Masters of the Loom: the Weavers of Chinchero

It was at an oxygen-starved altitude of 12,300 ft (3,800 m) that I got my first headaches. Higher than even nearby Cusco, the town of Chinchero in Urubamba province has nights so cold at this time of year that my home-stay host family of Paulino and Vilma Quillahuaman put seven woven blanket layers on the bed. As in most towns in the mountainous parts of Peru, there are very few level areas, which are usually relegated to their Plazas de Armas, all the other narrow streets and lanes at various grades lined with dressed stones or stone steps. Walking even the slightest rise can tax un-acclimated lungs.

Chinchero, or Chincheros, is known for its Sunday market and a colonial church built on an ancient Inca stone foundation that features ten enigmatic trapezoidal niches. Behind the church are incredible Inca terraces and walls.

Chinchero is also home to world-class weavers, including a cooperative, Minka Chinchero, that has as its mission the passing down of the craft to future generations, not an easy task when young people are flocking to the cities. Tourists come from all over the world to see the beautiful woven fabrics and perhaps to purchase one or two.

Central to the tradition is the end-to-end use of natural materials, starting with alpaca wool, down to the plant-based, color-fast dyes. It occurred to me that the art is not a reversion to earth-friendly methods but the way things have been done for a long time. It’s just that we in the 21st century need reminding that there was a way of life before chemistry and industrialization.

My wife and I had a private demonstration of how the entire process is done.

In making their textiles, it begins with wool cleaning. Rather than using chemical detergents, the weaver grates habonera root that saponifies in water and does a remarkable job of cleaning the wool.


Except in one case, plants are used to make dyes, which requires hours of boiling to intensify the colors. Following are the plants and their color extracts.

Chillca: green

Quinsaquchu: blue

Quolla: yellow

Purple corn: purple

Barba de la roca: orange

The range of red colors is extracted from a tiny scale insect, the cochineal, that feeds on prickly pear cactus. When crushed, the cochineal turns a bright scarlet or carmine. Used as lipstick, I was told it was good for a thousand kisses. With a squeeze of lime, the color turns purplish.



Cochineal scrapings

Next comes the yarn spinning with a puschca. This task takes years to master. It has gotten so second-nature that the women can do it while carrying on conversations or walking down the street.


The final step, of course, is the weaving, an art that completely evades me, how intricate and precise patterns are imagined and translated onto the work from the weaver’s mind. A typical woven table runner, for example, will take months to complete. All Chinchero woven fabrics are traditionally finished with tubular edging containing multicolored diamond patterns.


Our host family has been intimately involved with the co-op. They warmly took my wife and me into their home, made us part of the family. We talked and shared stories as best as we could, considering the language difficulties that confronted both them and us. It was a brief two nights, but we benefited from our stay because we saw first hand how weaving has become the fabric of their lives.

Mana Nalu Mural Project (Honolulu, HI)

In the middle of Ala Moana (between the shopping center and Ward Center) is a mural painted on the side of a building. Like many murals, you wouldn’t notice it unless you’re oriented correctly. It was difficult for us even when we were looking for it. The work is a masterpiece of trompe l’oeil as part of a project led by John Pugh, the great artist who has several public works in other parts of the U.S. as well as one in Rotorua, NZ. The panel displays two historic Hawaiian figures, Queen Liliuokalani and the great surfer Duke Kahanamoku, painted on a curved glass surface featuring a huge wave that is cresting on top, a portion of which appears to be reaching through a skylight. Along the right side, a painted window, through which someone appears to be looking out toward the wave, and a doorway give a strange illusion. But, the most masterful depiction/illusion is a group of children, serenely looking up at the queen and seeming about to be engulfed by the wave.

How appropriate that today should be April Fool’s Day.

Mana Nalu Mural Project
401 Kamake’e St.
Honolulu, HI
(painted on the southeast-facing wall toward the parking structure)

Pottery of Mata Ortiz

In 1976, an American anthropologist, Spencer MacCallum, sought out and found Juan Quezada, a potter in Mata Ortiz, a small town in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, approximately 100 miles south of the U.S. border. Years earlier, he had been impressed with and purchased one of Quezada’s pieces at a general store and began a search for the artist. With MacCallum’s encouragement, Quezada produced more pottery with the guarantee that all his output would be purchased. As his fame grew, others in his immediate and extended family took up the craft, which is now considered a movement and a genuine folk art.

