Monday, December 5, 2011


Apologies to Max Harris for overusing his 2003 book titled Carnival.  Several of the essays contained there have given me guidance in understanding my experiences.   But, please read Harris for yourself.

Pilgrims returning multiple images of the black Jesus which have visited the original black Jesus in another town.  My understanding is these images will rotate among the homes of the more faithful of the pueblo.   The dancers on either side are Arqueros (a version of the Matachines).
Not being Catholic I have always been struck by the number of religious images in Mexico.  As a protestant I was raised with the beliefs that follow from this bible quotation: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images.  (Ex. 20:4)   There is a great deal of debate even within Protestantism as to the meaning of this, but for Catholics God appears to be everywhere so can certainly be in a man-made object.  It is quite common to see a representation of a saint or of the Virgin being paraded through the streets and when you enter the homes of the working poor or the rural poor you might become aware of  the absence of what we might call “art”.  Instead the walls are often bare or if there is anything hanging there it might be a religious calendar, a mass produced image of a saint or the Virgin or something handed out at a religious festival.  I recently picked up a book-mark sized image of Pope John  Paul II when his relics passed through Patzcuaro.   I picked up a playing card sized image of Don Vasco on one of the few days his mausoleum was open.  I was given an image of Guadalupe when I passed through the church on her “day” to be blessed.   On Palm Sunday most people purchase a palm and these have usually been worked into a stylized image of Jesus or the Virgin.  On one saints day I noted that people were given long-stemmed gladiolas.   You also almost always find a small alter in the home, usually with a simple religious image, some flowers, a candle or two and perhaps an object or two.  You also may find alters in the doctor’s office (perhaps an image of “Dr. Jesus” with a stethoscope around his neck); you know you are in good hands. 
One of many stalls selling religious  images. 

The central image in Mexico is that of the Virgin (and Queen) Guadalupe and the most powerful image is that of the Virgin that appeared on the tunic of Juan Diego, the first person (a poor, indigenous, rural farmer) to be visited by Guadalupe. (It is important to keep in mind that in this founding story it was an indigenous person who first saw Guadalupe and he was instructed to speak to the local priest.) This image of Guadalupe is centrally controlled (the image never leaves the wall of the Basilica in Mexico City); not by the indigenous people’s themselves, but  by the religious hierarchy, few if any of whom are indigenous.   The skeptical might argue that the story of Juan Diego and the tunic with its image were creations of the Mexican Creole (those Mexicans born in Mexico of Spanish parents) who wanted to attract the indigenous population to Catholicism.  It was a device to attract the attention of the indigenous peoples.  However, the image never had much importance for the Indigenous peoples until Miguel Hidalgo (himself a Creole and annoyed about his group’s exclusion from political power) used the image in the first revolutionary steps towards independence from Spain.  Since then the image has appeared everywhere, mugs, tea towels, t-shirts, playing cards, greeting cards, and on and on.  And, the story and its image have become widely loved by indigenous peoples.  In this sense the image was taken from the central church and at least symbolically off the walls of the Basilica and placed in every aspect of peoples lives.   As I write this post we are approaching the fiesta for Guadalupe and almost daily an image (sometimes quite elaborate and others a simple painted depiction) goes through the streets with a few people following and bearing witness to their faith before returning to a local church.  Harris puts it this way:

Power thus spreads from the single sacred image, controlled by clergy, to the many images that live daily with the folk.  Power is refracted and diffused; sacred space is decentralized.  If the more powerful control the image at the center of the sacred space, the less powerful multiply the image, extending power to the margins.

 He argues that the multiple representations of religious figures is an indication of the ways in which spiritual power is (infinitely) divisible and often taken into the hands of local people themselves.  Spiritual power may be central and controlled centrally but it can soon move out into the community, to people’s homes and even to their clothing.  It can do this without taking the image itself.  As we have seen in other posts, I can touch the image and thus take some spiritual power home with me.  In one church where they distributed gladiolas to pilgrims they often tied a stick to the flower in order to lift the flower high enough to make contact with the painting of a sacred image.   To conclude, we can return to where this post began.  The homes of the rural power may have no art in some sense of the word but they do have multiple very ordinary images that presumably are thought to have some power (and perhaps even some beauty).

In a separate essay (also in Carnival, 2003) Harris suggests that much of Western theology (and other aspects of society) is built on a belief in scarcity - you have to choose A or B - there is never enough to go around.   But he suggests, folk theology prefers to believe that you can choose A and B, that is spiritual power can be divided and divided.  God is indeed generous.  It was in reading these few simple lines that I came to really understand the importance of the concept of “folk”.   Folk music, folk art, folk theology ad folk medicine have in common that they have their origins outside of the standards, belies, values and so on of the central authorities (priests, art historians, medical schools, etc.).  In the same fashion Guadalupe (or Mary) of the centralized church can become Maringullia of the folk dance, Malinche, or Tonantzin (the female godess of the Mexica of central Mexico).

Postscript:  Just as I finished this post I was in the Basilica when a Pilgrimage arrived with their image of Salud (the more important image of Mary in this pueblo).  Followed by the brass band which filled the sacred space, the local Virgin (a copy so to speak) came face to face with the real Virgin (the older image that is), but only for a moment.   The copy was quickly ushered into a back room and out of sight of the original.  While images can multiply and perhaps sacred power be distributed, it appeared that it wasn’t quite correct to have the two images in the same space.
Postscript 2:  I was recently in a restaurant in Morelia  (bearing a religious name) where there were 100 or more images of religious figures and they were all standing on their heads.  That is they were all turned upside down.  Was this just marketing or was their a political message?

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