Friday, May 13, 2016

Person or Statue: The Complex Religious Images of Latin America

Image of Jesus Nazarene, Viacrucis Aquatic, Granada, Nicaragua

When I first shared photos from the Via Cruces Aquatic from Holy Week in Granada Nicaragua, a friend asked me if the red-robed figure you can see at the front of the boat was a statue or a person.  Another friend, a priest, jokingly asked if it was me. As I thought about it, I realized that these comments are much more profound than they seem.

The figure in the red robe is Jesus Nazareno, one of the Jesus images used in Holy Week events in Latin America. (For a fuller discussion of these images, please refer to the March 28, 2013 post of this blog: "Jesus of Mexican Holy Week"). Here is the front of this image:

Jesus Nazareno, Viacrucis Aquatic, Holy Tuesday, Granada Nicaragua

Jesus Nazareno, Viacrucis Aquatic, Holy Tuesday, Granada Nicaragua

As you can see the image is wearing a wig made of human hair and the eyes are glass and life-like and it is definitely more true-to-life than the marble or plaster statues we are used to in churches in this country. This is the way the religious images of Latin America are created; they were meant to be true to life to make the Christianity more "real" to the newly-converted indigenous peoples of the region.

These images are treated like people in many ways; they are dressed and cared for and the  celebration of their festivals orchestrated by groups known as cofradias or confraternities, each of which is headed by a mayordomo, who are predominantly male although there are some females, as well.  In the photo below, the words "Cofradia de Jesus Nazareno" are written on the back of the blue t-shirt worn by the woman indicating that she is a member of the group from her church responsible for the image of Jesus in the above three photos.  She was the one in charge of collecting the donations that the many other boats participating in this Viacrucis Aquatic would give to this lead boat containing the image.

Jesus Nazareno cofradia member, Viacrucis Aquatic, Granada Nicaragua

Religious images are an important part of Latin American church communities.
They are central to the worship of a congregation, a focus of religious life and play a role in the financial life of the church.

Religious processions are a focus of life in Latin American cities, such as the Holy Wednesday procession seen below in Granada Nicaragua.  In it the revered images that are the focus of Holy Week, the last week of Jesus' earthly life and ministry, are carried from the church and through the city's streets in beautiful and reverent processions of enormous intensity that are the focus of the entire community. 

Holy Wednesday Procession, La Merced Church, Granada Nicaragua

Below, church members carried an image of Jesus a long distance to be used in a procession in another town.

Group transporting image, Masaya, Nicaragua

On Holy Wednesday evening and Holy Thursday day in Nicaragua churches bring certain images out for the people to see at closer view, touch and to buy religious objects connected with the image. This is both an opportunity for people to be physically close to the images they simultaneously revere and love and for the church to make the money it needs for the care for these images and the church itself. The leafy structures the images are in are called "huertos", which roughly translates as "garden" and some of the huertos can be very elaborate and beautiful, decorated with fruits and vegetables.    

Image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, Holy Wednesday, Granada, Nicaragua

Image of Jesus, Holy Wednesday, Granada, Nicaragua

Image of Mary, Holy Wednesday, Granada, Nicaragua
Religious Articles for Sale, Holy Wednesday, Granada, Nicaragua

The Good Friday morning procession in León reflected the kinds of feelings that the people have for these images.  Here, in the photo below, as the image of Mary met with that of Jesus the crowd broke out into applause.  To them, there was no line between image and person.
Images of Jesus and Mary Meeting in Procession, Leon, Nicaragua

On Good Friday, as in all Christian services, between the hours of 12 and 3, the hour of the crucifixion, there was a long service in the church in Subtiava, Leon.  At 3 pm, the traditional hour of Jesus' death, his image was removed from the cross with much ceremony and placed in the gilded tomb that would be carried in the Good Friday procession. 

Image of Jesus Crucified, Good Friday, León, Nicaragua

             Image of Jesus in Tomb, (Señor Sepultado), before Good Friday procession, León, Nicaragua

I was totally unprepared for what happened.  As Jesus' body was transferred to the tomb, a crowd of people rushed forward to watch, many of them with cell phones in hand taking pictures. These were not tourists but believers, members of the church.  For them, the reality of what was happening was so intense, that they were reacting as if someone had really been killed.

Church members in front of Jesus in Tomb, Good Friday, León Nicaragua

Roots of the Image in Meso-american cultures:

It may be difficult for many people raised in the United States and other western European cultures to understand this kind of attachment to images.  It is not idolatry, but something of another order. The Protestant Reformation with its suspicion of images colored much of the Christianity that followed it. Images remained important in Spanish Catholicism which was a breed apart from the religious life of Europe and this influenced the form Catholicism took in its colonies. 

Anthropologist Serge Gruzinski, a specialist in Latin American cultures, feels that there is also something else at work.  This, he cites, is the notion of of ixiptla,  inherent in the pre-hispanic cultures of the area, that divinity could be contained in objects. "The ixiptla was the container for power; the localizable epiphanic presence; the actualization of the power infused into an image." * In this scenario, an image is not just a representation of something
but actually contains the power of the divinity it represents.  

The people I see in Latin America want to be near these images, to touch them, and through touch absorb their divine energy.  Below is a piece of cloth that was for sale Holy Wednesday evening.  It had been touched to the reclining image of Jesus seen below and  is believed to contain the divine energy of the image with which it was in contact. It was being sold for a very small amount of money and was meant to be pinned to clothing and worn close to the body.

Holy article sold at Holy Wednesday display of images, Granada, Nicaragua

Image of Jesus, Holy Wednesday, Granada Nicaragua

Holy Week in Latin American is a very powerful experience for both the believers who participate in the rituals, as well as visitors to the area who may not even participate in Catholic religious beliefs.  What makes it a powerful experience is the palpable love and reverence of the people there for their religious images, who are "real" in so many ways.These images are confidants, healers, and hold out hope to many who do not have much.  These images belong to everyone from the richest to the penniless street beggar, accept the love of all, and are available with completely equality, which is so different than much of life in the Latin American world.  

*Serge Gruzinski, "Images at War", 2001, p. 50.


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