The Procession to San Miguel de Allende
March 18, 2002

The Easter season is one of the most important and magical in San Miguel de Allende. Altars, processions, and special rites meld the unlikely elements of indigenous mysticism and Catholic ritual into one.

I was preparing to write about the dramatic early morning procession that I had just witnessed hours before when I picked up my weekly issue of Atención San Miguel, our local English-language newspaper. The article by Sareda Milosz so perfectly captured what I had just seen that I had to share it with you. My intention was to point everyone to Atención's web site via hyperlink, but they are experiencing technical difficulties that may (or may not) last for quite some time. So here it is…the old fashioned way.

Sanmiguelenses thrive on tradition
By Sareda Milosz (Photos by Deb Hall).
Atención San Miguel
Week of March 18, 2002

The fireworks and tumult that awoke you before sunrise on Sunday, March 17, had little to do with Saint Patrick. Instead, it was the 179th anniversary of the rite of Nuestro Señor de la Columna, one of many dramatic Catholic rituals established by Padre Luis Felipe Neri Alfaro, whose brief tenure in San Miguel El Grande (1740-1750), San Miguel El Grande is the original name of San Miguel de Allende, changed the spiritual face of the town. Among Alfaro's architectural contributions are the convent of La Conceptión, now known as Las Monjas, Bellas Artes and the extravagantly painted Sanctuary of Atotonilco. This is where our story begins.

Artist Pocasangre filled the shrine with elaborate, storytelling paintings at the behest of Padre Alfaro. It would be tempting to dismiss Alfaro as and eccentric and perhaps Draconian Franciscan taskmaster, relentlessly demanding his converts to re-enact Christ's betrayal, trial and crucifixion by dressing up in Biblical costumes and bearing heavy crosses uphill under the intense spring sun.

Yet, these traditions survive today, and Sanmiguelenses, both urban and rural, eagerly participate in the pageantry, with tens of thousands of willing viewers and actors. Judging from the images set forth in the eighteenth century oil paintings, these community re-enactments are faithful to the standards set forth by Alfaro in his heyday. And most of San Miguel's religious spectacles, beginning two weeks prior to Easter through Good Friday-activities that draw so many visitors to town during Semana Santa-are legacies of Padre Alfaro's religious fervor.

The following photos were taken on the afternoon of Saturday, March 16 in Atotonilco showing the church façade, and the famed Pocasangre paintings and frescos that are considered one of the greatest folk art accomplishments in the world.

Entrance to the famed church of Atotonilco. Pocasangre paintings on the interior of the entrance doors.
Just a glimpse of the frescoes of Atotonilco.
The faithful gather in the main sanctuary of Atotonilco
the afternoon of The Procession.

The ritual of Nuestro Señor de la Columna sets the festivities in motion. Each year at midnight, on the Saturday two weeks prior to Easter Sunday, hundreds of faithful gather at the isolated shrine of Atotonilco to remove Nuestro Señor from his glass case, dress him in a purple loincloth and cover him with hundreds of scarves provided by the women of Atotonilco and nearby ranches. Nuestro Señor de la Columna is a life-size image of a scourged and bleeding Christ leaning heavily on his column. His cheek bears the scar of the Judas kiss, and his ribs are exposed from flogging. His face provokes the gooseflesh in this writer, trying to describe both the agony and the compassionate love for humankind reflected there.

El Señor de la Columna has been removed from his case
and awaits his journey to San Miguel de Allende.
The faithful light candles for El Señor.

Images of Saint John, always faithful to Christ, and Mary, His suffering mother, are similarly wrapped. All three icons are placed on flower-decked andras (biers) and lifted upon the shoulders of faithful men to be borne seven miles cross-country to San Juan de Dios Church here. Men costumed as Roman soldiers lead the way, and the path is lit by torches carried by pilgrims.

By the time the procession reaches La Cruz del Perdón, the halfway mark where a 3 a.m. mass is celebrated, it has swollen to thousands of participants. Noisy rockets and bombs, along with quieter, colorful, chrysanthemum-like fireworks, announce the progress of the pageant, and hundreds of voices join in chorus with brass bands, chanting the solemn, locally composed liturgical music, also inspired by Padre Alfaro.

On the northwest outskirts of San Miguel, my neighbors have stayed up all night to festoon Avenida Independencia with bowers, arches, fragrant herbs and symbolic way stations in anticipation of Nuestro Señor's 6 a.m. arrival. The noise of the rockets that welcome him is frankly appalling. Every dog for miles around suffers a nervous breakdown. But the street has been transformed during the night. Strewn carefully with fennel and chamomile, and delineated with colorful purple and white arches of palm leaves and real and artificial flowers, the street is also adorned with paper lanterns and purple and white balloons.

The procession, which is by now a throng of tens of thousands, stop for the most symbolic of events before reaching San Juan de Dios Church for 8 a.m. mass. The air is fragrant with copal, crushed herbs, coffee with cinnamon and morning breath.

Torches, flowers, and a bed of fragrant herbs await
thousands of pilgrims in the pre-dawn hours.

At a special way station, the bearers lay down their burdens, and trays of steaming café de olla are passed from hand to hand over the head of the participants, many of whom have been awake for more than 24 hours and welcome the refreshment.

Untrained choirs lift their voices in minor keys, and the tubas and trombones sound somber tunes. Everyone's rapt attention is upon the holy images, which are wrapped at this point. I love to see the big, strong men at the head of the procession lift the wraps from Our Lord and John and Mary, a process that occupies perhaps half an hour. Clouds of incense envelope the scene. Rockets challenge the eardrums. And the band plays on. Padre Fernando of Atotonilco performs a blessing as Christ's exposed ribs and Mary's tearful visage are revealed in the sunrise. San Juan observes with faithful solemnity.

As the dressers restore Christ's golden beams to his head, a visceral quickening moves through the crowd. Everybody feels, in their own solar plexus, the odd sensation of the crown's restoration. When John and Mary are similarly adorned with their halos, the images are again lifted to the shoulders of the faithful to complete the journey to San Juan de Dios Church, where they will remain though Easter.

As I stroll beneath the strings of purple and white balloons and special tissue paper lanterns, I marvel once again at the beauty of the scene and the humble, eager devotion of Sanmiguelenses, who have lovingly maintained the legacy of Padre Alfaro throughout the centuries. I am in love with the people and tradition of San Miguel.

The following photos are the final steps of the pilgrimage
ascending the hill to San Juan de Dios Church.

First arrives the banner announcing the
Arrival of the Pilgrims of Atotonilco.
Pilgrims and their torches have lighted the way since Midnight.
Roman soldiers accompany Christ's final steps.
El Señor de la Columna passes before us.
Then, Mary…
The procession pauses for final prayers and blessings before reaching the church.
Up the hill to San Juan de Dios Church…the final steps of the procession.
El Señor de Dios rests in the courtyard of the destination church, his annual midnight journey complete. Outdoor mass ministered to thousands begins…

Photos & Captions by Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO