Weapons and Phantasms: The Painted Cloths of Chachapoyas and Peruvian Independence

Age of Revolutions is happy to present its “Art of Revolution” series. You can read through the entire series here as they become available.

By Maya Stanfield-Mazzi

In 2021 Peru, hobbled by the world’s highest per capita death rate from COVID-19, observed its bicentennial anniversary of independence from Spain and designated a new president after a fraught election.[1] The teacher and union leader Pedro Castillo became the first campesino or peasant leader of the nation, as well as the first left-wing leader in a generation. Castillo’s election by an extremely thin margin followed a decade of increasing polarization within the electorate, so that in 2021 most Peruvians strongly identify as either left or right wing instead of somewhere in between.[2] Politicians and pundits took the opportunity to spin events related to the bicentennial (including Castillo’s swearing-in) toward their respective positions on the ideological spectrum.

The independence era was itself characterized by a stark ideological dichotomy, that of royalism vs. patriotism. Yet scholarship on Peru’s age of revolution has advanced greatly in the last fifty years and shown that even that dichotomy was rarely clear-cut. Underlying it was a spectrum of political thought that spanned from absolutism to liberalism, along which both royalists and rebels could be located. Arguably having begun in 1780 with the Túpac Amaru Rebellion, Peru’s movement for independence was long and drawn-out, with many shifting loyalties.[3] While the Argentine General José de San Martín signed Peru’s proclamation of independence in 1821, independence was not fully achieved until 1824. Pockets of loyalism survived longer in some places than others, and neither Creoles, the Indigenous peasantry, nor the enslaved African population were unanimously in support of breaking from Spain.[4] As Peru struggles to protect its democracy and flourish in a post-COVID era, it may also do well to continue reevaluating its histories of independence in ways that acknowledge the various standpoints of its diverse electorate and the ways in which the nation achieved consensus.

Unique perspectives on the Peruvian War of Independence can often be located in the visual arts, but most analyses have been focused on artworks from the southern Andes (see suggested readings). Art historical studies centered on the southern highlands concentrate on Túpac Amaru II and the prolongation of Inca identity by Cusco School painters. Those on Lima consider painted portraits of independence leaders. There has been little focus on other regions of Peru and on art forms outside of painting on canvas that may have engaged in dialogue on the struggles of the era.

Mateo Pumacahua and Family in Procession (left), Our Lady of Monserrat (center), and Royalist Troops Defeat Rebel Forces (right), Chinchero, Peru, late 18th century. Photograph by the author.
Figure 1: Mateo Pumacahua and Family in Procession (left), Our Lady of Monserrat (center), and Royalist Troops Defeat Rebel Forces (right), Chinchero, Peru, late 18th century. Photograph by the author.

One perpetually ignored region of Peru is the northern province of Amazonas, the home of the ancient Chachapoyas culture. The region’s inhabitants developed a unique art form during the colonial era: large handwoven cotton hangings painted with natural dyes, meant for use in churches and homes. One of those works serves as a unique testament of the shifting loyalties of the independence era. Like the more well-known murals commissioned by the royalist-turned-patriot Mateo Pumacahua for the entryway of the church of Chinchero in Cusco (Fig. 1), the hanging evidences the adaptation of imagery meant for Catholic devotion to speak to more pressing and worldly concerns.

The Chachapoyas hangings likely originated in the seventeenth century for the purpose of adorning Catholic churches during Holy Week, the days preceding Easter. The earliest and most monumental cloths depict Christ on the cross surrounded by “instruments” of the Passion, the Arma Christi. They were informed by the European practice of covering church altars with somber linen cloths painted with imagery meant to elicit meditation on Christ’s death. But materially and stylistically they are essentially a continuation of pre-Hispanic textile arts, especially that of the Chachapoyas people, since they are made from native cotton and painted with natural dyes such as indigo and various tannins. The human figures appearing in the colonial cloths are based on European prototypes, but the zigzag and snaking patterns along the cloths’ borders are a direct prolongation of Chachapoyas imagery. Like in Europe the cloths were hung in front of altars during Holy Week, used to encourage the counting of sins and urge parishioners to confess and perform penance in exchange for Christ’s salvation. The Arma Christi (“weapons of Christ”) were symbolic weapons that the faithful could use to defeat temptation and sin.[5]

