- Weaving and Tailoring the Andean Church:Textile Ornaments and Their Makers in Colonial Peru
The first Christian churches were built in the Andes soon after Spaniards arrived. Initially simple structures, they were later remodeled into large stone monuments. Aside from their architectural construction, the furnishing and decoration of these churches was an ongoing project that involved many participants, often under the watchful eye of a parish priest. Art historians have uncovered fascinating cases in which native artists exercised agency in creating works to be displayed in church interiors, many of which expressed Andean as well as Christian beliefs.1 This scholarship has focused primarily on the art forms of painting and sculpture, which were very visible within the church, especially in cases such as the baptism murals discussed by Ananda Cohen Suarez in this issue. An underappreciated yet equally notable aspect of church decoration was textiles. Throughout the colonial period churches were abundantly adorned with “church clothing,” textile ornaments meant to cover floors, walls, and altars as well as clothe church functionaries and religious statuary. The purchase and maintenance of church textiles consumed the lion’s share of annual church budgets.
While Spanish priests preferred to obtain ornaments made of imported European silks and brocades, they also hired local textile makers to create [End Page 77] church clothing. Furthermore, when they did purchase imported cloth they commissioned local artisans to tailor the materials into objects that would fit their churches and, if vestments, their bodies. We thus find evidence, beginning in the early colonial period and extending through to the post-Independence period, of the sustained participation of Andean textile artisans in the creation of the visual culture of the colonial Andean church. Considering their adaptation and use of imported forms and materials, these artisans emerge as important mediators between ancestral Andean textile traditions and those promoted by the Catholic Church. This mediation, expressed in their finished cloths, grew out of artisans’ cooperation with priests, native church officials, and native as well as Spanish patrons.
Many paintings from the colonial period survive in Andean churches and are readily viewable in museums. In contrast, textile works from the same period are much less well preserved and are very rarely still on display in churches. These factors have probably contributed to their underestimation today. It is for this reason that we will look first to a painted representation of an Andean church interior in order to appreciate the range of textiles employed in such buildings. I will reference documentary examples that support the painting’s details and highlight the various possibilities for the contribution of Andean artisans. We will subsequently turn to rare surviving examples of church textiles, and further documentary references, to concretize our observations. The textiles I will discuss correspond to three main periods: the years after the conquest but before 1577, from 1578 to 1700, and (roughly) from 1700 to 1900.
In this essay I argue that, by adapting European norms and styles to their ancestral materials and techniques and creating a rich variety of textiles that were displayed in Andean churches, indigenous actors participated in the Church at a level that has so far gone unnoticed. Although they created textile pieces primarily in response to priestly requests, they also created them in the name of confraternities and secular donors. They likely worked closely with native church sacristans and mayordomos (church stewards) when executing and finishing their pieces.2 While obligated to conform to priestly oversight, Andean artisans became active mediators in the cultural exchange that the creation and maintenance of the Andean Church entailed. Their participation should be accounted for when considering the depth to which Catholic culture [End Page 78] transformed the Andean region. It also serves as a rich example of the ways in which Christianity was, through Andean adaptation and creativity, transformed in the New World.
Church Interiors and “Church Clothing”
A painting likely created in the workshops of eighteenth-century Cusco provides a credible example of the ways in which church textiles were employed in the Andes. As detailed in its lengthy inscription in Spanish, the work refers to a series of miracles believed to have...