Postcard from Mexico City: The Lord of Poison and potent relics

lord of poison christ mexico city cathedral

The Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City also features a black statue of Christ, known there also as Lord of Poison which is a pretty interesting name for a Christ figure. This is the most venerated statue in the entire cathedral and… dates back to the 18th of August, 1602 when the Dominican Fathers came to Mexico with several Christ sculptures, all white.

Legend has it that this particular figure was installed in a small chapel in Tlanepantla where the regent archbishop prayed daily and at the end of a prayer, would kiss the feet of this statue. When his enemies saw what his routine was, they applied poison to the feet of the statue in the hopes that they could off him in this way after his next prayer. Alas, their cunning plan was foiled when the statue (faith, people, faith) shrank back from the archbishop’s approaching lips, thereby saving his life and providing for yet another biblical story. …the poison that had been applied by the evildoers… is what turned it black.

The story quickly got out and spread rapidly amongst the flock; the great back story and the fact that the chapel was not open to the public heightened the mystery and devotion to this black Christ. After being under wraps for many years (ie the marketing plan had worked and the product was ready) in 1935 the now heroic black Christ was moved from its private location to the Metropolitan Cathedral so as to be available for worship by all.

The Mystery of the Black Christ at Chumayel,” Lawsons Yucatan

The black figure of Jesus on the cross is somewhat of a newcomer to the Metropolitan Cathedral. Whether the version above or the story of the poison fed to Don Fermin by Don Ismael is preferred, the willingness of the figure to absorb the evil dark potion to spare the good man does make the Lord of Poison somewhat of a star attraction. The largest cathedral in the Americas actually is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. If the halo-bearing statue below is of Mary, she appears quite shocked by her immaculately conceived swollen shape.

Construction of the first part of the church was begun under orders of Hernan Cortes in 1524. Original building materials were recycled from the destroyed temple of the Aztec god of Huitzilopochtili, which stood on the site.

It would take more than a few Hail Marys to make a pass the entire length of the cathedral, as it measures the entire length of a football field, including the two endzones. There are two major gilded altars surrounded by 16 chapels. Ornate facades mark four major entrances to the cathedral. The main entrance was barred when we were there, and a crane appeared to facilitate an inspection or repair of any possible damage above incurred during the recent severe tremors.

Despite floods, fire, earthquakes and general sinking of the foundation, the church has remained steadfast in its determination to occupy the symbolic location in the heart of the city. As the huge capital city drained the water table, the cathedral continued to sink. Work to rectify that in the 1990s required extensive excavation. The successful stabilization project revealed ancient treasures, discussed here in a post-to-come.

The rather substantial first-class relics of San Vital housed in the glass case reside at the front of a gated chapel filled with portions of numerous saints. I am confused about whether these belonged at one time (until about the year of 304) to San Vitale, whose bones we first became acquainted with in the Cathedral of Bologna where they are enshrined combined with some of those of Saint Agricola. Or were they originally part of San Vitale who was buried alive, probably about the same time, for his faith in Ravenna, on the spot where a basilica now stands in his honor? Or someone entirely different?

Outside of the main chapel of reliquaries, unbeknownst to us, life-size wax statues of saints contain secret stashes of more human relics recently revealed via digital X-rays, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Anyway, I’m totally uncertain of what causes this particular San Vital is in charge. But surely relics of this size are pretty potent, so go ahead. Pray for his help for anything.

Postcard from Bologna, Italy: Drawn to those bones

The bones above purportedly belong to the bodies of Saint Vitalis (Vitale) and Saint Agricola. The pair’s history is a bit hazy, as the two were martyred in Bologna under the orders of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (244-316) somewhere in the neighborhood of the year 304. As Diocletian claimed to be the son of Jupiter himself, he was not particularly tolerant of people worshipping a supreme being other than his own father.

Catholic Online relays one version of the end of the lives of the saints above:

Vitalis was the slave of Agricola and a dedicated Christian. Arrested and condemned for his faith, Vitalis faced his death with such aplomb that Agricola was converted and accepted his own crucifixion.

The Cathedral in Bologna houses a collection of what are termed “First-Class” relics, including those above. First Class refers to relics that actually were part of the saints’ bodies, versus, say, scraps of their garments.

My fascination with relics stems from the difference of practice of Catholics growing up in Virginia Beach where we had none of which I am aware, and the practice of Catholics in Europe and Mexico where many reliquaries are displayed prominently in churches. The stories about the church and saints I find of interest are the ones nuns never ever mentioned during catechism.

Of course, the United States is not home of many canonized saints, whereas Italy has hundreds. Perhaps the practice of spreading the bones around to different churches arose naturally from the fact that the various extreme methods of exterminating the lives of early Christian martyrs did not always leave their bodies intact.

