My recent trip to Mexico encompassed several towns that are known for their religious fervor, including San Juan de los Lagos and Atotonilco.
San Juan de los Lagos, about two hours outside Guadalajara, is famous for its Virgin – one of three in Mexico that rank just behind the Virgin of Guadalupe. (The other two are the Virgin of Talpa and the Virgin of Zapopan – to read about Romeria, the religious festival I witnessed in Zapopan for their “Lady,” click here).
Each has their own legend; while the Virgin of Zapopan keeps Guadalajara safe, the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos (named for St. John the Baptist) allegedly restored a dead child to life.
The town centers around the Catedral Basilica Santuario de la Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos, a large pinkish church.
The plaza outside the Catedral is filled with vendors selling all sorts of Virgin paraphenalia, from rosaries to icons to tablecloths. An estimated million people visit the Virgin in San Juan de los Lagos each year.
Inside the church, worshippers drop to their knees to “walk” down the church aisle toward the altar housing the Virgin. I first saw this demonstation of faith at the Scala Santa in Rome earlier this year. It can be a little heartbreaking to watch the elderly struggle down the long aisle. But for the faithful, the suffering is considered “Christ-like;” they suffer for what they see as in solidarity with Jesus.
Walking on your knees is nothing , however, compared to the devotions that take place at Atotonilco, a small dusty town between Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende. There, pilgrims come from all over Mexico to visit Santuario de Atotonilco, a beautiful church and a spiritual retreat, and ask for penance by donning crowns of mesquite thorns and flagellate themselves with seven-tailed whips. There are cells nearby where pilgrims sleep to replicate Christ’s prison experience.
On the day we were there, we saw no such displays of devotion. The vendors in the sleepy plaza, though, were selling the thorn crowns, as well as rope whips.
The thorns were sharp (I had to touch them, of course).
The church itself was worth seeing. While it looks simple on the outside, the inside is completely covered in frescoes, many of which are under restoration. There is no surface in the building that hasn’t been decorated or covered.
The paintings were done by an artist named Miguel Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre, in a style that’s been called “folk baroque.” They were declared “endangered” by the World Monument Fund in the late 1990s and have been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2008.
True to the leanings of the pilgrims who come here, some of the paintings are a little on the dark side, stressing Christ’s suffering. This statue of the bloody Christ is known as Our Lord of the Column. During Holy Week, it is taken from the church and carried in a midnight procession to San Miguel de Allende, where it remains through Easter.