Saturday, February 15, 2014


If you have read this blog previously you will recall that I wrote about the number of religious images where I assumed this revewaled a process of democratization of religious power.  No longer centered in the institution nor in a single image (Christ or Guadalupe) power is transferred to simple images in metal or to photos, posters, small replicas of a saint.  Here I want to talk briefly about the history of this process.
Is this just an example of consumer "stuff" or is it a display of power?

I have been reading Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton and found it fascinating and challenging.  His basic thesis is that as the West became increasingly secularized we began to dismiss any religion (God was dead) and in this process we threw out the baby with the bathwater - or perhaps throwing out the bathwater with the baby.  After 2500 years of history we havediscarded everything  these religions knew about the problems of the "soul"and the building of community.  I will return to this book in a separate post but here only want to report on a little history.

The Romans had many gods and deities resulting in a multitude of temples and alters.  Each of these gods were believed to have a special power and so were sought out by those with specific needs.  In 312 AD Emperor Constantine was on his way to an important battle when he had a vision during the night.   In this vision he saw an image of a Christian word above him.  He awoke and had his troops paint this image on their shields.  They were successful in the battle and he believed it was due to the Christian image.  He subsequently legitimized Christianity by converting.   The Christians, not being fools, set about replacing all of the images and temples of the Romans with their own alters and temples.  Many of these placed a deity with a specific characteristic which corresponded to what was considered sacred locally.  As a result there were saints who performed miracles, others who provided relief for dental problems, marital problems, and so on.  In about 411 AD the Christian church declared that a simple piece of linen could be used to touch a sacred image and thus transfer the power of that image thus allowing you to take this power to your home.  As a result a market was created for a multitude of "handkerchiefs" as well as replica saints.   This is the process of democratization I referred to in an earlier post.  Attaching specific deities to a local location also fostered, probably unintentionally, travel which was to be undertaken for enlightenment and problems of the "soul".  (Now travel is to provide us with entertainment, knowledge or just as a time to see the sights - but what sights do we see?)

When the Spanish conquered Mexico they introduced the same polices.   When ever they found a site sacred to the local people they erected a cross or built a church.  I recently visited the city of Puebla and small town of Cholula.  In each of these locations you can't help but be struck by the number of beautiful churches.  In Cholula which was a sacred site for the large pre-columbian population Cortez vowed to build 365 church, one to replace every temple he had destroyed.  I think you would be hard pressed to find all these churches but there are indeed many churches and some of the most amazing in the county. One of these is the church of the Virgen de los Remedios begun in 1574 (replacing a cross that had twice been destroyed by lightening.  The image of the Virgin (only 27 cm high) was apparently brought from Spain with one of Cortez's troops who buried it after a terrible defeat by the Aztecs.  During the next battle the Spanish troops saw a young girl throwing dirt into the eyes of the Aztecs resulting in their defeat   Perhaps the young girl was the Virgin herself .  The image was thought to have brought them success.    The church itself is built on top of one of the great pyramids of the world.  Cortez probably wasn't aware that a pyramid was there as it had been vacated and was covered in trees and grass. Exploration of the pyramid was first begun in 1930 and while a small section has been reconstructed it is still covered in grass and trees.  The image of the Virgin was first referred to as Our Lady of Victory, but in 1594 was renamed the Virgin of Remedies. For the indigenous peoples the site was associated with the god of rain.   It is still a sacred site for the indigenous population (being one of several sites visited by the Conchero dancers each year) as well as for Catholics.
A view of Los Remedios as you climb up the pyramid.

The small section of reconstruction with the top of Los Remedios just showing on top of the pyramid.

Inside of Los Remedios with the small virgin (27cm tall) above the alter.

These few details helped me to see that the process of the Christianization of Mexico was not unique and the presence of a plethora of religious images goes back almost 1600 years.

A few more words on the image of the Virgin.  Upon seeing the Virgin I was convinced it was the same image as found in Patzcuaro, Neustra Senora de la Salud.  Although the image in Patzcuaro is much larger and made by the local idigenous population of pasta de cana it bears a remarkable likeness to that at Los Remedios.  One exception is that the Virgin of Los Remedios is carrying a small Christ child in her am.  One often wonders where Vasco de Quirroga found the inspiration for his image; it now seems possible it may have come from Cholula.  Indeed he may have known the image in Spain.
A photo of the replica of the Virgin of Los Remedios.  Notice the moon at the bottom and in her hands there is a small Christ child.

La Senora de la Salud during a pilgrimage in Patzcuaro.  Notice that she holds a rosary in her hands (but the original in the basilica has a small moon at her feet).

Reading:  Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists.

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