The Very Nature of God: Baroque Catholicism and Religious Reform in Bourbon Mexico City






Publication: Church History
Author: Nesvig, Martin
Date published: March 1, 2012

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Wills have long been used by European historians of religion to discuss collective views about death, spirituality, purgatory, and devotion. Most of this literature has been French and the methodology has only recently been undertaken by Latin Americanists. In a richly researched new book Brian Larkin brings the study of religious sensibilities by the Spanish laity to light with an analysis based primarily on wills and pious bequests. The result is a complex analysis of shifting ideas about the meaning of God and the afterlife--to analyze "the forms, meanings, and embodied practices of baroque Catholicism, the attempt by religious reformers to transform them, and the piety the faithful and reformers negotiated within the changing sociocultural context of Bourbon Mexico City" (10).

The book adds to a small but emergent body of scholarship on urban religious sensibility and practice. Until recently most North American practitioners of religious history in Mexico have focused on rural and indigenous regions. Pamela Voekel's Alone before God (Durham, N.C.: Duke University, 2002) and Matthew O'Hara's more recent A Flock Divided (Durham, N.C.: Duke University, 2010) have begun to provide sustained consideration of the ways that urban peoples in Mexico understood and interpreted religion and Catholicism. Larkin's study adds a new level of sophistication to this emerging literature. He argues that Spanish residents of Mexico City in the last century of colonial rule were deeply interested in and affected by the liturgy. While many studies of religion focus on the practical, the functional, and the social, Larkin makes a strong case that our understanding of the history of religion is impoverished if we do not consider the actual beliefs, sensibilities and relationship to the liturgy that characterized, in his view, baroque Catholicism in Mexico. Secondly, he sees a shift in a baroque Catholicism that was visceral and sought a "bodily connection with divinity" (6) to a reformed religious practice that emphasized "inner tribute" to God.

The study itself is structured around a reading of an extensive corpus of wills and pious bequests. He examines different aspects of baroque religious sensibility and practice through a series of thematic discussions. Chapter two argues that Spanish Catholics believed in "sacred imminence," in which physical objects of devotion, like holy images, were presumed to fuse the sign and the signified. Those images "manifested sacred power" (50) in the material universe. Chapter three offers a focus on what he calls liturgical piety. Unlike many practitioners who have seen in Spanish Catholicism a kind of local and extra-ecclesical spirituality (William Christian, Jr. comes to mind), Larkin argues that Spanish Catholics in Mexico City were, instead, informed by regular attendance at the Mass and their understanding of the liturgy. Chapter four suggests that baroque piety was characterized by a devotion to splendor and that donations to provide for sumptuous places of worship reflect a deeper baroque Catholic connection to a visceral worship: "[t]o increase the splendor of worship, then, was to ensure and heighten the experience of God among the faithful" (92). Chapter five examines the role of corporate identity through confraternities, which promoted social cohesion. The second half of the book examines the efforts at reform and the persistence of baroque "gestures" in Mexico City's Spanish Catholics. Chapter seven examines the program of reform toward a more interior spirituality among Church officials. Chapters eight and nine examine wills from the end of the seventeenth century to the beginnings of the nineteenth. Larkin argues that while reformers promoted a more internalized worship, baroque devotion continued to be popular, as expressed in pious bequests. At the same time he sees evidence for the declining confraternity membership and "collective devotions less relevant for salvation" (215) in the minds of Spanish Catholics.

The Very Nature of God is a deeply researched study rich in interpretation of everyday devotion. It offers interpretive suggestions about the shift from baroque to reformed Catholic sensibility in the late colonial period in Mexico. It should spark debate on two levels: it challenges the assumption that baroque practice went out of vogue and it suggests that Catholic sensibility was not as localized and extra-liturgical as has often been understood. As such Larkin argues that Spanish Catholics in Mexico City were more Church going than others have seen and therefore more invested in the everyday workings of liturgical processes. And ultimately Larkin pushes for a historiography of religion that takes beliefs and sensibilities seriously on their own terms and less in terms of social instrumentalism.

Author affiliation:

University of Miami

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