Doña Sebastiana | Lady Sebastian

August 15, 2011

She is an unusual figure in the Spanish Colonial realm.  She is not prayed to or revered.  She is more a symbol of mortality and penance, a bleak reminder of our fragile and sinful state.  She is the only “Muerto” image allowed in traditional Spanish Market.  The colorful and playful muerto images of Mexico are actually a completely different family of imagery.  They derive from the celebration of All Saints Day (or All Souls Day), a celebration created to help the Catholic Church assimilate existing Aztec celebrations of the dead.  Much like The Death Card of the Tarot, the gleeful images of the Mexican culture actually symbolize life, change and spirit.  Originally, the morbid mesoamerican native celebrations, dating back thousands of years, would revolve around the skull of the deceased, often inserting flowers (especially Marigolds) into the eye sockets to reflect the life that once was and the hope that they might visit again to give guidance from beyond.  The Aztec figure known as the “Lady of the Dead,” presided over such celebrations.  The modern celebration is known as “Dia de los Muertos” or “Day of the Dead.”

Catrina Image

Then, in the turn of the century, the artist José Guadalupe Posada, created an image of a skeleton wearing the garments and hat of a sophisticated lady.  The skeleton lady, known as “Catrina,” became the inspiration for the irreverent images you see today riding motorcycles, drinking tequila or dressed like Elvis, celebrating the life essence of the person that once owned that body.  The body of animated skeleton figures are often referred to as “calavera” (spanish for “skull”) or “muerto” (spanish for “death”) imagery.

Death Cart bulto by Rubel Jaramillo

In sharp contrast, Doña Sebastiana is a dark reminder of our humanity.  Originally, the Penitente brothers, a group of monks that were known for public acts of penance, would create a wooden cart, ridden by a skeleton woman also made of wood with jointed limbs.  The cart and woman could be nearly life sized.  The woman would often have human hair adorning her head.  She might also be seen holding a bow and arrow.  The Brothers would fill the cart with rocks and pull it on the makeshift roads about town as a demonstration of penance.

San Sebastian retablo by Vicente Telles

San Sebastian retablo by Vicente Telles

There is only speculation as to the source of her name, but one generally accepted theory is that the bow, a common instrument of death at that time, was simply a reminder of our mortal state, as the Grimm Reaper carries and sickle.   Perhaps, when onlookers observed the death figure, they made an association with Saint Sebastian (San Sebastian) who is shown impaled by multiple arrows, hence the name, “Lady Sebastian.”

She has become a figure of superstition.  Although explicitly not prayed to or revered, folk remedy might include calling upon her for healing and even in help finding lost items or protection from kidnapping.

Mostly shown in bulto form and referred to as the Death Cart, I think she is a fascinating part of the unique local history and through painting her image, I have the opportunity to educate people on yet another important difference between New Mexican art imagery and Mexican art imagery.

Spanish Market 2011 is the fist time I have painted her image.  It was the last image I decided to paint just before our Preview items had to be submitted.  I was very much enjoying getting into the anatomy of the skeleton.  And, since she was such a simple image in terms of iconography and color, I focused on detailing her with fine brush work and sgraffito.  I had painted her on a large board and the possibility of translating all of that detail onto a small retablo piqued my interest.

Doña Sebastiana copyright ©2011 Sean Wells

Doña Sebastiana copyright ©2011 Sean Wells

The large ones, I had painted on a plain board with an arched top.  I thought this recalled the simple headstones of local cemeteries.  When I was done, I found the image somewhat static.  My Dad happened to be staying with me, so I asked him if he had any suggestions of items I could add.  He said he liked when I would incorporate architectural elements (he ought to since he’s the one who covered the bill for my BSArch).  I thought that was a great suggestion so I created an arched opening around the figure to recall a mausoleum.  I also thought it was important to include a hint of the actual Death Cart in the background to help me tell the complete story (it appears in the small board).  There are lots of wonderful details that I like in that image including the obsidian tip on the arrow in her hand, the brass buckle holding the quiver to her chest and the accuracy of the anatomy.  But, my favorite element was the wispy sheer tattered gown I donned on her.  I have one clay that has a wonderful translucent quality when it dries and I had the thought that I could paint it right over my detailed skeletal painting to create a gown.  It was a scary moment, but it worked perfectly.  The colors ran a tiny bit, but just added to her ethereal and eerie mystique.  I talked with a couple of the artists about how I’m too chicken to use the traditional piñon varnish sealer for fear that I will smear my painting.  But, they had recommended that I use gum arabic as a binder with my pigments.  It gives just enough adhesion to allow you to topcoat items without smearing.  But, I’m still not sure if I will use it.  I really like the purity of simply using clay and water.

It is a fun and challenging image to create.


One comment

  1. Wonderful story. Wonderful post. Thanks for including me in your adventures. Looking forward to seeing more of La Doña.

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