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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Of Gratitude and Sorrow: A Visual History of Everyday Mexican Spirituality, 1700-2013

  • Author(s): Novak, Kinga
  • Advisor(s): Chowning, Margaret
  • et al.

This dissertation is a study of Mexican devotional images and their importance in the society that produced them. I trace the changes and continuities in the ways that Mexicans experienced the sacred over a long arc of history, with a focus on the nineteenth century, a time when Mexico transitioned from a colonial society into a modern republic. The study encompasses devotional practices such as pilgrimages and processions, but focuses especially on the material culture of popular piety. Specifically, it examines two art forms--ex-votos and children's funerary portraits--to show how devotional practice shaped relationships to the institutional church both before and after independence, as well as to the emergent liberal state in the nineteenth century. I use these images to explore the worldviews of people who left little in the way of written records, but whose visual output was both prolific and expressive of their perceptions about the relationship between humans and the divine.

Through the study of the material culture of devotion, I demonstrate not only the continued centrality of Catholic holy beings to Mexican mentalities after independence, but also explore a changing world, one that we can loosely characterize as "modernizing." "Modernizing" was evident in several spheres: in the urban landscape, in transportation, in politics, the economy, in technology, and in the institutional church. In this context it is easy to imagine that forms of religious expression might also change, but traditional religiosity--with its processions, pilgrimages, and other saint-oriented devotional practices--not only survived but flourished in the nineteenth century. This particularly Catholic accommodation with modernity is most visible in an increase in ex-votos left at shrines, but also in the augmented negotiations over the proper role of religion in public life. I explore the reasons for these phenomena and conclude that despite the apparent paradox of continuing and increased "traditional" religious practices in a secularizing world, affirmations of traditional Catholicism were in fact a way of assimilating the modern world for both the institutional church and for laypeople.

Finally, I address the complex negotiations between the church and the state as political institutions from the colonial period to the mid-twentieth century, and the ways that their ideologies and actions both shaped and were shaped by popular culture. Using Mikhail Bakhtin's model of circularity for describing the interactions between elite and popular cultures, I look beyond simple dichotomies and suggest how the transmission of culture and ideas is multidirectional and multidimensional. I use visual cultural production--especially ex-voto paintings--as a barometer of religious mentalities, and, by extension, as a measure of the intersections between religion and politics in a period of important historical changes.

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