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Archangels of the Andes

The Archangel Michael Vanquishing Satan

The Archangel Michael Vanquishing Satan

They are young, elegant, and handsome. Their wings are bi-colored, like the wings of mature condors. Yet they are all powerful and conquer their enemies with surpassing ease. They are the archangels depicted in paintings of the Cusco School of Art.

One has to imagine what it was like to be an Inca facing a compact phalanx of Spanish conquistadores mounted on horseback. At Cajamarca, many thousands were slaughtered by Pizarro and his hundred or so men. They barely even used their muskets, which were pretty useless in hand-to-hand combat in any case. No, it was Spanish steel and the strangeness of seeing warriors on horseback. Were they a single creature, man and horse? The Incas tried to kill the horses and display their corpses, thinking that now they would win with ease.

It was not to be so. The Incas were ultimately conquered, even though it took the better part of a century to complete the conquest. To the defeated, it didn’t look as if their gods were of much help to them. There must be something to this Christianity!

You can see it in the native painters’ depiction of angels, such as the one above. Michael defeats the demon without breaking a sweat or staining his doublet. He might just as easily be crocheting a doily or cleaning his nails. All throughout Peru, I saw hundreds of these archangels in the churches and archiepiscopal palaces, all with the same characteristics. The artists are usually indigenous Quechuans who painted multiple images of the same religious figures for distribution to churches all around the country.

When the Incans saw these angels, did they think of how easily they themselves were bested by the Spanish?