A squatter on the site of Viracocha Inca’s palace, the cathedral was built using blocks pilfered from the nearby Inca site of Sacsaywamán. Its construction started in 1559 and took almost a century. It is joined by the 1536 Iglesia del Triunfo to its right and the 1733 Iglesia de Jesús María to the left.
The cathedral is one of the city’s greatest repositories of colonial art, especially for works from the escuela cuzqueña (Cuzco school), noted for its decorative combination of 17th-century European devotional painting styles with the color palette and iconography of indigenous Andean artists. A classic example is the frequent portrayal of the Virgin Mary wearing a mountain-shaped skirt with a river running around its hem, identifying her with Pachamama (Mother Earth).
One of the most famous paintings of the escuela cuzqueña is The Last Supper by Quechua artist Marcos Zapata. Found in the northeast corner of the cathedral, it depicts one of the most solemn occasions in the Christian faith, but graces it with a small feast of Andean ceremonial food; look for the plump and juicy-looking roast cuy (guinea pig) stealing the show with its feet held plaintively in the air.
Also look for the oldest surviving painting in Cuzco, showing the entire city during the great earthquake of 1650. The inhabitants can be seen parading around the plaza with a crucifix, praying for the earthquake to stop, which it miraculously did. This precious crucifix, called El Señor de los Temblores (The Lord of the Earthquakes), can still be seen in the alcove to the right of the door leading into El Triunfo. Every year on Holy Monday, the Señor is taken out on parade and devotees throw ñucchu flowers at him – these resemble droplets of blood and represent the wounds of crucifixion. The flowers leave a sticky residue that collects smoke from votive candles lit beneath the statue: this is why he’s now black. Legend has it that under his skirt, he’s lily white.
The sacristy of the cathedral is covered with paintings of Cuzco’s bishops, starting with Vicente de Valverde, the friar who accompanied Pizarro during the conquest. The crucifixion at the back of the sacristy is attributed to the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, though some guides claim it to be the work of the 17th-century Spaniard Alonso Cano. The original wooden altar is at the very back of the cathedral, behind the present silver altar, and opposite both is the magnificently carved choir, dating from the 17th century. There are also many glitzy silver and gold side chapels with elaborate platforms and altars that contrast with the austerity of the cathedral’s stonework.
The huge main doors of the cathedral are open to genuine worshippers between 6am and 10am. Religious festivals are a superb time to see the cathedral. During the feast of Corpus Christi, for example, it is filled with pedestals supporting larger-than-life statues of saints, surrounded by thousands of candles and bands of musicians honoring them with mournful Andean tunes.