During the restoration of the 16th century Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in the Peruvian town of Maras, 25 miles northwest of Cuzco, researchers discovered a crypt with skeletal remains and the original murals that had been covered with more fashionable artworks by a famous native son in the 17th century. Experts from the Dirección Desconcentrada de Cultura de Cusco (DPDDC), the governmental organization in charge of administering the cultural patrimony of the Cuzco region in southeastern Peru, found the crypt under the floor of the Virgen de las Nieves chapel. Inside are a jumble of human bones that researchers estimate belong to 32 people interred in the early days of the church. The remains are disarticulated and scattered likely as a result of deliberate and repeated desecrations that are known to have occurred in the region.
The Templo Mayor San Francisco de Asís was built in 1556, 22 years after the conquest of Peru, the same year the town was founded by Spanish general Pedro Ortiz de Orué. It was constructed in colonial style with adobe walls on a masonry foundation and a tile roof and packed with religious art. Since the restoration of the church is a top-to-bottom project covering the building and all the art inside of it, paintings on the presbytery wall by Antonio Sinchi Roca were removed for conservation.
Antonio Sinchi Roca, born in Maras, was one of the most prominent artists of the Cuzco School, many of whom are unfortunately anonymous today. Bishop Manuel de Mollinedo y Angulo, born to a wealthy Madrid family in 1626 and the powerful bishop of Cuzco from 1673 until his death in 1699, was his patron. His painted a series of portraits of the saints and scenes from the Gospel for the church of Saint Francis in his hometown. There are some great views of them in this video from right before the refurbishment began.
Underneath Roca’s paintings researchers found a multi-panel mural with scenes of the Virgin Mary. Covered up barely a century after their creation, the murals are in remarkable condition with beautifully bright colors. Another mural was discovered on the wall of the central nave that has more abstract geometric and zoomorophic designs.
These murals predate the Cuzco School of religious art, the first organized artistic movement in the New World of which Roca was one of the most famous exponents. Keen to dive right into the conversion of the Inca people after the conquest, Spain sent artists to Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, to found a school that would teach the local Quechuas and mestizos to paint religious art in the European style. The Cuzco School artists painted scenes integral to the Catholic catechism — the Holy Family, the Virgin and Child, Christ in Glory, saints, angels (often depicted as warriors), the Final Judgement, the sacraments — using a palette of bright reds, yellows, earth tones and shining gold. They eschewed perspective, focusing instead of emphasizing the important figures by making them dominant in size and in the splendour of their robes.
Restoration of the church began in July 2013 and is scheduled to be complete by July of 2016. The art has been removed to a lab for conservation. No word on whether or how they’ll integrate the original murals with the works that have been covering them for more than 300 years.