The Mathis collections at Villa Finale contain so much religious art that one would naturally think Walter Mathis, its collector, was a very religious man. In fact, his collecting of such items was for the mere admiration of the items as art, and they can be found throughout the house. Of course, he displayed all of them together in different parts of the house according to their provenance like with the Spanish colonial “retablos” found in the upstairs hallway.
A “retablo,” called a “lamina” in Mexico, is an oil paiting of a Catholic saint painted on wood or tin, and sometimes on bronze. These retablos, which means “behind the altar,” mostly adorned altars in people’s homes. As a kid, I remember my grandmother in Tijuana, Mexico having many of these images at home. There were some that were quite frightening – like one of the devil coming to pick up a man on his deathbed … but I guess they were meant to scare kids straight – and one that always caught my attention, as it did my other cousins, of the Holy Child of Atocha or El Santo Niño de Atocha. One of my cousins asked my grandmother one day what made this child a saint. My grandmother, in what was her usual comedic way, answered simply, “Beats me, but he’s a very saintly child!”
When I came to work at Villa Finale in 2008, the image of the Holy Child of Atocha in my grandmother’s house popped in my head when I saw that Mr. Mathis had an Atocha child retablo in his upstairs hallway collection. Of course, I was very excited because this saint has always been one of my favorites! Funny thing was, just like my grandmother, I didn’t know what made this child a saint until I began researching the collections for my interpretive duties at Villa Finale. Well, now I can tell you what makes the Holy Child of Atocha a saint!
It all begins back in 711 AD with the invasion by the northern African Moors of the Iberian Peninsula, which included most of modern Spain. In the 13th century, after the Moors took over the town of Atocha, a central suburb in today’s Madrid, they encarcerated Catholic males and prevented their families from giving them food and water. The only exception to that rule was children under 12 who were allowed to visit and feed family members. This left jailed men without young children – or children altogether – in quite a quandary. Their relatives began to pray for help from Our Lady of Atocha, the local name of the holy Virgin Mary and Christ Child located in the town’s chapel.
One day, the local children who were out feeding their captive relatives returned with reports of an unidentified boy who the Moors were allowing to feed all the men who had not been previously attended to. This boy, reported the children, appeared to be under 12 years old, was dressed in pilgrim attire (with a plumed hat and cloak) and carried a basket of food and gourd full of water. The miraculous thing was no matter how many prisoners the child fed, his gourd and his basket remained full. As sightings of the child continued, the people of Atocha ran to the chapel to give thanks. There, they discovered that the little sandals worn by the Christ Child figure in the arms of Our Lady of Atocha were worn and dusty. They replaced the sandals only to find them worn and dusty again as the child feeding the prisoners continued his rounds day after day.
The Muslim rule by the Moors finally ended in 1492, but by then the miracles of the Holy Child of Atocha were well known and revered throughout Iberia. Eventually, the reverence of the Holy Child of Atocha made its way to the New World with the arrival of the Spanish. By 1554 there was a statue of the Child brought from Atocha to Zacatecas, Mexico where the villagers immediately began reporting sightings of the boy. And thus the Santo Niño’s adventures in the Americas began.
In religious art, the Holy Child is typically depicted wearing a large-brimmed plumed pilgrim’s hat, cloak, and sandals. Sometimes he is barefoot to denote the wearing out of his sandals from walking. He carries a basket in one hand and staff in the other. The gourd for water is fastened to the end of the staff. Other symbolism associated with the image are stalks of wheat, flowers and scallop shell meant to represent holy pilgrimages. Today, there are two main shrines in the Americas to the Holy Child of Atocha: one in Fresnillo, Zacatecas, Mexico and the other is in the Sanctuario in Chimayo, New Mexico. The Holy Child is the patron saint of the unjustly imprisoned, the protector of travelers and rescuer of those in danger.
Next time you come to Villa Finale, take a good look at all the religious art in the collection. What kind of symbolism do you see? What part of a story do you think it tells? And make sure you look for El Santo Niño de Atocha in the upstairs hallway now that you know what makes him a “very saintly child.” My grandmother would be proud!