Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mexican Christs: Cristos de Caña

Cathedral, Merida, Yucatan

Christ carried in Good Friday procession, Merida, Yucatan (Mary is visible behind)

In my last post, "Converting Christianity", I spoke of the transformation of Spanish Catholicism in its encounter with the indigenous faiths of Mexico.  The same occurred in the rest of Mesoamerica, as well and we will explore some of this in later posts.  This photo of the tortured Christ, which I saw carried in procession this past Good Friday in Merida is one of many such statues you will see in  the churches of Mexico.  They are made from corn in a process that I will describe and for this reason are known as Cristos de Caña, or Corn Christs. 

The one thing that all these statues have in common is that they are bloody, very bloody.
Take a look:

San Miguel Arcangel Church, Mani, Yucatan

San Juan Bautista Church, Coyoacan, MX

Santa Cruz, New Mexico

Figures like these need to be light-weight because they were and are frequently carried in religious processions.  A material that had been used in pre-Hispanic times was a kind of paper mache made of corn products.  The indigenous sculptors  actually held workshops to teach the process to the Christian priests and their workers.

To make the material  the corn husk was opened and the pith removed. A framework was made of  dried maize leaves fastened together and then covered with a mixture of corn pith paste and a sticky substance from orchid bulbs. After it was dry, a fine layer of the paste was spread over it and modeled. The red color used in the blood came from insects that fed on the fruit of the sacred (to the Aztecs) nopal cactus.

The materials that form these Christs were full of symbolism and significance for the indigenous.  Corn had been an Aztec god and maize was a sacred life-giving food. In these Corn Christs the two symbol systems, Christian and indigenous, are merged creating something that is completely new.  In their own unique way, they are a god within a god.

There has been much scholarly speculation as to why these figures are universally so bloody. True, there had been precedents in bloody Passion-week Spanish figures of Christ.  But, for the meso-american indigenous, the bloodiness had a different meaning and this is the point of view espoused by Jennifer Scheper Hughes.  If we think back to their religious practices, a lot of blood was involved because of the sacrificial tradition.  The Aztec priests are described as having been blood-covered from head to toe.  When you consider that one of the ways Jesus was described in scripture was as the "Great High Priest", it would make sense for those trying to "sell" the indigenous converts on Christ to make these Christs resemble the Aztec priests of old.  In the Aztec tradition, blood had meant power and the bloodiness of these figures is something the indigenous would have immediately understood and revered.  Remember, part of the conversion effort was to convince the indigenous that the new god was more powerful than the old ones and the bloodiness of the Christ figures is believed to have been a part of this initial effort. 

You may have noticed that in one of the photos, the Christ is lying in a glass casket.  This is a specific representation of Christ, Santo Entierro, that you will see in every Mexican church.  It is Christ, but a very particular representation of Him with a very specific use during Holy Week. We will explore this in my next post.

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