We ventured into Chimayo Trading del Norte in Ranchos de Taos, where we were immediately struck by Mata Ortiz pottery. The proprietor took the time to explain the distinguishing features of the pottery after we expressed interest and amazement. It is entirely handmade without the use of a potter’s wheel, using a coiling technique that is commonly used throughout the Southwest by native peoples. It is also shaped, polished and painted entirely by hand. The painting technique, often done with brushes made of children’s hair, involves exquisite geometrical and other shapes symmetrically drawn on vessels that are often tapered and rounded at the bottom, requiring ringed collars to support them. The constant experimentation by both male and female potters produces new forms of expression all the time.

We saw more examples of the pottery in Chimayo (affiliated with the gallery in Taos) and Albuquerque.

Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park (outside Santa Barbara, CA)

The Chumash Indians were the dominant people in a portion of southern California that includes Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties. They left behind many examples of rock art throughout this region. The most accessible site is Chumash Painted Cave State Park, just off State Hwy 154. The pictographs, done in red and black polychrome paints, adorn the walls of a small sandstone cave, protected from the public by an iron gate. The symbols are thought to involve Chumash cosmology, but in fact no one really knows.

The art is similar to other pictographs that we saw last year in the Southwest.


St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican, Italy)

After dinner, the tour group returned to Vatican City to see arguably the most famous church in all of Christendom. Huge throngs of people were already flooding St. Peter’s Square.

Burial site for its namesake and numerous popes as well as papal basilica, St. Peter’s Basilica is not only a destination for the Catholic faithful but tourists from all over the world. It is one of the largest churches in the world, spreading over almost 6 acres. Like many other holy sites the world over, which includes many cultures and civilizations throughout history, it is built on top of another holy site, in this case, the basilica built by Emperor Constantine. It is also to be admired artistically. Some of the greatest names of the Renaissance were involved in its construction: Michelangelo, Bernini and Bramante (the architect). Its very splendor and opulence probably lend fuel to the fires of those who find its excesses overwrought. But, it is undeniably a monumental achievement in architecture, art and religious conviction.

The life of St. Peter is depicted on the ceiling of the portico

The dome, the tallest in the world, is a technical achievement, influenced by the dome designs of the Pantheon and Florence Cathedral. Several architects, including Michelangelo, passed away before the dome was completed. Superficially, it looks like the Pantheon’s, the representational “coffering” being instead paintings of 96 Biblical and papal figures, 16 in each of 6 ascending tiers. Unlike the Pantheon, the dome was built oval in shape to reduce compressional forces. There are also 16 windows ringing the dome at the base that provide illumination that on sunny days appears as crepuscular rays. The dome sits on a cylindrical wall, like the Pantheon’s, but which is itself mounted on four massive pillars, connected by spandrels on which each of the four evangelists, Luke, Matthew, John and Mark, is painted, to give an overall impression of stupendous height.

Leading up to the dome, the nave is flanked by pillars on both sides with niches occupied by statues of saints

The ovoid dome rests on a row of 16 clerestory windows, a source of natural illumination

Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Pieta, is also in the basilica, housed in a glass case. He was an unknown sculptor, aged 24, when he completed it from a single piece of marble.

The Pieta by Michelangelo

The great sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini was responsible for some of the basilica’s greatest treasures, created well after the basilica was built. His first commission resulted in the canopy (baldachin) that lies over St. Peter’s tomb and directly below the apex of the dome, possibly the largest work of bronze in the world. The layout of the piazza is entirely his design. It is flanked on two sides by colonnades of two pairs of columns, also his design, topped by statues of 140 saints. The piazza oddly has an Egyptian obelisk in the center, brought to Rome by Emperor Caligula.

Bernini’s baldachin that lies above St. Peter’s tomb

Bernini’s colonnades, topped by statues of saints, virtually ringing the piazza

Swiss guards have been protecting the Vatican since 1506

We wound up spending two hours wandering through this massive edifice. The basilica is breathtaking in its scale and elicits both awe and disquiet.

