Big Jim: The painted walls of Pitiquito

2014-06-10T00:00:00Z 2014-06-10T07:17:20Z Big Jim: The painted walls of PitiquitoJim Griffith Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Pitiquito is on Mexican Highway 2, just a few miles east of Caborca. The church of San Diego can be seen from the highway, and is well worth a visit for several reasons. It is a handsome building, lovely in its severity, though lacking in outside adornment. Inside are a number of nice colonial statues, including a lovely baroque San José in excellent condition. However, Pitiquito’s real treasures are on its walls.

The interior of the church at Pitiquito showing the Virgin of the Apoclypse. To the right is the skeleton that was the first mural painting to reappear. Over the skeleton's head are the words that King Belshazzar saw at his feast, which Daniel interpreted to mean that the days of the King's life were numbered, and that his kingdom would be divided between the Medes and Persians. Jim Griffith photo.

In 1966, a little girl attending Mass was looking around and saw a gigantic painting of a skeleton on what had previously been a plain white wall. Her mother saw it, too, and screamed. After the natural shock and consternation had died down, the truth began to come out. The paintings had always been there, covered by coats of plaster, but the women who cleaned the church had recently begun to use detergent to wash the walls. This thinned out the covering plaster, thus causing the paintings to reappear.

Today one can see a skeleton, a demon, the Virgin Mary, the symbols of three of the four evangelists, and the Scales of Judgement, among other words and fragments.

The paintings seem to have been visual aids for the teaching of Christianity to the O’odham, which after all was why the church was built. They appear to date from the early 19th century.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in the church with a group of American tourists and hearing the priest address us through an interpreter. He gave a brief discourse on Catholic doctrine, using the paintings. What he told us could not have been very different from what his predecessor, also with the help of an interpreter, might have told his O’odham parishioners in the early Eighteen Hundreds. It was a real time-machine experience!

The oldest level of murals in the church at Pitiquito. Jim Griffith photo

But there are other paintings in the church, on the earliest coat of plaster. These are a series of frames which were probably intended to set off the fourteen stations of the cross. They are done in red and white mineral paints, and are bordered with triangles and scallops that look very much like rain clouds as represented in other forms of O’odham art. One square has serpents along the sides, and the heads of figures wearing what might be ceremonial headdresses along the top. These painted squares may be the only mission-period art in the Pimería in which an O’odham painter expressed specifically O’odham ideas. And that, my friends, is pretty exciting!

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About this blog

Jim Griffith is the former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, and co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself. He’s also the author of seven books on the folklore and folklife of our region, most recently “A Border Runs Through It.” His books can be purchased at tucson.com/wildcatgear.

If you have questions or suggestions for Jim Griffith or this blog, e-mail bigjimgriffith@gmail.com

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