Mercy, 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 RomaVida.com)
Many 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.