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Little Altars Everywhere 

by Sheri Boggs


For everyone who grew up in a house that had one of those praying Jesus pictures, or maybe a framed copy of that "Footprints" poem, there's something almost embarrassing about religious art for the home. But it hasn't always been that way, as the MAC's new show "The Soul of Mexico" (running through the end of the year) demonstrates.


While the intent - using some part of one's house for religious devotion - might be the same, the difference between what a lot of us grew up with and the retablos, for instance, of Mexican culture is huge. In short, we're talking about "soul." Where the mass-produced images and cloying sentimentality of American decorative religious art can only go so far, there is a joyful singularity to each and every piece in the "Soul of Mexico" show. From the festival masks that greet visitors at the entrance, to the rare Cristo Cana de la Maiz that serves as the focal point for the entire exhibit, there is a palpable sense of life.


"[Religious practice] is very instrumental, not just in Mexican culture but Hispanic culture as a whole," explains the MAC's Media Relations Manager, Yvonne Lopez-Morton, who, incidentally, grew up in Mexico. "I remember seeing little altars in people's homes - I still do. In fact, I know some people who have altars in their homes to Our Lady of Guadalupe who aren't even Catholic. So in that sense, this tradition of having devotional art in the home is associated with Catholicism but is symbolic of the culture as well."


What's most remarkable about "The Soul of Mexico" exhibit is the sense of an evolving and adaptive spirituality. The first thing one sees when approaching the show is a wall of ceremonial masks - some representing the ancient ritual images of the jaguar, fish, birds and of course, the grinning white masks of los muertos. But mixed in among those images are newer influences - conquistadors, African slaves, Christian saints and Spanish Moors. Costumed dancers were a vital ritual element in pre-Hispanic society - their role was that of both mediators to the gods and chroniclers of village life. Rather than eliminate such popular local customs, Christian missionaries encouraged theatrical pageants incorporating Bible stories and images of the saints. There is a strong undercurrent of transition and transformation in these masks, most notably in pieces combining human faces with animal bodies ... the spotted haunches and shoulders of the jaguar or the gleaming blue tail of a fish sprouting out the top of a woman's head.


Around the corner from the masks are the oldest pieces in the exhibit - a small selection of pre-Columbian figurines dating from 300 BC to 200 AD. Literature accompanying the exhibit explains that in addition to building astonishing temples and marking the cycles of the year, the Aztecs carved "small votive figures representing gods and simple images of mothers, sick persons, or children," which were "worn by people, kept on private altars, left on mountains, in fields, and at burial sites." To read this and then look at the small figures is a strangely poignant experience. Although often primitive in execution, the pieces are all imbued with personality - the stone lips of one figure persist in a centuries-old cocky smile; a female figure folds her arms over her ample abdominal dimensions.


Next to these is an onyx carving of Our Lady of Guadalupe - one of the most enduring images of Mexican iconography - dating from 1740. Nearly two feet high, the sculpture represents the old traditions - using carved objects to give thanks or plead for a desired outcome - but in a new religious context.


The Cristo Cana de Maiz, as with all the objects in the "Soul of Mexico" exhibit, comes from the MAC's permanent collection. Extremely rare (there are fewer than 50 Cristos in existence in Mexico, Spain and the United States today), the MAC's Cristo was designed to hang in a church much like any large wooden crucifix. The difference between the Cristo Cana de Maiz and other crucifixes, however, is that the Cristo's head and body were made from indigenous materials like corn pith and orchid glue. While the Cristo exhibits strong Spanish influences - particularly in the gaunt, elongated face and visible musculature - it was modeled by artists from the Michoacoan region and is supported by a cross made from local pine. Imported materials - particularly the glass eyes and the blood-red vermilion paint - came from Europe. To bring home the amount of detail involved in the Cristo is another Christ head, this time carved from wood and displayed nearby. Every feature is designed to bring about an overwhelming sense of suffering, from the parted lips of a grimace, to glass eyes set to look like they're rolling back in the head and long, real-hair eyelashes adding to the entire lifelike effect.


The exhibit returns to domestic devotional art with a large collection of 19th-century retablos. Translated loosely as "behind the altar," retablos began showing up more and more in private homes after Mexico won its independence and church and state became two separate entities. Instead of canvas or wood, the support structure of retablo art consists of small sheets of tin-coated iron, much like what was used for household plates or the common tin can. Well-suited for oil-based paint, the metallic surfaces of retablos added an interesting visual dimension to the art - a gleaming, otherworldly sort of light. The pieces in the MAC show include a pantheon of saints and heavenly inhabitants, including Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady Refuge of Sinners, the Omnipotent Powerful Hand, the Holy Family and St. Francis, St. James and St. Peter. Again, Mexican culture is a strong influence in the art, particularly in tableaus of Jesus surrounded by his parents and other familial images. Because lineage was so important to many tribal societies, missionaries often used "images of Jesus' parentage to introduce Christianity to Indians."


"Family is so important in Hispanic culture," says Lopez-Morton. "You can see that over and over in many of the pieces in this show. That emphasis on the family is vital in Latin American culture, which is why it's so significant in the art."





Publication date: 06/17/04

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