Feb 17, 2012

The Dead and The Fantastical Come Alive in Mexican Art - Part II

Never do something permanently foolish
Just  because you are temporarily upset.

Various altar art (crucifix, hearts, Virgin Mary, wings) at farmer's market in San Jose del Cabo

The 1988 premiere of Robert Redford's movie, The Milagro Beanfield War, caused many non-Spanish-speaking people to ponder the milagro part of the title.

In Spanish, milagro literally means miracle or surprise; in the movie, milagro refers to the miraculous greening of a long fallow bean field. Milagro also refers to an ancient aspect of Hispanic folk culture: small silver or gold votive offerings in the shape of arms, legs, eyes and other body parts; animals, fruits, vegetables, etc. These milagros are often attached to statues of saints or to the walls of certain New Mexican churches -- and now are also found as components in necklaces, earrings and other jewelry.

If, for example, someone has a sore arm, a tiny silver arm is hung on or near the favorite saint; the farmer who hopes that his pig will bear him many healthy piglets, asks his patron saint for intercession, and pins a pig milagro on the saint's robe. Milagros can be flat, three dimensional, tiny or large; they can be of gold, silver, wood, lead, tin, bone, wax or whatever the petitioner desires. Traditionally, milagros can be specially made by a silversmith for the occasion, or ready-made milagros can be purchased from a vendor's stand outside the church. Many milagros have been recycled by the church for when the parish priest determines that the saint's statue is over-laden with milagros, he sells them back to the religious goods vendor.

The use of milagros is an ancient custom in the Hispanic world, traceable to the Iberians who inhabited the coastal regions of Spain between the fifth and first centuries before Christ. Tiny bronze milagros, nearly identical to contemporary ones, can be seen in Spain's archaeological museums. Although the custom is not as prevalent as it once was, the use of milagros or ex-votos continues to be an important part of folk culture throughout rural areas of Spain—particularly Andalusia, Catalonia and Majorca—as well as other parts of the Mediterranean, especially Italy, Crete and Greece.

Milagros as votive offerings accompanied the Spanish into the New World; their use has been documented in nearly all areas of the Hispanic Americas. As is true of many aspects of the conquistadores' Hispanic Catholicism, the custom of offering milagros to the saints dove-tailed neatly with Native American religious practices.

The Native American culture had existing customs surrounding the use of amulets, talismans and votive offerings. (As the amulet/talisman/milagro display at the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe clearly shows, the practice of using such tangible symbols as prayer aids and as protection for oneself, loved ones, animals and property, exists in folk cultures throughout the world.)

Local customs vary in those parts of Latin American where milagros are still being used. In Brazil, where African influence is strong, milagros are primarily used as amulets and talismans, and are worn about the neck or wrist; milagros are also used to intercede with the saints. In coastal regions of Peru, silver milagros of fish, fishing boats (some nearly life-size) and fishermen once filled seaside chapels to help fishermen obtain good catches and to return safely from the sea. Unfortunately, these milagros have suffered the same fate as millions of one-of-a-kind silver or gold milagros, and have been destroyed for their metal content.

In Guatemala, as elsewhere, milagros are used as prayer offerings; but in addition, silver milagros/dijes have a talismanic function and are worn as part of women's chachales (silver chain necklaces with silver coin, coral, glass trade beads, etc). Certain bird and animal dijes in a woman's chachale may refer to her nahual—the bird or animal reflective of her personal spirit, her animistic alter-ego.

The use and prevalence of milagros is most noticeable in Mexico, where entire altars are coated with tiny silver milagros, and where statues of the saints are literally festooned with them. Small, flat, stamped Mexican milagros made in a village near Guadalajara are those most commonly seen in the United States. While they may be silver or gold in color, they are rarely of true silver or gold. It is thought that the relatively recent use of milagros in New Mexico came north from Mexico with immigrants.

Today, one sees a variety of milagros offered for sale in New Mexico. Occasionally one can find old Peruvian, Bolivian, Guatemalan, Mexican or Ecuadorian milagros, but they are not common. Sterling silver reproductions of old milagros from all parts of Latin America, hand-finished in New Mexico, are available in various shops and museum stores. The milagros most commonly offered for sale in New Mexico are the thumbnail-sized, silver-washed, flat Mexican milagros. Sometimes they have been tacked onto a cross made of old wood, or a wooden shoe last. While the Mexican faithful certainly have hung milagros on wooden crosses as prayer offerings, it is unlikely that the milagros crosses which one sees for sale are historical pieces; the crosses and shoe lasts are nonetheless decorative, ingenious ways of displaying a collection of milagros.

