Regnum Mortis

3 11 2008

Part III – A Brief Historical Survey of Skeleton Images in Catholic Cultures

In the first part of our series, I described to you my grand tour of the contemporary cult to “Holy Death” as it exists in the present day at least among Latinos here in California. In the second installment, I put forward some hypotheses as to why the cult to Santa Muerte has emerged in our day and age. In this essay, I hope to offer some historical precedents for this cult, and ask whether it emerges as a logical conclusion of some tendencies that came before it. Obviously, since my time is limited, I cannot go into as much detail as I would like, so I do not pretend to write a comprehensive survey here, but only a very rough sketch.

There now exists the idea in the historical minds of Christians that Christianity started in the catacombs, which is to say in the graves. Therefore, death imagery would have been very much on the minds of the early Christians even if it was not represented in their art. The common belief was that the dead were resting, waiting for the day when they would rise again unto glory or judgment. Those who had the privilege of dying for the Faith were deemed to have already been resurrected in a spiritual way, and thus their mortal remains became sacred. The belief in the holiness of their remains was central to Christian praxis to the point that, up to very recently in most churches, the relics of the martyrs had to be on an altar on which the Eucharist was celebrated. Death was thus considered a necessary planting of the seed of eternal life, already accomplished in this world in the holy few.

In what is now known as the “Middle Ages”, various kinds of devotional art began to spring up to remind the devout that this world is not all there is, and it often began to incorporate skeletal imagery. Daniel Mitsui on his web page has done a great service in collecting many of these for the reader’s reference, and a comprehensive list of links can be seen by going here.

The purpose of the paintings was to remind the viewer that the ultimate purpose of life is to die a a good death. St. Joseph became the patron of a good death, and such imagery was used as a catechetical tool by the clergy to scare their faithful straight.

As I have posted recently, such endeavors by more sophisticated elements of religious society were often met with a creative and unexpected response by the common folk. Michael Carroll outlines many of these responses in the Italian context in his book, Veiled Threats: The Logic of Popular Catholicism in Italy. Carroll documents that many in the official Church began to advocate more praying for the dead in the wake of the Counter-Reformation. The skeletons of the dead soon went from being a focal point from which to offer prayers for the suffering souls in purgatory to being objects of cult themselves.  In a church in Ghedi, many worshippers began to flock to pray to the skulls of victims who had died in a plague. Many faithful all over Lombardy began to pray in churches where the skeletal remains of the dead were exposed, and Milan in the 18th century was a particular focal point of these devotions. The cult was most popular among the artisan and merchant classes, and not well known among the rural peasants. Traditionally, the object of any cult of this kind would have been the saints. In this case, those who were object of veneration were the dead who died in natural disasters, plagues, or even by criminal execution. It got to the point that in many cases, the skulls of the dead were taken out of the churches to be washed in a nearby river in times of drought or flooding. It was deemed that such a ritual action would appease the souls of the dead suffering in Purgatory and they would in turn offer relief to the living. Thus, people began to pray to the souls of the dead rather than for them, in spite of the official Church’s theology.

In Spanish America, such tendencies often mixed with the indigenous religious ethos in which the dead were considered sacred in and of themselves. The now well-know altars to the dead in Mexico are the best examples of this. While one here can also try to explain such cultural artifacts with the “official” Catholic line, the logic of popular religious sentiment does not quite fit into the cosmological vision that underlies the mainstream theological perspective. Here as well skeletal imagery is also central, and we need not go into detail on this particular point.

Juan Guadalupe Posada in the earlier twentieth century also put this iconography more into the mainstream of Mexican culture. His journalistic images included skeletons doing various things from daily life such as singing, dancing, making war, and riding bikes. While we risk reading too much into his cartoons, we must still see them as a significant emergence of popular imagery into the foreground of cultured discourse.

In two historical cases, syncretism with indigenous religions in the Americas has lead to the canonization of skeletal figures. In southern Mexico and Guatemala, St. Paschal Baylon was transformed from a pious young friar to a skeletal figure in a hood, as can be seen on this website. (Please find the area of the website on this “saint”, and click on the video. As you will see, an independent schismatic group that celebrates the Old Mass is the keeper of this “saint’s sanctuary”.) The Church has been rigorous of its condemnation of this image. In the southern cone, the cult to “San La Muerte” also has its roots in indigenous syncretism. Depending on who you ask, San La Muerte was either a pious indigenous king or a Jesuit who went native and became a shaman. In any event, the cult itself has taken on quite a dark flavor according to the scholar Felix Coluccio, author of Cultos y Canonizaciones Populares de Argentina, and the “saint” is represented by a skeleton. This devotion probably started with the Guaraní Indians and spread to the rest of the country from the border region of Paraguay. San la Muerte is the most famous of the santos de palo, or “stick saints” whose images have usually only been a few centimeters long and made out of wood. In San La Muerte’s case, however, the images can also be made out of human bone or out of a bullet that has killed a man. They also need to be furtively blessed by a Catholic priest (without his knowing, of course) or at least by two devout laymen. I present here a brief viedo that I would hope needs little translation:

What lesson is to be drawn from this interesting if macabre and disturbing imagery? The primary one is that we cannot make assumptions that these phenomena are the result of the survival of religious atavism. In many cases, they are responses to very contemporary and sophisticated trends in modern society. In the danse macabre, we see the tendency to use the morbid as a catechetical tool that spills over into an expression of the dark subconscious. In the skeletal cults of early modern Italy, the exhortation to piety in praying for the dead often became a cult to the dead themselves practiced by the most advanced sectors of society. This directly reflects the cults to Death today in urban Mexico and Argentina, where all sorts of people from lumpenized street youth to professionals make deals with death for the fulfillment of licit and illicit requests. We see here as well the play between popular and official religion, and the thirst to express the difficulties of life in realistic images of ugliness and death.



One response

3 11 2008
Lord Peter


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: