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Miracle at Chalma: Native American Deity Transformed into a Black Christ

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499.     SARDO, Joaquín. Relación histórica y moral de la portentosa imagen de N. Sr. Jesucristo crucificado, aparecida en una de las cuevas de S. Miquel de Chalma, hoy real convento y santuario de este nombre, de religiosos ermitaños de N.P.G. y doctor S. Agustín, en esta Nueva España, y en esta provincia del santisimo nombre de Jesús en México. Con los compendios de las vidas de los dos venerables religiosos legos y primeros anacoretas de este santo desierto, F. Bartolomé de Jesús María, y F. Juan de San Josef. Nuevamente escrita por el R.P. predicador jubilado y prior actual de este real convento, Fr. Joaquín Sardo. Quien la dedica á su M. Illrê. y sagrada Provincia. [Mexico City]: Impresa en casa de Arizpe, 1810. [14], 1-386 pp., a few woodcut text vignettes, copper-engraved plate: Aparición del Santo Christo de Chalma | M? [attribution at lower left, difficult to decipher]. 4to (20.5 x 15.3 cm), contemporary full tree sheep, pale olive green gilt-lettered leather spine label, edges sprinkled red. Minor shelf wear to binding (upper joint slightly rubbed), a few small, scattered stains to title, else very fine, engraving excellent, in a strong impression. Title with old ink gift inscription, beneath which is a faint old purple ink stamp (illegible). Pastedown with twentieth-century illustrated bookplate of Enrique A. Cervantes.

     First edition of an important source on an outstanding example of the fusion of a Native American deity and a Roman Catholic image as an aid to religious conversion and national unity. Beristain 3:123-124. Medina, México 10516. Palau 302085. Sabin 76936. Stevens, Bibliotheca Histórica 1833, p. 163: “The Apparition of the Santo Cristo de Chalma…occurred in Mexico in 1539, and from that day to this, its history has been interwoven with the ecclesiastical, and is sometimes inseparable from the political, history of Mexico, especially so far as the management and education of the Indians entrusted to the missionaries of the Order of St Augustine are concerned. The large number of the earliest and rarest books relating to New Spain, referred to and quoted in this work, renders it indispensable to the historian. It is furthermore replete with biographical notes and references, not easily found elsewhere.”

     This is the most important work of Augustinian Sardo (1760?-1823) of Puebla who served as prior of the Santuario del Sr. de Chalma from 1800-1810, during which time he published this work, the most extensive such history of the miracle at Chalma up to that time and still consulted today. The second half of the book contains biographies of Augustinian priests Bartolomé de Jesús María and Juan de San José, two early hermits of Chalma instrumental in spreading devotion to the shrine.

     The well-composed, unusual copper-engraved plate shows the moment in the sacred cave of Chalma when the Catholic priests and Natives encounter the miraculous replacement of the indigenous black stone statue of Tezcatlipca with an icon of a crucified Black Christ. The devil and a serpent flee at the upper right, the statue is broken into pieces below the crucifix, and the foreground is populated by amazed onlookers. Mathes, Illustration in Colonial Mexico, Woodcuts and Copper Engravings in New Spain 1539-1821 (Register No. 1810:875). Romero de Terreros, Grabados y grabadores de la Nueva España, p. 452.

     Chalma, after the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, is the second most visited Mexican pilgrimage site. At the time of the Conquest, a cave on the Chalma site was venerated by the Ocuilteca, who worshipped the life-size black statue in the cave (likely an altered stalagmite) of the god Oxtoteotl, the Dark Lord of the Cave, reputed to have numerous powers and forms. The conquering Aztecs had already overlain the original Ocuilteca legend with their own agenda by the time two priests approached the cave in 1539, eight years after the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose story miraculously smoothed the way for indigenous acceptance of the Catholic faith. As time passed, a church was built and the image moved inside in 1683. The church has been expanded several times, and the original image was destroyed in a fire, but a replacement was created from the remains.

     Sardo briefly mentions Tlazolteotl, the Aztec mother-earth goddess of carnal love and patron saint of women in childbirth. Her cult image in the cave was replaced with Mary of Egypt, the Christian saint who spent her early life in carnal sin and later lived in penitence in a cave. Even if the female deity is on a certain level lost to most pilgrims who worship at the shrine, She survives in the tradition of generations of female pilgrims who hang little bags with newborn babies’ umbilical cords on an ancient tree at the shrine to give thanks for successful childbirth. See Victor Witter Turner & Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 53-57.


Sold. Hammer: $1,400.00; Price Realized: $1,680.00

Auction 22 Abstracts

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