Inca art forms: the incredibly rich creative legacy of the ancient Empire
6 September 2019
The ancient Incas and their pre-Inca predecessors left the world a legacy of artwork as diverse, impressive and creative as that of any major ancient culture. The essence of Inca art is expressed in so many different forms; in treasures that range from Inca sculptures to ceramics, metalwork and textiles.
Inca artifacts are complemented by grand works of architecture built by the Incas during the brief but important era of their reign. Inca works of art and architecture are rich in cultural symbolism and spiritual significance.
Pre Columbian background
Much Inca artwork was derived or inspired by earlier art, and archeological finds have shown that pre-Inca cultures developed their arts to an amazing degree. During the late-14th and early-15th centuries, the Incas conquered a number of earlier cultures, which were then assimilated into their huge Empire.
Thus, Inca artwork was influenced by earlier styles and artistic techniques that flourished over thousands of years, such as Lake Titicaca’s early Tiahuanaco culture, the Moche and Chimu of the northern coast, the Wari of the central Andes, and many other smaller cultures.
The artwork the Incas created is impressive- both beautiful and practical. Being expert administrators, they encouraged artisans from across the Empire to create works of art, which were often a blend of earlier styles and techniques with newer Inca concepts of social order and religion.
The Khipu is a well-known example of how Inca art blended with the social administration of the Empire. These intriguing, complex sets of knotted strings were recording devices for everything that happened and all the resources of the Empire.
Textiles and clothing
Inca textiles were among the most valued trade objects in the Empire, often offered as important gifts. Inca weavings were characterized by geometric patterns and designs that drew from all the regions, but were unique in themselves; the colorful Inca checkerboard tunic pattern is one example of such techniques.
The best weavers in the Empire, the female acllacuna, were revered and pampered prisoners who used the best vicuña wool to weave the finest textiles for the Inca nobles and for the Sun deity.
Inca metalwork in gold and silver was perhaps, at the time of the Empire, the most intricate and refined in the world.
Gold was a sacred metal that embodied the Sun god, and was only used by Inca nobility. A coastal seashell, Spondylus, was highly appreciated and often imbedded in metalwork.
Although most of the Inca’s gold relics and sculptures were looted by the Spaniards and have disappeared, the metalwork and other artifacts that remains in Peru’s excellent museums, such as in Lima’s Museo del Oro and Museo de Osma, is of outstanding quality.
Inca traditional art today
The rich legacy of Inca artwork endures today. At handicraft markets in Cusco and other places, you can find a wealth of beautiful, affordable textiles, ceramics and metalwork made by today’s skilled Andean artisans- the inheritors of the Inca’s artistic techniques.
Inca Architecture was an art form
The Inca’s art was perhaps most highly developed in their architecture. Their palaces, temples, fortresses and waterworks, and even their cities, were not simply practical constructions.
These were designed in specific shapes that represented or evoked complex Inca religious and social symbolism.
Naturally, Cusco , the capital of the Inca Empire, became the center of development of Inca artwork. Its most impressive Inca sites, such as the Qoricancha or Temple of the Sun, with its polygonal windows and large curved stone wall, the huge stone ramparts at the ritual site of Sacsayhuaman, the many palaces and large stone walls in Cusco’s historic downtown (where the famous 12-cornered stone is found), as well as the major Inca sites of Machu Picchu, Pisac, Ollantaytambo and many other destinations, clearly demonstrate the extraordinary Inca legacy of architectural expertise and highly aesthetic concepts of design.
The Inca’s wonderfully rich artwork deserves to be admired by everyone who values the beauty of ancient culture and art.
Of course, it’s not possible to describe everything to see of Inca and pre-Inca artwork (as well as Colonial-era art) in a short article- you must visit Peru to admire all the best of it, up close. And to do so, Cusco is a key destination.
If you’re ready to be amazed by the art of Peru’s ancient Andean cultures, please contact us at andeanlodges.com to find out more, and to reserve an acclimatization program that includes the best of Cusco’s Inca heritage.