Monday, December 7, 2009

Atotonilco - Spirituality the hard way

It's called the Sistine Chapel of Mexico although few have ever heard of its artist. The church, with its graceful, curving lines outside, is a tribute to the suffering of Christ and the martyrs who followed Him inside. While traveling in Mexico, we stopped here en route to San Miguel de Allende.

Built in the mid 18th century, the Sanctuary of Atotonilco has been a place of retreat and pilgrimage since 1880. As many as 100,000 faithful converge on this small village each year to experience some of that suffering.

In groups of 5,000 to 10,000, they descend during 30 weeks a year, sleeping in cold cells, crawling around the sanctuary on bare knees, wearing crowns of thorns and whipping themselves.

On non-pilgrimage weeks like the one during which we arrived, it's a dusty, one-main-road village with vendors opposite the church selling food and religious souvenirs including crowns of thorns - and yes, they are sharp - and knotted rope whips.

Tip: Rejoice, Levelers, it's flat here!

Inside this endangered World Heritage Site is a wonder of murals that cover the walls and ceilings. Reminiscent of the earliest Byzantine Christian chapels that told their congregations the story of Christ through paintings and/or mosaics, these murals do that plus illustrate the gory ends of martyrs.

Damaged over the centuries by weather and zealous visitors who scraped paint off the walls to take home, the murals are now being restored. Commissioned by the church's founder, Padre Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro, and painted by Miguel Antonio Martinez de Pocosangre, these are exuberant, heart-felt works of art. It's easy to see how generations of Mexican artists turned to mural painting.

The sanctuary is known for its sculpture, too, notably Our Lord of the Column. Miracles have been attributed to it and at the beginning of Holy Week celebrations it is carried in a midnight torchlit procession the seven miles from Atotonilco to San Miguel de Allende where it remains through that week.

Nearby hot springs (Atotonilco means "place of the hot waters) long have been revered as places of healing. Followers of Mexican history have other reasons to visit the sanctuary. Native son and revolutionary leader Ignacio Allende was married here. And Sept. 16, 1810, Father Hidalgo led that ragtag army here, grabbed the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe and used it as their standard in the fight against the Spanish.

Tip: Sunday, market day, you'll find more vendors, residents and visitors.

Atotonilco is so close to San Miguel it makes a good stop if traveling to that city or a good day trip from there.


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