La Pieta – The Compassion of Most Holy Death

Michelangelo's_Pieta_5450_cropncleaned_editMercy, pity, and compassion are not words that you will see outsiders associating with Santa Muerte, the skeletal saint whose tradition is currently one of the fastest growing religious movements in the Americas and around the globe. Yet, La Pieta, ‘The Mercy,’ Michelangelo’s masterpiece depicting Mary cradling the peaceful body of Christ after the Crucifixion, is one of the images that has become strongly associated with the popular iconography of la Santisima Muerte. As an image of abandonment to God – la Pieta mirrors the devotion of Santa Muertistas and Muerteros who find in Saint Death freedom from the struggles they face in life:

“On the face of the Christ are absents the signs of the Passion, Michelangelo, in fact, does not desire the objective representation of the death but expresses his own religious vision in the abandoned and, anyway, serene face of the Son, as a testimony of the communion between man and God sanctified with the sacrifice of the Savior.” (from

248747_214798391886834_4275362_nMany Catholic and orthodox authorities cite 1 Corinthians 15:26 – ‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.‘ – as a source for their condemnation of devotion to Saint Death. However, in this this image of sanctified abandonment we find the peace with which Christ performed that feat of destruction, and a bridge to a more nuanced view of how Most Holy Death is seen by her followers themselves. They have overcome death through devotion and through acceptance, through an abandonment that speaks to the challenges they face in a society that often plays a more dangerous hand in their lives than death itself.

While Michaelangelo’s work is housed in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, in Santa Muerte’s iconography this image makes it’s way to the street-side shrines and sanctuaries where her devotees foster the faith of the outsider. Santa Muerte Piadosa, represents for her followers that unquestionable quality of death, that it accepts all into its arms. More these images continue to hold the original intention of Michelangelo’s sculpture, that just as Death accepts all – so too those who are at peace with the natural order accept everything that death brings.


Sister Death and Brother Francis at Holy Week in Chimayo, New Mexico

 Dona SebiastianaSanta Muerte’s origins in the U.S. date much further back than her recent influx with Mexican immigrants over the past decade.  During the 19th century in the mountain towns of New Mexico and southern Colorado, Mexican-American Catholics personified death as a female figure known as Doña Sebastiana, a moniker still heard today for Santa Muerte.  Holy Week processions organized by the Penitentes, Catholic brotherhoods originating in Spain and known for their public displays of penance, included a death carts with a life-size effigies of the skeletal Doña Sebastiana. Along with acts of self-flagellation on the part of the Penitentes, the Grim Reapress symbolized not only the agony and death suffered by Jesus Christ on the cross but also the importance of a Holy Death (Muerte Santa), which of course is one of the English translations of Santa Muerte.

In historical continuity with both her Spanish past and Mexican present,  Doña Sebastiana was a female personifcation of death, typically marked by snow-white hair.  As I’ve written in Devoted to Death, in medieval Spain, the Grim Reaper was usually represented as the female Grim Reapress known as La Parca. However, it’s not only the Spanish Grim Reapress who was syncretized into the creation of Doña Sebastiana. Both her name and fact that she often stands in the death cart holding a bow and arrow suggest that Saint Sebastian fused with La Parca in the creation of Doña Sebastiana.

Saint Sebastian was a third-century Roman martyr who was shot full of arrows, but miraculously survived, according to legend. In two more extraordinary connections, the Roman saint is associated with both the concept of Holy Death and the Black Plague. Medieval Europeans correlated the apparent randomness with which the Plague struck to an indiscriminate rain of arrows from the sky.  And since St. Sebastian was already associated with arrows,  he became one of the most popular guardian saints during the Black Death.  Of course, it was also at this same time in Europe that the figure of the Grim  Reaper first emerged. Remarkably, the syncretism would seem to endure today in that the often homo-erotic depictions of St. Sebastian resonate in Sana Muerte’s special appeal to LBGT devotees.

Beyond the larger history of Doña Sebastiana, the photos below are part of an intriguing story at the Catholic shrine at Chimayo,  New Mexico,  one of the most visited sacred site in the U.S. and famous for its Holy Week pilgrimage, the largest of its kind in the country.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One of the local parish priests, a native of Barcelona, commissioned a local sculptor to create the death cart, which was installed in 2010 in an exhibit room attached to the Shrine of the Black Christ of Esquipulas.  Already well into my research on Santa Muerte,  I was astounded to see the beautiful cart, along with a statue of Saint Francis Assisi on temple grounds.  The saint, for whom Pope Francis is named, described death as a “sister”

All praise be yours, my Lord, All praise be yours, my Lord,

for our Sister Physical Death

from whose embrace no mortal can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin!

Happy are those she finds doing your most holy will!

The second death can do no harm to them.

Sister Death holds a placard toward St. Francis’s outstretched armsIn the photo above, Sister Death holds a placard toward St. Francis’s outstretched arms, which reads:

“To die with the sacred joy of not having done harm to oneself nor to a single soul.”

