What are saints? In the Catholic Church, they are individuals who, while they lived, displayed the Christian virtues to such an extent that they were welcomed directly into heaven upon their death. Some lived well-documented lives; others are visible only through the murky lens of pious tradition. Being with God in heaven, saints can intermediate between humans and God. One asks a saint to intercede on one’s behalf; it is God who works the miracle, not the saint.
This is the official Catholic doctrine. Moving away from the priests and theologians of the Church, one gets the impression that for many ordinary folks the saint personally responds to prayers and petitions. To find the proper helper, the petitioner must get to know the saints and their stories. And this is where religious art comes in.
The official purpose of Catholic religious art is to give the worshipper visual reminders of sacred narratives, and to provide a focus for thoughts and prayers. Again, talking with people on the edges of the formal church, one gets the impression that the saint can somehow listen through his or her image. On some popular levels, therefore, religious art that has been formally blessed may become a communication station through which people can talk to the saints.
Extending things a little farther, the saints can communicate with us through religious art. If you read my blog on San Francisco Xavier last September, you may remember that his statue indicated that it wanted to stay in Magdalena by becoming immobile. In addition, many believe that this same statue indicates San Francisco’s approval of a petitioner by allowing its head to be lifted off the pillow where it rests.
Now for a little history. The 1930s in Sonora were a time of social and religious ferment. The Church, which had been powerful all over Mexico, came to be viewed in official circles as the enemy of the people and of progress. Masses were outlawed and were held clandestinely if at all. Churches were stripped of their religious art, which was burned or otherwise destroyed, and church buildings were secularized. This phase only lasted a few years, but produced a huge crop of stories and legends. The people who did the destruction of the art have gone down in popular speech as los quemasantos, the saint-burners, and Sonora is filled with tales of how this or that beloved image was rescued from them.
All this is to provide background for the Sonoran religious legends and stories I’ll be telling from time to time over the next few months. This is as dry as I’ll ever get, but after all May is a famously dry month on the desert!