Our Lord of Esquipulas in New Mexico
by Charles Carrillo, Ph.D.
The devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas arrived in New Mexico in the later part of the eighteenth century and underwent an iconographic transformation. Colonial iconography of Our Lord of Esquipulas was changed by local saint makers. A new iconography of Esquipulas soon developed. This new imagery was unlike that known in Mexico and Guatemala and was embraced by the local population of New Mexico. The devotion to this image of the crucified Christ is today a cultural phenomena that still belongs to the common people. For them the devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas encapsulates a doctrine in which Christ is understood primarily as a healer. Specifically the healing powers of Christ are found in the form of “holy earth — tierra bendita” that he has provided for the faithful at the Santuario at Potrero de Chimayó, a settlement near Santa Cruz about 25 miles north and west of Santa Fe. This tierra bendita is found in a small hole in a tiny room beside the former sacristy of the Santuario.
Among the many cultural traditions of Hispanic New Mexico is a unique “Franciscan … medieval Catholic spirituality” (Steele 1994: 108). Many Hispanic New Mexicans are introduced to the Santuario de Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas at an early age. The miraculous healing powers associated with Our Lord of Esquipulas come from the holy earth found in the “posito” in the Santuario. Increasingly the Santuario has come to be associated with the Santo Niño de Atocha, however the great image of Our Lord of Esquipulas remains as the central devotional figure.
The cult of Our Lord of Esquipulas in New Mexico provided the local people with a link to the devotional activities of New Spain. While there are numerous locations in Mexico and Latin America where the Cristo Negro is the focal devotion, the spread of the cult of Esquipulas remains undocumented except for the work by Borhegyi (Borhegyi 1954) and Orozco (Orozco 1970). In the frontier setting of New Mexico such devotions “gave rise to a believing community that prayed and worshipped in common, doing rituals together that implicitly but very effectively committed the faithful to live out in their daily lives what they acted out in their rituals, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus not only during Holy Week but all the days of the year” (Steele 1994:108).
The believing community of faithful found comfort in images that they could read with their eyes. My ancestors knew the theological difference between a green branched cross and a black cross. Green represented life, while black represented death. Depictions in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New Mexico showed Christ crucified on crosses of either color.
In icons of the Crucifixion from Eastern Europe, Christ is depicted at Calvary, which is the burial grounds of Adam and Eve. Their bones are seen at the base of the cross. This doctrine suggests that since it was through Adam and Eve that death came to triumph over life, it is through the living cross, the tree of life, that Life comes to triumph over death. This medieval paradise tree represents the restoration of paradise by the death of Christ.
The fact Christ is crucified on a living cross alludes to his victorious triumph over death. Subtly the iconography of the crucified Christ nailed to a living (green) branched and flowering cross suggests the power of resurrection: in death there is life.
In the Guatemalan devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas, Christ is better understood as a warrior. His blackened color may be an allusion to the ancient Mayan custom in which warriors painted themselves black (Coe 1987:158) and to the magical qualities associated with the color black. The color black signified death, violence, and sacrifice (Borhegyi 1954: 390).
This theology of a victorious warrior seems to parallel the Orthodox tradition and understanding of Christ as victor rising from the dead. Is the Guatemalan Esquipulas devotion a mixing of Medieval European thought and Meso-American (Mayan) ideology?
The Santuario de Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas in Chimayó, New Mexico
Don Bernardo Abeyta had apparently already built a small family chapel at his own expense when in 1813 he petitioned Fray Sebastian Alvarez, administrator of the Santa Cruz parish, for permission to construct a larger chapel where local families could give honor to the Lord under the advocation of Esquipulas. He also requested that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass be offered in the church (Sons of the Holy Family 1982). He is the likely source of the introduction of the cult into the Chimayó area. This cult quickly spread. Don Bernardo Abeyta is documented as one of the first Hermanos Mayores of La Cofradía de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno, if not the first (Steele and Rivera 1985). Archival evidence indicates that Don Bernardo was a merchant doing business in Durango, Mexico. In Durango a cofradía dedicated to Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno was active. The Guatemalan devotion of Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas also had a devoted following in Durango. It is plausible that Don Bernardo Abeyta helped to introduce both the Cofradía of Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno and the culto of Our Lord of Esquipulas into the remote frontier of New Mexico. The cult’s acceptance was likely fostered by the many New Mexicans who maintained economic and religious ties to the city of Durango. During this period, the Diocese of Durango began to assert jurisdiction over New Mexico, which previously had been wholly Franciscan. Most of New Mexico’s native sons who trained for the priesthood studied in Durango, including Tomás de Jesús Esquipulas Abeyta, son of Bernardo Abeyta.
