I love churches. Can’t say I love the Church, but the buildings and their contents fascinate me. I am awed by the faith and patience in their God by the builders. We have a couple of real churches in the U.S., but nothing like what exists in Europe and what I am finding to exist throughout Latin America. You have to imagine men working on a church for their whole lives never to see it completed. I don’t have that kind of faith and patience in me. I want real results and complete results in my lifetime. I don’t need it to be the speed of McDonald’s, but three centuries to build something exceeds my limits. Yours, too, I am sure. The contents of these buildings fluctuate between the beautiful and ornate to the scary and bizarre. La Compania de Jesus in Quito is one of the greatest churches I have ever entered. On one side of the entrance is a painting depicting Final Judgement including people getting poked and burned in the rear as they are forced towards the fires of Hell. On the other side of the entrance is a painting depicting Hell itself. It includes many scenes of various sinners being tortured in ways to match their sins. For instance, the adulterer is perpetually having his groin burned by a fire-breathing dragon. Damn! That one made me hurt! The churches of the colonial period are the real art of that time. The subject matter may be a little narrow, but I still love it.
I read Paul Theroux’s “The Old Patagonia Express” and it prepared me for the Christ images I would see here in the Andes. He explained that the Incans had it so difficult in life that a spiffy image of Christ as we have in the north would do nothing to impress them. We can look at an image of a cleaned up Christ on a cross and think “my God, he sure did suffer!” Whereas an Incan would look at the same image and think about how peaceful it looks… “that Christ fellow didn’t have it too bad!” So the Church being quite clever in their ways to convert had the goriest images of Christ ordered up. This Guy is absolutely scary looking to me here in the Andes, but apparently it worked.
There are actually three flavors of Jesus images in the churches of the Andes. I will go into some of these churches in Lima today, but I am sure they follow the same pattern I have seen in Quito, Cusco and surrounding towns. Christ as Baby Jesus – He’s as pure as ivory soap. Literally, he is ultra white with nice red cheeks. A fat baby, too. A chubby little cherub. Cute as a button and all of that. Christ the Leader – He’s a very handsome and very white man. He is an absolute leader of his people with a halo over his head. He’s also very healthy looking – maybe even a little more plump than you have seen before. Christ on the Final Day – Whether he is on the cross or just bearing the cross, no one has ever had such a bad day in their life. Not an Incan and certainly no candy-ass gringo from the north. Blood pouring out of him from everywhere. It’s flowing down his face from the crown of thorns. It’s pouring out of the wound on the right side of his abdomen (by the way, for anyone expert enough in the Crucifixion, can you tell me what this wound was caused by? I have seen it depicted before, but in the Andes it is very prominent and I am not sure what caused it). And the mess caused by the nails is just undescribable. He is also no longer white and spiffy. He is browner in skin color and he is very dirty. And he lost more weight after the Last Supper than Anna Nicole lost in a lifetime. He suffered greater than any Incan could ever imagine and they could understand that He suffered for them. We get grossed out, they understand. I truly have never seen images more scary than what I see in every church here for Christ on His final day. John Carpenter and other horror flick directors could get some good ideas by touring these churches.
Speaking of the Last Supper, it is depicted everywhere and it usually has that da Vinci flare. Even the “guy” next to Jesus looks like a woman here! So, one of the most bizarre things you will ever see is a painting of the Last Supper in Cusco’s La Catedral where Jesus and the Apostles are about to dine on guinea pig (national dish known as cuy) and chicha (fermented drink made from maize or manioc/yuca). Maybe if I buy into the Mormon idea that Christ went on tour to South America after the Crucifixion, I can buy into the idea that he took the whole gang with him and they did a Last Supper encore using the local consumables of the Andes? Sure, why not…
Lest I forget Mary. We can forget Joseph - the guy makes such rare showings that there is really nothing to say about him other than has anyone ever been given as big of a shoe by History? Mary is the purest, most virginal image ever depicted in the Andes. The Incans were pure and the only way to have them worship her was to once again one up them. If Jesus was as pure as ivory, she was even more pure than the first snowflakes of the winter. Her virginity is not in doubt here. And when Mary is holding Baby Jesus, well, it just makes you want to be ill. I guess it is endearing to the Incans. They really depict some odd images here… things you wouldn’t think about normally. For instance, Jillian and I really loved the painting of Mary and Jesus where she is breast feeding Him. He looks full of her heavenly milk. Her breast is showing and two drops of her ivory nectar are falling from her nipple and appear to be running down Jesus’ cheek. What is that all about?!?!