- Black Virgins, Black Christs, and the Cult of Esquipulas
As soon as the Spaniards secured Tenochtitlan in 1521 Cortes began sending emissaries to surrounding kingdoms with a view to imperialistic expansion. Pedro de Alvarado was dispatched to Guatemala and conquered the area under the control of the Quiché Mayas in 1523–1524. (Areas under other tribes not so readily overcome were subdued over succeeding years.) It was likely Franciscan friars accompanied the troops and created a Calvary (a cross planted on a small hill in memory of Christ's crucifixion) upon their arrival. It was apparently at this site that the Cult of Esquipulas was first introduced, since the village already bore his name when on 29 August 1594, a contract was drawn up between the vicar-general of the bishopric, Christoval Morales, and journeyman sculptor Quirio Cataño to carve a crucifix of Esquipulas for the town. Cataño was a criollo, born in the capital of Antigua, the son of immigrants from Iberia—Portuguese, according to some accounts. The contract called for an image of a vara y media between 3 and 4 feet in height to be carved of cedar and painted with a dark complexion. For the work, which was to be finished in time for the Feast of San Francisco, the sculptor was to be paid 100 "tostones de cuatro reales de plata cada uno." The statue was finished on 9 March 1595 and installed in a chapel near health-restoring springs. In time an elaborate baroque basilica (finished in 1758) replaced the modest chapel.
The Cult of Esquipulas is an old devotion to a Christ of Healing appropriate to soldiers constantly exposed to a life of expectable wounds and death. He was represented as a black-visaged, crucified Jesus, usually on a green-sprouting cross symbolic of his resurrection and his sanctuaries were often founded at mineral springs. As word spread of the miraculous cures performed by the image the cult was adopted throughout Latin America. It eventually appeared as far north as Arizona and New Mexico. An official 1843 report noted a statue of Our Lord of Esquipulas that [End Page 637] hung in a room of the visita of the convento of San Agustín in Tucson. In 1856 the image was moved to the small village of Ímuris in the state of Sonora when Tucson became part of the United States as a result of the Gadsden Purchase, which moved the boundary between the two countries southward.
The only other Black Christs to be found on the northern borderland—all associated with healing waters—are one in the old mission church of Aconchi on the Río Sonora in the state of the same name and in the sanctuary at Chimayó, New Mexico. The Cult of Esquipulas was introduced in the latter village by Don Bernardo de Abeyta in 1810 when he commissioned an appropriate crucifix to be carved of wood. It is told that when the cross was erected there it miraculously sprouted fresh leaves and branches. The sanctuary was located at a site long known for its medicinal clay bed. The original chapel was replaced in 1816 by the current church. There white clay tablets known as benditos, stamped with pictures of saints and the Virgin Mary, are sold to some 300,000 pilgrims and tourists who annually visit the site. It has become such a popular attraction that Pope John XXIII raised it to the rank of "First Basilica of Central America" and it is also designated a World Heritage Site.
Apart from crucifixes associated with the Cult of Esquipulas in Spain and former Spanish territories, Black Christs are extremely rare. The origin of the Esquipulas has been obscure, but this study hopefully presents a plausible story of its evolution. We begin the quest with the most remote concepts of deity in order to comprehend the Black Virgin who preceded the Black Christ.
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