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.
Supporting the supposition that the adoption of the Dia de los Muertos iconography represents a more comfortable mask for those approaching Santa Muerte from the outside is the additional fact that many of the images mix these elements with subtle suggestions of the Virgin Mary. With the addition of veils, roses and specific color cues we can see here a strange mixture of la Calavera with la Virgen, under the auspices of Santa Muerte, who in her own devotional tradition has no real association with either figure.
The following slideshow depicts images which directly work with this Marian association by essentially placing a skeleton within the iconography of the Virgin Mary.
There is clearly a level of artistic license in these images which step away from Santa Muerte’s traditional iconography, and although devotees on occasion refer back to these images when creating devotional artwork, both the la Catrina and la Virgen forms are usually demonstrative of those who do not have a direct connection with Santa Muerte’s tradition itself.
Many of the images which err towards a softer side of death are reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s popular Death character from DC Comics’ Sandman series. According to Wikipedia Gaiman’s congenial anthropomorphic depiction of mortality ‘was named the fifteenth greatest comic book character by Empire Magazine,‘ so it makes sense Santa Muerte takes on her likeness a bit as she moves outside of the strict purview of her ardent devotees. The irony being that, even in her grim reapress form, Santa Muerte herself is a loving and caring companion to those within her tradition, even if the mainstream media often depicts her as nothing less than diabolical. Those adopting her in the popular culture seek to find some median ground where she assumes less skeletal austerity, yet within her own tradition she is referred to as ‘pretty’ and ‘cute,’ la Nina Bonita, Madrecita linda, without any need to adjust her fleshless facade.
For Santa Muerteros and Santa Muertistas like Steven Bragg, who oversees the New Orleans Chapel of Santisima Muerte (Click Here for more information) the most direct tradition is based on the three color divisions of White, Red and Black. When one sees the incredible altars at the Chapel, and considers the effect that this focus has on devotional practice it is hard to disagree that bringing things back to the core provides advantages to practicing the faith. As he states on the Chapel’s website:
“Although I recognize that there are other ways of working with Santisima Muerte and see where many others in Mexico have her wearing different colored robes, the way She came to me, and the way in which I was taught, was through a tri-colored system. For me, Santisima wears only three robes: white, red, and black. When She wears the white robe, She is La Blanca (the White). She is called La Roja (the Red) while wearing her crimson cloak, and She is La Negra (the Black) when She wraps around Her the shadows of the night. Each cloak alters Her personality, and therefore, She is approached differently according to the color of Her robe.”
Traditional innovations usually focus on elements of efficacy, the addition of a cloak covered in red peppers and red glitter on the eyes of an icon of La Nina Negra for example, which symbolically represents increasing the potency in working with her. Other innovations include la Santa Muerte del Dinero, whose cloak is made from triangulated dollar bills to represent her efficacy in granting prosperity to those who petition her, and la Santa Muerte de los Siete Poderes, whose seven colored cloak represents the adaptation of the Seven African Powers found in many Afro-Latin spiritual traditions. The seven colors represent the visible light spectrum, the sunlight refracted into the rainbow descending from the heights of heaven, and the power of the one moving into the many through being.
The Imagenes de la Santa Muerte blog has a wonderful description of why Santa Muerte appears in so many diverse forms, the author of the blog says it is because the Beautiful Girl is “free, beautiful and holy,” and she is present in our every day life no matter where we find ourselves:
“Nuestra niña bella en mil formas y colores, así como es ella, libre, hermosa, santa. La Santa Muerte presente en nuestra vida todos los días, tanto en los grandes como en los chicos. Ayudándonos en la familia, en el dinero. Porque ella es bondadosa y le pedimos por lo que más queremos.”
This divergence of iconography is one of the more interesting elements in the development of la Santisima’s global expansion. It provides a window into the changes that occur in a growing devotional tradition as it reaches the awareness of popular media and begins to take on forms more comfortable and familiar to a wider audience. Being able to see these developments happening in real time through the auspices of digital media opens an opportunity for everyone to understand how we have each repurposed, renewed, realigned and reworked our own faith traditions in ways that are personally suited to what we feel comfortable with. What we see with Santa Muerte is no different than what happens to other faiths as they become caricatured and stereotyped within the popular media, or adapted to our daily lives. In her many masks the Bony Lady allows us to see the obvious differences between her role as Saint Death and something more commercially pleasing.
For those who know her devotions, however, La Madrina rises above all of these adaptations and whatever face she wears she presents a challenging vision of a faith that goes beyond differences and comfort, a faith that accepts all who come with the open embrace of death itself. As a grim reaper, a woman wearing the guise of la Catrina, or a skeletal virgin, la Santisima Muerte, Most Holy Death, has become an iconic figure in the religious landscape of the 21st century, representing the vast disparities that exist in our global culture and offering at once hope for peace in her unifying principle of inclusion, as well as a warning of what is at stake if peace remains an elusive promise.
Note: Special thanks to all of the tattoo artists, graphic designers and illustrators whose images were used in this presentation. Also special thanks to Jennifer Lopez for the closing image of the Santa Muerte statue at the Temple of Santa Muerte in Tultitlan, Mexico and to photographer Jason Ernst and Jacqui for the featured image.