Among the Ruins of Christianity

A Room in the Archbishop’s Palace in Lima, Peru

I started my travels in 1975 with an interest in ancient civilizations. Then, I found myself also visiting the ruins of a much more recent civilization—our own. It reached its apogee in Peru. I was definitely interested in the Inca, but I found the remnants of Christianity in Peru to be even more interesting. Lima in particular was a treasure house of ecclesiastical art, not only in the cathedral and the main churches, but also in the archbishop’s palace, which is just as interesting.

For some reason, I was particularly interested in the depiction of angels in the New World. These were not the hermaphroditic or epicene angels of the mother country, but images of masculine strength that obviously owed something to the images of supernatural beings among the Incas.

Image of Angel in Lima’s Cathedral

The angel in the above picture appears to be driving a spear into some unformed material, like clay. There is a look of determination on the angel’s face as well as a feeling of strength. Most of the statuary and art in the churches were actually done by Peruvians, and not transshipped from Europe.

Statue of Angel in the Museo de Las Conceptas in Cuenca, Ecuador

I saw the above statue in the Museo de Las Conceptas in a former convent in Cuenca. He is another one of those militant angels of South America, and one who is in the middle of overcoming a demon. Cuenca has two religious museums. One is the former cathedral on the main square, and the other is in the former convent.

If you find yourself visiting Latin America, you will find some interesting bits of our own history as it has been adapted and modified by the converted natives. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is among the highland Mayans of Chiapas. I don’t have any pictures for you, because I was warned against even taking my camera to Chamula. Some European tourists were killed by the Chamulas by taking photos in the church. My brother and I did see the church. There were statues of Christ, the Virgin, and various saints, but they were covered with stalks of corn. In place of pews, there was a large open space, where the Chamulas lie face down on the floor with arms outstretched, surrounded by lit candles.

As you can see, going to church is a part of my visits to Latin America.


Dürer’s Melancholia I

Albrecht Dürer’s Engraving “Melancholia I”

I have written before of my admiration for Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), probably Germany’s greatest artist. Now I am even more certain of my admiration, since I discovered that he is of Hungarian descent—his father was a goldsmith named Albrecht Ajtósi.

Slowly poring through Will Durant’s The Reformation: A History of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin 1300-1564, I hunted up Dürer’s engraving after reading what the author had to say about it:

Finally the engraving that Dürer entitled Melancholia I reveals an angel seated amid the chaos of an unfinished building, with a medley of tools and scientific instruments at her feet; a purse and keys attached to her girdle as emblems of wealth and power; her head resting pensively on one hand, her eyes gazing half in wonder, half in terror, about her. Is she asking to what end all this labor, this building and demolition and building, this pursuit of wealth and power and the mirage called truth, this glory of science and Babel of intellect vainly fighting inevitable death? Can it be that Dürer, at the very outset of the modern age, understood the problem faced by triumphant science, of progressive means abused by unchanging ends?

It is by far the greatest work of art on the theme of being stumped. I find it interesting that the angel is female, no doubt wondering what men have come up with this time.




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?