Friday, November 2, 2012

Days of the Dead: Skulls & Bones

Actopan wall cross *
Days of the Dead
As we saw in our Xoxoteco posts, death and the afterlife have been a central concern in the life and lore of Mexico since ancient and colonial times and into the present, as the annual Day of the Dead observances across the country testify.

As in many cultures world wide, the human skull and bones have been a constant motif in Mexican iconography related to death. The skull especially was a dominant motif in Aztec and Maya imagery, signifying conquest, blood sacrifice and the underworld, while bones also played a key role in Aztec mythology.

This emblem is also common in colonial art and imagery, above all in the churchyard stone crosses carved in the years following the Spanish conquest under the Catholic evangelization program. 

Usually placed at the foot or base of the cross, this motif has complex meanings but chiefly refers to Calvary or Golgotha, "The Place of the Skull," a traditional site of execution and crucifixion just outside Jerusalem.
In Jewish lore, Golgotha also signified the grave of Adam. The placing of the cross above the tomb of Adam signified the triumph of Christ over death and redemption from original sin.

Here we show a broad selection of these carved cross reliefs. In some, the bones are conventionally crossed but others are aligned in a usually horizontal position.  
In some cases Aztec stone skulls were re purposed.

Nativitas-Zacapa, re-used Aztec skull in cross base

Oxtoticpac, Skull and Bones *

San Matías El Grande
Ciudad Hidalgo
Chapantongo *
Cuernavaca: composite of Aztec skull and bones relief 

Huaniqueo *
San Pablo de las Salinas *
Tlaltenango *
Riotenco *

*  images courtesy of Niccolo Brooker

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