These photographs are rare evidence that Sister Death, for the shortest of time, shared a sacred space with the patron saint of the poor. Just a short while after these photos were taken in March 2011, Doña Sebastiana and her cart were moved over to the nearby museum. Shrine officials feared the inevitable associations with her contemporary heiress, Santa Muerte.


R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., holds the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and is Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is currently conducting research on the new religious economy of Latin America and the cult of Santa Muerte (Saint Death).

A specialist in Latin American religion, he is the author of “Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy” (Oxford University Press, 2003), “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint” (Oxford University Press, December 2012), and of “Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty” (Rutgers University Press, 1997)..  He also blogs for the Huffington Post.


Photos from the Chimayo Shrine are courtesy of Fabiola Chesnut.

The Spanish American Arts Society in New Mexico is hosting an exhibit on Doña Sebastiana which runs through May 27th, 2014 – for more information Click Here.


Lideresa del Templo de la Santa Muerte en Tutitlan responde al articulo de Excelsior (Exclusiva!)

Comandante PanteraEl diario Mexicano, Excelsior, publicó recientemente un articulo con el titulo inflamatorio ‘Crimen rinde culto a la Santa Muerte’, que citó específicamente la supuesta criminalidad del Templo de la Santa Muerte en Tultitlán (Haga clic aquí para leer el artículo). Enriqueta Vargas, la lideresa del Templo de la Santa Muerte, ha emitido una respuesta exclusiva, publicada aquí por primera vez:

ESTA ES MI CONTESTACION: Estoy sorprendida de la nota que apareció el día de hoy 13 de Abril en éste prestigiado diario firmada por la reportera CLAUDIA SOLERA.

Es inconcebible que dicha reportera atribuya a la encargada del templo palabras que no pronunció y hechos ajenos a la actuación que norma la práctica del culto a la Santa Muerte.

Debo decir que no conozco a la citada reportera, que en mi calidad de “madrina” del Santuario de Tultitlán jamás me ha solicitado entrevista alguna, así como tampoco le solicitó ninguna entrevista a la encargada del templo de quien dice haber recibido la información que publicó.

Las mentiras que narra en su artículo es una clara transgresión a la ley de la materia, que rige la actividad de la prensa y de los medios de comunicación. Si CLAUDIA SOLERA tiene pruebas determinantes de lo que está diciendo, tiene la obligación de mostrarlas al Director General del periódico, para que éste resuelva la procedencia de una justa aclaración pues los infundios y las calumnias de que ha sido objeto el templo de la Santa Muerte de Tultitlán, difama al culto en general.

Muchas gracias a Enriqueta Vargas para permitirnos publicar su respuesta.

Death & Taxes – Santa Muerte, Saint of Good Fortune

Santa Muerte del DineroWith tax time coming up for those living in the United States, many are searching for ways to help save them from the eager reach of the IRS. The ‘Revenue Man‘ has long been the enemy of those on the outside of the thin ranks of the social elite, so it’s no surprise that the powerful Patroness of the Dispossessed shows special care towards helping to increase the luck and fortune of those who seek her favor.

As devotion to Santa Muerte has grown, the traditional three colors of white, red and black associated with her ‘working’ aspect have expanded into more specified colors to deal with individual requests. For those who work exclusively with her original trinity, petitions are focused through what is offered at the altar and particular prayers. The popular market encourages diversity, however, and la Madre de la Buena Suerte has taken on a golden hue to represent her place as a potential provider of wealth.

In this aspect she can often be found cloaked in money, creating a striking demonstration of her powers over the fortunes of those who follow her. As in all of her manifestations, the open potential of ‘death itself’ is highlighted in the fact that she fills whatever need is at hand. Her icons, imagery and devotional representations become a powerful reminder of her prevailing position in every facet of her devotees’ life.

Dr. Andrew Chesnut has noted in his research that these innovations, alterations and adaptations have allowed her to supplant competing folk saints through a diverse line of spiritual products that take care of every need. This alone gives credence to the idea that where la Santisima appears, prosperity lies close at hand for those who know how to work with her. From conversations with a number of botanica owners, this even extends to those who simply support the needs of local devotees, despite their own disinterest in la Nina Bonita’s presence in their store.

Continue reading

San Padrino Endoque – The first saint of Santa Muerte

Padrino EndoqueAt 3 a.m. on July 31st, 2008 unknown assailants sprayed Jonathan Legaria Vargas’ car with over 150 bullets, killing him instantly but sparing his two passengers. Known as both “Padrino (Godfather) Endoque’ and “Comandante Pantera,” Vargas was a charismatically outspoken leader in the growing public devotional tradition surrounding Santa Muerte. With the creation of a towering 75 ft. tall effigy of The Bony Lady in Tultitlan on the gritty outskirts of Mexico City, he was on his way to becoming a centralizing figure in the loose knit community of Santa Muertistas.

Mired in local politics and rumors the investigation into his death was complicated and messy. In the midst of the pain that followed her son’s murder, Jonathan’s mother Enriqueta Vargas Ortiz made a vow:

“Entonces le hice una promesa a la Santa: tú me entregas a los asesinos, y yo voy a tratar de llevarte a lo más alto que pueda.”

