“The earliest documented example of skeletal imagery in Mexico’s literary culture”

The Astonishing Life of Death—Protonovel with Graphic Engravings

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43. BOLAÑOS, Joaquín [Hermenegildo]. La Portentosa vida de la muerte, emperatriz de los sepulcros, vengadora de los agravios del altisimo, y muy señora de la humana naturaleza, cuya célebre Historia encomienda à los Hombres de buen gusto.... Mexico: En la Oficina de los Herederos del Lic. D. Joseph de Jáuregui, Calle de San Bernardo, 1792. [24], [1]-276 pp., 17 (of 18) copper-engraved plates (including frontispiece), fantastic images in the Dance of Death tradition by Francisco Agüera Bustamante, a few signed: Aguera Sc.; occasional typographical ornamentation. 4to (21 x 15 cm), original vellum (according to Medina, the book issued in vellum). Recased, missing ties, two dark areas on spine where former labels were removed. Wants the plate for Chapter 8 that appeared between pp. 48-49. Plate at p. 104 with marginal tear (no loss), occasional light staining, overall very good, plates excellent, in strong impressions. Exceedingly rare literary and iconographic work on death and satire in Mexico. No copies in auction records, nor in other market sources, save for a copy offered by Porrúa in 1927 @ 20 pesos.

     First edition. Beristáin de Souza, Biblioteca Hispano Americana Setentrional (1883), Vol. I, p. 181. Medina, México 8174. Palau 31711: “Libro curioso.” Regina M. Marchi, Day of the Dead in the U.S.A.: The Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009), p. 26: “The earliest documented example of skeletal imagery in Mexico’s literary culture is thought to be the etchings accompanying the tragicomic protonovel, La Portentosa vida de la muerte, published in 1792 by Fray Joaquín Bolaños and illustrated by Francisco Agüera” (citing Joyce Bailey, “The Penny Press” in Posada’s Mexico, edited by Ron Tyler, Washington: Library of Congress, 1979, p. 92). In 1792 the book was censored by the Inquisition in Mexico on grounds of incorrect Spanish that was disrespectful to Death, since Death cannot be alive. Censorship and burning occurred after the book had been for sale for a few months, perhaps accounting for its rarity.

     Something of a classical Mexican Ars moriendi, this book, according to Medina, was very poorly received because the author recommended it to “Hombres de buen gusto.” The book, apparently falling into the hands of just such people, was met with a frosty reception. The author was even hailed before the Viceroy by José Antonio Alzate Ramíriz, who objected strenuously to the book. Nevertheless, it is considered the first, although tentative step toward an indigenous Mexican literature. In his preface the author makes it clear that he is aware of the novel and somewhat shocking approach he is taking to his subject, and remarks that if the reader finds the text objectionable, he has only to lay it aside. As Enrique Flores says of the style: “Sátira y meditación, imagen visual y alegoría, sermón e improvisación, copla, décima y grafitti—todos estos elementos se entrecruzan en la ficción mestiza de Bolaños” (review of the 1992 reprint in Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica, Vol. 44, No. 1, 1996, pp. 237).

     The engravings, some of most graphic ever produced in Mexico, were executed by Francisco Agüera Bustamante (active 1784-1829), one of the earliest satirical illustrators in Mexico. Among the types of Death illustrated and described are Death in battle, Death of sinners, Death of a lady in America (pp. 216-228), Death in search of glory, etc. Three striking ones that might be particularly mentioned are the one opposite p. 1 showing Adam, Eve, and the serpent in the Garden of Eden along with the infant Death in her cradle; the one opposite p. 121, showing Death hunched over a dying sinner with the representations of his vices on his bedside table, while the jaws of Hell breathe fire in the foreground; and the one opposite p. 254, showing an ancient Death on her own deathbed. The engraver has made the plates deliberately dark and foreboding. Mathes (La Ilustración en México colonial) comments: “Although other engravers produced fine plates in the City of Mexico in the late eighteenth century, none achieved the precision, quality, and output of the last of the great self-trained artists, Francisco Agüera Bustamante.” Romero de Terreros, Grabados y grabadores en la Nueva España, p. 466.

     Dicc. Porrúa states that this work “es considerada como el primer esfuerzo titubeante en favor de la novela criolla en México.” Author Joaquín Bolaños (1741-1796) was a member of the Franciscan Propaganda Fide at Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de los Zacatecas when he wrote this book and held other religious positions during his life, as well as writing several other books, although none so explosive as the present work. He was also occasionally involved in sending missionaries to Texas.

