Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
The Inca Empire, more properly called Tawantinsuyu, had today’s Cusco, Peru as its capital. Designed in the shape of a puma, it stood at the center of the ancient road system known as Qhapaq Nan that connected the whole empire from Chile to Ecuador. After the Conquistadors came, Cusco became the first center in the Americas that taught European painting techniques to native and mestizo artists. In the end it gave birth to a new school of remarkable hybrid religious art that sought to combine, or code-switch between, the Catholic teachings of the missionaries and traditional Incan beliefs.
The missionaries wanted these paintings for didactic purposes, to express Christian doctrines to a native population that mostly could not understand sermons. To make these images acceptable to the native Quechuas, the artists incorporated many ideas already familiar to them.
The figures of warrior angels, for example, became extremely popular because they recalled winged deities in traditional Incan religion. Walking around Cusco even today, you can immediately see this artistic legacy. Seemingly every other storefront has a painting of a Michael or a Gabriel or some other angel on the wall. And they are often depicted in a manner distinct to Cusco, for example as Spanish gentlemen bearing muskets, like in this depiction of Uriel, the guardian of the sun (the sun, Inti, being incidentally a chief god of the Incas).
As for that indispensable motif of Catholic art, the Virgin Mary, Cusqueña artists developed a distinctive way of portraying her (and sometimes baby Jesus as well) as a triangular form meant to resemble a mountain, a traditional object of veneration. This 18th century “Our Lady of Bethlehem” is a good example.
This convention of representing Mary fascinates me, perhaps more than is justified and presumably more than you can see why off the top of your head.
Let me explain. The veneration of mountains was not surprisingly common in pre-Columbian South America, given the abundance of volcanoes. But it was not distinct to South America. Actually it was a worldwide phenomenon. Humanity’s first religious instincts were always nature-inspired, and the pyramidal shape of mountains was always the first model of temple architecture.
That very word, “pyramidal,” captures the resemblance that Egyptian pyramids bear to mountains. But the same was true of Babylonians, the Mayans, and many others.
Indeed, Western civilization, which is to say the tug-of-war between Athens and Jerusalem, has been the innovation that is the exception. Christianity placed man at the center of religious experience. But long before that, the Greeks through their temple architecture had expressed a similar view. Greek temples were the first in the world to take on a rectangular shape, jarring against the craggy mountain slopes against which they were set, a demonstration of human mathematics that defined man as in opposition with nature rather than appealing to it. And in these jewel boxes of temples, there was invariably an anthropomorphic god, say Athena in the Parthenon. And she was not the goddess of some force of nature like a mountain or a river; she was the goddess of wisdom, a human quality if only defined by its potential yet absence.
By reincorporating the mountain form into the image of Mary, Cusqueña artists therefore in a sense reversed over two thousand years of Western culture. The Mother of God was once again a pagan mother goddess of the earth.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."