Muleback Hosanna in Guatemala

The Oddkins-Bodkins odyssey of how La Antigua’s patron image left town

Jesús Nazareno de la Merced (photo: © José Carlos Flores)

Jesús Nazareno de la Merced (photo: © José Carlos Flores)

Your drive from La Antigua to Guatemala City retraces a procession trod in 1778 by the foremost Antiguan of the day. Being a mute statue, he raised no objection to the move. But so many others did object that the authorities making out his ticket proceeded with anguished caution.

Jesús Nazareno de la Merced was also the oldest Antiguan. Over a century had passed since his sculpting by Mateo de Zúñiga and his “fleshing” by painter José de la Cerda. Their bill to the town council of Santiago —today called La Antigua—was 65 pesos.

The killer quake that rattled Panchoy Valley (La Antigua) in 1773 led to the founding of a new capital in Ermita Valley in 1776. But even then, most Santiagans refused to move. Similarly, after Hurricane Hattie ravaged Belize in 1965, the government of Belize founded Belmopán—only to see the population of Belize City stay put.

The job of moving La Antigua’s masons, maids, porters and wet nurses to Ciudad Real (Guatemala City) fell in 1778 to viceroy Martín de Mayorga. His biggest card was the bond that Santiagans felt to Jesús Nazareno and to another wooden statue, Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. Move these images, Mayorga reasoned, and you move the people.

Jesús Nazareno de la Merced owned many superlatives even in Mayorga’s day. It was the first baroque object crafted in Guatemala.(1) In 1717, it became the first image consecrated by a bishop in the Americas. Four years later, authorities named it patron of Santiago. Today, many call it Guatemala’s most sublime portrayal of the Passion.

After watching the Easter processions, Mayorga prudently allowed the after-burn of Semana Santa to cool. By June, Jesús Nazareno and Nuestra Señora were again veiled in their altars. This was their usual state, except on Sundays and holidays.

On June 25, Mayorga assigned the parish priest—a man named Acuña—the sad chore of announcing the move. This tiding, following Mass, caused every countenance in town to drop.(2) The townsfolk sought the intervention of the cofradía (town council), who secured an order to unveil the images for the rest of the day. By 6, the church was packed with standing-room-only mourners.

The men charged with packing the statues elbowed their way in at 8:30.(3) When they removed the crown of thorns, several women untied their braids and offered their ribbons for its re-fastening. Another woman unraveled maguey fibers from her nagua (apron) to bundle the image in its veil. The Nazareno did have to part with one thing: his cross. Once disassembled and boxed, he was placed on a stool in the church. For a fortnight, somber devotees recited rosaries over the hallowed cargo and begged Don Martín to reconsider.

But on July 7, Mayorga gave Acuña his marching orders. This priest, whose first name was Simón, doubtlessly identified with the Simón who helped lug the original cross to Calvary. But the parallels do not end there. The flesh-and-blood Cristo entered Israel’s capital on a donkey; Acuña’s wooden Cristo arrived in Guatemala’s capital on a mule—a half-donkey.

This ignominy was blunted by reverent pilgrims joining the trek, resulting in a spontaneous procession. They reached San Lucas on the first day, where the statue was reassembled and “enthroned” in the local pastoral chair. The next day, a Wednesday, Mass was held with the Nazareno as honored guest.

An encore occurred on Thursday in Mixco, today a capital suburb. There are no accounts that roadside spectators hailed the image with palm fronds as it entered the city, but this is likely. Over the next 22 years, it was adored in private ceremonies before finding permanent rest in the church at 11 avenida and 5a calle. But Mayorga’s gambit worked: The patron of Santiago became the patron of Guatemala City and drew a multitude of Antiguans along with him. Consequently, the approach of Christmas saw the start of Guatemala City’s earliest building boom.

The statue’s old post in Santiago was filled by a second wooden image, Jesús Nazareno de la Merced de Antigua. This was not the first imitator bred by success; 356 years after the “birth” of the original, every self-respecting Guatemalan parish aspires to have its own Nazareno. The dozens now in existence include Jesús Nazareno of the Mission, of Justice, of the Three Powers, of the Sweet Vision, of the Righteous Death and of the Heavenly King.

But the original retains a quiet primacy. It was, after all, the one known to Hermano Pedro de Betancourt. This Antiguan (recently sainted), apparently escorted it in Easter processions from 1657-61.(4) More miracles are attributed to it than to any other, and it counts the most legends. In addition to the claim of stigmata (bleeding), it is said to perspire when carried past downtown Guatemala’s Metropolitan Cathedral.

In 1888, composer Santiago Coronado was visiting the image’s home in what is today zone 1. In a dream he noticed the Nazareno missing from its usual spot. Worried, he searched inside the church first, then outside. At this point, according to the account Coronado gave his grandson,(5) he saw the statue emerge from a grave in the chapel cemetery. “Hey, Santiago!” it exclaimed. “Where is my march?” Coronado quickly finished a march he had been working on and named it The Grave. This composition became the Nazareno’s official accompaniment.

Another legend is contemporary. Devotees testify that things go awry when Jesús Nazareno wore the “Dove Shroud” (a cloth of unknown whereabouts). A warehouse, La Paquetería, allegedly burst into flames as the shrouded image passed in front of it. The 1976 earthquake is said to have struck when the image donned the cloth, and in 1998 its anda (carrying platform) caught fire when shroud and image made contact.(6)

The year 2005 saw the statue making its 350th “birthday” rounds that culminated in the capital’s Easter processions, but Jesús de Nazareno and his clones will be out again this Easter. And at any other time of year you can still go downtown and, six blocks from the National Palace, find the image that started it all.

1. Miguel Álvarez Arévalo, official chronographer of
Guatemala City (interview).
2. Luis Gerardo Ramírez Ortíz, oral historian and member
of the modern cofradía.
3. M. Álvarez A., Historia Instantánea, No. 3, pp. 66-69
4. Ingrid Roldán M., Prensa Libre, Jan. 24, 2005
5. L. G. Ramírez Ortíz.
6. I. Roldán, Prensa Libre.

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