Christ of the Earthquakes (Señor de los Temblores)
Oil on panel
48 x 29 inches
(121.9 x 73.6 cm.)
Private Collection, Connecticut.
This intriguing painting depicts the central cult image of the city of Cuzco and one of the most highly venerated images in all of Peru: the Christ of the Earthquakes. Known in Spanish as the Señor de los Temblores and in native Quechua as the Taitacha Temblores, the Christ of the Earthquakes is a sculpted crucifix in the cathedral in Cuzco that was credited with miraculously calming the tremors of the catastrophic earthquake that devastated the city on 31 March 1650 (Fig. 1). During the earthquake, the Vicar General of Cuzco Vasco de Contreras y Valverde (1605-1667) instructed the clergy of the cathedral to parade the crucifix through the streets of the city. The sculpture was credited with bringing the earthquake to an end, saving the city from further destruction. Its fame as a miracle-working image quickly spread in Cuzco and in the surrounding mountainous area, and it is still revered to this day. In a tradition that stretches back to the 17th century, on the first day of Holy Week the Christ of the Earthquakes is decorated with bright red ñukchu flowers (symbolizing the blood of Christ) and is carried out of the cathedral on a silver anda, a portable dais. The crucifix is carried through the city until nightfall, accompanied by Quechua singers (known as chaynas or jilgueros) and the countless worshippers who fill the streets in celebration.
According to popular tradition, the Christ of the Earthquakes was sent to Cuzco as a gift from Charles V (1500-1558), Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. However, recent study has shown that the sculpture was made in the latter part of the 16th century using indigenous techniques and materials. Rather than being carved from wood—the traditional medium for sculptures of this kind and scale—the crucified Christ is made of maguey, an agave plant. The sculpture is also closely related in style and manufacture to the Señor de la Vera Cruz (Christ of the True Cross) in the church of San Francisco in Potosi, Bolivia, which was produced by Spanish colonial artists in the 16th century. The sculpture has darkened from the buildup of soot and grime from the candles that have burned in front of it over several centuries.
Despite its American origins, in terms of its iconography, the Christ of the Earthquakes is rooted firmly in the Spanish visual tradition. This image of Christ on the cross is thought to be based on the famous Señor de Burgos (Christ of Burgos) in the cathedral of Burgos, Spain. The Señor de Burgos was already well-known in medieval times as a miracle-working object and was visited by pilgrims and venerated by a local cult. Images of the Señor de Burgos circulated in the 17th century in engravings (Fig. 2) and in paintings by Mateo Cerezo (ca. 1610-1670) and other artists in his circle (Fig. 3), which bear a striking resemblance to later painted depictions of the Christ of the Earthquakes. It is possible that an engraving or painting of the Señor de Burgos may have provided source materials for the artists that sculpted the Christ of the Earthquakes, as well as for the artists that painted images after the sculpture, such as this one.
The present painting dates from the 18th century and follows the most common compositional format for depictions of the Christ of Earthquakes. The image of the sculpted crucifix appears against a dark background as if on its altar in the cathedral. Christ is flanked by four lit candles tied with brightly colored bows to catch the dripping wax, as well as four glass vases filled with bouquets of flowers—votive offerings possibly representing the ñukchu flowers still used to decorate the crucifix today. Both the candles and the flowers are recurring features in paintings of this type, which present the crucifix as the object of public devotion. Also typical are the silver finials that embellish the arms of the wooden cross, the stylized silver nails in Christ’s hands and feet, and Christ’s long skirt decorated with lacework. This skirt is one of the signature attributes of the Christ of the Earthquakes. Skirts of this kind were first introduced in Spain by the Council of Trent as a more modest alternative to the loincloth traditionally worn by Christ in representations of the crucifixion. The Christ of the Earthquakes’ lace skirt is thought to be modelled on the one worn by the Señor de Burgos.
Pictorial representations of the Christ of the Earthquakes began to appear in Cuzco shortly after the earthquake of 1650. Interestingly, one of the first painted views of a South American city, the monumental canvas depicting the destruction of Cuzco by the 1650 earthquake, shows the Christ of the Earthquakes in the city’s main square, the Plaza de Armas, with a crowd of clergy and laymen praying for Christ’s intercession (Figs. 4-5). The numerous surviving paintings of the Christ of the Earthquakes in Peru allow us to trace the typological development of these works over the centuries. Although the crucifix sometimes appears in a narrative context or flanked by other holy figures—forming a kind of Calvary scene—the most frequent pictorial type is the one employed here: the crucifix stands alone on the altar and emerges dramatically from the dark ground through the illuminating effect of the candlelight. The author of this composition is unknown. However, the consistency in size, format, and style of the paintings of this type produced in the 18th century suggests that these works were produced by a small circle of artists, possibly in one workshop, or derived from one or a few similar paintings. Other notable examples of this composition include those in the collections of the Banco Industrial in Lima and the Banco de Crédito del Peru in Lima.
The proliferation of this specific painted type of the miraculous crucifix in the 18th century may be connected to the outbreaks of the plague that devastated Cuzco in 1720 and 1726. During the latter wave of the epidemic, the Christ of the Earthquakes—also invoked as a protector against the plague—was moved from its side chapel into the nave of the cathedral for nine days and then processed to the monastery of Santa Catalina, where it remained another nine days. Following a pattern frequently observed in the history of European art, paintings made after miraculous works were thought to be invested with the same powers as or to serve as proxies for the original miracle-working image that they depicted. It is no surprise that paintings of the city’s protector such as this one, endowed with the spiritual power of the sculpture in the cathedral, eventually came to be found in churches and private homes throughout Cuzco and its environs.
 Gabrielle Palmer and Donna Pierce, Cambios: The Spirit of Transformation in Spanish Colonial Art, Santa Barbara, 1992, p. 31.
 José de Mesa and Teresa Gisbert, Historia de la pintura cuzqueña, 1982, vol. 1, p. 306.
 Barocke Malerei aus den Anden: Gemälde des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts aus Bolivien, Ecuador, Kolumbien und Peru, Düsseldorf, 1977, vol. 2, pp. 16-17.
 Versions of the Señor de Burgos by Mateo Cerezo the Elder are in the cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, the monastery of Las Huelgas Reales in Valladolid, and the church of Santa Marina de Oxirondo in Bergara.
 Mesa and Gisbert, Historia de la pintura cuzqueña, p. 306.
 America: Bride of the Sun, Brussels, 1992, p. 486, no. 334.
 See: Natalia Majluf, Cristóbal Makowski, and Francisco Stastny, Art in Peru: Works from the Collection of the Museo de Arte de Lima, Lima, 2001, pp. 174-175, no. 33; and Luis Eduardo Wuffarden, “El Cristo de los Temblores,” in Los siglos de oro en los virreinatos de América: 1550-1700, Madrid, 1999, pp. 354-356, no. 109. Additional examples of paintings of or including the Christ of the Earthquakes include those in the museum of the monastery of Santa Catalina in Cuzco, the Museo de la Catedral de La Paz (in which a priest is shown celebrating mass before the sculpture on its altar), the Museo Pedro de Osma in Lima, and the Stern/Davis collection. See: America: Bride of the Sun, Brussels, 1992, p. 486, no. 334; Peruvian Colonial Painting, Brooklyn, 1971, no. 14. Mesa and Gisbert (op. cit.) mention additional examples in the Montero collection, Kauffman collection, Memoria Prado, and Mujica Gallo collection.
 Geoffrey Baker, Imposing Harmony: Music and Society in Colonial Cuzco, Durham, 2008, pp. 42-43.