Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Peruvian Faith

Original wall painting on the left, now the central altar of Nazarenas Church, and the oil reproduction on its gold and silver framing.

It is the month of October, and like many others more than 300 years ago the city of Lima paints itself purple as the celebration of the crucified black Christ is underway. Women wear purple habits, flags and images of the "Senor de los Milagros" are posted up in public, private, and sacred spaces. This is the faith of the Peruvian people, manifested in, according to the Vatican, the world's largest religious procession. More than half a million people of all racial and social backgrounds come together to accompany the oil on canvas effigy of the Lord of Miracles as it makes it's way through the streets of central Lima, spreading hope to a country badly beaten by the incompetence and selfish ways of the Peruvian government.
In the half of the 17th century, a time when Peru was at its best under the rule of the Spanish empire, an Angolan slave painted the humble image of a dark skinned Christ on the cross on a weak adobe wall. This wall belonged to a building where an Angolan fraternity of free slaves gathered regularly to worship and celebrate their saints, and would sing nostalgic songs which reminded them of their homeland. It is here where the story of the "Cristo Moreno", Black Christ, begins. On November 13, 1655 an earthquake hits the city of Lima, destroying a great part of it, especially the neighborhood of Pachacamilla. Houses, churches, official buildings, and other structures came tumbling down, and the only wall that remained intact was the wall with the painted Christ. The image was left to the elements and forgotten for many years and was later discovered by a resident of the area by the name of Don Antonio Leon. Story goes that this man cleaned the wall and its surrounding area and in exchange of taking care of the Christ, through the image he asked God for the miracle of liberating him from a tumor. When the wish was granted word about the miracle spread around town and soon people, mostly of color, started venerating the Crucifixion scene. On Friday nights they would gather and celebrate with loud music the presence of the Lord.
In 1671 word of such gatherings reached the authorities and they soon ordered the wall to be demolished. Men were sent on different occasions to paint over the image but every try was unsuccessful because the people who were to carry out the orders would freeze, faint, or become scarred once in front of the painting. Acknowledging the power of the image, the Catholic Church built a small temple around the Christ, and in 1682 the chapel is recognized as the "Chapel of the Holy Christ of Miracles." On October 20, 1687, another earthquake knocks down most of Lima, including the chapel, and about 1,300 of 35,000 people perished. All was lost except the painting of the the Black Christ. After witnessing that the image was left immaculate after the earthquake, the people of Lima requested a copy be made so that it could be taken out in procession through the streets of Lima as a way to ask for God's protection. It is here when the yearly procession was born and the miracles kept being recorded.
This procession is accompanied by a large fraternity of carriers. 4,000 men divided into groups of 20 "cuadrillas" are responsible for taking turns in carrying the more than 3 tons of gold and silver for 6 kilometers in 20 hours per day of procession, October 18, 19, and 28. 32 brothers carry the massive "anda" through the streets of Lima, and they are followed by a marching band, which I think happens to be the National Guard Marching Band. To the sound of drums and trumpets playing nostalgic sounds the procession makes its way through the multitude who push their way in all directions just to be close to the "Cristo Moreno." To the front of the procession a group of more than 75 "sisters", or "Sahumadoras," make way for the effigy scenting the area with incense, setting the scene for the announcement of a sacred presence. In front of the "Sahumadoras" another group of women, the "Cantoras," sing hymns and other religious songs through the long hours of the day. All Brothers and Sisters dressed in purple habits, or robes, create a carpet for the procession to walk on.
I have had the opportunity to experience this religious fest as a boy. To this day I have seen nothing like it. To be in this procession is overwhelming and yet exhilarating. The sound of the drums could be felt as your body trembles with the beat, the smell of incense forming large clouds makes you aware of the holy vibes, and the faithful followers is a site to be seen. Many come to ask for a miracle, for the well being of family and friends, and for a better tomorrow for the Peruvian people. As a little boy holding my father's hand I would see penitents walking on their knees, crying for the pain they feel physically and spiritually. I have seen some intense and moving scenes in this procession. But it's the number of people and their force that still woes me. I though I was going to die once, when I was 8 or 9, when the crowd caused me to separate from my father and my little body kept being crushed, pushed and rolled around by the ecstatic people. I don't know how my father was able to find me a few seconds later, but as bad as this may sound I will always remember it with happiness. This was the first time I encountered the large painting with its gold and silver frame work just a few feet away.
This weekend I took part in the New York procession. Most Peruvian communities around the world have gotten together to celebrate this tradition just as in our homeland. Manhattan has two processions, Brooklyn has one as well as Hartford and Stanford in Connecticut. New Jersey has a number of processions, Washington D.C., and other cities in Florida celebrate this month the same way. There's even a Lord of Miracles procession in Rome, where the Christ is taken to the St Peters to be blessed by the Pope. I also found online this week that Peruvian communities in Madrid, Spain, and Australia also parade their Lord of Miracles.
Although this may be a religious month, not everything is penitence and seriousness. This month is usually celebrated with food, and my friend Alejandro from PeruFood has put together a piece on the food of the "purple month." If you would like to see pictures from the Lord of Miracles procession of St Patricks Cathedral in NYC click here.

To view my videos from the procession in NYC click the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4


Shant said...

This is very interesting, I have heard of this before but did not know of all the details. Thanks for sharing. Would you be willing to exchange a link?

::Alejandro:: said...

Luis, that last picture is wonderful, I've never seen that image with such detail.

Luis Colan said...

Hey Alenjandro,
I found this online and thought it was beautiful, especially when I'm able to see the texture of the canvas.

FaithfulWeb said...

What terrific pictures and great context. My pastor, Rev. Gerry Creedon of Arlington, VA, discussed the celebration recently, which sparked my interest in learning more.

Luis Colan said...

Thanks for visiting my site. I hope you can find some information about this tradition in Lima in English. There's some out there in Spanish...I think you might need a translator. Best to you.


Barbara said...

Luis -- This is a really fine post about the celebrations for El Senor de los Milagros. As Alejandro says, the detail in your photos is excellent.

I've linked to this post on my blog, An American in Lima, in an article on mes morado (

I went to downtown Lima on Monday (10/6/08) to visit the church, and it was swamped with people, even though there was no procession that day. I have never been to the processions themselves, so I have no firsthand experience of the fervor or crowds.

Thanks for providing an up-close view.

--An American in Lima


Great post Luis, here there will be about 3 processions in DC, MD and VA.

You can post your videos by copying the embed code (check on the right side of your video on youtube) and paste into blogger when editing.


Ward said...

That's a great post. I'm a US expat in Cusco, Peru and I watched the procession of Señor de los Milagros in our neighborhood last week, without really knowing much of the background.
Here's some pictures of the procession in Wanchaq, Cusco:

Ward Welvaert

Luis Colan said...

thank you very much for the tip carlos.
Ward thanks for sharing your photos, I hope you find Cusco, and Peru in general a great place to be in. Cheers.

G'Screen said...

Hello Luis,
Thank you for the info about the procession. It's great.
I am in NYC, it's Oct 27, 2008, is there another procession in the NY tri state area? I would love to go.