Saturday, January 9, 2016

Queen Saint Esther: A Lost World Within an Image

Bulto of Queen Esther, by Raymond Lopez, Santa Fe, NM

Queen Esther was a hero to the conversos (also called maranos or Crypto-Jews),  the Spanish Jews who had converted to Catholicism to survive the anti-Judaism developing in Spain around the 14th century. Ferdinand and Isabella established the Inquisition in 1478 after which it became very risky to continue the observance of Judaism as many of the forced converts had been doing. Although some of these conversos had left their Jewish roots behind, others as Queen Esther had in her time, lived two lives. Surfacely, they conformed to the social expectations of Catholic observance but within their homes they maintained a hidden observance of Judaism that over time bore little resemblance to the original religion. 

Although it is a minor book of the Bible, the Book of Esther and the holiday associated with it, Purim, was a favorite of the conversos.   Like them, Esther had gone undercover with her Jewish identity, as Queen of Persia, to save her people from the tyrant Haman.  She was an inspiration to the Spanish Jews who, like her, had hidden their identities to save themselves and their people from the tyranny of Spain and the Inquisition.

Although Queen Esther was never an official saint within the Catholic Church, the conversos transformed her into Saint Esther. They called her Santa Ester or Santa Esterica, and they reinvented Purim, which was not possible to celebrate under the eye of the Spanish Inqusition,  as “The Festival of Saint Esther". With the 1492 Spanish Edict of Expulsion, many Jews and conversos left Spain bringing their transformed brand of Judaism with them, including this festival.

Images were central in Spanish Catholicism with representations of Mary, Jesus and the saints abounding in devotion and worship.  The conversos added to these  images Queen Esther as Santa Ester.  Images of St. Esther were popular in New Mexico which, in the early colonial years, had a large converso population. At that time, the Inquisition had not yet reached this area and the former Jews there had a sense of safety about observing  remnants of their ancestral religious practices. 

Santos (painted images) and bultos (statues) of Saint Esther were made in New Mexico until the early 1960's when Archbishop Peter Davis of Santa Fe decided to get rid of remaining Jewish elements in the Catholic faith of parishioners.  Since that time images of Saint Esther have become rare.

Santo of Saint Esther, New Mexico
The santo above was painted by Charles Carrillo, a well-known contemporary New Mexican santero, author and archaeologist.  He said that although he had requests for images of Esther, over the years, he had not done any of them recently.

Skirt, in reverse, from top photo
The first photo of Esther shows a bulto that was an adaptation of a stage-prop made by the santero for a play, "Parted Waters" by Robert F. Benjamin. This play was described as a "drama about three generations of a New Mexico Hispanic family grappling with hidden Jewish ancestry".   Esther's skirt, when turned upside-down as seen above, reveals a schematic representation of the biblical Hebrews crossing the Red Sea.  This hidden symbolism was emblematic of the life of these conversos who held their ancestral Judaism close to their hearts, although hidden. 

1 comment:

  1. Marina... I find this fascinating! And just a note..
    The Jews lived their history and religion through the quiet art of food rituals ( a hidden observance in the home)