This art form dates back to artisan traditions during the Vice-regency, and involves the creation of objects linked to religious and even magical ceremonies.
The departments of Ayacucho, Cusco and Huancavelica produce the greatest variety of figures. These traditional images include the retablo de San Marcos or cajón, crosses, saints, Nativity scenes, the Holy Family and the many different portrayals of the infant Christ. These figures are made from a variety of materials, including dough made from potatoes, medlar seeds, plaster, glued cloth and maguey, the local fruit. The most common images produced by this art-form include religious images with long, stylized necks created by artisan Hilario Mendívil and his wife Georgina in the artists' quarter of San Blas in Cusco.
Many Andean dances use masks as part of the dancer's costume. The most common motifs include demons, angels, blacks (negritos), Spaniards (españoles) and all kinds of animals. The most important exhibition of masks is held in the southern Andes, such as during the festival of the Virgen de la Candelaria. Junín is another major producer of masks, while a rich variety linked to myths and customs of jungle villages is manufactured in the Amazon area, like for example in the Bora community in Loreto. Masks are made from a range of materials that are as varied as their place of origin: plaster, leather, wood, wire sheeting and tin. The most typical masks include those of the Piro culture, the parlampán (picaresque characters of the area of Huaral), the auquis of Ancash, the jija huanca (styled from gargoyle heads), the huacones of the central highlands and the famous demons of the seven deadly sins of Puno.
Tiny human figures, animals from the highlands, images of Christian saints and pre-Columbian gods, stars, mountains and lakes are just some of the elements found in the colorful world portrayed by the cajón or retablo de San Marcos. This art form, brought over from Spain, dates back to the dawn of Western civilization and was preceded by Roman portable images made up of three slabs that closed over each other. In the rest of Europe, this art form was known by the name of frontpieces, giving way to the monumental friezes that featured in church altars between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. The closest resemblance to the Peruvian retablo is the Caja de Santo, a sort of portable altar used in Spain as part of the paraphernalia of Catholic rituals.
The Ayacucho artisans saw the portable altars as the perfect means to bring together two religious traditions -their own and Catholicism imposed by Spain- without arousing suspicion amongst colonial authorities bent on stamping out pagan idols. The retablo features two levels: the upper level, which portrays the Heavens, with saints and sacred Andean beasts, and the lower world, portraying the world down on Earth. These retablos were originally limited to the area dominated by Ayacucho shepherds and peasant farmers. And in fact the Ayacucho artisans are the ones to have kept alive this tradition, that is such a vital part of Peruvian imagery. The best-known craftsmen who make retablos include the late Joaquín López Antay, Florentino Jiménez and Jesús Urbano. These three men gave rise to three schools or trends of the retablo: one which features a magical-religious current, another that focuses on regional customs and another with historic and realistic content. Today, styles and themes have multiplied as Cusco emerges as yet another major retablo production center.
Huamanga Stone Carvings.
There are several kinds of stone that are used for carving in Peru: granite, basalt, andesite, piedra del lago (found in Puno), and the white alabaster known as piedra de Huamanga. Huamanga stone carvings started up in colonial times due to the scarcity of marble and porcelain. The early motifs dwelled on the infant Christ and other religious images such as saints, crosses, virgins and relics. Later craftsmen were to develop new religious motifs and images linked to the Creole culture (for example the image of the vicuña standing over the Castillian lion). Today, Huamanga stone carvings portray Nativity scenes within oval-shaped recesses, replicas of the monument of the Pampa de la Quinua (scene of a famous battle for independence), as well as other figures; all with a rough finish and mainly offered as souvenirs.
Wooden carving as an art form heavily influenced by religious polychrome sculptures took off in colonial times. Artists made retablos, statuettes and decorated furniture in churches and convents whose complex Baroque style reached its peak in the famous San Blas pulpit in San Blas church in Cusco. One of the current wooden carving centers is to be found in the town of Molinos, near Huancayo. There, artisans make a range of objects from utensils and decorative pieces to toys, featuring acrobats with movable arms, as well as a series of animals including roosters, ducks, horses, donkeys, lions and a veritable bestiary of mythical beats. Other finely carved pieces include the bastones de Sarhua, where the painted boards (tablas) are made.