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The Americas 60.4 (2004) 493-518

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Liturgy, Devotion, and Religious Reform In Eighteenth-Century Mexico City

St. John's University
Collegeville, Minnesota

On February 16, 1696, Doña Inés Velarde, the widow of Capitán Don Miguel de Vera, a former notary of the Mexico City Cabildo, redacted her will before Juan de Condarco y Caceres, a notary public in New Spain's capital. Despite the typhus (matlazáhuatl) epidemic that ravaged the city in that year, Doña Inés was in good health. She had carefully prepared for the pious act of will writing, issuing over thirty meticulously designed religious directives in her last will and testament. Two directives in particular reveal much about colonial Mexican religious sensibilities. In the thirty-seventh clause of her twenty-page will, she founded a perpetual act of charity with the capital of 3,000 pesos. She requested that the priests of the parish of Santa Catarina Mártir use the annual proceeds of 150 pesos from this foundation to clothe twelve "virtuous" poor people every year on Holy Thursday "in reverence of the institution of the most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist and the washing of the twelve apostle's feet (labaritorio) that our Señor Jesus Christ did at his Last Supper (santa Cena)." In an earlier clause, Velarde established a chantry, or perpetual mass foundation, worth 3,000 pesos. She insisted that the friars of the monastery of San Francisco celebrate thirty-three yearly masses for her soul and those of her parents, deceased husband, children, and siblings "in memory and reverence of the thirty-three years that our redeemer and savior my Señor Jesus Christ lived and suffered in this world."1 In both of these highly Christocentric clauses, Velarde employed number and temporal symbolism—the twelve poor to represent the twelve apostles, thirty-three masses to represent Christ's thirty-three years as man, and Holy Thursday to commemorate the institution of the Eucharist—to link her devotions to Christ's life and passion.

Why did she insert such clauses into her will? What did these symbolic devotions mean to her and other colonial Mexican Catholics? Using pious [End Page 493] directives recorded in a sample of almost 1,000 last wills and testaments written over the eighteenth-century in Mexico City, this article seeks to answer these questions. In doing so, it addresses the relatively understudied topic of lay, Spanish, urban religious practice.2 It contends that lay Spaniards participated in a largely performative religious culture highly influenced by the Catholic liturgy. The rites and rituals of the universal Church established the basic language of devotions, even informing many of those performed outside the confines of liturgical celebrations.3

This article also adds to the growing scholarship on religious reform in Bourbon Mexico. During the second half of the eighteenth century a group of reform-minded members of the clergy and laity attempted to eliminate what they considered "excesses" and "superstitions" from colonial Mexican piety—what later generations would call Baroque Catholicism. Among other practices, targets of reform included ornate adornment of sacred space, lavish liturgical ritual, exuberant and oftentimes raucous feast day celebrations, ostentatious funerary rites, excessive devotion to images and relics, and in general, the easy commingling of the sacred and profane common in Baroque Catholicism. Many historians have fruitfully studied the process of religious reform, uncovering its intellectual provenance, its impact on popular culture, and its import for the rise of the modern individual.4 [End Page 494]

This article charts new ground within the historiography of Bourbon religious reform by examining how religious reformers targeted the performative and liturgical nature of many lay, Spanish devotions. Moreover, it explores the epistemological and ontological notions that underlay both Baroque and reformed Catholicism. Religious reform in Bourbon Mexico not only aimed at controlling public spaces and activities, but also the practice and understanding of Catholic worship itself. Last, it contends that, although religious reform gained adherents in Bourbon Mexico, it was at best a moderate success even into the...


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