Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Chimayó: "The Lourdes of America"

Chapel of the Lord of Esquipulas, Chimayó NM

 New Mexico's  license plates proclaim bear the slogan "Land of Enchantment" and this is an apt description of the state in so many ways;  the land itself is beautiful and the culture is suffused with spirituality of both indigenous and Christian.  New Mexico has unique churches with religious art that is not like anything you will see anywhere else.  Among these is the Shrine of Chimayó with it's Chapel of the Lord of Esquipulas tucked back in the hills about 28 miles outside of Santa Fe.  It is a very peaceful, quiet, meditative place but it is also sometimes called the "Lourdes of North America" after the France's famous healing center because it is also a place where many come seeking miraculous healing. 

Chimayó is among the top eight Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites in North America
and receives about 300,000 visitors a year; during Holy Week Chimayó is visited by some 30,000 pilgrims.  In 1970 Chimayó was declared a National HIstoric Landmark.
(Please note that all photos can be enlarged by clicking on them).

Chapel of the Lord of Esquipulas, Chimayó, New Mexico

The Chimayó complex spreads over several acres and includes meditation gardens, two chapels  and  an outdoor altar for masses.  The chapel shown in the photograph 
is the heart of the shrine.  Originally, it was a private chapel built between 1813-1816 by Bernardo Abeyta, a leader of the Penitentes, a group of devout laymen devoted to the Passion of Christ and to helping their communities.  The Penitentes grew up  during the time in New Mexican history when there were few priests in the area, filling the void left by the absence of clergy and keeping the Catholic faith alive for the people.  Abeyta commissioned the now-famous santeros Antonio Molleno, José Aragon and José Rafael Aragon to create the four altar screens (reredos) along the sides of the nave of the chapel. 

Christ of Esquipulas, Chimayó, NM

The photo above show the Christ of Esquipulas for whom the chapel was founded. There are differing stories about the origins of this very important crucifix.  One relates a miraculous finding of this cross by Bernardo Abeyta on Good Friday in 1810 while other sources claim that Abeyta had the santero Antonio Molleno carve it.  Abeyta himself was reported to have had an interest in the worship of Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas from Esquipulas, Guatemala, a devotion which is associated with the eating of a fine sand-like clay believed to have healing powers.  Chimayó similarly has "holy dirt" believed by many to have healing powers.  

"Pocito" with Chimayó's Holy Dirt


The chapel is a holy space for those who come there to worship.  Worshippers are surrounded by images of the saints and holy figures that form the center of their spiritual lives. These painted santos and statues (bultos) for them connect heaven and earth and through them there is access to the heavenly realm. The altarpieces  of Chimayó are classic examples of New Mexican santero art executed by masters of the trade. 

 The altars display two different kinds of santos:  flat-painted pictures (retablos) and three-dimensional statues (bultos). Although the santo is not the saint it represents it takes on in its holiness and functions as a kind of go-between the earthly and heavenly realms. 

Main Altar, Chimayó

Historically, It was their relationship with these santos  that gave the people of  New Mexico  a sense of control and security in their perilous environment. They turned to these retablos and bultos  in times of danger or need.  Scholar Thomas J. Steele describes the santos as "the parts of a power system that reached from heaven to earth and controlled hell" and listed 143 saints  prayed to by the New Mexican people. The relationship that people had with their santos was very personal. When a santo answered prayers they were rewarded (a fiesta or new dress for a statue) and when petitions were not fulfilled, a santo might be punished by being turned to face the wall.

 In the above main altar,  clockwise from the top left the symbols are: Cross with the lance and rod with the sponge, a heart and the four wounds (all symbols of Christ's Passion), Franciscan emblem- crossed arms of Christ and St. Francis, crown of thorns and three nails, symbolic representation of Psalm 22,Virgin Mary, grapes, a symbol of Christs' blood, Crucifix of Our Lord of Esquipulas, two angels, St. John, stalk of wheat symbolizing Bread of Life. You will also notice geometric designs on the sides of the altarpiece.

Entering the chapel the first altarpiece you come to on your left was probably executed 
by the santero José Aragon of Chamisal, NM.   

Altar by José Aragon, Chimayo, NM

The bulto, the carved figure behind the glass at the bottom center is the
 Archangel Raphael. Beginning clockwise to his left:  Archangel Gabriedl, St. Francis of Assisi, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of the Lakes, St. Anthony of Padua and in the middle center is St. Jerome.  At the very top of the altar there is a painting of God the Father, as seen in the photo below.

