will have the surprise of finding remarkable examples of large residencial houses built in stone. The great two storey mansions in ruins near the church of Yanque, which are dotted with carved reliefs of vizcachas, speak of the splendor of past times. And so speaks the structure on the heights of Cabanaconde, with oval windows and ornamentation of small stones; and the numerous portals with carved lintels in Achoma which represent the allegory of Liberty and the oriental lion with a flower (facing the main door of the church), and the heraldic eagles and other themes in the street which leaves the plaza and heads toward the road to Maca; or the Incan house of Lari beyond the plaza on the side opposite the parish.
The church of Maca is one of the most original of the region. The work of Simón Soto in 1812-13, it shows a notable if late development of the theme of the open chapel in the form of a balcony in the facade. These openings to the exterior in the churches of Southern Peru are interpreted as places of worship or to exhibit relics to a native population which follows the mass from the atrium. These structures are often found in combination, in the Colca, with apsidal bays which serve the same function. But the most interesting aspect of the church of Maca lies in its interior decoration which still preserves the complete set of golden retables from the 18th century. Saints, mirrors and some paintings of the Virgen and the Church Doctors alternate in the wood carvings. The ecclesiastical interiors of the Valley were like this before the 19th century, when the use of stone and stucco structures came into vogue. These later materials have also been used to construct notable buildings which stand out for the gaiety of their decorative motifs. Some, like those of Ichupampa, combine gold leaf finishing with lateral borders in vigorous relief which derive from the Arequipan tradition. In Yanque, the series of retables designed in stucco by the architect Rafael Paulete, who was brought from Arequipa for the work, stand out for their serenity.
The most abundant artistic form is that of three dimensional sculpture. It is this technic which gives us some of the oldest and most important examples of colonial art in the Collaguas region. Due to a lack of wood, as in most of the regions of the sierra, the sculptors were obliged to look for alternative methods to that of carving in cedar. Thus modeling in maguey, plaster (stucco) and glued cloth developed, which permitted the almost perfect miming of the traditional system. In the 18th century, glass for the eyes, wigs of human hair, natural teeth and nails, or marble ones, and sewn clothes instead of the modeled drapery, were added. All of these materials contributed to the collective search for a mystic illusion which attempted to supplant reality on its own ground.
As might be expected, some of the most remarkable examples of the primitive sculpture of the Colca Valley are to be found in Coporaque. The great piece in relief of the Coronation of the Virgen is there, and some isolated pieces such as the San Francisco (which is missing the face) and a San Antonio, all with remarkable ornamentation work on the cloaks. Other works from this early period and from the beginning of the 17th century are found in Maca ("Crucifijo'; `Inmaculada'), in Callalli (San Antonio, dated 1566 or 1588) and Tuti.
The most oustanding piece of the following period is the "Virgen Inmaculada" of the great altar at Lari. It is difficult to see because of the height at which it is placed and because it has been mutilated. But it is the only sculpture in the Colca Valley which is clearly from the school of the sculptor Martínez de Montañés of Seville.
In general very few examples from the second half of the 17th century have been preserved. Works from the two following centuries, on the other hand, are abundant. Those of the beginning of the 18th century show all the richness of texture and undulating forms of the baroque, and a little later we find the whole range of realistic technics cited above. There is a "Virgen Dolorosa" in Maca worth mentioning for its intense expression and the hands; in Cabanaconde an excellent Coronation of the Virgen made up of three figures in high relief; and in Lari and Ichupampa two Santa Rosas (the second with an anchor) of special grace and rich ornamentation.
With the beginning of the 19th century the first names of sculptors begin to appear in the documents of the Valley. Thus we know of the intense activity of a Diego Gómez, an Andrés Espinoza from Arequipa and the Heredia family. The best place to admire the works of this period is the church of Yanque. Because of afire in 1802, almost all of the images in this church are posterior to that date. They were sculpted by Diego Gómez and Matfas Heredia. Among them, the beautiful archangel Michael, with flying drapery, the Saint Paul, the Virgen of the Nativity and many others.
The visitor of today normally finds whitened walls in the virreinal churches. This was not the normal situation before 1820-50, but rather the opposite. The first churches of the 16th century were primarily decorated with murals which were easier to apply than great carved ornaments. This custom continued as a compliment to the retables and sculpture throughout the colonial period. The imposition of neoclassical taste and the rationalist reaction of the 19th century made white walls the vogue and the baroque colors were hidden.
Many churches in the Colca Valley demonstrate this situation. It is enough to enter the church at Chivay to appreciate how the whole nave was covered with a gay, painted decoration before being plastered over in white. The baptistery preserves a remarkable group of older murals (17th and 18th centuries) which represent the Baptism of Christ and a group of Apostles. Others even older are found in Coporaque and Achoma. In Maca and Lari we can admire gay compositions of flowers and birds in the main arches, as well as the Thurible mural which decorates the presbitery of the latter.
In villages such as Maca and Sibayo the presbitery has been decorated with large canvases set in golden frames exuberantly carved. Although the influence of Cusco was dominant in painting on canvas in the southern part of Peru, and in the Colca we find works which demonstrate this origin, there are also other examples which proceed from diverse sources. Such is the series at Sibayo, which may derive from wandering artists or the activity of painters and painter-sculptors such as Manuel Cervantes or the Heredia family, residents in the region. The most remarkable examples of painting on canvas of large dimension are the two sets which are preserved in the transepts of Cabanaconde and Lari. In this last church the monumental compositions contain valuable documental testimonies which reveal to the modern spectator the ethnic aspect, the physiognomy of the features and the appearance of the clothing of the people who inhabited Lari at the end of the 18th century. Grouped as donators kneeling at the foot of the ritual representation of the mass, the important citizens of the time appear on the right and the left of the central composition, integrating, no doubt, the two traditional moities of the Andean communities, the "hanansaya"and "hurinsaya". The absence of embroidery on the clothes of the women confirms that this ornamentation is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of the Colcan costume.
Caylloma was a rich mining zone where silver was abundant between 1629 and the end of the 18th century. It is not strange then, that the churches might have had rich ecclesiatical outfits of precious metal. Today not many vestiges of those ancient splendors remain, but in more than one parish one can admire tiles and isolated ornaments which give some idea of what the interiors were like in the flourishing epochs. Such is the case with Chivay, Maca and Callalli. And in Cabanaconde. a beautiful ciborium still exists on the high altar decorated in relief with neoclassic loops and the eucharistic vine.
From the beginning of the 18th century the names of goldsmiths have figured in the documents. Jose Lizarraga, citizen of Chivay, lived there in 1709. Originally from Arequipa, Bernardo Figueroa went to Yanque and was active there at the end of the century. And families of silversmiths suchs as the Cusihuamans and the Pazs worked in the area all during the 19th century.
In the Colca Valley, as in the whole Andean region of Peru, the tradition of textil manufacture always held a very high place in the artisan world. This ability originated in remote prehispanic times when cloth was the most important artistic and symbolic expression of the society. They continued to weave during the Viceroyalty and also during the Republic. Many of these carpets, tapestries, ornaments and clothes have been destroyed by use or have been taken from the valley. But in more than one presbitery we can still find the remains of colored carpets of very large dimensions (sometimes very deteriorated) which formerly decorated them with splendor. We find them from the 18th century on in villages such as Maca, Chivay, Lari, Tuti and Canocota, where we can still recognize the traditional design of the two headed eagle of the Habsburgs, woven at a time when that dynasty had already abandoned the royal throne of Spain.
With the advent of the Republic and the transformation of the social system, the habits of the population with respect to artistic creation also changed. The system of caciqueship disappeared, and as a consequence the artistic patronage channeled through the "curacas". This meant the end of colonial religious art. But in exchange it opened the way to the direct plastic expression of the popular classes. Works of art continued to be offered to the church and to the saints who protected the pastoral and agricultural life, but they expressed more and more clearly the world of the beliefs and stereotyped forms of their new patrons.
Thus from this time date the retables with paintings of popular expression, such as at Pinchollo and Callalli, and many other creations which reveal the liberation of a new sensibility, such as the painted door of the baptistery at Pinchollo, the great flowers of which seem taken from an Ayacuchan retable.
Carpets, chasubles and brocade ornaments of a new design, incised and embossed tin work, which replaced the old works of the goldsmiths, images of "San Isidro Labrador" with his yoked oxen, torches and wood carvings with a strange, mysterious look, and articles of domestic-ritual use, such as ceramics and "queros" (a kind of wooden ceremonial vase) invade the artistic ambiance of the 19th century. Finally, at the beginning of our century, the arrival of the sewing machine renewed the aesthetic and social expression of women's clothing. Thus with the aid of a modern implement, the people of the region returned to the most ancient Andean traditions which considered clothing the work of art par excellence, as the immortal embroideries of Paracas and the exceptional cloth of the Tiahuanaco culture reveal.
Note: The data presented in this work result from research conducted in the Colca Valley by the author in collaboration with Dr. Alejandro Malaga and the PROBAC team of the National Universities of San Marcos and San Agustin. This project was under the auspices of the Bishop of Arequipa and the Ford Foundation.
As far as the history of the architecture is concerned, some of the documentary information has been taken from an excellent book of recent publication: R. Gutiérrez, C. Esteras and A. Malaga: The Colca Valley: Five Centuries of Architecture and Urbanism. Buenos Aires, 1986.

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