The Tangibility of Devotion to Saint Death
Photo Essay by Professor R. Andrew Chesnut and Doctor Kate Kingsbury,
All photos and text copyrighted. Do not use without permission of authors.
Despite the Church’s insistence that Santa Muerte is satanic and that her devotees are heretics most Mexican Santa Muerte devotees consider themselves Catholic. They see the folk saint as part of their Catholic tradition and thus meld imagery and iconography from official Catholicism with their devotional beliefs, praxis and aesthetics. As a result, many shrines and altars are crawling with Christian saints and imagery, and Christmas is no exception, wherein we see nativity scenes erupt into death’s dominion. As in the US, many Mexicans set out Christmas displays in late November and early December. Baby Jesus will presumably be placed in the nativity scene on Christmas Eve, below Santa Muerte’s bony fingers.
PAINTINGS AND SANTA MUERTE ART
Tableaus and paintings of Santa Muerte are an important part of belief and practice. Shrines and the houses of devotees may be decorated with many such images. Whilst some of these tableaus may have been fabricated in a factory in China, some paintings are ex votos which devotees have created as an oblation to their saint. Some place them at shrines. Devotees may also gift them to others. Anthropologist and amateur artist, Dr. Kate Kingsbury painted an image of golden Santa Muerte. She gifted it to a shrine owner during research. It was very well-received, attesting to the power and importance of material religion in creating bonds in and between communities that cut across age, colour, and origin. Moreover, material culture is central to interactional forms of religious praxis. In a tactile and visual experience, individuals may meditate on the power of death through such tableaus.
La Casa de la Santa Muerte is one of the most elaborate temples dedicated to the Skeleton Saint in Mexico. Located in the tiny town of Santa Ana Chapitiro, Michoacan, just a few miles from Patzcuaro, it is renowned for its colorful Day of the Dead commemorations.
COLOURS AND CANDLES
Colour symbolism is central to devotion and ritual. There are three main colors associated with Santa Muerte: red, white, and black, each one associated with a different Santa Muerte power. In the picture we see not only the red candle of love, passion and lust, with its label besprinkled with hearts, but also votives of colours that depart from the main trio. To the left the green candle of justice stands burning, for petitions pertaining to legal matters. Center stage is the rainbow-colored Seven Powers candle. The 7 colours represent the Saint of Death’s 7 powers. This candle, we may surmise, has been placed by a devotee yearning for miracles on many fronts, and not just one. Someone who seek a perfect synergy of aligned miracles to bring about their heart’s desire.
DEATH AS AN INDIGENOUS DEATH GODDESS
Kingsbury in her work has argued that devotees forge the folk saint of death in their own image, this effigy attests to her theory. We see that a devotee has crafted Santa Muerte in the image of an Indigenous Purepecha woman. Indeed this is what’s most unique at the Michoacan temple: the representation of Saint Death as a Purepecha Indigenous figure. Based in the nearby town of Tzintzuntzan, the Purepecha (also known as Tarascans) were an impressive Meso-American civilization that ruled the present day state of Michoacan and part of Jalisco. Most Michoacanos are very proud of their Purepecha heritage and are quick to point out that the neighboring mighty Aztec empire was never able to subdue them. The Purepecha deity Cuerauaperi presides over both birth and death, the latter especially in relation to experiencing a violent end, which has been all too frequent in Michoacan as an epicenter of the Mexican drug war.
Colored votive candles are the most important devotional item mostly due to their affordability, ranging from one to seven US dollars depending on the style and complexity. Here we see Death in her technicolor coat with each color symbolizing a major devotional theme, such as gold for abundance and prosperity and purple for healing.
Another unique element of the imagery at the temple is the presence of statues carved from local pink volcanic rock known as “cantera rosa.” Most of them, such as the one below depict the Skeleton Saint in her original European Catholic garb.
This Indigenous effigy of Santa Muerte interweaves not only key aspects of her European iconography but also her pre-Hispanic aspects, which as Kingsbury and Chesnut have pointed out, empower Indigenous practitioners in a country where traditional Christianity may be seen as far-removed from Indigenous realities. In this statue, the owl does double duty symbolising the saint’s wisdom as in Greek mythology, but also death as in Indigenous thanatology. The common expression is ‘when the owl screeches, the Indian dies’. Although on Tarascan territory, her headdress is distinctly Aztec, resembling the featherwork designs worn by Nahua nobles. Aztec headdresses had a disc-type shape. This represented the sky and the cosmos, serving as a reminder of the oneness of self with these. Snakes are also a common motif in both Mayan, Aztec and Tarascan art. They are often associated with rebirth and renewal, as well as the celestial planes, which make them fitting in this Santa Muerte statue
ANGEL OF DEATH
One of Santa Muerte’s main advocations is as the Angel of Death who like the Grim Reapress comes for the souls of mortals at the appointed time. Donning a black nun’s robe and shawl with her bony hands clasped in prayer, the effigy below evokes the Judeo-Catholic origins of Santa Muerte in Spain. Of the various offerings at her feet what stands out as singular is the dish of mole and rice, a signature Mexican dish. Food offerings typically consist of fruits and candies, not cooked meals.
