The Cathedral of Cuzco, Peru holds several liturgical ornaments from the Spanish colonial period in its treasury. Few, if any, of these items have been published and they have received no scholarly attention. Among them is a magnificent embroidered miter, the headdress worn by bishops for blessings, baptisms, and processions.1 The miter owes its form and style to European tradition, but aspects of its preservation, materials, and imagery ground it firmly in Peru and relate it to the development of Christianity and Christian art there.
The miter is housed in a modern metal box shaped to fit it, with the lappets2 folded under. On the box are written the words “de Valverde,” in seeming reference to the first bishop of Cuzco and Peru, the Dominican Vicente de Valverde, who first arrived in Cuzco with Francisco Pizarro in 1533. It is unlikely that the miter dates to the sixteenth century, but the attribution suggests that the piece was later seen as physical evidence of Christianity’s early history in Peru.
While the materials used to create the miter were probably of European origin, it is possible that the final product was manufactured in Peru. The background for the miter’s outer surfaces is a sturdy gold-toned silk; its lining is a lighter coral-colored silk. The outer surfaces are adorned with silk braid (known as galloon) and embroidery in colored silk and silver threads. The silks would have come from southern Spain’s silk-producing centers, which flourished in the early colonial period and were protected by the crown.3 Galloon was produced widely by Seville’s embroiderers and imported to Peru.4 The silver threads, created by wrapping silver around gold-toned silk threads, were also likely manufactured in Spain even if the silver was from Peruvian mines. In regard to its final assembly and finishing, however, church account books from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Cuzco show that church officials seeking liturgical ornaments purchased raw cloth from Spanish merchants and then commissioned the completed products from artisans in Cuzco.5 The native Andean author Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, writing ca. 1615, described Christianized Andeans employed as embroiderers in Peru.6 Spanish immigrants to Peru may also have worked in the embroidery and tailoring trades.
The front of the miter, seen here, features a central field with a wide frame that traces the overall shape of the miter. Similar types of embroidery adorn the frame and the field, namely narrow scrolling plants with flowers, amongst which are interspersed slender multicolored birds. The main field features a large flower in the center, perhaps evoking a chrysanthemum. At the field’s apex is a composite image that refers to European motifs of both a pomegranate and an artichoke. The birds at the bottom of this central field stand near red and pink forms akin to clusters of grapes. Most of the imagery seems drawn from European design vocabulary. The grapes and possible pomegranate would have symbolized the blood of Christ and his resurrection, respectively.7 The birds suggest a paradisiacal setting and thus evoke the Christian promise of a pleasant afterlife, offered to believers in exchange for Jesus’ sacrifice. Richly colored exotic birds became a common feature in works from the Cuzco school of painting during the later seventeenth century. Birds such as hummingbirds and parrots appear in Christian scenes as representatives of heavenly beings and as markers of earthly status.8 They appear in paintings that depict processions for Corpus Christi, a festival that celebrated the body and blood of Christ. It is conceivable that Cuzco’s bishops would have worn this miter in actual Corpus Christi processions.9 In that case, this work can be seen as appealing to, and perhaps even informing, Christian Cuzco’s preference for avian imagery.
Stylistically, the miter’s decoration is quite similar to that of a feather covered miter that was sent from Mexico to the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (Rome), also in the seventeenth century.10 That miter (with a matching chasuble) features similar arrangements of scrolling vines capped with flowers. In Mexico feathered panels were made using the plumage of a great variety of naturally colored birds, many with local significance.11 The presence of real feathers on the Mexican miter would seem to reduce the need for bird imagery, since celestial associations are made with the feathers themselves. The fact that church authorities saw fit to commission the feathered miter from indigenous artisans in Mexico, as were others in the previous century, further supports the possibility that the Cuzco miter was indeed made in Peru. Both pieces thus become examples of local artisanry adapting to the demands of the Catholic church. Ultimately, this the Cuzco piece, which would have been worn by the city’s highest religious official on public occasions, should be considered an important aspect of the city’s colonial period Catholic visual and material culture.