Upon entering a small, single-nave church perched high in the Andes of rural Peru, visitors are engulfed in a blanket of color on every possible surface. “To your right is a mural of mutilated bodies writhing in the flames of hell. To your left is a painting of the Last Judgment, replete with a roaring hell mouth swallowing up legions of sinners as the patient faithful await entry into the Heavenly Jerusalem.”
So begins “Heaven, Hell, and Everything in Between: Murals of the Colonial Andes” by Ananda Cohen Suarez, assistant professor of history of art and visual studies. The book is the first comprehensive English-language study of the church wall paintings created in Peru’s Cuzco region from the 16th through the early 19th centuries, and unveils the complex intersections of religious artists, indigenous congregants and colonizers.
Examining vivid, often apocalyptic church murals, “Heaven, Hell, and Everything in Between” explores the sociopolitical situation represented by the artists who generated these murals for rural parishes. Arguing that the murals were embedded in complex networks of trade, commerce and the exchange of ideas between the Andes and Europe, Cohen Suarez also considers the ways in which artists and viewers worked through difficult questions of envisioning sacredness.
“I think of the murals as living monuments,” says Cohen Suarez. “Through the archival and historical research I did in Peru, I realized that these images, which normally we consider to be conservative, Catholic images that are decorating churches, are actually filled with all these subversive symbols and alternative meanings.”
Cohen Suarez writes that she was guided in her research by questions about the purpose served by this imagery “for a thoroughly Christianized community long after the days of mass conversion and the forcible induction of indigenous Andeans into the Catholic faith during the 16th and 17th centuries.
“Were these murals communicating something beyond a purely religious message?” she said. “What might they be able to reveal about colonial Andean society at the time they were painted?” She found that the murals’ imagery “fulfilled a variety of religious, social and political agendas.”
As Cohen Suarez demonstrates, the murals can be seen as a reformulation of a long-standing artistic practice of adorning architectural spaces with images that command power and contemplation. Cohen Suarez urges us to see the murals not merely as decoration or as tools of missionaries but as visual archives of the complex negotiations among empire, communities and individuals.
Murals as an artistic practice have deep historical roots in the Andes, Cohen Suarez explains. During the Spanish colonial period, mural painting was one of the earliest forms of religious artistic expression. Murals on parish church walls functioned as important evangelizing tools for their ability to transmit religious concepts through didactic imagery.
The book is organized around a series of case studies that, taken together, tell a story of “the transformation of an artistic medium that originated as a tool of evangelization and culminated into an instrument of social critique. But in all of their permutations throughout the course of the colonial era, they remained resolutely embedded in the local fabric of their respective communities,” according to Cohen Suarez.
Cohen Suarez is conducting research on a new project that explores the role of the visual arts in fomenting an insurgent imaginary in late 18th-century Peru and Bolivia within a context of interethnic conflict and rebellion.
Ithaca’s Buffalo Street Books, in the Dewitt Mall, 215 N. Cayuga St., will host a book launch and signing for “Heaven, Hell, and Everything in Between” with Cohen Suarez Thursday, Oct. 6 at 5:30 p.m.
Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.