The Mix of Spanish Colonial Influence with Indigenous Culture in Peru’s Architecture and Art

Walking around in Lima, the feel of Spanish colonialism is everywhere: the historical buildings, the cathedrals, and the churches. I previously lived in Spain for almost a year and have been to other Latin American countries, yet I believe there is something different and unique about Peruvian architecture and arts.

In 1532, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro defeated the Inca Empire and took control of Peru. The Spanish ruled the land until independence in 1824. This almost 300-year span left Peru with a heavy colonial influence. Pizarro and his men built the City of Kings (La Ciudad de los Reyes) in what is today the historical center of Lima.[1] Spanish conquerors spread their language and religion and used them as instruments to control their colony. To further bolster their rule, the colonial government ordered European architects to build religious sites such as cathedrals, churches, and palaces.[2] Despite forceful suppression by the colonial government, local and indigenous architectural elements, often dismissed by scholars, found their way into these buildings and the fusion of styles became an important component of the unique culture of Peru.[3] For instance, in Lima’s historical district, almost all the buildings come with strong and clear colonial characteristics. But there is something more underneath the surface. For instance, Peruvian architects prefer heavier and bigger forms on their buildings, doors, windows, and balconies. And they often come with spiral patterns divided into many compartments. This unique style was mostly due to the infusion of Peruvian indigenous culture with colonial influences.

Outside Lima, another great place to observe the interweaving of colonial influence and local culture is Cusco. Cusco was once the capital of the Inca Empire, but in today’s city of Cusco, architectural elements of Incan culture are hard to see among the Spanish colonial buildings. In the Iglesia de La Compañía de Jesús, a local guide told me that in Cusco, 80% of the people are Catholic; however, 80% of those Catholics also believe in Incan religions and practice both religions. In turn this influences the art works and paintings inside the church. First, all the Saint Mary’s statues inside the church have big triangular dresses and are holding babies. The big triangular dress symbolizes the mountains, which in the Incan religion represents the mother earth; and with Saint Mary herself as the symbol of motherhood, the Catholic Saint Mary’s statues also represent the beliefs of the Incan people. Moreover, in one of the paintings of the Great Angel Gabriel, his wings are very colorful instead of pure white as in European traditions. In addition, the paintings of Jesus Christ were also very different from European styles. Jesus is often depicted wearing a long dress, which is an Andean tradition for young kids, and the skin color, hair style, and facial characteristics all resemble local Andean people instead of the Spaniards.

The altarpiece in Cusco is said to be the tallest in Peru, and it was built by local artists and architects with a mixture of indigenous culture as well.  For example, in the holy trinity presentation part of the altarpiece, the Holy Spirit is represented by a very large goose (in Andean culture, the goose represents the sky) which is different than the European style which often depicts the Holy Spirit as being very small. Lastly, the most famous interaction of the cultures is the Qurikancha, which means the Temple of the Sun in the Incan language. Built on top of the temple is a Spanish Catholic Church, Santa Domingo. There is clear co-existence of Incan and colonial cultures within and surrounding this church. These architectural and artistic examples all illustrate the unique mixture of indigenous and colonial cultures in Peru.

In all, throughout the 300 years of Spanish rule, the architecture and art styles have been heavily influenced by colonial culture. It has left clear marks on Peru but local people have found ways to express their own culture under colonial influence, which created the colorful and diverse architectures and arts Peru has today.

Figure 1. Barranco colonial style building

Figure 2. Vice-royal style building, Larco Museum

Figure 4. Basilica of San Francisco

Figure 5. Cathedral of Lima at Plaza Mayor

Figure 6. Qurikancha

Further Readings:

[1] History of Peru, Area Handbook of the Library of Congress,

[2]Historical Center of Lima, UNESCO,

[3] Colonial Architecture of the Viceroyalty of Peru: The necessary and continued role of the indigenous in Christianity, April 2015.

– Diwei Tao


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