With the golden corona atop her head and gilded skulls the statue below represents the Monarch of Death who has dominion over the earth and through her white robes offers purity and protection to believers as well as prosperity and abundance. The two lions at her side evoke both her ferocity and make allusions to symbology associated with European royalty, for she is Queen Death.
SYNCRETICISM AND SUBVERSION
This volcanic Muerte comes with several of her iconic accoutrements, which with the exception of the owl are all of European provenance. The globe hearkens to her syncretic origins during the colonial era, as Kingsbury has pointed out in her scholarship, the globe once a symbol of colonial conquest is re-appropriated and subverted in this iconography to dismiss European dominance and instead replace it with death’s dominance. The hourglass refers to the limited lifespan we all have on earth. When the hourglass is empty, life ends. The owl at her feet conveys both wisdom and in hommage to her Indigenous origins – imminent death.
What stands out with this volcanic Angel of Death is that it’s not clearly female. 99% of the representations of the Mexican saint of death are female, and if anything this effigy tilts more toward masculine with coarser features. The Michoacan temple has more male and androgynous figures than any other shrine we have visited in our collective 15 years of research. Perhaps this is because unlike most Santa Muerte shrines, this one was founded by a male figure.
DEATH AS BRIDE
Another main advocation of the White Girl (one of her myriad monikers) is that of skeleton bride and in this particular case waiting eternally for the perfect groom who never shows up. There are a number of variations on this theme, including temporary marriages to the deathly bride for male devotees. Albeit, while male devotees may insist Santa Muerte is their wife, when prompted female followers will assert that Saint Death is beholden to no man.
Below is a larger than life bronze statue of the temple’s deceased founder who apparently retired from an unknown profession in Mexico City and decided to erect a grandiose monument to the object of his devotion in an area renowned for its death culture. Years ago a Santa Muerte shaman from Patzcaruo told Chesnut that the Bony Lady originated in the town of Santa Ana Chapatiro as a Purepecha girl and that her skeleton is hidden somewhere in the area.
This statue underscores the ambiguity of Santa Muerte’s gender. While her skeletal form reveals no traces of femininity or masculinity, the saint’s gender is rendered tangible by devotees’ sartorial choices for the folk saint who create her femininity through fashion and corporeal styling. Here we see the saint of death in full female regalia, as what is likely a female devotee has adorned her in the accoutrements deemed desirable for a woman. Garbed as such, effigies give us insights into the cultural construction of femininity in Mexico from the visual standpoint. In this statue, this consists of a wig of long, lustrous locks, a lacey dress, ample jewellery and a purse as Americans say, or handbag for the British. Since Queen Death is considered supremely powerful, this effigy is also bedecked with a spangled tiara, signifying her sovereignty over life and death.
Tobacco is an important offering in Santa Muerte devotion. Followers of the formidable folk saint may give puros (cigars), cigarettes or even marijuana-cigarettes. For thousands of years, tobacco has been an integral part of Indigenous culture across the Americas. Used in ritual, ceremony, and prayer, tobacco has long been considered a sacred plant with healing benefits and spiritual attributes.
Whilst many devotees depict Santa Muerte as chthonic, in keeping with Indigenous notions of death, she is also depicted as an angel of death from the celestial realms and this winged statue speaks to that idea. Angels are notoriously asexual and this effigy is rather androgyneous. It stands in a pool of water, which has much importance in the folk faith. As Chesnut has pointed out, in continuity with Christian ritual, water at the altar of the saint of death cleanses, purifies, and renews. Conversely, in Mexican traditions water can represent death. Many Mexicans, Argentines, and other Hispanophones interpret water in dreams as a sign of impending death. The water of their dreams isn’t a life-sustaining liquid but the stuff of nightmares in floods that drown and tides that rip.
With her coiffed locks and Day of the Dead face paint, the Lady in Blue below sports a more contemporary look. Santa Muerte was originally depicted as bald – in fact “la Pelona” or Bald Lady is one of her original monikers. These days she usually appears with long locks, be they jet black, platinum blond or shocking pink.
The black and white effigies below constitute two of the three original colors of the cult. Along with red for love and sex, ebony and ivory images accounted for all the depictions of the Skeleton Saint until the 1990s when she went polychrome.