Vargas made a promise to Saint (Death), “You turn over his killers to me, and I’ll try to to take you the greatest heights.” The once devout Catholic, who had always been uncomfortable with her son’s fervor for Santa Muerte, pledged she would devote herself to tending to devotion to Santa Muerte if the Powerful Lady (one of her myriad monikers) would bring justice to the murderers that took her son’s life.

Events over the ensuing months transpired, such that Vargas felt that Saint Death had fulfilled her end of the bargain, and since then, Godmother Vargas has tended to the Tultitlan shrine with vigor.

Her son, Comandante Pantera, had been an outspoken and fiery community leader in the public growth of Santa Muerte’s devotional tradition. When he was gunned down, he was attempting to increase public acceptance of her devotions through radio programs and public displays, such as the 75 ft. statue. Under the auspices of Santa Muerte International he tried to highlight some of the social problems that have lead to her popularity:

“People are tired of looking for religion; people are tired of the priests who make off with the donations. What do they ask for now? Faith, which costs nothing more than love.”

Since her son’s death, Godmother Vargas has kept up the pace developing the Templo de Santa Muerte in Tultitlán into one of the most vibrant hubs of veneration of Saint Death. She continues to build the community through regular worship services, television and radio appearances and digital outreach on Facebook. Under her guidance, there are even exorcisms, weddings and christenings now being performed at the temple.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The shock of his murder led to years of soul searching, and the publication of ¿Quién mató al Comandante Pantera? Who Killed Comandante Pantera, a book which details her struggle to seek justice. Her poignant question, Why do we moms have to do the job of the authorities? ¿Por qué las mamás tenemos que hacer el trabajo de las autoridades?” echoes the struggle of so many facing the violence and terror that plague Mexico.

San Padrino EndoqueEven without official support Enriqueta Vargas fought to find peace with what had occurred, and through her dedication and devotion has come one of the more surprising developments since Santa Muerte’s public outing in 2001 — Jonathan Vargas has become the first canonized figure in the cult of the Bony Lady, and perhaps the first folk saint to develop out of the tradition of another one.

Over time Godmother Vargas has reported a series of visions of her son acting as an intercessor and intermediary for Santa Muerte, and other devotees associated with the temple have reported similar experiences and miraculous events surrounding him. The ritual necklaces that he wore have become a symbol of faith and spiritual power. They were with him at the time of his murder, and since receiving them, Godmother Vargas continues to wear them at every service she oversees.

No soy padre ni obispo

Soy un ser humano que solo profesa amor,paz y esperanza

Sin temor,sin dolor…con fe!!!

- Padrino Endoque

For many believers, “Padrino Endoque” has grown to represent the ideal Santa Muerte devotee for Santa Muertistas to emulate. His passion, drive and focus on faith beyond religion or politics embodies the open acceptance of Saint Death herself.


Special thanks to Enriqueta Vargas, Santa Muerte Internacional, and Enrique Hernandez Garcia for the images included in this article. 

This article was co-authored by Dr. Andrew Chesnut and David Metcalfe

Death & Santa Muerte – Elliot Edge in conversation with researcher David Metcalfe

The Cult of Santa Muerte has grown to encompass millions of followers spanning from Chile to Canada, and more recently around the globe. In this 3 hour presentation, Elliot Edge joins researcher and writer David Metcalfe in conversation about this new representation of death taking over the Americas, as well as comments on death in culture, the Roman Catholic Church’s condemnation of the figure, alchemy, and the role of death in practical and contemplative traditions.


La Nina de Muchas Caras – The many faces of Santa Muerte

Catrina Calavera - Jaqui

When one begins to search for Santa Muerte, it quickly becomes apparent that as she travels through the Americas, and now around the globe, she does so with an ever changing face. As death itself, she wears many masks, suited to the personal predilections of those she approaches.

Although her devotees in Mexico and the United States most often use images which are closer to a simple grim reaper, as she expands into the popular culture Santa Muerte is taking on more humane features. Perhaps this is a soft expression of the hesitancy many feel in facing her full on, which in other areas of the media is represented by harsh condemnation or labels of Satanism and narco-culture.

One of the most common faces she wears in the United States, at least in terms of the artwork found on websites like DeviantArt and in images of tattoo work tagged with the label ‘Santa Muerte,’ is that of the popular Dia de los Muertos sugar skull motif, inspired by famed illustrator José Guadalupe Posada’s la Calavera Catrina. The featured image to the left is based on the Dia de los Muertos skulls, and when compared to the following slideshow you will see that there is little difference in images that are being used to represent la Nina Blanca.

Both the sugar skulls and La Catrina have become very familiar images in the Americas, so it is not surprising that these would be one of the first representations of personified death to take on a relationship with the less familiar figure of Santa Muerte. As iconic images that have come to be beloved on a national level in Mexico they offer a way for those experiencing more stable areas of the economy and social strata to express an interest in Santa Muerte without directly engaging the iconography that is prevalent in forms that the media has taken to represent her position as a patron of the dispossessed.

Continue reading