As promised, here’s my piece on the mummies of Mexico City. If you enjoyed the photo set, check out the history of the bodies. They say so much about class, colonialism and the politics of the Catholic Church in Mexico, especially when contrasted with the more famous mummies of Guanajuato. Plus there are bonus photos that I didn’t published here!
The Burning of Judas
Mexico City, Mexico
Here’s a photo and article (in Spanish) about the burning of Judas during Holy Week that I mentioned in the previous post. The article talks about how it isn’t profitable to make them only for Holy Week anymore but in some places it’s still profitable to make them as a craft to sell to tourists (few of whom recognize the symbolism attached to the little devils).
The tradition suffered a major blow in 1957 when they figures were banned after an accidental fireworks explosion.
Decoding Our Lady of Sorrows at Museo de El Carmen
Mexico City, Mexico
I’ve posted another image of Our Lady of Sorrows (Virgen Dolorosa) from earlier in the week. She’s a common representation of Mary in Mexican churches. Devotion to her came from Spain during the colonial period. This is still reflected in her clothes- she’s usually dressed as a wealthy Castilian widow.
During Holy Week these icons take on a much more significant role- after Good Friday Virgen Dolorosa is frequently known as Virgen de la Soledad since she was alone after Jesus’ death. She’s often the only uncovered icon in churches after all other artwork has been veiled in purple. Sometimes she’s moved outside the church to a special altar.
This altar was set up in the Museo de El Carmen and included information on the meanings behind the special Holy Week decorations you see around town. This was the only altar I saw that was this elaborate. Most had a few of these symbols around the icon with women selling juice, water or flowers.
Lilies (pictured): The virginal purity of Mary.
Fresh Camomile (variation): Represents humility (in the green stalks) and beauty of body and soul (the yellow flowers). Bunches of chamomile were more common around the city and were delivered in bushels to the cathedral.
Bitter Oranges: Mary’s sorrow. Sometimes these are also painted gold to symbolize joy in Jesus’ resurrection.
Gold Balls: Joy in the resurrection (see oranges above).
Red Hearts: The physical sacred heart of Jesus, a symbol of divine love and suffering.
Urns of Liquid: The sweet tears of Mary. This is also why juice and sometimes ice cream or popsicles are served.
Sprouted wheat: Represent Jesus as the eucharist (bread). At a few churches I saw Chia Pets.
Purple paper flowers and purple drapes: Mourning, pain and penance. The color of Lent.
One sword through the heart of the icon (pictured): The pain of Mary watching her child die on the cross.
Seven swords through the heart of the icon (variation): The seven sorrows of Mary.
On Good Friday there are funeral processions that include the Santo Entierro, or holy burial in effigy. The icon of the Virgen de la Soledad is often included in the procession.
After Good Friday, some people burn effigies of Judas or explode them with fireworks. I saw a few of these at the Mercado Sonora (famous for its witchcraft and Sanataria supply stalls) but didn’t recognize their purpose because they were in the form of little red devils.
Mexico City, Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel
The pictures of the passion effigies posted over the last few days were taken on Tuesday or Wednesday of Holy Week. On Thursday all relics, effigies and artwork are removed from the churches or draped in purple. (Though some churches do this at least partially before Thursday. At this particular church all the icons of the saints above the pews were already draped but passion effigies like this one and Santo Entierro were left uncovered.) Churches with elaborate altarpieces sometimes have large, dramatic drapes that cover the entire thing. On Thursday it’s traditional to visit 7 churches. On Easter Sunday the drapes are removed and all artwork is restored to its usual place.
Anonymous asked: Don't you think it's a bit disrespectful to be taking pictures of the deceased? Not trying to sound rude. Genuine question.
No offence taken. Personally, no, I don’t think it’s disrespectful in this particular case.
In the US we’re very “rest in peace” about our dead. In fact, we should consider adding “do not disturb” to every toe tag because we tend to get corpses out of sight as quickly as possible so they can go decompose by themselves. Sometimes there’s no physical interaction between the recently deceased and non-professionals at all anymore- “direct cremation” is our (increasingly popular) phrase for that.
That isn’t the case everywhere in the world though. In many cultures death still has a public face. Just look at festivals like Ma’Nene in Indonesia or Dia de los Muertos in Mexico or Festa di Tutti i Santi in Italy. And check out the link below to my piece on the putridaria of Italy. In that specific example, the public display of human remains is linked to very important religious concepts. So in that context looking at and tending to corpses in public is respectful, whereas leaving them alone to decay isn’t.
These mummies, for example, were never meant to just rest in peace. They were originally buried knowing that they would be dug up and put in the church’s ossuary. The only hitch was that they accidently mummified. In fact, after they were discovered in 1917, a monk floated the idea of reburying them but no one wanted to because the residents considered the mummies to be an important part of their history and members of the community.
