Of Spanish Temples and Plato’s Tenets

Jesuit missionaries in Peru constructed El Templo de San Pedro Apóstol church in the mid-1500s. They erected their Catholic temple atop Huari religious grounds called a huaca. The Huari were a pre-Inca civilization that once inhabited the area, which today still retains its Huari/Quechua name: Quispicanchi. The construction of the “temple” served to promote Christianity, and also to convert Quispicanchi denizens; construction ended in 1606. Today, however, San Pedro enjoys international acclaim as the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas.” Luis de Riaño, a counter-mannerist student of the Roman painter Angelino Medoro, decorated the majority of the temple’s interior. The beautiful mural paintings that span the interior walls are what earned it the “Sistine Chapel” nickname. By using pre-Conquest construction methods, which combine cane, straw and mud (rather than wood), the sanctuary was capped with a tall, polychrome ceiling. Some artists note that the ceiling takes after the Mudéjar, or Moorish style architecture. Located in the town of Andahuaylillas at just over two miles in altitude, the Andean building itself sits amid hundreds of acres of agricultural production and attracts tourism from all over the world. It mainly functions for religious reasons nowadays, but its revenue funds many social and economic development programs throughout Quispicanchi.

According to Plato’s first tenet in his Socratic Dialogue Phaedrus, one must have a grasp of the truth, and a detailed understanding of the soul, in order to properly persuade others. As the Spanish set out to conquer new lands and people in the Americas, they used their religion and the Catholic Church’s expertise in art in order to convert many indigenous people. Religious art had been persuasive in the European dark ages. Art acted as a visual bible, depicting many keystone biblical stories when most of the unwashed masses did not even possess the ability to read. So, the fact that the indigenous people of Quispicanchi were also illiterate, operating by oral language alone, the Spanish used religious, artistic murals in order to persuade some inhabitants to convert. Luis de Riaño, the artist responsible for the temple’s interior decoration, was an avid Christian who used his artistic ability to depict Bible stories and Christian principles for the indigenous people to understand. Darker figures often went to hell, while white people went to heaven. Spanish conquerors leveraged their knowledge of the human fear of death in order to brainwash the indigenous groups they sought to conquer and enslave. Therefore, they forced many conversions out of fear but not freedom. By painting murals that depicted roads, for example, which lead to heaven or to hell, the Spanish presented indigenous would-be converts with a choice. Either they could convert, or they could forever damn themselves and go to hell.

Plato’s second tenet in Phaedrus argues that one must understand the soul, and also what is good or bad for the soul. Possessing this comprehension allows one to know the things toward which the soul ought to be persuaded. The Spanish were misguided in thinking that Christianity gave them dominion over non-Christians in the New World. They were wrong to think that Christianity endowed them with the power to enslave, torture and murder indigenous people. The Spanish mistakenly thought that adopting the Catholic faith was, in fact, good for the indios, or ‘Indians’. Today, however, it is apparent that in the centuries that have since passed, the indigenous peoples of the Andes such as those in Andahuaylillas were not necessarily persuaded towards what was “good” for them. Yet, there is still child labor and poverty throughout Latin America, and in Andahuaylillas, despite the omnipresence of Catholicism and its “good” works. Today, children who experience different rites of passage (Catholic sacraments) in El Templo de San Pedro Apóstol church are some of the same, human-rights-deprived children forced to work all night making roof tiles in Piñipampa—a nearby riverbed favela. In perhaps too many ways, the temple still serves its original purpose. Towards what, one should ask, are these poor souls being oriented?