When exploring any of Mexico’s 16th century cathedrals, make sure to visit the side chapels. Arrayed the length of both sides of the sanctuary, frequently side chapels are dedicated to a person or object of local veneration. These can be quirky figures who are not embraced by the Catholic Church in general yet were sanctioned by the bishop of the local diocese.
My favorite is the chapel of the Cross of Huatulco in Oaxaca’s cathedral. That little chapel houses a most unusual story. It pulls together Quetzalcoatl, Apostle Saint Thomas, English pirates on round-the-world voyages, and two beatified Indigenous Mexicans, all in a space of no more than thirty square meters.
There was a marvelous text describing the Cross of Huatulco but it was removed in the early 2000s when the chapel was re-dedicated to honor Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Ángeles. They were Indigenous leaders martyred in Oaxaca in 1700 and beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2002. There is now a life sized painting of them standing side by side looking like a Grant Wood “American Gothic” portrait with Andy Warhol colors.
The now-missing text described an event occurring long before the arrival of the Spaniards with their Christian religion. “Since time immemorial the Indigenous people of Huatulco knew of a cross on the beach which they venerated because it could heal them of their afflictions. It had been carried there by an elderly man arriving from the direction of Peru. He spoke kindly to the local people in their own language – Mixtec.”
The text went on to say, “The Cross, according to tradition, was brought by the Apostle Saint Thomas, called Quetzalcoatl.” My! That in a Catholic cathedral!
Don’t think I’m making this up. Back before digital cameras I asked a member of one of my study groups to take a photo of the chapel as well as text. Not an easy feat in the dimly-lit sanctuary while respecting the no-flash rule.
Think of Quetzalcoatl as a changing god of Mesoamerican mythology, a god that is always on our side. He gave the sun a gift of his own blood so as to keep it moving and creating day and night. From the bones of his mother and father sprinkled with his own blood Quetzalcoatl created our humanity. People didn’t fear Quetzalcoatl as they did so many of their other gods.
Quetzalcoatl’s name is a play on words. It means “precious twin” or, more properly, “precious duality” because quetzal feathers were highly valued and coatl is the Nahuatl word for twin as well as serpent. Thomas, the name of the Apostle “known as Quetzalcoatl”, also means twin.
There is a real-life character known as Quetzalcoatl who may have been the one bearing the cross. Ce-Acatl was a preist to the god Quetzalcoatl who became the Emperor of the Toltecs. In 999 the 52-year old emperor, the link between people and their most beloved god and thought of by many as a god-person, departed Tula in self-imposed exile.
The chapel in Oaxaca shows that the archbishop of Oaxaca endorsed the idea of St. Thomas/Quetzalcoatl bearing the cross. Higher-ups did too. Pope John Paul II said at the Aztec Stadium in Mexico City in 1999, “A thousand years ago today, Quetzalcoatl was a precursor of evangelization in these realms. As he neared death, he clutched in his hands a cross.”
So how do Sir Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish fit into the picture? Both were privateers who put down anchor in Huatulco, an area of nine bays on Oaxaca’s Pacific coast.
Francis Drake stopped at Huatulco in 1579. Thomas Cavendish stopped there in 1587. Both ransacked the port and made off with cattle and other supplies.
Cavendish went further than Drake. He went after the cross of Huatulco planted in the sand. Cavendish ordered his men to cut down the cross with saws and axes. They couldn’t. He then ordered one end of a rope be tied around the cross and the other around a mast of his ship Desire. They tried under full sail to yank it out of the beach. They couldn’t. The ship came to a standstill when the rope went taut. Finally he tried to burn the cross. It wouldn’t burn. Giving up, Cavendish set off on more profitable pursuits.
People marveled at the resiliency of the cross, and took slivers as relics. The bishop of Oaxaca at the time feared the cross would be whittled down to nothing and ordered it brought to the city of Oaxaca. For him it came out of the sand with little effort.
He made smaller crosses from the original. One was sent to Pope Paul V. Another was sent to the Santo Domingo Church in Puebla. A third is in the Merced Monastery in Mexico City.
A fourth is still proudly displayed in the side chapel in Oaxaca above the heads of the martyrs Juan and Jacinto. Check it out.
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