Fresco-Seccoes as a Storytelling Tool in the Baroque Circuit

Posted by on February 6th, 2020

Fresco, commonly known in Italian Renaissance painting, is the technique of painting murals directly on freshly laid lime plaster while the plaster is still wet. The drying time of lime plaster gives an artist seven to nine hours to work, and the process of carbonatation of the lime allows the pigments to adhere to the plaster, giving this work a long lifespan. Since wet lime plaster is alkaline, some pigments, especially blues, don’t work chemically in a fresco, so the fresco-secco technique was created: painting done on dry plaster requiring a binding medium (egg, glue, oil, etc.).

When the Spanish colonized Peru in the 1530s, they brought Catholic religious indoctrination to the indigenous communities, a difficult process between the cultural and language barriers as the local people spoke Quechua. The colonists used mural painting to evangelize, as there was a long-standing tradition of muralism throughout the Andes prior to colonization by the Spanish. Throughout the next century, indigenous artists took over church mural painting from the Spanish, and murals became the artistic medium of choice in rural indigenous villages. Religious mural artists in the Andean villages were awarded more creative license and subject to less ecclesiastical scrutiny than typical imagery of religious doctrine. In order to cross the cultural barrier as well as the language barrier, murals were painted with a mixture of Andean and Spanish Catholic symbolism. Often, plentiful floral motifs or colorful repeating patterns were used to add grandeur to simple religious spaces.

Fresco-secco above the door at San Pedro Apostol de Andahuaylillas

Outside Cusco, there are three churches in the Baroque circuit with elaborate fresco-seccoes, where you can see these grandly embellished murals to this day: San Pedro Apostol de Andahuaylillas, San Juan Bautista de Huaro, and the chapel of Canincunca dedicated to the Purified Virgin.

We started our trip at San Pedro Apostol de Andahuaylillas, the “Sistine Chapel of Peru,” named for the ornate details in the coffered painted ceiling. When we stepped inside, the first thing that caught my eye was the gold foil behind the altar: grandiose gold leaf in three dimensions that covered the entire back wall of the church. Upon turning around and scanning the church entrance, the dense murals come into focus. These murals were painted to depict how a person gets to heaven, and how one ends up in hell. There were fire-breathing monsters and angels providing protection against the demons. The fresco-seccoes on the walls weave native symbols into the religious painting: local flora and fauna, and the Holy Spirit is represented by a hole in the wall that allows sunlight to shine through, as INTI, the sun god of the Inca faith, is typically represented. Though fresco-seccos don’t have the lifespan of a fresco, through the last two decades of restoration, most of the images of these unique murals are clear, bright, and well-preserved.

The Last Judgement scene at San Juan Bautista de Huaro

San Juan Bautista de Huaro was fully restored in 2008, and the fresco-seccoes of this church are more muted, pastel shades in contrast to the bright colors of San Pedro Apostol de Andahuaylillas. The wall behind the altar is still magnificent, but not quite as grandiose, or as heavily gold-foiled as the previous church. The busy murals are in shades of pink, blue, and grey, and the most striking is the Last Judgment scene over the doorway. Naked bodies clash and swirl over a red backsplash, ending up in cauldrons attended by demons. There are patches of the fresco-seccoes at San Juan Bautista de Huaro that were unable to be restored, but the white patches of plaster among the murals detract very little from the details that have been preserved.

The doorway of the Chapel of the Virgen Purificada in Canicunca

The last stop on our Baroque tour was the chapel in Canincunca. This was the smallest and most humble of the churches on this tour, lacking the extravagant gold foil behind the altar.  Instead, the decor behind the altar was bronze work around fresco-seccoes. Inside, this chapel was rosy and warm, with most of the details of the faded murals done in pinks and golds with some baby blue mixed in. The wall frescoes had an Arabic style design of repeating geometric patterns. The chapel gave the sense of being in a lush garden of Eden, with vines and blossoms interrupting the geometric patterns. The fresco-seccoes of this chapel were the least complete of the three. It was difficult to get a full picture of the painting that had once decorated the ceiling, but it is clear that the religious murals have the influence of the Andean culture in the flora on the walls and the style of the images.

The Baroque Circuit was an interesting look at the Italian technique of painting and how it was adapted to the native communities in the Peruvian Andes. If you are interested in this circuit or something similar, you can add it as an extension to one of our Peru itineraries.

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