Mural painting was a longstanding artistic practice in the Andean region of South America, stretching back to at least the third millennium BCE. Numerous coastal cultures of Peru, including the Cupisnique, Moche, and Chimú civilizations, produced stunning polychrome murals that decorated both the interiors and exteriors of religious temples and residences. Their iconography was diverse, including mythological scenes, representations of deities, and sacrificial rituals. Fewer mural remains are found at highland sites due to preservation issues, but traces of mural decoration can be found at the pre-Columbian sites of Raqchi and Quispiguanca, among others. Mural paintings frequently possessed iconographic and stylistic resemblances to portable media such as ceramics, textiles, and metalwork. These large-scale public works of art broadcast religious ideologies, mythologies, and cultural values to their constituents, serving as an important conduit for the transmission of knowledge and belief systems.
With the Spanish invasion and colonization of Peru in the 1530s, the visual arts played an integral role in the religious indoctrination of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities to Catholicism. Mural painting in particular became a favored medium in early evangelization efforts because of its relatively low cost and shorter execution time in comparison to multimedia pieces such as retablos (altarpieces) and polychrome sculptures. But most importantly, murals also remained crucial to the conversion process because indigenous congregations would have already been familiar with the medium and the power it commanded due to the long-standing presence of muralism in the Andes throughout the pre-Columbian era. European prints and émigré artists from Spain and Italy brought European iconography and techniques to Andean soil. Peru’s famed émigré artists Bernardo Bitti and Mateo Pérez de Alesio also brought buon fresco and fresco secco techniques that they acquired in their native Italy; Pérez de Alesio in particular had completed a mural of The Dispute Over the Body of Moses (circa 1574) in the Sistine chapel prior to his arrival in South America.1 The circulation of Italian models and mural techniques in the colonial Andes resulted in a number of early mural programs that resemble European prototypes produced an ocean away, such as the cupola murals in the Capilla Villegas from the early seventeenth century (Figs. 1 and 2). Murals also adorned the interiors of casonas (mansions), where colonial officials and elite families would have lived, with mythological scenes and ornamental imagery executed in black and white, such as this example at the Casa de Antonio Zea in the city of Cuzco (Fig. 3).