Cusco Cathedral & Other Churches You Need To See In Cusco's Main Square
| Cusco & Sacred Valley
Home to countless architectural relics and historical sights, the city of Cusco is teeming with attractions that offer visitors a glimpse into its rich history. Cusco’s main square, the Plaza de Armas, is the heart of it all, in both location and significance. The “square of the warrior” in the Inca era, Cusco’s Plaza de Armas has been the setting for many of the city’s most important events, and today remains the home to three of the city’s most significant churches: the Cusco Cathedral, Iglesia del Triunfo, and the Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus. Here’s a little background on these noteworthy churches in Cusco’s main square, and what visitors can expect to see upon visiting them.
A Brief History of the Churches in Cusco’s Main Square
The Church of Triumph (Iglesia del Triunfo) was the first of the churches to be built upon Cusco’s main square, with construction beginning in 1536, just three years after the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Cusco. The Jesuits built the church over Suntur Wasi, an Inca ceremonial building, armoury and heraldry center attached to the palace of Viracocha. It is the first Christian Church to have been built in all of Cusco.
The Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin (also known as Cusco Cathedral) was the second Church that the Jesuits began building in Cusco’s main square, yet it was the last to be completed. Construction of the Cusco Cathedral began in 1559, and was completed almost one hundred years later in 1654.
Like the Church of Triumph, the Cusco Cathedral was built upon the foundations of a sacred Inca site (a theme that would continue). Designed in the shape of a Latin cross, the location was chosen atop the foundations of kiswarkancha, with the purpose of removing the Inca religion from Cusco and subsequently replacing it with Spanish Catholic Christianity. Formerly, kiswarkancha acted as the Inca palace of Viracocha, the ruler of the kingdom of Cusco almost a full century before the Spanish conquistadores arrived.
Because most of Cusco’s population was still of Quechua Inca descent at the time of construction, the Spaniards used Inca labor to build the cathedral.
Shortly after, Church of the Society of Jesus (Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus) was the third church to be built in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, with construction beginning in 1576 by the Jesuits atop the foundations of Amarucancha (the palace of Inca ruler Wayna Qhapaq). Its construction quickly became the center of a heated dispute, as the Jesuits were determined to make it the most magnificent church in all of Cusco, while the archbishop of Cusco believed that it should not be allowed to compete with the cathedral as the seat of the diocese. Both parties sent letters to Pope Paul III in Rome in an appeal for their side, yet by the time his message reached South America the church was nearly complete. True to their word, the Jesuits succeeding in building one of the most ornate churches in the region.
What to Look for When Visiting the Churches
For those lucky enough to be heading to Cusco to witness the Churches of Cusco’s main square in person, here are the main highlights of what each church has to offer.
The Church of Triumph:
The name of the Church of Triumph comes from a surprising Spanish victory in a battle against the Incas, in which the Spanish managed to fight back win and just as they were on the verge of defeat. The devout Catholics believed that Saint James the Greater (the patron saint of Spain) descended from heaven to drive back the Incas. Now, you will see a statue of St. James atop a horse inside this very church, depicted slaying an Inca.
Inside you’ll also find a vault of the remains of the famous Inca chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega. De la Vega was born in Cusco in 1539 and died in Cordoba, Spain in 1616. His remains were returned to the city of Cusco in 1978 by King Juan Carlos of Spain, and can now be found here.
The Cusco Cathedral:
The Cathedral is built in Gothic-Renaissance style, with evidence of baroque influence in the façade. As you’ll recall, the Incas were enlisted to build the Cathedral for the Spanish, so you can now see much of the religious symbolism incorporated into the church, such as the head of the jaguar carved into the front doors.
The Maria Angola Bell can be found here, a bell that is 2.15 meters high and weighs about 5980 kg. It is only rung on special occasions, but it is claimed that the bell can be heard from more than 20 miles away.
Don’t miss the colonial art found here, with many work from the Cusco school that are known for their decorative combination of 17th-century European devotional painting styles, paired with the colors and iconography of indigenous Andean art. One classic example of this is the repeated portrayal of the Virgin Mary wearing a mountain-shaped skirt with a river decorating the hem, relating her to the sacred Pachamama (Mother Earth).
Make sure to catch a glimpse of The Last Supper by Quechua artist Marcos Zapata. The popular depiction of the last supper has a Cusco flair, with Andean ceremonial food replacing the more-often portrayed dishes upon the table. Look for the roast cuy (guinea pig) on the table, not unlike those you’ll be able to dine on all throughout Cusco.
Here sits the oldest surviving painting in Cusco. It depicts the city during the great earthquake of 1650, in which a precious crucifix called El Senor de los Temblores was prayed before to stop the earthquake. It miraculously did, and you can see the exact crucifix to the right of the door leading into the Church of the Triumph, or during the Holy Monday parade every year in which he travels through the city to be worshipped by the faithful.
The Church of the Society:
This church is infamous for its incredible baroque façade, notoriously rivaling the Cathedral of Cusco after a conflict over just how decadent it could be built. You’ll also find Peru’s biggest alter here, resting beneath an impressive domed ceiling.
Let a local student guide you through the church (tips appreciated), and make sure to ask to see the splendid view from the choir on the 2nd floor.
Also worth noting are two large canvases just inside the main door, which depict early marriages in Cusco. The period detail is exquisite, and the pieces are quite unique amongst the wealth of art within Cusco’s churches.
The Churches of Cusco’s main square offer visitors a glimpse into multiple centuries of Cusco’s history, from the time of the Incan temples to the colonial churches and their modern-day rituals that continue today. To visit the Cusco Cathedral, The Church of Triumph and the Church of the Society, Contact Us to book a Cusco City Tour.