The Indian Christ and Red Flowers on Holy Monday

Lord of Earthquakes, Cuzco

Cuzco’s population will fill the city center today like no other time in the year.  It will feel as if the entire city has gathered in the city center, though it may only be about a fifth of the total. There will be people everywhere. Tourists will disappear in the throng of Cusqueños.

Unlike other times when lots of people crowd the town’s center, today there will not be bouncy music and colorful dancing. There will be music and the Cathedral bells will peal. But the tone will be solemn, since today the patron saint of Cuzco, the Lord of the Earthquakes (el Señor de los Temblores), will leave the Cathedral, where he stays all year as a great center of ritual and devotion that organizes the city, to make his rounds before blessing the crowds and, after night has fallen, reenter the Cathedral for another year.

The day is so solemn and important, especially as the culmination of a year of ritual within the Cathedral, that it led anthropologist Jorge Flores Ochoa to remark

To be from Cuzco […] is to know from childhood the Taytacha, the Lord of Earthquakes. When taken by your parents to the great expression of popular Catholic faith that is Monday of Holy Week,  you learn to love, respect, and trust in the black Christ. You begin to learn the elaborate ritual created by the people to express their faith and devotion, the significance of symbols, such as the ñuqch’u flowers, that with intense red connect Catholic devotion with Inca iconography, the emotional intensity of the hymns in Quechua, like the ever more known Apu Yaya, which is interpreted by hundreds of people who gather to the masses which the devout have celebrated. In this way being from Cuzco is to participate in the cult of the Taytacha.

Nothing is more powerful and nothing is more central than this moment when Christ, in the figure of the Taytacha, makes his annual round through a few of Cuzco’s streets and visits the churches of Santa Teresa, San Francisco, and La Merced. His is a deeply motivated and intimate relationship with His city.

Taytacha in Quechua is a word with lots of emotion. It takes the word for father, Tayta, and adds the suffix -cha that linguists just call a diminuitive. But it doesn’t really make things smaller, rather it builds a relationship of feeling between the speaker and that which is addressed. It fills it with love.

The image comes accompanied by a powerful story that, of course, is never so straightforward as it might seem.

Anthropologist Abrahan Valencia Espinoza narrates one version of this story and its complexity.

Traditionally it was believed that the image was donated by King Charles the Fifth of Spain, but historically the work is dated to around 1620, the time of Phillip the second of Spain. He had heard stories from the architect of the Escorial Palace stating “the Indians of Peru continued to worship the Sun” and that their feasts remembered their pagan deities. On hearing such things, he commanded an image be made in Seville of great size and beauty of the Holy Christ, but one that was distinct from those venerated in Spain. It should be of a copper color and have features that would allow the Indians to recognize themselves in the same image.

Valencia locates the story, as a result, in two problems: one, the conquest of the Islamic Moors for whom Seville was a great city which also gave legitimacy to the Spanish Crown and from which much culture and organization sailed to the new world; second, the fear that the Incas and their descendents would never really be Catholics. The story hopes that if given an image of Christianity’s central figure that looked like them, the people would give up the Sun and worship the Lord of Heaven.

The image was made and set sail from Seville to the Peruvian port of Callao.  On the way, the ship confronted an enormous storm. The people on board the ship asked the image to calm the waters and it did, they say, earning it the name of the Lord of Storms, Valencia continues.

From Callao, the image began a  journey to Cuzco. But in the next to the last stop, a place called Mollepata, the image rested for two days. When its bearers and companions set out to finish the trip, it could not be moved and so they were forced to leave it and, of course, promise to build it a church.

As anthropologist Luís Millones observed, this kind of story is very common. Images have histories and often they relate how a figure refused to be moved, or decided on its own where it would be located. If nothing else, the story emphasizes how the image is a power independent of people.

But Valencia argues this all was a ruse by the muleteer to keep the valuable figure. So he had a replacement made, writes Valencia, by a local Indian of local materials which was transported to Cuzco. Despite its defects, and the betrayal of the will of Phillip of Spain to majestically stamp out Incan religion, the image became loved in Cuzco.