God the Father, Chimayó, NM

The second altarpiece you come to on the left was probably painted by José Aragon. At its top is an image of the Holy Trinity shown as three men that was very typical of the iconography of the time.  In the row below the top from left to right are Archangel Raphael, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Archangel Michael.  In the second row (left to right) are San Juan Nepomuceno, a large bulto of Jesus Nazareno and St. Joseph with the Christ Child. At bottom left is St. Anthony of Padua painted by Enrique Rendon and at the bottom right is St. Francis of Assisi by Horacio Valdez.

Altar, Chimayó, NM

Bulto of Jesus Nazareno, Chimayó, NM

At the top of this altarpiece is a representation of the Trinity as it is often and uniquely painted in Latin American, as three men.  This way of showing the Trinity had been outlawed by the Church but was nevertheless used throughout colonial Latin America.

Trinity detail at top of altarpiece, Chimayó, NM

Entering the chapel this is the first altarpiece you will see on your right was painted by
Antonio Molleno.  It is topped by the shell design characteristic of this artist.  In the top row from left to right on the top row are St. Dominic, the Cross of Esquipulas, and Our Lady of Sorrows.  I the bottom row are St. Cajetan, a bulto of St. Cajetan by Alex Ortiz and St. Francis Xavier.

Altarpiece, Chimayó, NM

The chapel's final altarpiece, which is the second on your right as you enter was painted by the School of José Rafael Aragon.  At the top there is a dove that represents the Holy Spirit.  In the top row from left to right are St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Joseph with Jesus as a child, St. Gertrude the Great.  In the bottom row, left to right, are St. Rosalie of Palermo, a bulto whose identity can be changed by changing the dress and St. Clare of Assisi.

Altarpiece, Chimayó, NM
Holy Spirit in the for of a Dove, Chimayó, NM

Jesus and the Penitentes:

Contemporary statue of Christ in Penitente Style
The Passion of Christ was the focus of the Penitentes and it is this striking statue of Jesus greets visitors as they enter the chapel.  The statues favored by the Penitentes were characterized by large hands as this statue very clearly displays.  The location of this statue directly after the entrance is more or less a mark of identity of the chapel as a Penitente locale.  This group was often at odds with the Catholic Church and in the latter part of the 19th century, the Church attempted to suppress them but in 1947, they were reconciled with and recognized by the Church.

Santo Entierro, Christ in the Tomb, is not unique to the Penitentes, and is a representation found in almost all Latin American Churches. 
Santo Entierro, Chimayó, NM

However, representations of Santo Entierro in New Mexico are very unique, because they portray Jesus waking up in the tomb.  His arm has moved from it's side and if you look closely, you can see his mouth opening.  This is not found elsewhere in Latin America.

Pocito:  Holy Dirt Room:

Sign inside the Pocito, Chimayô, NM
Inside a room to the side of the main chapel, there is a very small circular pit of sand-like dirt that is said to have healing capacities.  Visitors put quantities of this dirt in paper bags or other containers to put on ailing body parts.

Holy Dirt, Chimayô, NM
The room is quite small and only a few people can fit in at one time.  On the shelves that line the room are objects that pilgrims have brought as gifts.

Inside the Pocito, Chimayô,NM

Santo Niño Chapel:

The Santo Niño chapel is adjacent to the Pocito and it is where people post photos and bring gifts to express gratitude for hearings or hoped-for healings.

Photos of Pilgrims, Chimayó NM

Santo Niño Chapel, Chimayô, NM

Santo Niño de Atocha is a devotion that came from Spain in the 12th century.
Very briefly, there was a child who repeatedly showed up in a prison bringing food and water for the prisoners.  This child had not been sent by the families of the men and the belief came to be that this unknown child was the child Jesus. There is also a legend that there was a statue of Mary with young Jesus and that the child would repeatedly go missing and this was incorporated into the Santo Niño de Atocha legend. 

Santo Niño de Atocha, Chimayó, NM

Small Shrine that contains the Santo Niño in the photo above, Chimayo, NM

Chimayó is a place that is beloved by many, many people. Generally, photography is not permitted, but through an application process it is possible to get permission, as I was able to do recently.  The administration wants to make sure that the photos will be used in a way that respects the beliefs of the faith and treats the shrine with respect.

The Shrine of Chimayó is a beautiful, peaceful place that can be taken on many levels by visitors.  For some it is simply a peaceful, beautiful place, for others, an opportunity to see  important pieces of New Mexican santo art,  for the devout it is a place to pray surrounded by the saints to whom they are devoted and for those needing healing it is a place to come hoping for a miracle.    

There will always be skepticism about miracles, but we need to remember that the place where miracles happen is within people.  As a professor of mine who is also a Catholic priest once said about the Virgin of Guadalupe, the real miracle is what she does for the people who believe in her, for the hope she gives to them.  The same can be said of Chimayó.

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