What catches the eye with these three life-size effigies is their European gothic aesthetic. Recalling that the Spanish colonial Church brought over the figure of the Grim Reapress, la Parca, who syncretized with Indigenous death deities, all the oldest iconography is thoroughly European iconographically although praxis is not.
Here we see Santa Muerte next to Jesus Malverde, dressed in a white shirt and a red bandana. Some devotees claim Santa Muerte has had an amorous liaison with the folk saint. Like Santa Muerte, Jesus Malverde is best known as a narcosaint however whilst the mustachioed miracle-worker is popular among drug peddlers, this association is only recent. In Mexican mythology Malverde was a Robin Hood-type character who stole from the rich and gave to the poor only to be unjustly executed for his misdemeanours. After his supposed burial in Sinaloa from whence he hails, locals began to petition him for miracles which he is said to have responded to. So instead of being a narcosaint we should consider that many devotees are from humble backgrounds and petition Malverde for health, money, family problems, unrequited love, employment, educational challenges, legal setbacks, arrest, imprisonment, crop failures and business difficulties.
DEATH AS LADY JUSTICE
The effigy below depicts Santa Muerte as Lady Justice. Some of the earliest known portrayals of the folk saint feature her with the scales of justice and indicate death’s important role in doling out due process. Some non-devotees are said to be afraid of the female folk saint’s followers who will not hesitate to reap justice on those they feel have wronged them, using the powers of Santa Muerte in her green facet, and her most formidable form, as Niña Negra (the Black Girl). Some say that you should never cross someone who works with Santa Muerte.
It should be noted that justice is perspectival and does not correlate to a black and white dichotomy of good versus evil. Justice is seen as whatever is right in the eyes of devotees, so much so that a follower who is on the police force might ask the Saint of Death to strike down the narco who killed their partner, that same narco might ask Santa Muerte to completely eradicate all law authorities on their trail. The importance of justice in Santa Muerte’s roster of powers cannot be emphasised enough, especially in a country where homicide and femicide are largely treated with impunity and the legal system is corrupt. The usual avenues of rectitude cannot be relied on therefore devotees turn to death.
RETURN TO SENDER
The statue below is cloaked in two of the most powerful colors of the cult – red for love and sex and black for protection and vengeance. The two colours combine to create a new configuration of the saint, sold also in candle form, who in this guise can be appealed to for protection from the ill intentions of others, and of course sending that bad luck and ill will to the sender. In Mexico red and black are also the colors of labor strikes so the Bony Lady leads a symbolic strike against traditional Catholicism.
DEVOTED TO DEATH
Here the Angel of Death stands in all her baroque splendor. Chesnut was so captivated by this singular representation of the Mexican folk saint that he put it on the cover of the second edition of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.
Here below we see Chesnut who has been visiting the temple since 2009. While he is masked for Covid-19, most of those present were not, and not a single effigy of Santa Muerte was masked as we have observed in Mexico City. Our latest scholarly article is Holy Death in the Time of Coronavirus: Santa Muerte, the Salubrious Saint.
This effigy once again sports highly masculine features and is stylised as “King Death”. Culturally death in pre-Columbian Mexico was typically associated with women. In Northern Europe, death was depicted as male, but in the Mediterranean it was female and the Spanish would bring with them feminine representations and ideologies of death when they first conquered the so-called New World, leading to the nascence of Santa Muerte from the Spanish female Grim Reaper “la parca” with an admixture of pre-Hispanic death deities, such as the Aztec Goddess of the Underworld Mictecacihuatl, as we have detailed. The idea of “King Death” gained popularity in Spain in the early 1600s after the worst years of the the Black Death also known as the bubonic plague, wherein death made clear its triumph over life after millions died from the deadly disease. This idea would eventually travel to the New World and create several masculine skeleton saints such as Rey Pascual and San la Muerte.
The two effigies on the ends are Santa Muerte of the 7 Powers. Imported from Cuban Santeria, technicolor Death is for those believers looking for miracles on multiple fronts.
JESUS AND DEATH
Resembling the fairy atop a Christmas tree, a bewinged Santa Muerte perches on the globe which is said to be her dominion since none on earth can escape death. Jesus looks down upon her from the fresco above and we must note that belief in the Christian figure is not antithetical with belief in Santa Muerte. Many devotees ask Jesus for permission to pray to the folk saint of death, but in many ways, while his name is often mentioned in prayers it is Santa Muerte who is seen as the active force responding to supplications and gifting miracles. Jesus is aloof, distant and uninvolved, serving merely as a conduit to the omnipotent power of death.
THE GLOBAL DOMINION OF DEATH
So many of the images at the Michoacan temple depict the death saint with planet earth in her hand. While she may have arisen from Mexico’s unique culture of death, Saint Death rules over the entire world and with Covid-19 now more than ever.