It is possible that the blue and green Cristos do indeed represent variations of the devotion. Take for example, a Cristo Crucificado by José Rafael Aragon of Córdova, which was made about 1825-1835. This figure is now in the Taylor Museum of Art in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In this example the cross is painted a blue-green color, while the corpus is painted blue-gray. Additionally, the figure hangs from a branched cross. These two attributes of the miraculous image are rarely seen in combination in New Mexico. More commonly, figures of the Crucified Christ are shown on a branched cross, however the corpus is always of pallid coloration. In other surviving examples, a pallid Cristo is shown on an unbranched cross that is colored green. Finally there are many known examples of blue Cristos, some with mourning figures and others without; however, most are hung on black crosses. Considering the popularity of the devotional cult in eighteen- and nineteen-century New Mexico, it is highly probable that the blue Cristos are a vernacular variant of the cult of Our Lord of Esquipulas.
The Role of New Mexican Santeros and the Cult of Our Lord of Esquipulas
In a strictly metaphorical sense, santeros have always been culture brokers, providing imagery of various Catholic devotions and cults for the Catholic faithful in New Mexico. Many of these cults are based on New World traditions, while others have their origins in Europe. In the frontier colony of New Mexico the rural local people were the primary movers of the devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas, while the santeros were instruments for spreading the devotion by means of the production of retablos (flat painted images) and bultos (sculpted images) of the Christ figure under this advocation. As more and more devotees petitioned local santeros for images of this manifestation of Christ, more images were produced, and the cult was spread. By the 1830s, most of New Mexico’s documented Santeros had produced images of the Lord of Esquipulas. Catholic religious practices of colonial New Mexico harvested values and rituals from the greater church and combined these with folk traditions to produce a unique yet orthodox local spin on Catholicism.
Many New Mexicans centered their worship in various cults of the Christ, either as a child in the Niño de Atocha, or in the adult Christ, as in the figure of Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas. In this sense, a cult is a positive concept, referring to “a means of expressing religious reverence, religious ceremony and ritual; an advocation.” Unlike Puerto Rico, Cuba, and various other Latin American locations where the cults are focused on various saints, the New Mexican reverence was focused on the divine.
In the New Mexican system, household and village saints, receive prayers and supplications; Our Lord of Esquipulas was no exception. Steele comments that:
The santos are a central component of [a] system which is both visual (because pictorial) and oral (because of the legends, prayers and associations passed down by word of mouth about the vast majority of the saints the santeros represented. The santo subjects tally with the people’s hopes and fears in such a way as to provide a key component in a motivational system that enables the believer to prevail upon God and the saints to control the world for the benefit and protection of mankind (Steele 1994:108).
The images of particular saints, of different titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of Christ in his many manifestations have always been used as didactic tools for teaching “la doctrina,” a conglomerate of Catholic catechism and of various local traditions, many of which were cemented in history but continue today to serve the faithful.
I often ask myself “How did these traditions develop ?” “Where did they come from?” “Will they survive?” Consider the devotion to Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas. The exact origin of this devotion in New Mexico is unclear. In New Mexico it assumed a vernacular flavor. Oddly my research indicates that none of the New Mexican colonial images of Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas portray him as the Cristo Negro. Typically, he is not dark; however, the devotion to both a bluish or bluish-green tinged Cristo was known in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New Mexico, and this alone may serve to raise more questions about the ideology of the craftsmen, the santeros, and the common people who placed the orders for such imagery. I raise an important question. Did the santeros of New Mexico in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century purposely lighten the skin of Our Lord of Esquipulas, or did this anomaly result from the tradition of copying black and white engravings in which the Cristo Negro was not clearly understood as a black Christ? My research supports the second notion.
In New Mexico, the principal key in the identification of colonial images of Our Lord of Esquipulas is not the color of his flesh; rather it is the identification of a Latin cross from which seven living branches emanate. I have never seen this type of cross associated with Our Lord of Esquipulas outside New Mexico. This type of Esquipulan figure can be found in the altar mayor at the Santuario in Chimayó and in the side altar at Ranchos de Taos in New Mexico. These images were made by the santero we now call Molleno, who worked between 1800 and 1850.
On a green cross containing four sprouting branches on the vertical axis and three sprouting branches on the horizontal axis hangs the crucified body of Christ. A number of crucifixes that seem to slightly predate those at Chimayó and at Ranchos de Taos are well documented; however, the image in Chimayó may have become the prototype of subsequent renditions of Our Lord of Esquipulas made in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century by other New Mexican Santeros.
