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 Guanajuato, Mexico: Saints on the move

Statues of saints, or in the case above Jesus on the cross, seem always on the move in Guanajuato.

For an officially non-Catholic country the mix is an interesting one of drummers and trumpeters in military fatigues parading along with feathered dancers and faithful parishioners bearing the vacationing santo aloft on a bed of flowers.

No idea the regional religious significance of September 2, but these photos are from two distinctly separate desfiles, or parades, welcoming us on our first walk into town. One was gathering in the midst of a bustling Sunday market with a banner of San Miguel and a modest-size Franciscan saint to take on a tour of churches. The second centered around a large crucifix with a banner indicating Jesus was heading to be venerated in the Little Plaza of the Monkeys, wherever that is. Women in this procession were cradling their own personal Jesus Nino statues to be blessed by a priest.

And clustered around a planter, there were several men in drag entangled by the noontime parade assembling by the market who appeared more Saturday night leftovers than eager participants.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Church tour for the fleet of foot

No time to pause for even the slightest genuflection in this lightening-fast tour of more than a dozen churches in Rome.

You might think this blog has dragged you through every single church in Rome, but, no. One could spend a year visiting a church a day without exhausting that supply. Rome is divided into 339 parishes, and there are close to 70 basilicas within the city. Probably all are worth ducking into for a visit.

But, mercifully, our tour stops here.

On this whiplash final lap, am going to point out two major relics of the type upon which most American Catholics never lay their eyes. The reliquary above is said to contain “the first foot to be entered in the tomb of Christ,” that of Mary Magdalene enshrined in the Basilica di San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. And the other is a portion of the head of Saint John the Baptist housed in a chapel in the Basilica di San Silvestro in Capite.

I wonder whether anyone ever has developed a scavenger hunt for spying saintly parts tucked away in nooks and crannies in churches in Rome.

A shortcut to encountering a massive number of bones, if one is so inclined, is to seek out the Capuchin Museum and Crypt tucked under Santa Maria della Concezione. The church was commissioned in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII (to whom you were introduced during my “wild things” museum meltdown) in recognition of a relative who was a Capuchin friar, Cardinal Antonio Barberini. Cardinal Barberini had the remains of thousands of his Capuchin brethren transferred to the crypt, which provided monks with a creative side unusual materials for their assemblages.

The museum offers a rather dry history of the Capuchin order, somewhat interesting if not for the macabre magnetic pull of the crypt you know lies on the far side. I doubt much has changed there since Mark Twain’s visit long ago, so I will let him describe the interior:

There were six divisions in the apartment, and each division was ornamented with a style of decoration peculiar to itself – and these decorations were in every instance formed of human bones! There were shapely arches, built wholly of thigh bones; there were startling pyramids, built wholly of grinning skulls; there were quaint architectural structures of various kinds, built of shin bones and the bones of the arm; on the wall were elaborate frescoes, whose curving vines were made of knotted human vertebrae; whose delicate tendrils were made of sinews and tendons; whose flowers were formed of knee-caps and toe-nails. Every lasting portion of the human frame was represented in these intricate designs (they were by Michael Angelo, I think,) and there was a careful finish about the work, and an attention to details that betrayed the artist’s love of his labors as well as his schooled ability. I asked the good-natured monk who accompanied us, who did this? And he said, “We did it” – meaning himself and his brethren upstairs. I could see that the old friar took a high pride in his curious show. We made him talkative by exhibiting an interest we never betrayed to guides.

“Who were these people?”

“We – upstairs – Monks of the Capuchin order – my brethren.”

“How many departed monks were required to upholster these six parlors?”

“These are the bones of four thousand.”

“It took a long time to get enough?”

“Many, many centuries.”

“Their different parts are well separated – skulls in one room, legs in another, ribs in another – there would be stirring times here for a while if the last trump should blow. Some of the brethren might get hold of the wrong leg, in the confusion, and the wrong skull, and find themselves limping, and looking through eyes that were wider apart or closer together than they were used to. You can not tell any of these parties apart, I suppose?”

“Oh, yes, I know many of them.”

He put his finger on a skull. “This was Brother Anselmo – dead three hundred years – a good man.”

The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, 1869

And, as this is a whiplash tour of churches, our friend Chris’ seconds-long forbidden video recording of the interior seems appropriate.

 

I asked the monk if all the brethren upstairs expected to be put in this place when they died. He answered quietly:

“We must all lie here at last.”

The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, 1869

Catholicism remains a religion of many mysteries, even for someone who was raised as one, particularly during the years when mass still was said in Latin. Like, when near the end of the service, the priest would talk about Nabisco crackers: “Dominus vobiscum.” “The Lord be with you,” lost in translation between the priest’s lips and my ears.