Taytacha's Bearers
Taytacha’s Bearers

In 1650 a powerful earthquake hit the city with hundreds of aftershocks. Much of the city was in ruins and the people were in panic. The statue of Christ was taken from the Cathedral and calmed the earth. Ever since then it has been known as the Lord of Earthquakes.

Not only was it a local creation, but the figure has been transformed by local action over many years, Valencia holds. The smoke from candles lit to it and the resin from the thousands of ñuqch’u flowers that are given it every year has caused its color to darken to where now it is called the “black” or Indian Christ.

Art Historian Maya Stanfield-Mazzi describes it (p. 447.)

The statue, slightly larger than life-size, is a dramatic depiction of Christ crucified on the
cross. The Christ’s head hangs to the left and his eyes are closed. The head has a curly beard, a wig of black hair topped by a crown of thorns, a sharp aquiline nose, and sunken cheekbones and eye sockets. The torso is lean and boxy, with a deep wound on its right side. The arms seem unnaturally long, even stretched, and a single nail passes through both feet, causing the thin calves to be arranged in an awkward V-shape. Over time layers of soot from oil lamps and candles, and pigment from the scarlet ñuk’chu flowers that the statue is sprinkled with during processions, have accumulated on its surface, colouring it a dull black. During the colonial period the Christ’s skin was yellowish-brown, but that colour is only visible on the areas of the Christ’s legs that, since at least the mid-seventeenth century, are always covered with a knee-length skirt or sudario.

Though Stanfield-Mazzi continues to argue that the elite of Cuzco in the eighteenth century organized themselves around the Lord of Earthquakes and used it as an image of attack on Andean religion, which they represented in the devil, Valencia’s story emphasizes that the ways of Cuzco have prevailed over those intentions. Not only has the figure of the Christ literally been transformed through people’s devotion, it has come to fill the role of protector and care-giver of Cuzco. It has become a local Lord at the same time it is a representation of the universal Christ because the people love it so much. It fits their expectations, as a result.

Baskets of Ñuqch'u Flowers
Baskets of Ñuqch’u Flowers

The ñuqch’u flower, an inch and a half trumpet of bright scarlet, worked this wonder. It is the people’s love. They throw it, which is the color of their blood, in basketfulls, when the statue slowly sways through the streets on a very heavy palanquin of silver and wood. It is born for a while by members of a confraternity dedicated to the image, before another confraternity take over and continues to carry the immensely heavy load.

The flowers, which are considered to have a strong medicinal power, are gathered by children and women in the wilds nearby. Some are made into complex floral chains and wreaths to adorn the Christ while others are tossed on Him as offerings. As Flores Ochoa wrote, flowers had a great significance in Inca worship as they continue to do today for people in Cusco and nearby places. The flower connects the ritual of the Taytacha with Inca worship, but they also tie Him to people’s desires for material well being as well as protection from harm and illness, when the symbol of life, growth, and blood is given to Him.

Waiting to Put Ñuqch'u Wreaths of Christ
Waiting to Put Ñuqch’u Wreaths of Christ

At the end of the day, after the figure has visited the three Churches for prayers, changing of its sudario, and a renewal of its flowers, it sways up the steps to the Cathedral. Now, in the culminating moment, a sea of people awaits in the Plaza as the Sun fades from the sky. At this time, the Christ figure who was to replace the Sun, makes its way back inside, just like the sun that has passed from the horizon, and night takes the sky.

It is said that the Inca Kings came out of the cave where the Sun rested at the end of its day, each day. They were called out by the Sun’s rays, making them children and devotees of the great orb of the sky.

But before the Christ of Earthquakes returns to the Cathedral, on whose site supposedly was the palace of Inca Viracocha and the creator God of the same name — who also brought the cult of the Sun to the Incas, according to Betanzos’ chronicle — the image pauses to make a blessing on the people of Cuzco. That is the most sacred moment; in many ways, it is the heart of this fabulous and complex city, and today it beats anew.

Return at Night
Return at Night

Additional Reference:

Jorge Flores Ochoa, “Los Cultos al Taytacha” in Historial del Señor de los Temblores, Cusco, Peru, pp 9-11

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