Altars to the Virgin of Sorrows, Guanajuato

The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin (source: Antonio De Jesús Aguado):

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 Mexico 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 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 altar was meant to comfort the Virgin Mary, who eight days later would suffer at her son’s death.

Main elements of the altar for Viernes de Dolores:
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

On Viernes de Dolores the places which have public altars also distribute flavoured water and ice cream. Above is a lineup for water and ice cream at one of the local fruit and vegetable shops; below is the shop’s altar. Lots of big buses rolled into town and disgorged hundreds of schoolkids to take part in Viernes de Dolores. On this page are just some of the altars set up in public places throughout Guanajuato. Many of them utilised the same picture of the Virgin (the one in the photo below). A few branched out and either made their own images or used portraits that looked more like Orthodox Church representations. Some of the larger, more elaborate altars also included sculptural effigies.

The altar below was erected on the hillside right near our place.

This little guy often greets us as we walk up and down the looooonngg flights of stairs to get to our house.

Guanajuato: El Dia de las Flores and the Virgen de los Dolores

Pre-Easter festivities in Guanajuato!

Wow, who knew that this town would be so fabulous at Easter? Well, maybe I should have known, but I didn’t even realise that we’d be here around Semana Santa time. Holy Week is a really big holiday here in central Mexico and the festivities begin the week before Easter, with El Dia de las Flores (Day of the Flowers) and the Viernes de la Virgen de los Dolores (Friday of the Virgin of Sorrows).

The Dia de las Flores (Thursday of the week before Palm Sunday) involves seemingly the entire city; a vast number of flower stands (fresh, paper, and fabric), as well as stands selling toys, Easter eggs, small animals, stuffed creatures and live ones (tiny turtles and hermit crabs), devil and demon masks, cow and steer carrying cases, and the like, are set up everywhere downtown.

The whole city comes out to see and be seen and to purchase flowers and other accoutrements for their own Virgen de los Dolores altars. Using these supplies, altars to the Virgin (who is also the patron of miners) are set up in public places (hotels, restaurants, churches, stores) and in private homes beginning on the Thursday;

on the Friday, these altars are judged by a panel of dignitaries who walk around the city, beginning at daybreak on Friday, and hand out pretty substantial cash prizes for the best.

While the favoured colours seem to be white (for purity) and purple (for sorrows), these altars, and the city itself, are a riot of colours and patterns. Walking around during the day and at night resulted in my becoming almost overwhelmed with the sheer blaze of colour and sensory stimulation – incredible!

Music! The scent of roses! The crush of the crowd!

We stopped to watch some of the more elaborate altars being put together; the most spectacular one we saw was in front of the Teatro Juarez, an incredible neo-classical building downtown.

On the steps was an enormous painting of the virgin, surrounded by arches of fresh white and purple flowers. The crush of the crowd in El Centro, particularly around the Basilica and El Jardin de la Union, was enormous – I swear that everyone in the city was there. My eyeballs were popping non-stop.

Aside from that, we’ve been treated to a major culture hit here, particularly after the poverty of St Lucia. In this small city, there are at least twenty museums, and we’ve been to almost all of them. In the last couple of days, we’ve visited the Don Quixote Iconographic Museum, a small jewel located in a converted colonial house near the Church of San Francisco,

dedicated to all things Quixote (paintings, graphics, and sculpture), the Ex-Convento of San Diego,

and the Museum-House of Diego Rivera, one of Guanajuato’s most famous sons. The most interesting room in the Quixote Museum is the Capilla Cervantes; it contains a bronze scupture of the novelist between a vast fresco-like, two-part painting illustrating episodes from Don Quixote. Guanajuato is the centre of Cervantes study in the Americas and the image of Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza can be found many places in the city.

Unlike most of the museums we’ve been in here, the Diego Rivera Museum was quite packed, mostly with tour groups.

As well as early works by Rivera, this museum also has rooms dedicated to temporary exhibits of contemporary art. We saw some fabulous bronze figurative sculpture by Javier Marin, one of Mexico’s finest contemporary artists, and realist paintings by Yoel Diaz Galvez.

The building itself is fabulous, many levels and narrow staircases, some leading out to terraces which have a great view out over the city.

This place would make an incredible studio! We also had the pleasure of a concert at the Teatro Cervantes by a guitar duo, Mexicanta, who were really excellent. (ps. I purchased some flowers …)

See more pics here.