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Cultural Contexts: La Virgen de Guadalupe & Persian Theater

Week 5: Post-Prophetic Authority, communities of interpretation, and Shi’i Piety

LINK:  Muslim Devotion in Local Contexts  [Please click the link to view the artwork]

This week’s readings focused mostly on the history of Islam after Muhammad’s death and the growing differences in interpretation of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s teachings as the religion spread to new areas.  With this digital art piece I chose to compare two examples of how the spread of religion into new communities incorporates pre-existing elements of the culture that then become linked to the religion itself.  Specifically, I place the Virgen de Guadalupe of México next to a portrait of Husayn, representing the Persian theatrical tradition.  Both these examples directly relate to the expression of religion in different cultural contexts.

The Virgen de Guadalupe was derived from the pre-Columbian Mexican religious figure Tonantzin, whose imagery and legacy became appropriated over time by the Spanish as a symbol of Catholicism.  The image of the Virgen is still today a powerful sign of indigenous culture and the Catholic church.  The Grabar reading (from Week 13) names symbols in Persia that became associated with Islam over time: “There are in Islamic art certain themes such as the whirl, the lion, the bull, and the signs of the zodiac which are historically older than Islam and which… have been maintained in the new culture.” I found this to be related to the adoption of Persia’s pre-existing theatrical tradition into the Islamic custom of Muharram.

For this digital art piece, I place these the Virgen next to Husayn, both of which look outward onto their respective country’s (present-day) outline.  The Virgen observes indigenous artwork and another pre-Columbian figure, Tonatiuh, the sun god within the shape of México.  The calavera, or painted skull, represents an another cultural mixing in the non-Christian but religio-spiritual tradition of the Day of the Dead.  Her shadow is the most recognizable of Christian symbols, the holy cross.  This is meant to represent the idea that although her image was not originally tied to Catholicism, that connection is now inescapable, following her like a shadow.

Husayn observes an Iran with imagery of the lion, the Faravahar, the Griffin, and a painting of the Taziyeh.  These images are indicative of pre-Islamic Persia.  Husayn’s shadow represents the inescapable link between the Arabic “Allah” of Islam and the Persian theatrical tradition as exemplified by Taziyeh performances. The main point I want to get across is the importance of recognizing the expression of religion in different cultural contexts, and how the connotations of different symbols and imagery change over time.