Saturday, October 13, 2012

Santa Muerte, San la Muerte and The Fascinating History of Death Personified in Latin America

I took the photos you see above over a series of trips to Los Angeles to document the fascinating phenomonon of Santa Muerte, a sacred figure worshipped as part of the larger pantheon of Catholic saints in Mexico and now also, with the wave of Mexican migrants, in the United States as well. Thought to have its roots in a syncretism of the beliefs of the native Latin Americans and the colonizing Spanish Catholics, the name literally means "Holy Death" or "Saint Death," and she--also fondly referred to as "The Skinny Lady--tends to be worshipped by disenfranchised members of society such as criminals, prostitutes, transvestites, the very poor, and other people for whom conventional Catholicism has not provided a better or safer life.

Doing some research into the matter, I recently stumbled upon Frank Graziano's Cultures of Devotion: Folk Saints of Spanish America, which offers fascinating insight into the genesis of both Santa Muerte and the very similar San La Muerte tradition, which developed independently from a similar native/Catholic syncretism in other areas of Latin America; I also would give anything to see one of the bizarre theatrical productions described below:
In the Jesuit missions, the publication of many books included, in 1705, a translation of Juan Eusebio Nieremberg's De la Diferencia Entre lo Temporal y Eterno. Among the engravings in the book was one of a triumphant personified death, holding a sickle (a variation on the scythe) in one and and an hourglass in the other. Death as a skeleton also appears in another image, which was likewise copied from a European original. 
These engravings document the presence of the Grim Reaper in the missions, but more important in folk culture were theatrical productions staged by the Jesuits for the Guaranís' religious instruction. The performances often included Christ's resurrection, with props of skulls and bones and with the Grim Reaper in the supporting cast for dramatization of Christ's triumph over death. Such performances contributed to fixing the personified image of death within a religious context. 
Almost all the artists in Jesuit missions were Guaranís who were trained by Europeans. These indigenous carvers of saints thought of their work more religiously than artistically: "Image-makers quite literally believed that they were making saints and gods." This observation is particularly suggestive in the context of San La Muerte, whose traditionalal carvers were likewise creating, not representing, a supernatural power. For the Guaraní mission artists, "The reality of things was not expressed by imitating their visual appearance, as in European art, but by capturing their essence." The imagery, including the image of death personified, was adopted from European traditions and then invested with this "essence." The carvings transcend mere representation and become empowered in themselves like amulets.
All of this also brings to mind the wonderful 18th century book La Portentosa Vida de la Muerte (The Astounding Life of Death); more on that here.

All photos you see above are from my trips to Los Angeles to document the Santa Muerta phenomenon; for more, click here to see my complete Flickr set.


thorne garnet said...

Love your site. Your photos are always creepy/beautiful.

Jana Miller said...

I highly suggest watching the documentary "La Santa Muerte: Saint Death" if you haven't seen it already. It is at Netflix.

Anonymous said...

Great pix. Highly recommend Andrew Chesnut's new book on Santa Muerte, Devoted to Death...

Metta Karuna said...

I praise Holy Death because SHE BLESSES ME & MY LOVED ONES WITH HER AMAZING SUPPORT AND HELP IN HIGHLY SENSITIVE SITUATIONS, besides, she always helps me in my divine path, she helps me overcome, learn from, and succeed in all my challenges and be a better being, one of light; to be and have a higher vibration and purer energy; through Her Kindness and Compassion I am a better being and I grow and evolve spiritually, achieving an improvement in the lives of each of the beings whose lives are affected by me, respecting all living beings on the planet. Thanks to Her, I grow and evolve spiritually. Praising your Virtues Santisima Muerte!!!!