Cusco’s Corpus Christi celebration, a festive expression of Peru’s Catholic traditions
19 June 2019
An important religious celebration takes place in Cusco every year on a Thursday in May or June. The exact date is related to Easter, and possibly to the phases of the moon.
For Catholics, Corpus Christi commemorates the blood and body of Christ. In Cusco, celebration takes on a special character in a devout, impressive demonstration of faith and culture.
History of the celebration
In Peru, Corpus Christi dates back to the colonial era, to 1572 when the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo instituted its celebration. In the Imperial City of the Incas, early Corpus Christi took on aspects of the native religion.
Early chroniclers wrote that the Incas would venerate their ancestors at the same time of year, which was both harvest season and the weeks before the winter solstice.
Solemn native processions of the Inca kings’ mummies would circled Cusco’s main plaza; today’s Plaza de Armas.
The Spaniard conquistadores would not allow Inca rituals to remain as part of Corpus Cristi, and they soon banned the native processions.
However, many elements of early syncretism remain; for example, the famous painting in Cusco’s Cathedral of the Last Supper, in which the main course is an Andean cuy, or guinea pig. And of course the Catholic processions continue.
Corpus Christi nowadays
Nowadays, the celebration is definitely one of the most important festivities in Cusco- it’s a wondrous festive experience.
The celebration maintains a democratic and popular character, with participation of people from all social classes and walks of life.
The celebration begins with the arrival of splendid statues of the most important Virgins and Saints to the Church of Santa Clara, one day before Corpus Christi.
Each effigy comes from a different church, and each holy Saint and Virgin has a unique identity and devout followers.
The large statues are gorgeously decorated. Each saint is dressed in a gown of a traditional color, bedecked with flowers, with adornments of gold, silver, cloths and wood carvings.
The statues are realistic, and they seem almost alive, as if they’re waiting to be paraded and venerated.
The next day, the morning of Corpus Christi, the Saints are placed in front of the Cathedral to be admired by all. After mass, the Procession begins at noon, led by the Corpus Christi itself- the Holy Host carried in a beautiful gold and silver monstrance, accompanied by the Archbishop and priests.
The Virgins and Saints follow, carried by groups of devout porters. It all moves ever so slowly around the Plaza de Armas, through the huge crowd of admiring Cusqueños, and visitors who are lucky enough to be present.
Not all is solemnity, since following the ceremony and the Archbishop’s blessing, groups of dancers dressed in an amazing array of traditional garb and colorful costumes take part in vigorous traditional dances, circling around the Plaza while accompanied by the sounds of loud brass bands.
For many, the festivities extend into the night, until dawn of the next day.