Saturday, September 26, 2015


Abiquiu morada, Abiquiu, New 
Mexico. Photograph Peter Faris,
September 2011.

This posting is a review of an article from Archaeology magazine, May/June 2015 issue, volume 68, number3, pages 42-47, by Dean Blaine, entitled Mysteries of the Brotherhood. The article discusses a Penitente site at Pilar, New Mexico, being studied by archaeologist Severin Fowles. I have added some other material and some photographs were taken by myself.

May-June 2015.Crosses atop orbs.
Archaeologyillustration #2, p. 45.

The penitentes, los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, were a religious support group for many small and isolated Catholic communities in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. The Spanish conquerors of the southwest had strictly enforced Catholicism in their territories. Whether descendants of Spanish settlers, creolos, or genizaros (Native Americans and their descendants who had adopted the Spanish way of life, customs, and beliefs), the inhabitants knew that for important life occasions a religious rite was required. Baptism, marriage, confession, last rites, and many other events were accompanied by important religious ceremony that required a priest. The problem always was a definite shortage of priests which, at times, only amounted to a handful for the whole of the American southwest. People in many small communities did not have access to a real priest much of the time, hence the Penitentes, a home-grown religious support group to fill the need.

Crosses with Native American petroglyph.
Mesa Prieta, New Mexico. Photograph
Peter Faris, September 2011.

"Few groups are as ripe for misunderstanding as the Penitente Brotherhood, a lay association of Roman Catholic men long active in remote northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Historians and journalists have wondered about their origins for 200 years. Known formally as los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, the Penitentes materialized in the early nineteenth century as un unofficial surrogate of the Catholic Church, dedicated to the spiritual needs of far-flung communities with little or no access to clergy." (Blaine 2015:44)

"It's just simply not the case that all Catholics out here are colonizers who came in and kicked around native folks," Fowles says. Many Spaniards married Genizaros, Native American captives who were raised and worked in Spanish society. In fact, by the early nineteenth century, historians estimate that as many as a third of New Mexicans could be classified as Genizaros, people who were at once devoutly Christian but also had inherited knowledge of Native American practices. It's likely that some of the Penitentes were either of mixed heritage or were Genizaros themselves. "A lot of Catholics out here came from native traditions and were trying to figure out how to work within this very complicated ethnic landscape." (Blaine 2015:46)

A community that was served by a penitente group possessed their morada, the meeting house that stored their possessions and served as a chapel for many of their rites ceremonies. The morada almost always was accompanied by a calvario, the spiritual recreation of the hill of Calvary. The illustration shows the upper morada at Abiquiu, New Mexico, and the three crosses are the calvario representing the site of the crucifixion.

Penitente cross with Native American
snake petroglyph. Archaeology,
illustration #1, p. 46.

As the penitentes were almost ubiquitous in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, it is assumed that much of the religious themed rock art found in this region was of their making. Blaine shows examples from around the morada at Pilar, New Mexico, both of panels of Christian themes (crosses) and panels of mixed themes (crosses with Native American rock art). Fowles believes that the mixing of Christian and native rock art on many rock surfaces indicates that the Penitentes were consciously drawing on the spiritual traditions of all of the people who lived in that place. It is notable that the earlier native images were not defaced, they were added to. (Blaine 2015:46)

Cross above with Native American
snake petroglyph. Mesa Prieta,
New Mexico. Photograph Peter
Faris, September 2011.

"If the Penitentes were incorporating Native American traditions, Fowles says, this helps to explain how Lenten rituals such as the Procession of Blood materialized on the northern New Mexican landscape. It's quite possible that Penitente brothers at Pilar were engaged in an effort to reconcile traditional Native American religious conventions with the teaching of Roman Catholic dogma." (Blaine 2015:46-7)

Much Anglo coverage of Penitente rituals and practices has exaggerated what they saw as sensational aspects such as processions where men walked along whipping themselves bloody in the back with a yucca leaf whip. Anglo reports of this always emphasize how bloody the men's backs were. What they did not tell you is that one of the traditional roles in a Penitente chapter was reportedly that of the cutter, the man who was very experienced in making small incisions in the upper back of the men in the procession with a very sharp obsidian flake to provide controlled bleeding with virtually no pain at all.

Indeed, I have personally found the story of the Penitente brotherhoods to be one of inspiring faith and community responsibility. They were, and are, a living tradition that provides comfort and support among the inhabitants of the region. I have had the privilege of knowing a couple of participants in this, and have almost envied them their faith and sense of civic responsibility. Far from the bloody freak show that they have been painted as in the past, they were the best of their communities and the region was, and is, better off for them.

See how far we can get by beginning with curiosity about rock art!


Blaine, Dean
2015    Mysteries of the Brotherhood, Archaeology, May/June 2015, Vol. 68, No. 3, p. 42-7.

No comments:

Post a Comment