     Review of a lecture by Salvador Olguín, July 9, 2009, in Morbid Anatomy, Surveying the Interstices of Art and Medicine, Death, and Culture (The Morbid Anatomy Library and Cabinet, Brooklyn, New York):

One of the most interesting things Olguín touched on in his lecture was a book I had never heard of: the fantastically illustrated La Portentosavida de la muerte (The Astounding Life of Death). This book—a kind of whimsical and irreverent life history of Death in the form of a woman—was published in Mexico in the eighteenth century and was, as he explains, highly influential in Mexican culture.... Bolaños recounts the many adventures of Death, from her beginnings in the Garden of Eden, where she is said to have been born from Adam’s Sin (Death’s father) and Eve’s Guilt (her mother), to her dramatic destruction in Judgment Day, with copious quotations from the Bible and the Church Fathers to back up his facts. The protagonist of the story is referred to as “The Empress of the Sepulchers, The Avenger, and The Very Lady of All Humanity”. Muerte (Death) is a female noun in Spanish; this fact allows Bolaños to create a female heroine, a very peculiar one.

Bolaños develops his central character thoroughly, in a lively and humoristic way, reflecting–and contributing to shape–the ambiguous relationship that Mexican culture has with death, marked by eroticism, morbid attraction, sadness and joy. Bolaños’s Death is irreverent, passionate and adventurous, and the book is a very early example of an American character-based novel, with a tongue-in-cheek tone and not lacking social criticism. It was criticized by Mexico’s Colonial literary critics as a piece of bad taste; nevertheless, it has been reevaluated by later scholars as a remarkable testimony of its time.

In the book—which is considered by many scholars to be one of the first Mexican novels—Death suffers, she falls in love, gets married several times (though her marriages were never consummated, as her husbands—all doctors—died upon entering the nuptial bed), and becomes angry when men forget about her continuous presence. The 1792 edition was accompanied by a series of illustrations that depict Death in her early days, walking beside her grandmother—whose name, according to Bolaños’s quotes from the Bible, is Concupiscence—getting married—while the Devil serves as the minister.

     Elizabeth C. DeRose, “Pictorial Satire in Viceregal Mexico: Francisco Aguëra Bustamante’s Engravings for La Portentosa vida de la Muerte” 84-85:

Fray Joaquín Bolaños’ 1792 moral satire, La Portentosa vida de la muerte was censored by the Inquisition several months after publication for its fabrication and perceived grotesque treatment of death. This book was written as a criticism against reforms of funerary practices by the Bourbon regime that undermined the Catholic stratagem of propagating ideas of death via representations to instill the fear of God in the faithful. Illustrating La Portentosa are engravings that chronicle the fictitious life of Death.... Employing stratagems of humor, irony, and sarcasm, the artist ridicules man’s vices and shortcomings. [Agüera] Bustamante’s illustrations add a new dimension to the existing knowledge of subversive prints, and locate...the origin of Mexican political satire in the colonial era, providing the likely precedent for the nineteenth-century political cartoons that shaped the image of the Revolution and Mexico’s popular culture....

Donahue-Wallace contends that printmakers generally functioned outside the control of secular and ecclesiastical authorities. They catered to the needs and desires of their clientele, handling legal issues when they arose. The absence of publication approval requests for printed images in the Mexican National Archives further indicates that the civil laws requiring publication licenses for printed material were ignored. The Index of Prohibited Books issued every few years by the Inquisition included previously published text and images. Although technically censored, many books remained in circulation. This phenomenon explains why Bolaños’ text was published and then censored months later. [footnote: In the introduction to [the reprint of] La Portentosa the editor suggests that the book avoided initial censorship because it was dedicated to fray Manuel María Trujillo, who held the title of “calificador del consejo de la Inquisitión y comisario general, visitador y reformador apostólico de todas las provincias y colegios de Indias.” Given that the text is satirical, it is plausible that Bolaños’ dedication was an ironic gesture. The delay in censoring the book, then, was due to the jurisdiction of the Inquisition over already published books....

Prints were particularly appealing for the dissemination of subversive expression.... Bolaños and [Agüera] Bustamante undoubtedly were aware of this print culture when they engaged in writing, illustrating, and publishing La Portentosa, a social criticism that chronicles the birth, baptism, marriage, and death of its central character, “Death”.... Similar to the political cartoons that pervaded nineteenth-century newspapers and broadsides, [Agüera] Bustamante’s engravings employ the satirical strategies of inversion, lampoon, and humor to ridicule societal mores. Through his use of satire, [Agüera] Bustamante’s engravings reveal another artistic strategy in printmaking from which to undermine authority

     Bolaños wisely observes: “There is no better remedy for the body’s pain than that of separating it from the soul.”


Sold. Hammer: $3,000.00; Price Realized: $3,675.00.

Auction 23 Abstracts

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