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Viernes de Dolores, a tradition of sorrow

By Antonio De Jesús Aguado

The seven sorrows of the Virgin

She was unable to find shelter for the birth of her son.

When Mary took the infant Jesus to the temple for circumcision, the prophet Simeon told her, “A sword will go through your heart,” referring to her future suffering for her son.

Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt after King Herod tried to kill Jesus.

Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus in Jerusalem and found him preaching in the temple.

Mary met her son on the way to Calvary.

The crucifixion of Christ.

The burial of Jesus and Mary’s solitude.

One of the most sumptuous and popular celebrations in the country is Semana Santa (Holy Week), which begins with the Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Our Lady of Sorrows), celebrated the last Friday of Lent. It is dedicated to the seven sorrows that Mary suffered before and after her son’s death. In San Miguel de Allende the central courtyards of old houses in the historic center, public fountains and some churches are filled with chamomile flowers, glowing lights, música de pasión (songs of sorrow) and beverages and homemade sweets that are distributed to  the people visiting the altars. Viernes de Dolores is a tradition unique to Mexico that was revived in the early 1940s here by traditionalist sanmiguelenses and preserved as a treasure.

The revival of the tradition

The website states that in Mexico the tradition of putting up the altar of sorrows dates from the 16th century, and it was widespread in Mexican homes in the 18th century. The page also notes that the altar was meant to comfort the Virgin Mary, who eight days later would suffer at her son’s death. According to Conchita Bautista Cervantes, born in San Miguel, the tradition of putting up altars of sorrow in the city was revived in the early 1940s. One of the main altars was displayed by her father, Santiago Bautista, at calle Relox 29.

Her son, Rodolfo Pérez Bautista, who is known for preserving the traditions in the municipality, said that there were many reasons for reviving the tradition in the 1940s, following the political and religious conflicts in Mexico at the time, notably the Guerra de los Cristeros, or Cristiada, a conflict (1926–1929) between the Mexican government and factions of the Catholic Church. This was instigated by laws promulgated by President Plutarco Elias Calles that restricted some religious rights. Article 130 of the Constitution, which called for the closing of religious schools and the expulsion of foreign priests, also limited the number of priests to one for every 1,000 inhabitants in the country.

On August 1, 1926, the government closed every church, private chapel, convent and religious school across the country. “It was an age when people had to hide themselves and their images to profess their religion. By 1940 people started to recover their economic stability and businesses as well as their religious activity, and of course they started to revive what had been lost, the traditions,” said Bautista.

The history behind the images

One of the most representative altars in the historic center is the one now located in the house at the corner of Relox and Mesones, which has been put up by the Pérez Bautista family over about 100 years, following the tradition begun by Santiago Bautista. This altar originally used to be placed in a fountain at Relox 29, surrounded by flowers, candles, bitter oranges, sprouting wheat, and carpets made of colored sawdust, chamomile and papel picado (cut paper), among other elements. “My grandfather also used to hire some choirs to play and sing the cantos de pasión (songs of sorrow) such as El Verbo Divino (The Divine Verb) or El Infortunio de la Virgen (The Misfortune of the Virgin Mary). He used to pay them with silver coins, and at the fountain they shared ice cream, cold flavored water or candies made of pumpkin with the visitors. Later, we changed the altar to its current location at Relox and Mesones to make it bigger.” The Virgin of Sorrows that we have in the altar dates from the 16th century and was imported from Italy, as well as the Christ. These images are made of wood and plaster and belonged to my grandfather, Santiago Bautista. We have had them since 1997,” said Pérez.

According to Pérez, currently a choir made up of children from the Oratorio of San Felipe Neri visit the main altars in Centro on the Friday of Sorrows to sing the cantos de pasión, which were written around 100 years ago by local composer José María Correa especially for Holy Week. One of those songs, El Verbo Divino, relates to the path of Jesus Christ to Calvary. “El Verbo Divino is on his way to the pain, to the cruel sacrifice, he offers his love to you, and he walks tired in cruel torment, his steps are slow.”

Main elements of the altar for Viernes de Dolores

Pérez noted that the elements included in the altar have changed over the years; in earlier times purple and white fabrics were used, as well as mountains (made of cardboard) representing Calvary. The main images are always the Virgin of Sorrows and Christ. The surrounding elements represent the suffering felt by the Virgin Mary when she finds out that her son has been condemned to death. The most common elements and their meaning include these:

Altar cloths and white flowers: Mary’s purity

Purple cloak: pain and penitence

Bitter oranges: the Virgin’s sorrow. These oranges are painted gold in order to recall the joy of the resurrection.

Fresh chamomile: its colors represent humility (green) and beauty in body and soul (yellow).

Sprouting wheat: represents Christ as Eucharistic bread

Ice cream, flavored water and pumpkin candies: the Virgin’s sweet tears

Altars at public fountains

In the municipality about 45 public fountains are decorated by residents. The most notable are located at the corner of Pila Seca and Zacateros, at calle Cardo and Prolongación Aldama, at the corner of calles Hospicio and Barranca and on the corner of Ancha de San Antonio and El Cardo, among others. The one located next to the Ángela Peralta Theater, decorated by Raquel Marroquín, features a young girl dressed as the Virgin Mary.

Look in Qué Pasa for the location of the main altars in the city.

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