I’ll be the first to admit that I walk a line on this blog when I photograph human remains and holy objects. But there are a few other factors that dictate what I photograph and when. For example, I always have permission to photograph and if I don’t know, I ask. I would never photograph a private event- be it a funeral, a religious service or an autopsy. And I always try to get the full history out there- that’s why I’m working on a well-researched piece about these guys- they’re real people and they deserve to be more than creepy photos on the internet.
Another person I assume you know if you read this blog is Caitlin Doughty of Ask A Mortician fame. I wrote a guest post on her blog this week about a deathy bit of church architecture called a putridarium. Over there I’ll tell you all about what it is and explain why Italian Catholics are so eager to bury the dead… twice.
Check it out here.
The Carmelite Monastery of San Ángel
Mexico City, Mexico
I’m currently working on a full piece for Atlas Obscura on theses guys but I couldn’t wait to share the photos I took today. These are naturally occurring mummies on display in the crypt beneath the monastery in San Ángel. The corpses are former parishioners of the neighboring church buried between 1600 and 1800. They were found by accident when troops ransacked the monastery during the Mexican Revolution in 1917.
More to come soon…
All photos by me.
Anonymous asked: This is probably the most interesting tumblr I have ever seen. Thank you.
Wow, thank you Anon! You just made my day :)
Mexico City Photo Set from The Metropolitan Cathedral
Top: Chapel of the relics. The effigy in repose above the altar is Santo Entierro, or Holy Burial, a life-sized depiction of Jesus in the tomb.
Bottom: Chapel of the relics. The bones of St. Vitalis, Martyr, translated from the catacombs of St. Calixtus in Rome, December 13, 1819.
All photos by me.
Mexico City photo set from Iglesia del la Santisima Trinidad
Two effigies of the passion: Scourged Christ with the cross (above), and Santo Entierro (below)
All photos by me.
Mexico City, Iglesia Santa Ines
Virgen Dolorosa (Our Lady of Sorrows)
Photo by me
Mexico City photo set from The Tabernacle of the Metropolitan Cathedral
Top to bottom:
The relics of St. Felicitas in an effigy.
The relics of St. Felicitas with milagros (ex voto in thanks for answered prayers).
An effigy of a soul in purgatory.
Santo Entierro (Holy Burial, a life sized effigy of Jesus in the tomb)
All photos by me
If you read this blog, I assume you know about Morbid Anatomy. Morbid Anatomy is the blog/library/lecture hall/workshop/rapidly expanding cabinet of curiosities of Joanna Ebenstein. She’s been hosting lectures and events from her tiny space in Brooklyn for years but now Morbid Anatomy is becoming a legitimate museum and meeting place for curious people.
Personally, I’ve decided to become a founding donor. Here’s why.
Joanna is directly responsible for inspiring me to write about and lecture on relics. See, I’m not an academic by trade- I’m a lighting designer and I never thought in a million years that I could add to the body of knowledge on relics or that anyone would be interested in reading it even if I did. But here we are. And that’s what I love about Morbid Anatomy- it encourages everyone to become a scholar and pursue learning about what they love, even if (and especially if) it seems a little strange. The result is that fields of study that might have otherwise been dismissed or slipped through the cracks are now being revitalized by passionate people coming in with entirely new perspectives.
That’s how Morbid Anatomy benefits us all, even if you don’t live in New York. It’s an amazing platform and resource for people who are excited to share their passion- whether it’s online, in print or in person.
The museum leadership is in good hands behind the scenes too. They have an excellent board in place and the project is backed by the Brooklyn Arts Council so they’re the real deal.
If you like what they’re doing, please take a second and bust the piggy bank, check under the couch cushions and see what you’ve got. The $25 level in particular is a pretty sweet mix of affordability and a really cool gift. You get 2 tickets to the museum and a hardcover copy of the beautifully illustrated, 500 page Morbid Anatomy Anthology.
(Oh, and more relics soon, dear readers. I’m headed to Mexico City on Monday.)
The good folks at Atlas Obscura recently asked me about my favorite bit of morbid history for their Morbid Monday feature. I’ve written about the Cadaver Synod before but I couldn’t resist the chance to revisit it and dig into the papal politics of 9th century Rome in the years leading up to the Pornocracy.
You can read the piece here and if you like it I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of The Bad Popes by E. R. Chamberlin. It’s a fascinating, well-researched look at the most chaotic and corrupt years in church history.
Here are a few articles I’ve written for your reading pleasure in the new year:
That last one explains the story behind the fellow above. It’s based on an illustrated lecture I gave in December at the Morbid Anatomy Library. You might have noticed the new “Map of Paris” at the top too- it’s part of the same series so you can navigate the oddities of Paris on your own.
Happy 2014, relic hunters!