Monday, September 17, 2012
the road to perdition
My name is Steve. And I'm a church architecture and art addict.
But you already know that.
Mexico has a treasure trove of churches. Some that rival their European ancestors. At least in form.
My experience, though, is that the most interesting finds often are hidden away in small churches. And they usually are surprises.
Like the little parish church in San Maria de Guido. It is the very essence of a church that serves the spiritual needs of the poor.
It is not quite as plain as a Quaker or early Methodist meeting hall, but it close. The adornments are rather spartan. Even though the dome adds a bit of splendor.
Most churches include paintings of the four gospel writers at the "corners" of the dome. And those paintings are a good guide to gauge the rest of the art in that church -- with the exception of art that was destroyed during the country's wars or hauled off by the secular authorities for non-sectarian purposes.
Using that standard, an art connoisseur would not expect to find treasures based on the rather decayed nature of this cartoonish St. Mark.
But I did find a treasure in a side chapel. Not an art treasure, but a theological treasure.
Take a good look at the artist's construction of this painting. It is almost medieval in its hierarchical arrangement. (If you click on it, you should see an enlarged version.)
There are three levels. The trinity and Jesus' disciples are lined up on the top tier. Tier two includes Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the archangel Michael, and a smattering of saints. Considering the inhabitants, the top two tiers are undoubtedly meant to represent Heaven.
Tier three is not heaven. Note the nudity and flames. Whether it is Hell or Purgatory, I am not certain. The fact that the saints are dropping ropes to the tormented is probably a clue.
But what struck me as most interesting are the number of crowned and mitered heads in Hell. A king. A pope. A cardinal. A bishop.
The approach is not original. Dante populated Inferno with popes and monks. It would be interesting, though, to know which nobles the artist has committed to Hell. I am willing to bet the poor who attend mass here may have their own Ko-Ko list.
And if they do have their own condemnation list, what does that say to the poor if the privileged end up in Hell? Resignation or smugness?
The painting caused me to take a closer look at the Mary icon in the opposite chapel. The left side of the Victorian painting is devoted to Mary offering salvation to a young man who is about to be sucked into the maw of Hell.
Church art is designed to teach moral lessons. Oddly enough, most of the art in Santa Maria de Guido is of the Spooky Catholic Hell Dream variety.
If there were portrayals of Christian charity, reflecting God's love to the world, I missed them. And that is too bad. Because the lack of grace is what gives a bad name to what faith is all about.
And maybe that is why I find the best reflection of faith taking place outside of the walls of most church buildings.
For the last week I have been listening to the music from a Broadway musical that is a spoof on Mormonism -- The Book of Mormon. Before long, I want to share some thoughts on it.
But not today. Today is the day I drive to Pátzcuaro for one of the last stages in this year's world tour.