Apart from the contemporary use of milagros as decorative elements, milagros as symbols have new uses and meanings in New Mexico these days. If a friend is about to have an eye operation, the gift of an eye milagro helps to say, "I wish you well." A pair of lungs can say, "I hope your cold gets better." An arm and a leg given to a couple trying to buy a house can wish them good luck obtaining financing. An ear milagro can suggest that someone be a better listener. An axe milagro might suggest that a relationship should end.

Milagros then, are not solely religious items, nor are they only for collecting. They are part of the magical and symbolic past common to all cultures which continues to influence our lives today. Whether used traditionally or in modern ways, milagros are an ongoing part of a fascinating folk culture in New Mexico and elsewhere.

In the classical sense, milagros (also known as ex-votos or dijes) are offered to a favorite saint as a reminder of the petitioner's particular need, or they are offered to the saint in thanks for a prayer answered.

Mexican Milagro Crucifix
Mexican Milagro Crucifix in box

In modern rural Mexico, nagual is sometimes synonymous with brujo ("witch"): one who is able to shapeshift into an animal at night, (normally into an owl, bat, or turkey) drink blood from human victims, steal property, cause disease, and the like.

In some indigenous communities the position of Nagual is integrated into the religious hierarchy. The community knows who is a Nagual, tolerating, fearing and respecting them. Nagualli are hired to remove curses cast by other nagualli.

Alebrijes are brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures. For some reason, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably although one is a concept, the other a fantastical being…

Tree of life

Trees of Life or Arboles de la Vida are a popular expression of Mexican folk art. For more than 100 years Mexico has been known for these unique ceramic sculptures, covered with flowers, leaves and biblical figures. In essence it is a multi-decorated candelabra.

Trees of Life used to have, as a central theme, the Garden of Eden. Today many other stories are recounted through these splendid clay sculptures…Mexico’s history, the Day of the Dead, The Nativity, Noah’s Ark, and some are autobiographical, telling the potter’s or the customer’s own story.

The concept "Tree of the Life" has been used in religion, philosophy, mythology and arts in many areas of the world. Cultures like the ancient Egyptian, the Chinese and some of the Mesoamerican represented the origin of life and/or wisdom with a tree.

Trees of life range from miniatures to immense pieces several feet high. Artists create a background of individually sculpted flowers, leaves, birds and animals, which frames characters from the Bible such as the Adam and Eve, Noah, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, the Almighty Father and Satan. Some potters have gone beyond the traditional biblical scenes to sculpt trees of life featuring bride and groom, entire villages, Father Neptune and his watery subjects, and even Death. Although trees are usually decorated with a palette of eye-catching colors, even when they are left unpainted they are exquisite.

However, the craft has been waning and may be in danger of extinction. One major reason for this is cheap imitations, imported mostly from Asia. This has been a problem for many Mexican crafts, with the federal government stepping in to develop trademarks and “denomination of origin” for traditional crafts.

In 2009, the Tree of Life was trademarked for artisans, befitting the approximately 300 families that dedicate themselves to making them. In addition to authenticity, there are plans to use the trademark to promote the product internationally.

Trees of Life are meant to be viewed frontally and read from bottom to top. A tree of life must have a semi-spherical base that represents the world, a central column or trunk and the ramification or branches that have at the top end four candle holders.

Tree of Life
Tree of Life
Pan de Muerto (dead bread) - I know this is not exactly art but perhaps artistic food so I thought I'd include it here.

Baked during the Day of the Dead period. It sometimes contains eggs, has tear drop and/or skeleton/skull designs sometimes covered with white frosting to represent the skeleton color. There are several styles to choose from.

Pan de Muerto
In closing, the Day of the Dead is also a time when grave-sites (Pantheons) are cleared and cleaned by the surviving family members.

Copala Pantheon
PS: Halloween and the Day of the Dead are more and more borrowing elements from each other along the US/Mexico border. In the US, more skulls/skeletons are being seen at Halloween while in Mexico, pumpkins are decorating altars. Traditions are constantly evolving.

Read more on the History of the Day of the Dead

See some Day of the Dead folk art

Great examples of sugar skulls

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