The wealthy land of Peru became a major Spanish colony in the 16th century, and it was from here that Christianity spread out along the western coasts of South America. As such it boasts some of the oldest, largest and most beautiful churches and cathedrals on the continent. The Cathedral of Lima notwithstanding, the churches lining the Plaza des Armas in the mountain city of Cuzco are, simply put, the most spectacular collections of Christian sites in one place in Latin America. Two immense churches, the Cathedral of Santo Domingo and the Jesuit Church of La Comania, flank two sides of the great square, while a third, the Church of the Triumph, adjoins the former. This trio of Christian sites draws many pilgrims to the city every year. The Churches of the Plaza des Armas are part of the City of Cuzco UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The story of the early churches of Cuzco is remarkably similar to that of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City. Cuzco was the capital of the expansive Incan Empire which sprawled over much of the Andean Mountains of western South America. It was discovered by Spanish conquistadors a little more than a decade after the Aztec Empire in Mexico was destroyed. The Spanish, under the leadership of Francisco Pizarro, followed in the footsteps of Cortez in Mexico. In no time flat the Incan Empire was laid waste, and many of its greatest monuments torn down. One of the first tasks of the conquerors was the construction of churches over the Incan ruins.
The first church to be built was the Church of the Triumph, constructed on the site where a small garrison of Spanish Conquistadors held off a vastly superior army of Incan warriors during their conquest of the area. It was the first major church to be constructed in the Peru. By the time of its completion in the mid-16th century, the Catholic population of the city had already grown so large that plans were soon made for the construction of a massive cathedral which would be built adjoining the earlier church.
Around the same time, a group of Jesuit priests who had settled in Cuzco in the years after the conquest began to draw up plans for their own church, to be located nearby the city’s cathedral on the Plaza des Armas. In their eagerness they designed a church that rivaled the cathedral in size and magnificence. This did not sit well with the city’s bishop. Nevertheless construction on both edifices proceeded apace in one of the greatest church-construction rivalries in history. In an effort to forestall the Jesuits, the bishop appealed to the Vatican to intervene. But it took so long for the message to reach the Pope, for the Pope to make a ruling and for that ruling to be returned to Peru that the exterior of the Jesuit church was all-but-completed before it could be stopped.
It might be wondered how two such immense cathedrals could be built so close to each other in so short a time. Both structures were substantially completed, sans interiors, by the end of the 16th century. The answer was easy access to an enormous quantity of pre-quarried stone taken from the old Incan city. So plentiful were the enormous stones of the Incan ruins that many survived even after the trio of churches and numerous other building projects were completed. There is no question that the Incan ruins are Cuzco’s top draw, but few tourists pass through without a visit to the city’s magnificent cathedrals, which are now a revered part of Peru’s colonial Christian heritage.
The Cathedral of Santo Domingo is one of the most intact examples of early Spanish Colonial church architecture. Though it has undergone periodic renovation, the bulk of the cathedral is the original construction and dates from the 16th and early 17th centuries. The exterior is a blend of several architectural styles, including a bit of both Gothic and Baroque, whose dominant feature is a broad façade flanked by a pair of bell towers. The cathedral’s interior is home to a great wealth of art and artifacts, including a giant altar made from solid silver, possibly the most expensive such church fixture in the world from a materials standpoint. The cathedral also doubles as an art museum, and is home to the city’s largest collection of art from the Spanish colonial era.
The Jesuit Church of the Companions of Jesus, while a bit smaller than its neighbor on the Plaza des Armas, is perhaps even more architecturally impressive. Also built in Spanish colonial style, the exterior boasts even more intricate stonework than the cathedral as well as a magnificent dome, outdoing its rival on both counts. However, while the interior of the Jesuit Church enjoys exquisite decoration and finishing, it lacks the enormous collection of art and artifacts enjoyed by the cathedral.
The Cathedral of Santo Domingo and the Church of the Companions of Jesus flank the northeastern and southeastern sides of the Plaza des Armas, respectively. The plaza itself stands at the heart of Cuzco, close to all of the city’s major attractions, and is a short walk from the Incan ruins of Sachsaywaman. The cathedral is open Mondays through Saturdays from 10am-5:30pm (closed Thursday mornings; closed for lunch 11:30am-2pm). The church is open Mondays through Saturdays from 11am-4pm (closed for lunch noon-3pm). There is no charge for admission at either location. Web: www.peru.info (official tourism website of Peru)
The city of Cuzco is a veritable sea of Christian churches and religious sites, a legacy of the days when the Spanish were going hog-wild with the endless quantities of free building materials courtesy of the Incas. In addition to the three churches of the Plaza des Armas, there are also several early convents: the Convent of Santo Domingo and the Convent of Santa Catalina. For those who still haven’t had there fill, there is also the city’s Museum of Religious Art.