Saint Santiago, patron saint of the Church of Kunotambo in Peru, is adorned with a ceremonial cape at the church's reopening and rededication ceremony.

Felícitas Cárdenas, the president of the community of Kuñotambo, places the ceremonial cape on the statue of Saint Santiago, patron saint of the church of Kuñotambo.

High in the Peruvian Andes sits the Comunidad Campesina Kuñotambo, a remote village founded in the seventeenth century. With a population of only 500, the isolated community is close-knit  and full of civic pride. Over the centuries, the village has suffered frequent and destructive earthquakes, which are unfortunately common in the Andes. One of the community’s most important buildings—its beautiful and historic church—was among the earthquakes’ victims. A series of seismic events heavily damaged the church’s roof, walls, and foundation, causing the building to be shuttered altogether around 2005.

Aerial view of a village in the Andes, with a cluster of buildings built of earth and surrounded by farming fields

View of the Andean village of Kuñotambo. The church, seen at the edge of the ridge, is the largest structure in the village. Its detached bell tower is located to the left of the central road. Photo: Scott S. Warren

Yesterday the residents of Kuñotambo celebrated the reopening and rededication of their beloved church after ten years of painstaking conservation work. The project was an international partnership between the Getty Conservation Institute and the Dirección Desconcentrada de Cultura de Cusco.

Peru’s vice-minister of culture, the bishop of Cusco (the nearest city to Kuñotambo), members of the Conservation Institute project team, and Getty president Jim Cuno were among the attendees.

The day included a special mass, a rededication, and the presentation of a handmade Peruvian cape for the patron saint of the town, Santiago Apóstol, from the Getty.

A procession in the streets of Kunotamo, an Andean village in Peru. People carry a sculpture of the Saint Santiago.

The procession of the statue of Saint Santiago, patron saint of the church of Kuñotambo.

Getty President Jim Cuno holds hands with Felicitas Cardenas on the steps of the Church of Kunotambo.

Jim Cuno greets Felícitas Cárdenas, the president of the community of Kuñotambo.

Celebratory confetti rains down on a group of people standing on the steps of the Church of Kunotambo after it was christened.

Jim Cuno and Guillermo Cortés, Vice Minister of Culture of Peru, after christening the church with a jar of chicha, a traditional Peruvian drink.

A Model Project for Conserving Buildings Made of Earth

The Church of Kuñotambo is the centerpiece of the village, acting both as a house of worship and as a gathering place for community events. Owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cusco, the church has been in continuous use since its original construction in 1681. The church was built with thick mud brick (adobe) walls, and its interior features beautifully executed wall paintings depicting saints and other Christian motifs from the same period.

Earthen architecture—like the kind seen at the church, the village of Kuñotambo, and across Latin America—is one of the oldest and most widespread building types in the world. Despite its long history, however, it faces many threats to its preservation. Buildings made of earth can be extremely vulnerable to earthquakes, subject to weakening and even sudden collapse, especially if they are poorly maintained.

The Getty Conservation Institute has focused on this problem for a decade through its Seismic Retrofitting Project. The goal is to adapt high-tech retrofitting techniques to improve the ability of earthen structures to withstand earthquakes. This means adjusting technology to match the equipment, materials, and technical skills available where earthen buildings are found. The Church of Kuñotambo is one of four Peruvian buildings selected as a case study for this project, and it is the first of the four to be completed.

These ten years of work have enabled the Conservation Institute to develop and road-test new technologies and techniques that will help save earthen buildings not only within Peru, but across Latin America. The Institute has already started publishing its findings in Spanish and English, so that communities across the region can apply these techniques to their own earthen heritage to make buildings seismically safe.

“This project demonstrates how research can lead to practical solutions that have broad applicability,” said Susan Macdonald, head of field projects at the Conservation Institute. “It also demonstrates how conservation professionals can work effectively with a local community to protect a treasured part of their cultural heritage from a long-term threat.”

Close-up view of a church made of earth and bricks. Bricks are exposed, and cracks in the wall are visible.

The Church of Santiago Apóstol in Kuñotambo prior to seismic retrofitting and preservation. Photo: Scott S. Warren

Interior of a church made of wood and earth showing wall paintings of two saints. The walls are water-damaged and show cracks and wear

Detail of wall paintings in the Church of Santiago Apóstol in Kuñotambo prior to cleaning and conservation. Photo: Scott S. Warren

The Revitalization of Kuñotambo

The project at Kuñotambo was no small one. When work began a decade ago, the church was in a very fragile state. The roof leaked and lacked adequate framing. Exterior buttresses had been lost, weakening the walls. The foundation had settled, causing walls to lean and separate from the main structure.

The Conservation Institute and its project partners used a variety of engineering technologies to understand the church’s seismic behavior and develop a retrofitting plan that used local materials and expertise. This is important for the Getty’s conservation field projects, as it enables communities to carry out the long-term care of their heritage. In conjunction with this work, wall paintings conservators joined the team to consolidate the church’s wall paintings before the retrofitting of the site.

In collaboration with local partners, the team strengthened the church’s foundation, rebuilt some of the supporting buttresses, installed new structural elements, and reconstructed the roof—all using traditional materials. The team also created a new protocol for the cleaning and interpretation of the wall paintings, which they later used during construction.

Inside an adobe church, a woman in work clothes speaks to a group of seven Peruvian men, who listen attentively.

Claudia Cancino, Getty Conservation Institute project specialist and project manager, meets with a group of local representatives from Kuñotambo to present the plan for retrofitting the church. Photo: Scott S. Warren

Interior view of a wood-framed structure with large black plastic sheets protecting the walls at left and right

Protecting the wall paintings in the Church of Santiago Apóstol during the church’s seismic retrofitting phase. Photo: Getty Conservation Institute staff

The exterior of the church of Kunotambo, it has a white smooth finish.

Exterior of the church of Kuñotambo after conservation.

The interior of the church showing wall paintings and the bell tower outside at dusk.

Interior view of the wall paintings and statue of Saint Santiago, patron saint of the church of Kuñotambo with the bell tower.

The result of these conservation efforts is a church that can once again serve the people of Kuñotambo. There is already a full schedule of weddings and baptisms planned there in the coming months, and if the recent celebration is any indication, the church will have many years of continued care and support from the community.

“We are very pleased with the long-term collaboration with the Getty Conservation Institute and the results of the conservation project at Kuñotambo,” said Ulla Sarela Holquist Pachas, minister of culture of Peru.

The Getty is already preparing to tackle another case study this year—the conservation of the Cathedral of Ica, also in Peru. You can read more here about the Getty’s ongoing work in standing up to earthquakes, and see video of Ica Cathedral in its current condition.

A large group stand for a photo in front of the Church of Kunotambo

All who attended the ceremony