Peru’s "Sistine Chapel" shines again
San Pedro Apóstol de Andahuaylillas, on the Andean Baroque route, has undergone a four-year, $1.5m restoration
By Emily Sharpe. Conservation, Issue 238, September 2012
Published online: 30 October 2012
In a remote Peruvian village, 3,100m up in the Andes (700m higher than Machu Picchu), sits South America’s version of the Sistine Chapel.
An elaborate Mudéjar-style ceiling and a complex scheme of murals have earned the Baroque church of San Pedro Apóstol de Andahuaylillas, located 41km west of the colonial city of Cusco, its exalted nickname. But centuries of grime, bat droppings, earthquakes and dodgy restorations have dulled the original beauty of the church. The World Monuments Fund has worked with regional and national bodies to return San Pedro Apóstol to its former splendour and draw attention to other churches on the Andean Baroque route. The organisation plans to mark the completion of the four-year, $1.5m conservation project at Andahuaylillas with a celebration in the town on 31 October.
San Pedro Apóstol was built between 1570 and 1606. “Every inch of the church is decorated—the walls, the ceiling, the beams, everything,” says Carol Damian, the director of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum in Miami and a specialist in Latin American art, who has studied the church. “The changes in style suggest that it was decorated by many hands over a long period,” she adds.
According to Damian, the artists working in the region were highly skilled and would have appreciated the intricate patterns in the polychrome Mudéjar-style ceiling. “This Arabic imagery appealed to the indigenous people because it is geometric and the Incan artists worked with geometric design, as seen in their textiles and pottery,” she says. “But these indigenous artists added far more floral patterns than Arab artists.” Damian suggests that the artists worked in a guild-like system, with painters specialising in different decorative elements.
Two names can be linked to the decorative scheme: Juan Pérez de Bocanegra and Luis de Reaño. The Spanish painter De Reaño, under the guidance of the Jesuit priest and humanist Pérez de Bocanegra, undertook the commission for the murals, which depict scenes such as the roads to heaven and hell, in 1629. Damian suggests that De Reaño oversaw a team of indigenous painters as this was common practice during the colonial period.
Conservation work began in 2008, although the church remained open for the duration of the project. According to Marcela Pérez de Cuéllar, the president of World Monuments Fund Peru, closing the church was never an option. “We kept it open for the benefit of the local community, which has strong ties to the church,” she says.
A large part of the project focused on stabilising the murals, all of which are executed in tempera, with conservators opting to use organic materials such as liquids extracted from cacti over man-made chemicals. Many murals had been repainted and conservators had to strip back multiple layers of paint to reach the original composition. For example, the “Road to Hell” mural had four layers that needed to be removed. Instead of trying to recreate lost murals, conservators chose to paint these areas in a light colour. A 17th-century ceramic pot containing ochre pigment and a wooden brush was discovered during the project, shedding further light on the materials used by the artists.
When it came to the decorative ceiling made from mud and straw—traditional construction materials in the region—conservators were faced with removing one metric tonne of bat droppings in the space between the roof and the ceiling. Structural issues such as the replacement of adobe were also addressed, and all of the church’s sculptures, as well as its altars, received treatment.
Another church on the Andean Baroque route, the church of San Juan Bautista de Huaro, has already been restored, and the fund is looking to secure money to restore La Virgen Purificada de Canincunca. “These churches are wonderful examples of Andean Baroque art during the colonial period and we are committed to their conservation,” Pérez de Cuéllar says. She hopes these projects will increase tourist traffic to the region. “When you restore a building, you may think you are only helping the building, but these projects also benefit the community,” she says.
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