Sunday, January 11, 2009

Why I Make the Altars

As a teenager I lived in Spain and visited the cathedrals and churches. It was there that my love of religious iconography was born. I especially loved the niches that held beautiful images of Mary, as a maiden and as a grieving mother.  

At Easter time in Seville I stood transfixed as a beautiful Madonna was carried down the street as the culmination of a Good Friday parade.  To signify tears, someone had applied pearls to her cheeks, the bodice of her blue gown and her skirts.  To add to the splendor, through the rod iron bars of a monastery window, a young woman about to become a nun sang Mary's ancient song of mourning.  What a spectacle!

All too Baroque, maybe -- Gothic, certainly, but all the same the scene of the figures in purple robes and hoods carrying their Madonna and the unearthly soprano of the young nun are etched in my memory.  I can remember that I felt as if I had risen from the ground, it was all so stunning.  From then on, I began to study religious imagery in earnest.  But I never dreamed I would every become an iconographer of sorts.

It wasn't till a recent trip to New Mexico that I began to wonder if I might make such images of my own. I am not an artist with a capital "A"but I love to make art.  I would never presume to think I could capture anything living up to the spectacles in Seville. But the rough innocence of the Spanish Colonial religious icons there helped me see that one did not need to be a Murillo, Velasquez or Dali to create heartfelt pieces celebrating the HOLY.  I came home with an itch to make some santos of my own.

My first piece was a flash of inspiration after breaking a lovely Ukrainian Easter Egg that a dear friend had brought me after a journey to Eastern Europe.  I had only had it a few hours and as I made my way to put it away, dropped it and smashed it.  There seemed to be nothing to do but to throw it away.  I couldn't bring myself to do this, though.  I was very angry at myself and thought about how so many things (tangible and intangible) I had lost in life through foolish, clumsy mistakes.  

No longer able to live with the self scolding, I said a prayer of asking: how can I redeem this poor little egg? I thought, "If only there were an Angel of Broken Things." Then I decided to create this angel with the pieces of broken egg.  I will post a photo of this first altar, not because it's particularly good, but because it was such fun to have transformed a broken bit of disappointment into art.  

That is why I make the altars, to create sacred space and transform objects into stories that mean far more than the images look at first glance.  Not great art, not masterpieces, but heartfelt and healing.  What is broken in your life?  Ask the Angel of Broken Things to inspire you to transform and heal.


  1. What a wonderful story! Coming from South America myself, I am most familiar with altars and religious-inspired art. It's gorgeous and it's more than just a religion thing, is tradition. Every piece comes along with some sort of anecdote, like a family thing or a historical reference. I look forward to seeing more of this! Thank you for sharing, Clarita. Abrazos!

  2. Clarita, there is yet another award for you to pick up. The instructions are simple (and in Spanish). You pick up your award, you post it on your blog and, if you wish, you nominate others!

    Abrazos and Congrats!


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