Late in the afternoon on September 7, the Virgin Mary will leave her niche in the altar of the Nativity of Jesus church in Tepoztlan, Morelos and go out into the market to buy flowers. When she returns to the church she’ll encounter the gift the market’s shopkeepers have been working on for her since July.
Tepoztlan’s market vendors will be offering the Virgin Mary their twentieth mosaic triumphal arch. It, like its predecessors, will be left on display for 10 months. Then it will be removed and destroyed or cut into sections.
Triumphal arches are a tradition introduced to Mexico by Spaniards in the 16th century. Rather than comemorate a triumph in battle, they are used to honor or welcome a distingushed civil, military, or religious authority.
In the late 17th century Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz designed what may be the most reknowned of such arches in Mexico. She was commissioned to design an arch for the western entrance to Mexico City’s cathedral to welcome Viceroy Marquis de la Laguna and the vicereine. This was not an arch meant to be walked through hurriedly. It was meant to be admired, studied, and understood. A pamphlet accompanied it. The viceroy and vicereine saw lagoons and nautical content which they understood as alluding to them. They were so impressed they asked to meet the artist who had designed their arch and were surprised to learn she was a cloistered nun who could not even be present for the occasion. Sor Juana later became a close friend of the vicereine.
More recently when Raul Vera made his entry into San Cristobal de las Casas in 1995 as bishop he rode and walked under floral arches offered to him by each of the parishes in the diocese.
In the Mexican tradition, the arches are temporary and removed shortly after the occasion for which they were designed.
What sets Tepotzlan’s arch apart is how it is constructed. It is an intricate mosaic though not made of traditional tile. Rather it is decorated with close to a hundred varieties of seeds, grains, and beans glued to a particle-board backing. The whole thing is attached to a metal frame the shape of the arched entrance to the courtyard of the church.
Each year the design and story on the arch is different. Tepoztlan artist and architect Arturo de Meza presents his project to the mayordomos of Tepoztlan for their approval. They sometimes have had him make changes in the content but for the most part it is approved as he presents it.
The mosaic is assembled by volunteers, assigned to various tasks according to their abilities. Supervisor Rafael Carrillo didn't show me the full sketch, but he led me to think that this year’s arch will be of the traditional legend of the Tepozteco. In previous years the arch has shown parallel stories with prehispanic scenes on one side and Christian scenes on the other -- much like Italian Rennaisance parallels between Old and New Testament stories on opposite sides of a church sanctuary walls.
Last week I watched volunteers of all ages working on different parts of the arch glueing on the seeds and beans and grain. Others were extracting seeds from pods. Some were slicing individual beans to go where they were designated. Mr Carrillo says the quality improves every year as the volunteers aquire expertise in the technique.
I also got to see the 16th century arch that is covered for most of the year by the Portal de Semillas (Seed Gate). It has on it a symbol-- a 30 centimeter (12 inch) circle portraying a Christian cross on top of a human skull. It is a symbol frequently found in Mexican 16th century church architecture. When I’m asked about it while visiting other churches I have three possible answers. Is it Jesus’ cross on the hill called Golgotha, which means skull? Or a portrayal of the victory of life over death? Or is it the graphic portrayal of Jesus’ blood dripping from the cross through a crack in the ground and landing on Adam’s skull as I read about in the Church of the Holy Sepulchure in Jerusalem?
This symbol will be covered back up on September 7th. That day, around 5:00 p.m., the Virgin Mary will leave Tepoztlan’s churchyard and go into the market. She’ll go to buy flowers, which of course no vendor will sell her. They will always give them to her. When she returns the 450 year old cross and skull will be covered with a beautiful, brightly colored mosaic carefully and lovingly made by people of Tepotzlan from their harvest of seeds and beans.