Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Priests Painting Piñatas

Piñata sales are booming.  Though they are popular year round at children's birthday parties, they are essential for the posadas which start on Thursday and are hosted every night from the 16th to the 24th.  Some say that the piñata originated in China, others that it's a prehispanic Mesoamerican idea, but the Franciscans say they introduced the current version of piñatas to Mesoamerica at their monastery in Acolman, State of Mexico, shortly after the conquest. 

The classic piñata is not in the shape of Sponge Bob, it's a clay pot to which seven giant cones -- today, made of cardboard -- are attached, and then the whole assemblage is decorated with bright colored tissue paper.   There are as many cones as there are Cardinal Sins.  After beating them with a stick and destroying them all, the good stuff falls out, as a reward.  The Franciscans used it as a teaching tool in the evangelization process; they were probably a lot more fun than the dour Dominicans or the stern Jesuits.
I wonder how the early friars made their piñatas.  It seems that bright colored paper would have been hard to come by and pricey besides.  But they did have clay pots, bark paper, and lots of bright colored dyes and paint.  

Acolman is one of those places we race past on our way to Teotihuacan.  It's church is visible from the highway; plain, simple, and functional, as Franciscan architecture tends to be.  Understandable since they were the poorest of the religious orders to arrive in the 16th century.  

Faced with a huge population to embrace into the Church, the Catholic religious orders divided New Spain geographically among themselves, so as to not duplicate  efforts.  As you travel through Mexico, and into Guatemala, you'll only find one style of early church architecture in each region.  Only in the capital cities of Mexico and Antigua do you find the whole array of church architecture (although Antiguas' is not as old as Mexico City's).  

Interestingly, Acolman has two styles of architecture.  The Franciscans turned the area over to the Augustine Order which added a fancier façade to the church and a second cloister to the monastery.  The church continues to serve the community; the monastery is a marvelous museum of colonial religious art under the care of the INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History).  

On the second floor level of the monastery is an open chapel with exceptional acoustics. It faces the atrium in front of the church.  It is fun to have one of the members of your party go up to the open chapel and face the altar as a priest would have done during Mass, with his back to the congregation, and speak in a soft voice.  The voice will be heard clearly by those of you gathered in front of the church.  

During the colonial period Acolman flooded and sediment accumulated up to about ten feet high (3 meters). Only a portion of it has been dug out, hence the incline in front of the church, and the damage to the sculpture on the façade up to flood level.  

Another teaching tool, for which Acolman is famous, is its Atrial Cross; a characteristic of early colonial churches (in Acolman's case it is outside the walls in front of the church's door).   Carved into the cross are the 'visuals' you'd need to tell the story of Jesus' crucifixion. Picture the priest telling the story, to a group of Indigenous people sitting around the cross, while pointing out the crown of thorns, the rooster that crowed three times, the hammer, nails, ladder, dice, Jesus' face carved in stone at the intersection of the cross, the human skull at the base of the cross representing Golgotha -- the hill on which Jesus was crucified -- which means skull.  Or is the skull something slipped in by the Indigenous sculptor?   And how does the coiled serpent fit into the story?  This is getting much to syncretic.  Time to go break a piñata.

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