Passion Cloth with Crucifixion and Arma Christi, San Carlos de Chorobamba, Peru, 18th century. Plant-based dyes on cotton. 220 x 237 cm. Photograph by the author.
Figure 2: Passion Cloth with Crucifixion and Arma Christi, San Carlos de Chorobamba, Peru, 18th century. Plant-based dyes on cotton. 220 x 237 cm. Photograph by the author.

A typical, and well-preserved, cloth is kept in the church of San Carlos de Chorobamba in Amazonas (Fig. 2). Although no two cloths are identical, it features most of the standard elements. Jesus appears crucified at the cloth’s center. Two young men stand on ladders to the sides of the cross, waiting to remove Christ’s body from it. The Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and St. John the Evangelist appear at the foot of the cross. To the sides are various Arma Christi, such as the hammer that nailed Jesus to the cross, the column at which he was whipped, and the dice soldiers used to cast lots for Jesus’ robe. A skeletal figure of Death at lower left elicits the idea of judgment, and a tawny devil at lower right spurs thoughts of temptation and sin. The register along the base of the scene displays symbols of Christ’s resurrection, including a banner, the book of the New Testament, and musical instruments. The latter, another more literal type of “instruments,” would have been used to celebrate the Resurrection and Christ’s triumph on earth.

Cloth with Friars and Lamb of God, Museo Comunitario Jalca Grande, La Jalca, Peru, 18th century. Plant-based dyes on cotton. 161 x 190 cm. Photograph by the author.
Figure 3: Cloth with Friars and Lamb of God, Museo Comunitario Jalca Grande, La Jalca, Peru, 18th century. Plant-based dyes on cotton. 161 x 190 cm. Photograph by the author.

There are at least thirty surviving examples of the Passion cloths. Fortunately the majority remain in Amazonas, although more efforts should be dedicated to their preservation and conservation. While the theme of the crucifixion and Arma Christi was likely developed first, since cloths with that topic have clear liturgical functions, there were also cloths with unique themes, whether sacred or secular. The categories of weapons and musical instruments were both translated to new scenes. One cloth that approaches sacred themes in a different way is kept in the community museum of La Jalca (Fig. 3). Its upper register displays decorative motifs of the type seen on cloths that were made to cover tables and pillows. A sun and moon appear in its upper corners, like in the Passion cloths, where they reference the darkness said to have occurred after Jesus’ death (Mark 15:33). In the central field five columns feature vegetal and figural motifs. The center column shows a cross and a Lamb of God, bearing a banner that alludes to both the Resurrection and the Apocalypse. To the sides appear two friars dressed in blue, carrying small human figures with spots of reddish-brown that appear to be wounds. They likely represent St. John of God, the founder of the order of hospitallers by the same name, or other brothers of that same order. In Spanish art St. John appears with a blue habit carrying bandaged hospital patients, and the order became quite important in South America. The cloth thus honors the hospitaller brothers, who worked in the name of God. Its unique composition, featuring two full-bodied human figures identifiable largely through dress, was repeated in the independence-related hanging.

Cloth with Soldiers and Musicianos, San Pedro de Levanto, Peru, after 1790. Plant-based dyes on cotton. 160 x 242 cm. Ministerio de Cultura registery #0000203418. Photograph by the author.
Figure 4: Cloth with Soldiers and Musicianos, San Pedro de Levanto, Peru, after 1790. Plant-based dyes on cotton. 160 x 242 cm. Ministerio de Cultura registery #0000203418. Photograph by the author.
Detail of musicians in Fig. 4.
Figure 5: Detail of musicians in Fig. 4.

Though now kept in the collection of the church of San Pedro de Levanto, the independence era cloth appears to have a completely secular theme (Fig. 4). Nevertheless, it shares its composition with the two above-referenced cloths and its large size makes it similar to other Passion cloths. Two figures appear in the main field, like in the La Jalca cloth. They are not church personages, but rather Spanish soldiers, identifiable by their bicorne hats and muskets. They are framed by arches, above which appear baskets of fruit. A balcony at the top of the composition houses a group of musicians in eighteenth-century clothing (Fig. 5). A female singer at left wears a mantle over her shoulders, suggesting she is Indigenous or mestiza. The martial theme of the work likens it to the Passion cloths that display the weapons of Christ, but in this case the weapons are those of war, carried by representatives of the Spanish government. At the time the cloth was created it was likely meant to celebrate the Spanish military. Bicorne hats became fashionable in Europe after 1790, and in the previous decade the Spanish government in Peru had suppressed the Túpac Amaru Rebellion, which seemingly had few adherents in Chachapoyas. The cloth may have been created to adorn the walls of a home of loyalists. Just as the Arma Christi helped believers defeat sin, the Spanish weapons of war would seemingly protect the cloth’s owners from danger.

Nevertheless, there appears to have been a change of heart in later years. If we compare the figures of the soldiers with the other forms on the cloth, they appear ghostly. The blue tone of their coats is hardly visible, and only the butts of their muskets are outlined. It seems that at some point the figures were deliberately bleached and thus destroyed. The cloth thus retains evidence of an act of iconoclasm, of the type studied by Ananda Cohen-Aponte during the Tupac Amaru era. In her words, it bears traces of the “intentional defacement of the power-laden symbols of the dominant culture.”[6] As it survives today, the musicians at the top of the cloth appear to praise the disappearance of Spanish soldiers. Like the musical instruments of the Passion cloths celebrate the return of Christ, in this cloth similar instruments —now played by human beings— celebrate the overturning of the colonial regime and the absence of the Spanish government.

Residents of Chachapoyas in fact won an early and strategically important battle against Spanish forces in 1821, the Battle of Higos Urco. A major protagonist in that battle was the woman Matiaza Rimachi. Recent archival research by Alejandro Alvarado shows that she was a mestiza from a prominent Indigenous family in the city, and that she made a living producing cotton cloth of the very type that constitutes the Levanto hanging.[7] It thus seems likely that the soldiers’ images were bleached in 1821 or shortly afterward. This symbolic act of rebellion may also have been carried out by a woman, considering that women dominated textile spinning, weaving, and dyeing in the period.[8]

The shapes of the soldiers remain as phantasms of power and violence, and the cloth has been preserved thus to this day. It was even transferred into church hands at some point in the twentieth century, and now exists alongside Passion cloths as a semi-sacred relic.[9] Parishioners in Levanto recall that another painted cloth in the collection with decorative patterning has been laid as a tablecloth for town council meetings. As much as that cloth is used to evoke history and tradition in service of contemporary democratic processes, I propose that the cloth with the ghostly soldiers also be displayed and published, as an object to elicit dialogue and reflection. Considering that it comes from an often-forgotten region of Peru, it stands as a reminder to take Peru’s wide and varied territories into account, whether when writing the history of its independence revolution or when striving for national reconciliation today.

Maya Stanfield-Mazzi is an art historian specializing in art of pre-Columbian and colonial Latin America, especially that of the colonial Andes. She focuses on the ways in which Indigenous peoples of the Americas contributed to creating new forms of Catholicism. Her first book Object and Apparition: Envisioning the Christian Divine in the Colonial Andes (University of Arizona Press, 2013) demonstrates that Catholicism took hold in the Andes only when native Andeans actively envisioned, and materialized, images of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Her second book, released last year by the University of Notre Dame press, is titled Clothing the New World Church: Liturgical Textiles of Spanish America, 1520–1820. Arguing that the visual culture of cloth was an important and previously-unrecognized aspect of church art in the Americas, she shows how a “silk standard” was established on the basis of priestly preferences for imported woven silks. Nevertheless, in select times and places, spectacular local textile types were adapted to take their place within the church, reflecting ancestral aesthetic and ideological patterns. The book is the first broad survey of church textiles of Spanish America, one that also closely examines selected local developments.

Title Image: Mateo Pumacahua and Family in Procession (left), Our Lady of Monserrat (center), and Royalist Troops Defeat Rebel Forces (right), Chinchero, Peru, late 18th century. Photograph by the author.

Suggested reading:

Cohen-Aponte, Ananda. “Imagining Insurgency in Late Colonial Peru.” In Visual Culture and Indigenous Agency in the Early Americas, edited by Alessia Frassani, 161–87. Brill Publishers, 2022.

Engel, Emily A. Pictured Politics: Visualizing Colonial History in South American Portrait Collections. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020.

Estenssoro Fuchs, Juan Carlos. “Construyendo la memoria: La figura del inca y el reino del Perú, de la conquista a Túpac Amaru II.” En Los Incas, reyes del Perú, 93–173. Lima: Banco de Crédito, 2005.

_____. “La plástica colonial y sus relaciones con la Gran Rebelión.” En Mito y simbolismo en los Andes: La figura y la palabra, editado por Henrique Urbano, 157–82. Cusco: Centro de Estudios Regionales Andinos Bartolomé de las Casas, 1993.

Macera, Pablo. La pintura mural andina siglos XVI-XIX. Lima: Editorial Milla Batres, 1993.

Majluf, Natalia. Luis Montero, Los Funerales de Atahualpa. Lima: Asociación Museo de Arte de Lima, 2011.

Mujica Pinilla, Ramón, ed. Visión y símbolos del virreinato criollo a la república peruana. Lima: Banco de Crédito, 2006.


[1] This essay is an adaptation of Maya Stanfield-Mazzi, “Armas y fantasmas: Amazonas, sus paños pintados, y la identidad del Perú,” in Amazonas también es Perú: Bicentenario del Perú 2021, ed. Manuel Cabañas López (Chachapoyas: Publimagen Corp, 2021). The Chachapoyas Passion cloths are discussed further in Maya Stanfield-Mazzi, Clothing the New World Church: Liturgical Textiles of Spanish America, 1520–1820 (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021), chap. 5; and Maya Stanfield-Mazzi, Los Paños de la Pasión de Chachapoyas (Chachapoyas, Peru: Instituto de Investigación de Arqueología y Antropología Kuelap; Universidad Nacional Toribio Rodríguez de Mendoza de Amazonas, 2020).

[2] Carlos Meléndez, “Communism by Surprise? The Rise to Power of Pedro Castillo in Peru.” Lecture, University of Florida, Gainesville, September 28, 2021.

[3] On the Túpac Amaru Rebellion and its relation to the early republican period from the vantage point of Cusco, see Charles Walker, Smoldering Ashes: Cuzco and the Creation of Republican Peru, 1780-1840 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999). P. Drinot offers an assessment of recent developments in Peruvian historiography in relation to ideological positions in “After the Nueva Historia: Recent Trends in Peruvian Historiography,” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 68 (2000): 65–76.

[4] For an overview, see Peter Flindell Klarén, Peru: Society and Nationhood in the Andes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 121–33.

[5] Lisa H. Cooper and Andrea Denny-Brown, The Arma Christi in Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture: Objects, Representation and Devotional Practice (London: Routledge, 2016).

[6] Ananda Cohen-Aponte, “Genealogies of Revolutionary Iconoclasm, from Tupac Amaru to Central Park, Pt II,” Age of Revolutions (blog), October 11, 2017.

[7] Alejandro Alvarado Santillán, “Matiaza Rimachi y la participación de las mujeres en la Batalla de Higos Urco,” in Amazonas también es Perú: Bicentenario del Perú 2021, edited by Manuel Cabañas López (Chachapoyas: Publimagen Corp, 2021), 33.

[8] Stanfield-Mazzi, Clothing the New World Church, 284.

[9] The cloth does not appear in nineteenth century inventories of the church of San Pedro de Levanto (from 1809, 1817, and 1844, housed at the Archivo del Obispado de Chachapoyas), but it was inventoried as part of the church collection by the Peruvian Ministry of Culture in 2014.

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