I believe New Mexicans conducting business in Mexico, specifically in Durango (the ecclesiastical head-quarters of New Mexico), returned home with novenas and inexpensive paper engravings depicting various saints, numerous titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of course, the different titles of Christ. Included among the novenas and prints were those associated with Our Lord of Esquipulas. A casual observation of this type of engraving suggests that these images are merely iconographic models used by santeros. These images were uncolored.
Coloration used by colonial santeros was often based upon traditions that were brought from Europe and especially from Mexico. Franciscans were painted in shades of indigo blue, the color of their habits worn in New Mexico, and other saints were depicted in symbolic color which had a long history in the church.
Typically images made in New Mexico of the Crucified Christ depict him with a pale complexion; however, there is a tradition of representing the Crucified Christ with an azure or verdure complexion. These “penitente Cristos” or “blue Cristos” are documented in various churches and penitente moradas as well as in private and public collections. The northern frontier of Mexico is suggested as the historical source for many New Mexican traditions, including the penitential brotherhood of Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno (see Steele and Rivera 1985 and Wroth 1991). Wroth documents a widespread devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas throughout Mexico. Taking a lead from Luis Enrique Orozco (Orozco 1970:448-501), Wroth agrees that it was likely the Franciscan Antonio Margil de Jesús who first brought the devotion from Guatemala to Querétaro in Mexico. He along with other Franciscans left for Guatemala in the 1690s and after spending a number of years there returned and spread the devotion throughout Nueva Galicia, the present states of Jalisco and Michoacan (Wroth 1991:180).
Mirabal’s current research (Mirabal 1998) indicates that at the parish church of San Juan de Dios in Durango, a devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas has existed since the early 18th century and may be the source of the New Mexican devotion. It is sufficient to note that Mexican shrines to Our Lord of Esquipulas, while not dominant were by the eighteenth century well established throughout the northern frontier. Griffith documents a miraculous image of “Our Savior of Esquipulas” in Tucson in May of 1843 (Griffith 1995:89).
The Franciscans were likely responsible for the spread of the cult. Veneration of Our Lord of Esquipulas has been documented at Campeche and Villa Hermosa in the state of Tabasco, San Andrés Tuxtla and Otatitain in the state of Veracruz, Tila in the state of Chiapas, Etla, Quisla, and Tlacolula the state of Oaxaca, in Zamora, Guzman , Totomilco in the state of Jalisco, and other locations (see Borhegyi 1954:387 and Frilas, Fernando Juárez 1991; 58).
The presence of green crosses in these areas might suggest an association with the cult of Our Lord of Esquipulas. The 1767 inventory of the parish church at Real de Rosario in Parral contains a reference to a wooden cross painted green (Wroth 1991:48). The same type of green crosses can be seen in New Mexican penitential chapter houses known as moradas. Similar green crosses have also been documented in museum collections.
In a discussion on Our Lord of Esquipulas and the connection with the green crosses Wroth makes the following observation:
The color green symbolizes the merciful, life-giving qualities of the cross, emphasizing the fact that the crucifixion is not a negative event, sorrowful though it is, but rather a positive one, giving divine life to the faithful (Wroth 1991:48).
Consider the iconographic work by Ripa published in Rome in 1593. In his representations of medicine he uses color and symbolism to suggest medical cures. Maser in his introduction concerning Cesare Ripa writes:
Ripa’s book is the product of a time when there was, unlike today, a fairly common agreement on the way in which ideas, often very abstract ones, could be intelligibly and effectively represented visually… . Based on writings both ancient and medieval, it attributed meanings, or at any rate philosophical ones, to all aspects of the visible world and even to pagan symbols and deities (Maser 1971.vii).
Ripa’s symbolism for medicine contains an image of a woman dressed in a green classical robe. Of this image Maser comments.
Green is the color of hope, which moves the sick to seek a cure, it is the color of vigor, which they regain when they are cured (Maser 1971:193).
Medieval Europeans like Ripa, using concepts from the ancient folklore of Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Babylon, borrowed these concepts for their own work. The color green or dark blue was use by Egyptians in their depiction of Osiris the deity of eternal life. Egyptian mythology recounts that Osiris was tricked by his brother Set and sealed in a coffin in which he expired. This coffin was pitched into the sea and finally came to rest in Lebanon, where a great cedar grew out of it. The tree was made into a pilar by Melkart, King of Byblos. After a long search, Isis, wife of Osiris, finally located his body and breathed life into it. The cedar post magically sprouted vegetation and the desert was reclaimed, symbols of the renewal of life. Osiris became King of the Land of the Dead (Bentley 1995). Does this sound familiar? These legends were created as teaching tools, loaded with symbolism. Christian iconography borrowed these symbols also as teaching devices.
