by Christopher Burke
15 December 2011. Bogota, Colombia. The cult of the Blessed Virgin has been with us longer than when the word cult took on its contemporary negative connotations. In other words, devotion to the Blessed Virgin predates by many centuries the cults of Guyana, and the Branch Dividians et al. Though not a religious person, I am enamored of the cult of the Blessed Virgin, visually, culturally, symbolically. As a young child in Ireland, I remember summer processions in the evening streets with baskets of flower petals, kissed and thrown over my shoulder in veneration of the Blessed Virgin. Zoom in to many years later in a taxi traveling from San Miguel de Allende to the airport in Guanajuato, Mexico. The taxi driver was friendly and communicative, and along the way we passed a procession of pilgrims on their way to worship la Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco, which gave way to a conversation with the taxi driver as to the meaning of the various manifestations of the Virgin Mary. Was the Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos different from the Virgen de Gaudalupe? Were they two different entities? Were there many different and distinct Virgins around the world, locally worshipped and locally understood but clearly distinct from each other. Or were all of these Virgens simply manifestations of the Virgin Mary in the local dialect? The taxi driver viewed me suspiciously, upset with the confusion I had brought to his worldview. No, they were different, he said cautiously. Each Virgen was different, but each Virgen was the Virgin Mary. Which left us pretty much where we started out. There are many Virgens in Mexico, throughout Latin America, and throughout the world for that matter. They are perceived differently in different places, worshipped separately, and relied on distinctly. And Colombia participates democratically in this worship of the Blessed Virgin. There are 79 sanctuaries of the Blessed Virgin, officially sanctioned places of worship and miracle, throughout the Republic of Colombia.
I think of the Blessed Virgin in Colombia as I think of the flag in the United States. The flag of the United States is so ever present that we barely notice it on a daily basis. It is on the sides of airliners, of subway cars, in front of post offices, in classrooms, ever present. The Stars and Stripes connotes many different things at many different times of the day to many different people. For many of us, it is simply a confirmation of place; for others, it is a daily reference to freedom, to past, to principles, to rights, to a real or imagined world. The flag presumes meaning by its very presence. And so does the Blessed Virgin in Colombia. Not that Colombia doesn’t have its own national flag. For sure, it does. Yellow, blue and red. Yellow for gold, blue for ocean, and red for blood. The Colombian colors are essential participants in any national sport or holiday. But Colombia also has the added intrigue of its Blessed Virgins, daily present, rich in connotation, quietly coloring daily life.
Bogotá is full of images of the Virgin Mary. Haphazard, discreet, everyday, ephemeral, the Virgens of Bogotá are often unnoticed, unpronounced, quotidian. Ask a Bogotano if he or she has seen a Blessed Virgen today, and more than likely he or she will look at you as if you are more than slightly askew. Or keeping in mind the famous Colombian penchant for double entendre, your companion may well throw you a look of questioning and amusement. And yet, more often than not, the bus that he or she was on in the morning had the image of the Virgen del Carmen somewhere on its public face. The Virgen del Carmen is the patron saint of drivers, and omnipresent on Colombian roadways. Her statue, the original, should you ever have an interest, is now located in the Cathedral on the Plaza Bolivar in downtown Bogotá.
On your morning bus, you will have passed churches and niches with Virgenes smogged over and blackened. Taxis all morning will have sported rosary Virgens on their tail bumpers with abandon. The image of the rosary around the Virgen’s face has been ubiquitous on cars and taxis in Bogotá for years. Stained glass windows, tiled frames at street corners, bodegas in front of churches, impromptu altars (there is one in the cafeteria area of my workplace in a very modern upmarket skyscraper) all sport images of the Virgin Mary. It may be of interest here to remember that the origin of the image of the mother and child predates Christianity. The reverence of the image of mother and child is eternal, without religion.
Cult? The image of the Virgen is simply a part of life in Colombia. In a country once torn apart by violence and narcotrafficking drug warfare, the image of the Blessed Virgin is and has been a reassurance of the normalcy of life. The Blessed Virgin in all her apparitions is part and parcel of the culture of Colombia. Some of my favorite Virgenes in the city of Bogotá are laidback, casual, unheralded. Some are mysterious. Some are obvious, and some are celebrated. Others are daily apparitions, brief, casual, historic, ephemeral. My favorite? That’s hard. The image of the Blessed Virgin in the church of Monserrate, a religious sanctuary high above the city and Bogota’s most celebrated tourist attraction, is home to an enigmatic image of the Blessed Virgin. The black Virgen de Monserrate, la Moreneta, with origins in Spain, adds resonance to a city of some 15 million people who go about their daily lives well aware of her daily vigilance. Colombia celebrates the mother and child unequivocally. Enter the Transmilenio bus system in Bogotá, and expect preference for mothers with children. A mother with child has preference throughout daily life here. It often seems to me that Colombia has gotten something right with preferential lanes for mothers with children at international arrivals at the airport, and at any number of other civic roadblocks.
Colombia has its Virgenes, but it also has something equally and perhaps more uniquely impressive. Colombia has el Divino Niño, a worship for the child Jesus that is pervasive, everyday, warm, transcendent, and striking. This cult of the child Jesus, el Divino Niño, dates back to an Italian Silesian priest, Father Juan del Rizzo, who was instrumental in developing mass adoration of this infant figure at the beginning of the last century. El Divino Niño, usually dressed in pink, is a statue or an image of the child Jesus with his arms outstretched and his gaze lifted heavenward. At the base of the status are the words “Yo Reinare” (“I will reign.”) There is a sweetness and reassurance about the child figure and the image can be found throughout Colombia. In the 20 de Julio neighborhood in Bogotá, the sanctuary of el Divino Niño draws thousands to worship every Sunday.
All of these images of Virgens and the Child Jesus create a rich cultural gloss across the city of Bogotá and throughout the country of Colombia. If you are meandering through the flea market downtown or in Usaquen on a Sunday morning, look out for copies of two glossy coffee table books published some years ago with the support of the Banco de Bogotá. One is simply titled El Divino Niño, and the other is La Virgen, Fe y Aventura en Colombia. Both books are beautifully produced and photographed, and the text, though in Spanish, goes a long way to explaining the cultural phenomena of the Virgen and the Divino Niño in Colombia.
Just recently, I was walking in La Soledad, a neighborhood of mainly mid-century homes and apartment buildings in downtown Bogotá. I turned a corner and there on a wall freshly sprayed was a graffiti portrait of Che Guevara with a saint’s halo above his head. And it made me smile. In Mexico, I have seen portraits of Santa Frida Kahlo. And now Santo Che Guevara. And so myths begin and develop. Who knows which images will blanket the city or the country a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years from now.
Christopher Burke is a freelance journalist based in Bogota, Colombia.