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  • The Very Nature of God. Baroque Catholicism and Religious Reform in Bourbon Mexico City
  • Asunción Lavrin
The Very Nature of God. Baroque Catholicism and Religious Reform in Bourbon Mexico City. By Brian R. Larkin. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 2010. Pp. xiv, 312. $27.95 paperback. ISBN 978-0-826-34834-0.)

Is the essence of God contained in the objects of liturgy and worship? The dispute over the concept of transubstantiation was at the bottom of the split of Christianity in the sixteenth century, with the Roman Catholic Church adhering firmly to the canon that at the height of the Mass, the host is changed into Christ. Were most faithful aware of centuries of discussion over this point? Possibly not. It certainly was a moot point among most Catholics in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Mexico. Their belief in sacred immanence was [End Page 872] unquestioned. They also believed in the efficacy of prayer, the sacredness of charity, and the active involvement of spiritual beings in daily life.

In this work Brian Larkin dives into the difficult waters of the nature of belief to assess the nature of devotion in Mexico throughout the colonial period. One of his objectives was to learn whether there was a discernible change in the character of observance that would reflect any departure in the understanding of the linkage between humankind and the divine. Since the expression of devotion was so tied to the belief that there was immanence in the sacred objects, he addressed all the material expressions of faith to capture the way in which the splendor of liturgy wrapped the senses in music, sound, and a feast of ornaments and helped to heighten the religious experience of the devout. This is the base for understanding the meaning of other acts of devotion and worship.

Scholars have proposed that the dynastic change from the Habsburgs to the Bourbons in the eighteenth century prompted a switch toward undercutting baroque piety in style and content affecting the expression of worship. Using the sermons of three leading eighteenth-century archbishops, Larkin leads the reader to understanding their desire of seeing a more transcendent faith that was less attached to costly pomp, miracles, and physical expressions of piety such as flagellation. They wished to guide their flock toward a more conscious distinction between outward piety and a truly interior search for God. The use of sermons as a venue to gauge changes among the clerical hierarchy calls our attention to this often neglected approach to religious culture. A similar treatment of seventeenth-century sermons could have helped to make the contrast even sharper. Despite the best intentions of reforming bishops, Larkin contends that in everyday life the faithful continued to observe traditional forms of worship and, therefore, that a true change in religious culture did not take place. He surveys wills, almsgiving, and confraternity practices as more realistic venues to ascertain how people in general satisfied their religious needs, disregarding calls for change coming from ecclesiastic authorities. His sources tell him that "baroque" sensibilities survived through the end of the colonial period. He sees meaningful differences between hierarchical directives and personal practices and argues that the influence of the former over the latter was neither profound nor significant.

Testing cultural parameters by any means will remain a challenging task. Larkin proposes a complex model whereby the "reformist"movement toward a more simplified observance was an outer skin concealing a deeper affective interior that remained alive despite reforms. Devotion remained traditional among the general population and even among the lower clergy. For Larkin, the renovation of religious observance to achieve a modern form of piety was a long-term process rather than a palpable reality at the end of the colonial period. It is true that architectural styles changed and that bishops and civil authorities preferred less melodrama in religious expressions, but at the popular [End Page 873] level, people stuck to known and tried practices that satisfied their emotional needs. Overall, his conclusions are sound. Attention to liturgy and writings such as devotional books continue to be necessary to balance the picture, but this work fits well among others that search for the...


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