Catholicism in Mexico: A death cult?

When I walk into a church in Mexico, I can’t help but escape the images of death. There will normally be several idols of Christ, bloody and beaten, on a cross or in a coffin. In the Cathedral in Guadalajara, there is a mummy in a glass coffin, which supposedly belonged to a martyr, a young lady beaten to death by her father, enraged by her ambition to be a nun. I saw a similar mummy in Pachuca, Hidalgo, with a similar story. Apparently this story is repeated in churches all over Mexico – an archetype, a story too good to be told just once, like a rerun of ‘I Love Lucy’.

The other day I walked into the sacred art museum, which is attached to the Cathedral. In the first room we walked into, while looking at the paintings, I had the uncanny feeling that the people in the paintings were looking at me, or waiting to look at me. My companion also felt that there was something dark about the place. (Unfortunately, I can’t show you any pictures of the museum as they asked us not to take photographs.) In another room, there was a stand intended to hold books for a chorus, in the shape of a ziggurat or burial mound, with Christ on a crucifix at the top. The whole thing was painted black. Again, I felt I shouldn’t turn my back on it. I wondered about the dark things this object had seen, wondering if children had been abused while perched on its shelves.

In another room, there was a particularly gruesome picture of Christ, apparently already very dead, with Mary Magdalene by his side, holding his hand. His hand was by her mouth, but instead of kissing it she appeared to be sucking it. In front of Christ stood a dark female figure in a black robe with very white skin, tears streaming down her cheeks. I assume it’s supposed to be Mary, but it looked like Death.

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In the entire museum, I saw Christ as an infant, as a dying man, and as a corpse – almost always in states where he wasn’t capable of teaching anything. The only exception was a handful of paintings depicting the scene “Christ among the doctors”, in which Christ is about 12 years old. The Sermon on the Mount was never portrayed. I wonder if that’s a decision of the curators, or of the Mexican artists over the centuries, or of their commissions from the church. Perhaps there are different ways to interpret it, but to me the message seemed to be: your god is impotent and helpless.

I hope I don’t offend anybody with this post, as this is just my experience as an outsider looking in, and obviously there are subtleties that someone more familiar with Catholicism would notice. However, I do think that people should be wary of these types of images. A man might make a fine idol for you to pray towards, and you might even kiss its feet, as I’ve seen many people do. If the man controls the image that you pray to, you can be sure that he also controls you. God needs no intermediaries.