17 June 2012

When the saints go marching in …

We have just enjoyed the amazingly colourful spectacle of Corpus Christi here in Cusco, so I just had to use that title – because it’s true. The saints get marched out from their home churches and processed to the cathedral, where they remain for a week. Then, on the “octave”, the eight day, they get marched back to their home parishes again.

The Corpus Christi celebrations in Cusco are an unusual and complex blend of Catholic ceremony and Inca tradition. The timing of the Catholic festival, celebrated 60 days after the resurrection of Easter Sunday so falling between May and June, coincides with the high point of the Inca ceremonial calendar, when crops are being harvested and ceremonies are held to honour the Sun gods and Inca ancestors for their bounty. In fact, in Cusco the tradition of parading special beings dates back to the Inca festival of Q’ochakuy, when the mummified bodies of the ancestors were taken out and paraded through the streets. The Spaniards assimilated this Inca ceremony into their Catholic Corpus Christi ceremony and thus Cusco’s peculiar version of the celebration was born.

Fifteen saints and virgins from various parishes in and around the city are included in the processions: Saint Anthony from the San Cristobal parish; Saint Jerome from the suburb of San Jeronimo; Saint Christopher from the San Cristobal parish; Saint Barbara from the village of Poroy; Saint Anne from Santa Ana parish; Saint James the Greater from Santiago parish; Saint Blaise from the suburb of San Blas; Saint Peter from the parish of San Pedro; Saint Joseph from the parish of Belen; the Nativity Virgin from Almudena parish; the Remedies Virgin from the Santa Catalina monastery; the Purified Virgin from the parish of San Pedro; the Bethlehem Virgin from Belen; and the cathedral’s Immaculate Conception Virgin.

The religious of each parish honour their particular saint or virgin by adorning them with beautifully embroidered robes, and gold and silver jewellery, and each year one believer takes on the much-envied position of mayordomo, the person who organises the festival and cover the expenses it involves. The celebrations begin the day before Corpus Christi, when the various saints and virgins, some obviously extremely heavy, are carried from their parish churches sometimes many miles into central Cusco.

On Thursday, thousands of people flock to the Plaza de Armas to watch the main procession. From around 11am, a full Mass is celebrated outside the cathedral by Cusco’s archbishop and the various parish priests, then the procession begins. Leading the way is an impressive silver carriage carrying the monstrance from the cathedral, its golden sun representing the Holy Sacrament. Apparently, the original silver tower was built in 1733, of beaten silver over a cedar frame. These days it seems very incongruous to see this sacred object transported around the Plaza de Armas atop a motorised float, accompanied by the archbishop, his priests and various city and municipal authorities.

Next follow the fifteen saints and virgins, each carried by their faithful believers and accompanied by the mayordomo and the faithful of the parish, as well as musicians and dancers. It is a long, noisy and extremely colourful procession, combining the sacred traditions of Catholicism with the more lively celebrations of the Incas. At the end, the saints and virgins are returned to the cathedral, while the celebrants drift off to local plazas to feast on the traditional food of this time, chiriuchu (cold cuts of guinea pig, chicken, a kind of beef jerky and sausage on top of a bed of corn, with cheese from the Puno region, an omelette, and sea weed and fish eggs from the Pacific coast), and drink copious amounts of the local home brew, chicha.

Eight days later, on the "octave", the fifteen saints and virgins are marched back to their original parishes, amidst more music and dancing, and followed by plenty more feasting and drinking. And you’d think that would be it for another year … but, no! Each parish has its own special feast and celebration days during the year and, in Cusco, the festivities continue as, in just eight days, it will be Inti Raymi, the re-enactment of the Inca mid-winter solstice celebrations. More on that as it happens.


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