Written by Sherry
Thursday, 29 March 2007 15:09
Since moving to southern Colorado, on the very border of historic Spanish America (the Arkansas river 40 miles south of us was once the boundary of New Spain), I've enjoyed becoming familiar with Spanish colonial art and especially the popular devotional art of Mexico and New Mexico.
Next week, many pilgrims will come on pilgrimage to San Luis, the oldest town in Colorado to the La Mesa de la Piedad y de la Misericordia” (or The Mesa of Piety and Mercy). A series of gripping, life-like bronze sculptures are presented along a path that winds up a nearby mesa to an adobe chapel. The monument is the work of local artist Huberto Maestas, whose initial works on the shrine were presented to Pope John Paul II and are currently in the permanent collection of the Vatican Museum.
My Baptist gut was reeling a bit as I wandered through the museums in Santa Fe because nothing could be further from the aesthetic of the fundamentalism in which I was raised than popular Spanish devotional art.
I was completely stymied by one bulto, a small statue of a plain, unidentified woman in a long dress with seven . . .count 'em . . .seven swords plunged into her torso. It took me several minutes to grasp who she was: Our Lady of the Seven Dolours, of course!
The Protestant mind regards the "sword" that would pierce Mary's soul as a metaphor for her emotional and spiritual distress over her son's rejection, suffering and death. But the residents of New Spain didn't go in much for metaphors. The more concrete, graphic and gorier, the more devout you were. Why stop with one sword when you could have seven? I found myself wondering if the artist would have used more swords if Mary's frail torso could have accomodated them. In portraying the sorrows of Our Lady, there are apparently no such thing as too much.
The picture to the right is a 19th century retablo "La Mano Poderosa," or "The Powerful Hand" The five figures at the top represent Anne, Mary, Baby Jesus, Joseph and Joachim. In the lower quadrant, blood is flowing from the stigmata into an open gold chalice which is received by the seven sacrificial lambs below.
My favorites: the delightful ex-votos. Testimonies (a term that warms the evangelical heart) on tin. Ex-votos are small paintings of answered prayers and gratitude that combine a picture of the crisis with a written version of the story as well. The grateful recipient of the favor puts it up in their local church as an act of gratitude and praise.
So, Christ with a Van Dyke beard asleep in his four poster bed on a fluffy white cloud is awakened by the desperate prayer of some penitent below. (The Charles I Van Dyke beard with huge lace collar and large brimmed hat with feather trim was a very popular look well into the 19th century. I was smitten by a painting of the Trinity in a colonial church which basically looked like Charles the Father, Charles the Son, and Charles the Holy Spirit.)
Ex-votos date back to 16th century Italy but become hugely popular in Spain and therefore, Spainish America.
(The ex-voto above is dated 1853. The woman in bed was so ill that she was in danger of dying, after invoking the Virgin as the Immaculate Conception, she was cured and her mother gives thanks for the favor. Notice: the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was not defined until 1854.)
Of course, I can't leave this topic without sharing this popular image of the famous Dominican preacher, St. Vincent Ferrar, as an angel. Certainly all the Dominicans I've ever known were angelic. Wouldn't you agree, Br. Matthew?
I stood in those old adobe churches and wondered: if this art was all the catechesis you have access to, how would those who worshipped in these little villages have understood the faith?
Theirs was a hard world, full of poverty, hard work, little or no education, and few remedies for disease or disaster. Many times there was no priest available. Penitential brotherhoods who whipped themselves bloodly were a major force in Spanish colonial Catholicism.
Would you have known that God loved you? Would it have been a relationship or would the Church and the sacraments and the saints be regarded in a magical light?
What would it have been like?