One of the paintings I saw on Saturday’s visit to the Autry National Center is Paul Pletka’s “Tears of the Lord,” which depicts a bloody crucifixion on an Aztec cross, with native Americans in ceremonial garb walking by the foot of the cross.
It reminds me of the strange mix of Christianity with Andean religions that I saw in Peru in 2014. As one who has had a Catholic education through age 17, I was amazed by the beauty and ornateness of the churches in Lima, Arequipa, Puno, and Cusco. The farther I got from the larger cities, however, the more I saw signs of local religious practices alongside the Catholic images.
In the 1980s, when my brother and I visited the State of Chiapas in southern Mexico, we saw something even more extreme—so extreme, in fact, that we were made to sign statements in advance that we would not photograph inside the church or any of the religious ceremonies. The penalty for violation? Tourists had been killed for disrespect of the local customs. In the church of San Juan Chamula, the Christian statuary was decked out with corncobs and flowers. All pews had been removed, and the Mayans prayed by lying on their stomachs with their arms outstretched. The altar was de-emphasized altogether. Instead, there were various worship stations scattered around the nave.
And where was the local priest? The Catholic clergy had been kicked out more than a hundred years previously as part of a revolt. The churches they left behind were adapted to highland Mayan religion.
As I look at Pletka’s painting, I see the native peoples of the Americas incorporating all or part of Christianity, but insisting on their own brand of religious syncretism as well. At the tiny church in Corporaque, Peru, near Colca Canyon, I felt very far indeed from the Cathedral at Cusco. The only modern touch was that I was being filmed. Apparently, a nearby church was ransacked by thieves; and many of the small churches took measures to protect their ecclesiastical treasures.