Rather than try to lamely explain why churches house reliquaries, I thought I’d see how Catholic websites define the practice:

More commonly, the saint’s bones were divided up, so various communities could have a portion of his relics: the skull here, a hand there, other bones elsewhere.

“Relics,” Catholic Answers To Explain and Defend the Faith

The article continues that Saint Jerome explained how the faithful “venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are.” Relics also “may be the occasion of God’s miracles.”

T.L. Frazier clarifies church policies about relics:

Harkening back to the eighth-century iconoclastic controversy and the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787), the Council of Trent maintained against the Reformers that the honor given to a relic, statue, or icon was honor not to an object (fetishism and idolatry), but to the person it represented. Latria (Greek: worship) must be given to God alone, whereas dulia (Greek: veneration or respect) may be given to holy people or articles.

“No Bones about Dem Bones,” T.L. Frazier

Saint Thomas More lost his head over conflicts with Henry VIII who broke with Catholicism to accommodate his habit of engaging in serial marriages. Pope John Paul II proclaimed Thomas More the patron saint of statesmen and politicians. During this contentious election year in the United States, we sure could use some miraculous relief from ugly rhetoric.

Relics of Saint Thomas More were on a whirlwind tour in the United States, ending up in Washington, D.C., on July 5. Hopefully, they left a residue of miraculous powers to evoke statesmanship-like behavior behind in their wake.

If you know anybody who lives in Centennial, Colorado, maybe ask them to visit St. Thomas More Catholic Church to ask for assistance from its reliquary of the saint. But wait, this one American church possesses more than 60 First-Class relics available for veneration, so all my thoughts about saints’ bones in churches in this country must be wrong.

So now I’m curious. Surely a church as ancient as San Fernando Cathedral and the seat of the Archdiocese must have some reliquaries of their own…. Might have to go on a reconnaissance mission in my own backyard.

Postcard from Ravenna, Italy: Gossipy stories behind ancient mosaics

It’s not surprising that Empress Theodora (about 500-548) merits the chalice full of wine in the mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale. (Warning: this post contains rumors passed down the grapevine for centuries.)

The daughter of the keeper of the animals at the Hippodrome of ancient Constantinople, a monumental center for circus-like entertainment and chariot racing, Theodora learned her beguiling ways early as her mother promoted her as an “actress.” According to ancient gossips, actresses during those times entertained publicly and privately to earn their keep.

Although not the first man to claim her for his mistress, Justinian (483-565) was smitten with her. Justinian’s origins were far from royal as well. The son of peasants, Justinian was adopted by his uncle, Justin (450-527), a member of the imperial guard. As the commander of troops in Constantinople, somehow Justin managed to be elected to rule the Byzantine Empire in 518.

While Justinian was keeping company with Theodora, their marriage was blocked by law. Rulers were prohibited from marrying actresses. Shortly before senility overtook him completely, Emperor Justin overturned the law for the benefit of his nephew. So when Justinian I succeeded his uncle as the Byzantine Emperor in 527, his former mistress became Empress and ruled jointly with him.

Construction of the large octagonal Basilica of San Vitale was begun while the Ostrogoths ran Ravenna but was completed in 547 after Emperor Justinian reclaimed the city. Supposedly, the project was patronized by gold donated by a Roman banker. Both Justinian and Theodora were promoted to sainthood by the Eastern Orthodox church.

The murals above are from San Vitale and a neighboring building in Ravenna. The oldest of the pair is a small mausoleum in the form of a Greek cross commissioned by Galla Placidia (386-452), but she ended up buried in Rome. The story of Galla Placidia, who must have been as compelling a consort as Empress Theodora, requires divulging a few more juicy tidbits.

I’ll try to keep this simple, but her life was complicated. Galla Placidia was the sister of Roman Emperor Honorius (384-423), the one who moved the capital to Ravenna in 402. Her first fiancé was executed in Rome in 408 amid accusations he was part of a military coup d’état.

During one of the invasions of the Visigoths, Galla Placidia was captured and moved with them to Gaul in 412. She ended up married to their king, Ataulf (370-415), a union forging a period when the Visigoths and Honorius briefly ceased fighting each other. King Ataulf, though, was murdered in his tub in Barcelona by a minion of a Gothic challenger to his rule.

The widow returned to Ravenna where her brother browbeat her into marrying his general, Constantius, in 417. In 421, Constantius assumed the title of Constantius III, ruling in conjunction with the childless Honorius. Her new husband brought her the title of Empress, but he died of some illness seven months later. Alternating scandalous stories of Honorius’ incestuous affection for his sister and quarrels between the pair forced Galla Placida and her children into exile in Constantinople, where another of her brothers reigned over the eastern half of the empire.

Following much political infighting and turmoil after Honorius’ death, Galla Placidia served as regent of the Western Roman Empire until her son from her marriage with Constantius III, Valentinian III (419-455), turned 18 in 437.

History is so not boring.