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
VOL. XXVIII, No. 11
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.
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.
the famed church of Atotonilco.
on the interior of the entrance doors.
glimpse of the frescoes of Atotonilco.
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.
de la Columna has been removed from his case
and awaits his journey to San Miguel de Allende.
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.
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
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.
arrives the banner announcing the
Arrival of the Pilgrims of Atotonilco.
and their torches have lighted the way since Midnight.
accompany Christ's final steps.
de la Columna passes before us.
pauses for final prayers and blessings before reaching the church.
hill to San Juan de Dios Church
the final steps of the procession.
de Dios rests in the courtyard of the destination church, his annual
midnight journey complete. Outdoor mass ministered to thousands
Photos & Captions by Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO