Monday, April 1, 2013

Deciphering Mexico's Marys

Oratorio of St. Felipe Neri, San Miguel d'Allende, MX

When considering the images of Mary in Mexico, the first  question that comes to mind is why so many? In Mexico you are confronted by an assortment of Marys - upwards of 100 different kinds; the diocese of Monterrey claims thirty-nine and that of San Luis Potosi twenty-four.  This array of Marys can be confusing, particularly to the North American eye accustomed to religious minimalism.  Despite the centrality of Jesus in Christianity, it is clear that in Mexico Mary is queen.  Notice the placement of this figure of Mary in the altar below.  Mary is centrally located so that she is your focus  when looking up from a kneeling position. 

San Miguel d'Allende as above

The Spanish brought an intense devotion to Mary with them to the new world.  It was Mary whose image was on their battle standards and Mary was likely the first Christian image seen by many indigenous.  When Cortes claimed Montezuma's temple for himself, a statue of Mary was used to replace that of the deity who had occupied the spot.  Mary was a living presence for the Spanish and became the same for the converted indigenous. 

Yet, theologically, Jesus Christ is the central message of Christianity.  It is Jesus, his birth, ministry and Passion, that are the main concern of the New Testament.   Mary is mentioned and we are told that Mary is a faithful servant of God and that she is the mother of Jesus, but church dogma, doctrines that define Mary's relationship with God and the role that she played in Salvation, took centuries to be settled.

The Church's answer to Mary's identity can be found in the Marian dogmas which took almost 2,000 years to finalize.   These are Divine Motherhood (Council of Ephesus 431),  Perpetual Virginity (end of 2nd century CE), Immaculate Conception (in Spanish, Immaculada),  that Mary was without original sin, 1854, Assumption (Sp. Asuncion), that after her death Mary was taken up body and soul into Heaven, 1950.  All of the artistic representations of Mary that you will see basically fit into one of these categories, although many are hybrid as would be expected with the numerous local representations or advocations of Mary.

 These advocations (and I repeat, there are many)  are specific instances of Mary typically centering on some miracle, that the Church has deemed worthy of belief.   Sometimes a particular religious image involves both a dogma and an advocation.  For instance, La Immaculada (dogma of the Immaculate Conception)  is particularly revered in specific ways in the Yucatan, where she is also the Patron Saint.   

Nuestra Senora de Izamal

To share with you how this all plays out in real life, I turn to  a conversation I had with a local woman in the ex-convento of San Miguel Arcangel in Mani Yucatan the Wednesday of Holy Week last year.  The thin black shawl she wears was characteristic of  the local women I saw in rural Yucatan churches during that week.  She stands in front of the main altar of this beautiful church which dates from the 15th century.

in San Miguel Arcangel, Mani

She was a willing and animated informant and when I asked her about the statues of Mary in the church, she spent some time explaining the Marys, including their special roles and inter-relationships.  Here is her understanding of the Marys in the church, as well as some who were not represented there: 
  • Virgen de la Luz (light) whom she said gave children. 
  • Virgen de los Ojos ("eyes")  who she said cured problems with the eyes. She said this Virgin is a cousin of the next  two in the list.
  • Virgen Asuncion-( Virgin of the Assumption) who is the sister of 
  • Virgen Concepcion (La Immaculada Concepcion or La Immaculada), the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, also Patroness of the Yucatan whose image was shown above.
Two other Marys that she mentioned by name, but who were not represented in the church, were:
  • Virgen del Carmen (Our Lady of Mt. Carmel)
  • Virgen Dolorosa (Mary dressed in mourning black following the death of Jesus)
Please understand that her list was by no means complete and there may have been some theological and iconographic inconsistencies in her understanding, but I share her information because the intimacy with which she spoke about the images portrays a typical Mexican outlook on Mary. The relationships that people there have with these images are very personal and transactional.  They are approachable figures, almost human, and are regularly asked for favors which they often seem to grant.  My informant's understanding of familial relationships among the Virgin figures was something I had not run into before and perhaps  is more common in rural areas.

Here are some images of the Mary's referenced by my informant.  

"Virgen de los Ojos", Mani, Yucatan
After researching this figure, I think she may have actually been talking about the Virgin de la Salud- health.

Virgen Concepcion, Mani, Yucatan

Virgen de Dolores, Merida, Yucatan

Virgen del Carmen, Cathedral Mexico City

It is interesting that she did not mention Guadalupe, the Patron Saint of Mexico whose altar was present in the church at Mani.  Perhaps she assumed I would know about her or perhaps there was a deeper reason related to the Yucatan identity and the fact that the patron saint of the Yucatan is La Immaculada.   Yet, shrines to Guadalupe are a fixture in the Yucatan as they are all over Mexico. 

To understand the large number of individual identities of Mary,  we need to turn back to the necessities of the evangelization of  Mexico.  In my March 24 post, entitled "Converting Christianity", I wrote about the accommodations the Church had to make to pre-existing local beliefs and deities in order for Christianity to take root.   Scholars believe that the multiplicity of local Marys that evolved were rooted in indigenous goddesses  transformed by conventions of Christian belief and iconography.  This was definitely the case with Guadalupe of Tepeyac, now Patron Saint of Mexico, who will be discussed in greater depth in a future post.


1 comment:

  1. Wonderful research! As a child, I remember the many homes in New Orleans with "Mary Grottos" prominently displayed in the yard or elsewhere in the interiors of many homes. I always accepted that it was the devout Catholic heritage of the city. Perhaps it stemmed from the early Spanish influence in New Orleans which brought the arches and the custom of hanging portraits of the Saints alongside family portraits in the living areas.
    Interesting that here many little girls are named Mary or Marie; the early French families named their little girls Marie hyphen as in Marie-Charlotte, Marie-Elise, etc. In contrast, I have known girls of Spanish heritage named Asuncion, Luz, Guadelupe, Dolores, Carmen, etc to honor the Virgin.---Liz de B