The Sistine Chapel (Vatican, Italy)

Creation of Adam by Michelangelo (from Wikipedia)

The Sistine Chapel, whose ceiling is adorned with the fresco masterpieces painted by Michelangelo, outside of being the site of Papal conclaves, is more than a destination for tourists. It is arguably one of the great achievements of Renaissance art, even more remarkable for the fact that Michelangelo really didn’t want to do it even when offered the commission by Pope Julius II. After compromises were made by the Pope, notably allowing Michelangelo to paint whatever biblical scenes he wanted, it took Michelangelo four years (1508-1512) to complete over 300 scenes over an area of 5,000 square feet, painted entirely while on his back on a scaffold. While there are masterpieces by other artists here as well, including Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, it is Michelangelo’s ceiling that towers figuratively and literally over all of them.

In order to experience it with as little a crowd around us as possible, Robin, our guide, shuttled us through the Vatican Museum as quickly as possible, even though she did stop occasionally to point out some of the museum’s highlights. In order to do the museum justice, we would have to return on our own, something we didn’t get a chance to do. One of the biggest problems is that it is visited by hordes of people with lines to purchase tickets snaking out well in front of the entrance. When we finally reached the Sistine Chapel, we were awed by its sheer size and the enormity of Michelangelo’s accomplishment, the ceiling almost 70 feet above the floor.

The most famous fresco is likely The Creation of Adam (above), which rests at the center along with two other episodes from the story of Adam and Eve. There are many other scenes from the Bible, which I’m not going to bother to summarize. The cumulative effect of seeing the entire corpus was overwhelming.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (from Wikipedia)

I have no personal photographs to share since no photography was allowed.

Siena Duomo (Italy)

The most striking and imposing architecture in Siena is its Duomo. We were taken there by our guide Annalisa. After some background information, she left us there to explore it on our own. Like any religious structure of this size, it took many years to complete. It’s difficult not to be impressed by its scale, ambition and sumptuousness, its decoration consisting of great works of art and masonry.

Because the façade was being repaired, it was sheathed in a false one of fabric painted to look like the real thing (top image). Facing due west, the façade, considered one of the finest in Italy, has its own interesting history during which construction was begun in 1285 and halted a few times under the supervision of different architects, spanning over almost 100 years, with the result that several architectural styles were incorporated, an odd yet unified combination of Romanesque, French Gothic and Classical.

The striped columns of Siene's Duomo are a decidedly Moorish influence

The striped columns of Siene’s Duomo are a decidedly Moorish influence

Here is one place where, not only do you look upward and marvel at architectural and artistic achievements, but down as well. The entire floor space is covered in mosaic tile that is the combined labor of about 40 artists, evolving from a drilling technique (graffito) to inlaid marble (intarsia) over the almost 200 years it took to complete them. The pavement is so valuable and fragile that much of it is covered up with drop cloths throughout the year, except for a brief time between August and October. Once again, we were fortunate to have seen more than most tourists, even if great sections of the flooring still were gated off to prevent foot traffic. There are 59 panels altogether, representing biblical scenes and important moments in Sienese history.

The Duomo's flooring is an artistic achievement

The Duomo’s flooring is an artistic achievement

Looking up in the nave, you can’t help but notice the plaster busts of 172 popes along the horizontal molding above the arches, although a closer examination shows a repetition of about ten different faces. In the spandrels below them are the busts of 36 Roman emperors. The roof is decorated with a pattern of gold stars against a blue background.

Above the nave are busts of popes and emperors

Above the nave are busts of popes and emperors

The pulpit is an octagonal structure sculpted by Nicola Pisano using Carraran marble, topped with panels of carved reliefs depicting important Biblical events.

Nicola Pisano's pulpit sculpted from Carraran marble

Nicola Pisano’s pulpit sculpted from Carraran marble

There are many other masterpieces in the Duomo, but an interesting adjunct to the cathedral is the Piccolomini Library that commemorates the life of the sponsor’s uncle, Aeneas Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II, and stores his uncle’s book collection. The tribute takes the form of brilliant frescoes along the walls to which a young Raphael is said to have contributed. Combined with the paintings of classical mythological figures and themes in the vault, the effect is stunning on first entry.

The frescoes and artwork in the Piccolomini Library

The frescoes and artwork in the Piccolomini Library

The Duomo was so impressive that we returned there after lunch.