Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

MAC exhibit examines, celebrates Mexican devotional art

Story and photos by Jami LeBrun, Inland Register staff

(From the July 1, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

Ceremonial masks

The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture is featuring a display of Mexican devotional art. Above: masks were used for religious theatrical presentations. Below: The exhibit includes a wide variety of retablos, religious images painted on tin-coated iron. (IR photos)


The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC), long known for its unique and creative variety of exhibits, is currently home to yet another stunning collection of artwork.

The exhibit, titled “The Soul of Mexico,” displays devotional works of art from the MAC’s permanent collection. Most of the exhibit pieces unashamedly and beautifully Catholic.

The exhibit opens with a display of elaborate Mexican dance masks that demonstrate the long continuum of religious practice in Mexican society, from ancient native religions to Christianity. An eye-catching 18th Century gleaming white onyx carving of Our Lady of Guadalupe – Mexico’s patroness and most beloved image of the Virgin Mary – stands well over a foot tall. The statue is dated 1740 and signed by the artist. Experts believe it once graced the side altar of an 18th century Mexican Church.

All the pieces in the collection convey a sense of how completely intertwined religion, art, and culture are in Mexico.

“This exhibit really gives you a sense of what the Mexican people really were like,” said Laura Thayer, Curator of Collections for the MAC. “In Mexico, art, religion and culture are all bound together – it doesn’t happen separately.”

The pieces displayed in the Soul of Mexico exhibit are all part of a permanent collection donated to the MAC in 1991 by Spokane’s Museum of Native American Cultures (MONAC), when MONAC closed. Upon reception of nearly 30,000 new pieces, the MAC immediately began planning to expand and after two years of intense renovation and building, reopened its doors in 2001.

Cristo The centerpiece of the Soul of Mexico exhibit is one of the oldest and most rare objects in the MAC’s collections – the Cristo Cana de Maiz (right), a beautiful crucifix dated between 1650 and 1750. This magnificent and extremely rare piece is composed of corn stalks bound with orchid glue and is one of less than 50 Cristos still existing today. Framed against a deep red wall, the intricate detailing demonstrates the intense suffering of Christ on the Cross.

The museum curators discovered the Cristo among the other donated items in the collection and recognized its rarity and value. The piece, however, was in very poor condition, covered in layers of dirt so thick that it was nearly black; its face, knees, and arms were missing. The museum despaired of ever being able to restore and display the beautiful piece until Thayer discovered the face and other missing pieces in a box among other parts of the collection. The complete Cristo immediately underwent an intense four-year restoration process, resulting in a piece that is nearly in its original condition. Even the remillion, a dark red dye used to imitate the Blood of Christ, is as visible as it was nearly 400 years ago.

Jacobo de la Serna, a conserver specializing in crucifix restoration and a devout Catholic from Albuquerque, N.M., was in charge of the restoration process. In the exhibit literature near the Cristo, he said, “I am hopeful that this Cristo serves as artistic and spiritual inspiration for those who view it.”

Other objects in the exhibit include pre-Columbian figurines used for personal devotion in pre-Hispanic times, a three-dimensional rendering of the divine face of Jesus, and retablos, small, 19th-century devotional folk paintings on metal.

The retablos were made from low-cost sheets of iron coated with tin that were imported to Mexico for manufacturing household items such as ceiling tiles, plates, and food cans. Mexican artists discovered that the tin sheets were very compatible with oil paints and soon small, affordable, portable paintings began appearing by the thousands in homes and at pilgrimage sites across Mexico throughout the 19th century. The metal canvas helps to bring the paintings to life; many of them appear to glow.

The retablos are all religious, depicting various saints, the Holy Family, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and other Roman Catholic phenomena, such as the Omnipotent Powerful Hand of Christ, which illustrates the family tree of Christ as his precious blood rushes from the hole in his hand, spilling into a gold chalice.

Though the Soul of Mexico exhibit displays the intense devotion the Mexican people had for their faith and the Catholic Church, it also demonstrates their often rebellious natures. Despite frequent admonishments from priests and bishops, many Mexicans worshiped retablos as physical embodiments of their favorite saints and Catholic figures, rather than representations.

The MAC is proud to display the Soul of Mexico as part of its permanent collection. “As a museum of arts and culture, being able to show parts of our collection that encompasses both is really valuable,” said Thayer.

The Soul of Mexico will be available for viewing through January 9, 2005. Museum hours are from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., Tuesday – Sunday. Discounted prices are available to church groups who visit the MAC to view the Soul of Mexico. Please call ahead to schedule a tour: (509) 456-3931.

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