Mary, in art, is typically shown as being contemplative, reflective, even sad, but, for me, her best image is Mary of the Light, or Maria de la Luz, where she is aggressive, assertive and widely celebrated this time of year.
Back in 1722 Sicily (Oh no, I’ve turned into Ma from Golden Girls!) a nun got an image of Mary she had a painter depict. In many ways the painting is very typical Colonial era art featuring Mary. Mary has a crown, as Queen of Heaven, and baby Jesus in one hand seen giving away hearts on fire to show his eternal love.
What makes the painting really, really unique is what’s in Mary’s other hand. It’s a man she is lifting up from falling into the jaws of Leviathan (an evil sea monster from the Old Testament who swallows men’s souls into the Sea of Chaos). Thus, Mary is, with the fierceness of a lioness, saving one of her cubs from a chaotic future.
The painting was taken, ten years later, to Leon by the Jesuits. If you fly in or out of today’s Leon airport, notice the large cathedral in middle of town during takeoff or landing. That church is called Maria de Luz, because it houses the original painting.
Then the Jesuits took copies of the painting and spread veneration throughout Mexico and the image became wildly popular. When at the altar of the Parroquia, look up and to your left to see murals depicting these events.
Every church in town will have at least one Maria de Luz, just like most of us have at least one neighbor with the name, often shorten to Malu. Which for my neighbor, Malu, I swore she said Shamu when we met and I spent over a year calling her name as though it was the killer shark’s.
As this image of Mary grew in popularity the Pope didn’t like Mary next to a pagan sea monster, so he told folks to either black out the sea monster (so Mary was lifting the man up from the darkness of Purgatory) or place him in the fires of hell. Indigenous artists, to poke fun at the Spanish, would always include clergy in their depictions of hell.
The celebrations for Maria de la Luz begin just after the Valle de Maiz festival for the cross at the end of May. The neighborhood behind the mall is named in her honor and sponsors a namesake church currently being expanded. The week long celebrations include dances, rides, food and music in addition to devotional rosaries and masses.
The stars on long poles you see in various processions are in honor of Maria de la Luz. The tradition came from Salvatierra in the 1920’s when recently laid off factory workers found jobs at what is today the high end art galleries. Mary of the Light is the patroness of electricians and was an important image to workers at the factory.
There is also the street named Calazada de la Luz in her honor by the former factory, but if you really want to celebrate her feast day with a bang take the city bus to Santa Marias. The bus line dead ends at the community called Puerto de Nieto, home to the oldest church named for Mary of the Light in our area.
Here, in Puerto de Nieto, following a mass featuring cowboys that removed their hats as entering the service on horseback and being blessed by the priest, starts some real fun. Food, concerts, boxing matches and a wide variety of entertainment mark the community’s biggest festival of the year.
In addition to Mary’s aggression in the image of Mary of the Light, I enjoy how the image of the sea monster changes since, as a land locked area of Mexico, how did the indigenous picture a sea monster?
At the end of all my tours I ask folks to identify a Chichimeca interpretation of the Virgin in a painting I received as a birthday gift last year. If they do, they don’t have to tip me! Plus I even give them the image of my birthday cake version of Mary of the Light. In both the cake and painting the sea monster appears like a green, giddy bull.
Notice as you go around town the sea monster’s face has as many variations (from gleeful to grim) as Satan’s face does when he finds himself under St. Michael ‘s boot!
Joseph Toone is the Historical Society’s short-story award winning author of the SMA Secrets book series. All books in the series are Amazon bestsellers in Mexican Travel and Holidays. Toone is SMA’s expert and TripAdvisor’s top ranked historical tour guide telling the stories behind what we do in today’s SMA. Visit HistoryAndCultureWalkin