Spanish Colonial scholar E. Boyd noted that the iconographic concept of painting the corpus of the dead Christ in a light blue color was formulated in the Italian primitive schools and subsequently abandoned after Giotto (Boyd 1974:420). Is the tradition of blue and green Cristos a cultural survival of the Middle Ages? Are the blue and green colored corpora of Christ variants of Our Lord of Esquipulas, or are these Cristos a localized configuration of the two separate traditions? Continued research may answer such an inquiry.
Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas the Divine Healer
The miraculous power of Our Lord of Esquipulas is attributed to sulphurous springs near the Esquipulas shrine in Guatemala. Kaolin-rich clay known as tierra santa is made into Benditos which are blessed by the Church and sold to pilgrims (Borhegyi 1954:393). The clay is prized for its curative powers and is usually eaten by the pilgrims.
Likewise, faithful pilgrims remove a bit of “holy earth” from the Santuario in Chimayó; however, it is gathered from a small opening in the earthen floor. Usually it is taken by the pinch or by the handful by visitors seeking miraculous cures.
Now, let us step back further in time and visit the shrines of a Greek demigod of healing. A Greek and Roman godling was known as the master physician of mortals and was acknowledged in worship in the last decades of the 5th century B.C. in Athens. A great temple complex was constructed in Ephesus (in present day Turkey) under Hadrian in the second century A.D. In fact Greek legends tell us that Zeus killed him, yet he returned to life and fulfilled the prophecy that he would become a deity, die, and then return from the dead (Morford and Lenardon 1991).
Sanctuaries dedicated to this deity were associated with springs and healing earth which was used for curative purposes by the followers. On the island of Kos such a sanctuary existed (Easterling and Muir 1985). Sound familiar? It should by now!
The Roman name of this deity is Æsculapius; in Greek, he is known as Asklepios. I propose that the very name Esquipulas is in fact a suspicious surrogate of the name Æsculapius. I contend that an Augustinian priest familiar with the Roman mythology of Æsculapius and the healing muds and springs associated with sanctuaries associated with his cult purposely named the Guatemalan tradition of the black Christ with a configuration of the Greco/Roman mythological figure. The link that secures the separate traditions is the healing earth associated with both locations.
Reversing or switching the consonants “l” and “p,” followed by the vowel sequence, the name Æsculapius was easily changed to Esquipulas, and a new tradition was created that contained the attributes of Pre-Hispanic Mayan symbology which were surrogated by a devotion to the crucified Christ, but whose name in fact was lifted from Greco-Roman mythology.
Close to the colonial settlement of Chimayó, the Tewa Pueblo Indians are known to have maintained a shrine at a site where hot waters had belched forming a sacred pool. This place was called Tsimayó. The waters at the shrine were used for magical curative purposes (Chávez 1974:216). The location came to be known as “El Potrero — the Pasture” after Hispanic peoples settled the area. Eventually the spring stopped flowing. The folkloric tales of Don Bernardo Abeyta and the sacred site have centered on the hole from which the “holy earth” is taken (Borhegyi 1956).
At this New Mexican site, the Guatemalan devotion parallels the Tewa Indian tradition, adding a new spin on the Esquipulan tradition. The shrine remains today a visible reminder of the past, yet more importantly it serves as “memory bridge” between the faithful of the past and the faithful of the present. People by the thousands still visit the Santuario seeking miraculous cures. Santeros still sit in awe of the colonial art that is still preserved within its walls. The devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas lives on in the hearts and minds of my people. The story of this devotion to the Crucified Christ is embedded in a tangled history, but for the faithful this is unimportant; what is important for them is that Our Lord of Esquipulas hears their petitions. Like the green cross of Esquipulas which symbolizes renewal, the renewal of health and thus a “new life” is living testimony of the pilgrims. And so, this is our heritage, my heritage — a heritage that claims traditions from a time before memory.
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Charles Carrillo is a santero, an archaeologist, and the author of Hispanic New Mexican Pottery: Evidence of Craft Specialization 1790-1890.
First published in Tradicion Revista, Volume 4, No. 2, Spring 1999.
Copyright 1999. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission.