Saturday, July 2, 2016

East Meets West: A Greek Icon in a Mexican Church


Front Façade, San Antonino Obispo, San Antonino Castillo Velasco, Oaxaca

San Antonino Obispo, San Antonino Castillo Velasco, Oaxaca (decorated for a wedding)

In most respects, the church of San Antonino Obispo in San Antonino Castillo Velasco, Oaxaca is typical for the area.  It is one of the "painted churches" of Oaxaca (for more information on these see blog post from Sept. 20, 2013), one of the churches re-painted by the Foundation Rudolfo Morales in a very beautiful and imaginative way.  This can be seen both in the ornamentally painted façade-

Painted Façade, San Antonino Obispo, San Antonino Castillo Velasco, Oaxaca

as well as in the decorative painting of the church's interior-

Painted Angels, San Antonino Obispo, San Antonino Castillo Velasco, Oaxaca

Painted Dome over Main Altar, San Antonino Obispo, San Antonino Castillo Velasco, Oaxaca

But the church's most distinguishing feature is the very unexpected Greek Icon that has been placed in one of the side altars. It was strange and very unexpected to see a Byzantine icon in a small rural Oaxacan church.

Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, San Antonino Obispo, San Antonino Castillo Velasco, Oaxaca
This icon is that of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and the name appears in Spanish (Perpetuo Socorro) on the clouds at the bottom of the icon.  Actually, knowing this image's history, it is not really so implausible to find it in a Mexican church.  The original icon, already centuries old, was enshrined in a church in Crete and in 1495 was brought from there to Rome to protect it from the approaching Turks. Eventually it made its way into the hands of the Redemptorists, an order of Catholic priests, In 1865 Pope Pius IX ordered the Redemptorists to make the icon known to the world and commissioned 2300 copies made and distributed around the world.  

The Redemptorist order has been active in South American as well as in parts of Mexico and this icon reflects their influence there.  The San Antonino icon was copied by a Latin American, probably Mexican, artist and reflects this origin in two respects.  One is the Spanish writing (Perpetuo Socorro) and the other is the clouds on which both the angels and Virgin Mary rest, Clouds are a convention in Mexican religious painting, representing the heavenly domain which resides in the sky. Both figures also wear crowns, which is not always the case with Byzantine icons. By order of the Vatican on May 12, 1867, the icon was crowned in a solemn mass, with jewel encrusted and blessed crowns, one each, being put on the head of the Virgin and Infant Jesus.

It would be interesting to know how this icon is understood in this church and used in worship.  Real Byzantine icons are not considered paintings, but actual openings to 
Heaven. Both the artist and his or her materials are blest and the icon is "written" not painted. The image is believed to contain the spiritual essence of what is represented.  In this understanding the icon is not just an image of Mary; in some way it is Mary herself.  
In truth, this is very close to the way that images are understood within Mexican Catholicism. Throughout the Latin American Catholic world, beloved and revered statues and processional images are at the heart of devotion and worship.  Although Icons are two-dimensional, there is an inherent capacity to understand them built into in the Mexican church.  

Many thanks to the gifted New Orleans-based iconographer Raymond Calvert for his insight into this icon, as well as providing research links.


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