Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Trials by fire unite two martyrs across time

Bearing a pair of eyes on a platter, Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy (283-304), watches all entering the Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo, home to El Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. The patron saint for safeguarding eyesight and writers, Santa Lucia always has ranked among my favorites.

Upon reaching what was considered a marriageable age, Santa Lucia opted to dedicate herself to God and pledge herself a virgin. Born into a wealthy family in Sicily, she began distributing her worldly goods to the poor.

Alas, Lucy’s mother previously had promised her daughter’s hand to a suitor, a man displeased with the dispersal of the family’s wealth perhaps more than the personal rejection. Vengeful, he reported her Christian beliefs to Roman authorities.

The Roman authorities sentenced Lucy to reside in a brothel and to be forced into prostitution. Divine intervention rendered her immovable, despite the soldiers’ repeated efforts to budge her in order to carry out the sentence. Thwarted, they gouged out her eyes and set her ablaze. But Lucy proved impervious to the flames so they resorted to ending her life by thrusting a sword through her throat.

This background is why Santa Lucia would seem ideal to offer temporary sanctuary to a Penny Siopsis’ powerful short film, Communion, relating to the end-of-life experience of a Dominican nun, Sister Mary Aidan (1914-1952). The Irish-born doctor, Elsie Quinlan, had devoted years to lovingly tending and healing Black South Africans in a clinic in New London, South Africa, when she turned her automobile into a public square in November of 1952.

Apartheid was institutionalized by the National Party of white rulers of the country, and public gatherings of Blacks were outlawed. The African National Congress spurred a protest in the square as part of the 1952 Defiance Campaign, and soldiers firing into the crowd killed several Blacks.

By the time Sister Aidan drove into the midst of the then angry mob, instead of recognizing a nun who had been helping them the rioters only saw yet another white person determined to harm them. She was stabbed seven times and set ablaze in her car.

The fire had fused my rosary beads….

“voice” of Sister Mary Aidan narrating Communion

The crowd still was determined to avenge the deaths of those shot by the soldiers. The first-person narration continues with the inquest:

Parts of my body were missing. Someone said a lady had a bread knife.

By the time police broke up the riot, the government admitted to fatal shootings of at least nine. Unofficial reports placed the number at closer to 200.

And that is all of the tragic tale I can bear to relate. What could be sadder than, as artist Siopsis described during a dialogue with artist William Kentridge, “being killed by people you love and who love you?”

The film is part of “Hacer Noche/Crossing Night: Arte Contemporaraneo del Sur de Africa,” an exhibit at the Museo de las Culturas closing February 5.

The dancing skeletons visible in the background of one of the photo’s of Simphiwe Ndzube’s “Rain Prayers” are a frame from Kentridge’s short film “30% of Life/30% de Vida.”

To see more of Kentridge’s work, visit an older post from Puebla in 2015. For more photos from the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, visit here.

Postcard from Bologna, Italy: The ornate resting place of Saint Dominic

Saint Dominic (1170-1221) was born and educated in Spain, with extensive studies in theology and the arts. During a famine in 1191, he sold all of his belongings to purchase food for the poor.

The Dominican Order he founded was based on strict discipline and prayer and embraced an austere lifestyle, contrasting with the opulence favored by many priests of his day. The bald pate in the tonsure haircut Saint Dominic favored demonstrated his humility, and he removed his sandals to enter towns where he was preaching barefoot. Some believe he originated the saying of the Rosary following a vision of the Virgin Mary to aid in the conversion of heretics.

Even when exhausted and dying in Bologna, Saint Dominic refused a bed, insisting as always in sleeping on the floor. He was buried in the floor of the convent, but, following his canonization in 1234, there were those who dreamed of a more grandiose resting place appropriate for a saint.

Saint Dominic’s new sarcophagus is ringed with sculptural depictions of his life carved by Nicola Pisano in 1267. Two centuries later this arc was crowned by a new tier of sculpture crafted by Niccolo da Bari, attaining such notoriety for the artist he became known as Niccolo dell Arca. Among other artists later adding additional ornamentation to the saint’s final resting place was Michelangelo.

The Basilica of San Domenico is no humble resting place but an exuberant celebration of the religious arts.

Postcard from Villa de Etla, Oaxaca: Pain paved the road to sainthood

Although the Church of San Pedro y San Pablo is far from small and fronts a spacious walled-in plaza in Villa de Etla, finding it though the maze of Wednesday market vendors with tarps obscuring upward views can be difficult.

The church and former monastery were founded by Dominican priests and built in the early 1600s. Their name honors two of the Catholic Church’s earliest and most famous martyrs, Saints Peter and Paul. The pair suffered rather painful ends under Emperor Nero: San Pedro was crucified, upside down at his request because he felt unworthy of dying in the same fashion as Jesus, while San Pablo was beheaded. Villa de Etla stages a major festival in their honor at the end of June.

But the San Pedro statue that catches one’s eye is of a Dominican priest who perished more than 1,200 years later. Brother Pedro’s preaching attracted papal attention, and he was promoted upward by Pope Innocent IV, who named him the Inquisitor for Lombardy in 1252. Charged with punishing heretics using some of the same brutal tactics as Emperor Nero had employed in Rome, San Pedro of Verona was pleasing the pope but made a number of powerful enemies. Assassins attacked him before he served even a full year in his position as Inquisitor. His enemies sliced his head open with an axe, and, when he continued to loudly profess his faith through prayers, they finished him off by stabbing him in the heart. San Pedro was rewarded with sainthood before the next year passed.

The statue of San Antonio of Padua bears such a sad expression; he appears to be mourning the loss of the original, more-to-scale sculptured companion of El Nino Jesus. Saint Anthony actually places second, falling only behind San Pedro of Verona, as the candidate canonized most quickly after death by the Catholic Church.

While in town on market day, many of the faithful visit the church to pray, light candles of hope and leave photos of loved ones in need of miracles.