Mural Painting in the Colonial Andes, 1626-1830


A review of Mural Painting and Social Change in the Colonial Andes, 1626–1830, by Ananda Cohen Suárez.

The study of painting in the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru (1542–1824) is a relatively new field, established in the early twentieth century by Peruvian and Bolivian scholars with the input of a few North Americans. The field has gained impetus in recent decades as academe, in part wishing to understand the 500-year legacy of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, has found ways to read alterity into the predominantly Christian subject matter of this art. Studies focusing on paintings in oil on canvas now abound, many giving special attention to works created by the so-called Cusco School of Painting, centered in the old Inca capital. Surviving paintings are found in museums throughout the world, many having been removed (legally or illegally) from their original display places. Since many of the painters of the Cusco School were of indigenous descent or of mixed Spanish-Andean heritage, scholars have interpreted the works’ unique presentations of Christian themes as evidence of not only an Andean adaptation of Christianity but often as outright resistance to oppressive colonial rule. However, since many of these works are now divorced from their original settings (their artists and patrons often unidentified), many questions remain as to their intended meanings.

This predicament is somewhat ameliorated in the case of painted works of another medium that are also still widely preserved: mural paintings, rendered in tempera on adobe walls. Many architectural structures, churches as well as other building types, preserve mural paintings in situ, works from the entire span of the colonial era. Amazingly, considering how literally grounded these works are in their original settings, they have received very little study. Two well-illustrated survey books in Spanish have been produced on southern Andean muralism, both by esteemed experts in the field: Pablo Macera’s La pintura mural andina siglos XVI–XIX (Lima: Editorial Milla Batres, 1993) and Jorge Flores Ochoa, Elizabeth Kuon Arce, and Roberto Samanéz Argumedo’s Pintura mural en el sur andino (Lima: Banco de Crédito del Perú, 1993). Beyond these works there is only a smattering of short essays, and virtually all of the scholarship is in Spanish. Thus enters Ananda Cohen’s dissertation, Mural Painting and Social Change in the Colonial Andes, 1626–1830, the first in-depth analysis in English of a series of southern Andean murals, viewed in their social-historical contexts.

Cohen’s project is highly ambitious in scope. It establishes the Pre-Columbian background of muralism in the Andes and explains how European influences entered the scene. Then it submits significant works in five towns east of Cusco to prolonged analysis, linking each to the concerns of its corresponding era and the individuals involved in its creation. The dates of creation span from the early 17th century, the early period of Christian evangelization, to the early 19th century, the years in which Peru gained independence from Spain. While Cohen explains how each works responds to its era, she also demonstrates that the works of the later period were in direct dialogue with their precursors. She thus suggests that an understanding of the colonial Andean mural tradition is crucial for a wider understanding of Peruvian art.

Chapter 1 establishes this tradition in terms of its time depth in the Andean past, especially by showing the importance of Inca muralism, which would have directly predated the colonial movement. Cohen explains the sources available for studying colonial murals, and outlines the working conditions and techniques of that period based on her own archival research. She then presents a clear outline of the course taken by colonial murals over time. She avoids applying European stylistic terms (such as mannerism or the commonly-used mestizo baroque), and instead explains more directly the changing iconographic and stylistic emphases.

Chapter 2 is the first case study, focusing on murals in the relatively well-known church of Andahuaylillas. This chapter presents a first instance of Cohen’s overall approach. She considers the historical situation and the building’s location, which in this case was a mission church stewarded by a Quechua-speaking priest adept at translating Christianity to Andean beliefs, Juan Pérez Bocanegra. She considers these facts within their wider historical context, which was the early heavy-handed missionary effort, focused on teaching Christian doctrine and uprooting traditional Andean beliefs and practices. Then she moves to a key painting within the mural program, which here is the large scene located inside the church’s main doorway (The Way to Heaven and Hell). She establishes the imported European print that was used as a model for the work and then considers both tiny details as well as the larger composition to outline the scene’s unique meaning. She points out significant ways in which the painted work differs from its printed source to show how the mural was tailored to its local (and architectural) context. She also explains differences that respond to other cultural sources, such as religious plays that were performed at the time and sermons directed at Andean parishioners. By subjecting the painting to careful, thoughtful analysis she demonstrates how it was a unique work that responded creatively to its historical moment.

Chapter 3 considers three pictures in three different churches that share the same theme: the Baptism of Christ. This is perhaps the most unique and surprising chapter of the dissertation, since it sheds ample light on three works that initially seem straightforwardly dogmatic. Cohen begins with the artist Luis de Riaño’s painting in oil on canvas at Andahuaylillas and then proceeds to examine the same scene, in mural form, at the churches of Urcos and Pitumarca. The Urcos mural, by the indigenous artist Diego Cusi Guaman and dating to the early seventeenth century, is shown to be not only a didactic tool for conversion but a work that responds deeply to elements of local oral history. The Pitumarca mural, published here for the first time, is shown to be an even more fascinating reformulation of canonical Christian imagery. Cohen shows based on archival research that it was created in 1777 by the painter Pablo Gamarra. The 1770s were a time in which there was a resurgence of “Inca pride” and artists were relatively free to reformulate Christian themes in Andean terms. Cohen shows that Gamarra’s mural is stylistically innovative in its abstraction, and also manages to seamlessly unite Inca and Christian origin myths.

The period of relative freedom in which Gamarra’s mural was executed was cut short due to the Túpac Amaru Rebellion of 1780–1781, after which the Spanish crown outlawed all depictions of Inca heritage and initiated a renewed atmosphere of Christian orthodoxy. Such is the setting for the mural program considered in Chapter 4, the works of the church of Huaro executed by Tadeo Escalante. In this chapter Cohen is forced to respond to a longer tradition of scholarship and attempt to arrive at a synthesis that explains the complicated mural program, heavy on obscure Christian eschatology, in terms of its historical moment. She does so admirably, showing by way of a few key scenes how Escalante was able to launch a trenchant social critique by couching it in orthodox Christian terms.

The final chapter continues with the work of Escalante to show how once freed from church dictates and those of the Spanish regime, that painter could make fascinating statements about Andean identity. Escalante executed murals in a series of mills in the town of Acomayo in the first year of Peru’s independence, 1821. While for one of the mills Escalante continued with Christian iconography, for another he revisited the “Inca pride” imagery like that seen in the Pitumarca mural, but in a much more straightforward manner. And in an enigmatic mural painted in what was actually a bakery, Escalante depicts Afro-Peruvians and seems to refer directly to the social structure, and continued oppression, of his era.

Cohen’s is a fascinating dissertation. Its wide historical scope will make an ideal monograph, while its close engagement with specific historical developments allows it to be a major advancement in the field of colonial Andean art. As Cohen notes, scholarship has long considered the effects of colonialism on Christian art of the Andes. But often this colonialism is seen as monolithic and relatively unchanging over the course of 300 years. Cohen shows that, by paying close attention to both history and artists’ potential sources (oral, written, and visual), we can much better understand the perspective from which Andean muralists worked.

Maya Stanfield-Mazzi
Assistant Professor
School of Art and Art History
University of Florida

Primary Sources

The Churches of Andahuaylillas, Urcos, Pitumarca, and Huaro in Peru
The Mills of Acomayo, Peru
Archivo del Arzobispado del Cusco, Peru
Archivo Regional del Cusco, Peru
John Carter Brown Library, Brown University

Dissertation Information

The City University of New York. 2012. 366 pp. Primary Advisor: Eloise Quiñones Keber.


Image: Photograph by Ananda Cohen Suárez.

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