Today, Holy Thursday, there is a famous pilgrimage from Irapuato, Guanajuato to Salamanca, Guanajuato to the church of "La Parroquia de Nuestro Señor del Hospital (ohs-pee-TAHL) to pay homage to "El Cristo Negro". The Cristo Negro is an image of Christ on the cross that was made in the year 1543 out of a paste consisting of the pith of corn stalks and the ground up bulb of a certain orchid. The image shows Christ with his head hanging way down on his right side with his chin touching his chest. The body is very thin and the ribs are quite prominent. In addition, the body is completely black. The actual figure of Christ is about five foot ten inches and weighs only about 30 pounds. It was made in a town called Pátzcuaro, Michoacán and was brought to Salamanca, Guanajuato in the year 1560 when Salamanca was still called by the Indian name "Xidoo". There is a legend that during the time of the "Cristero War", when the Church was being persecuted in parts of Mexico in the 1920’s, the figure of Christ was taken down and hidden in a mine shaft. When the persecutors went to look for it the figure turned the same shade of black as the walls of the mine so they couldn't find it. That is one of the reasons why it is considered miraculous. Every year on Holy Thursday thousands of people from all over the region walk the ten miles from Irapuato to Salamanca to visit the Cristo Negro. The people from Salamanca take the bus to Irapuato so they can walk back to Salamanca to make the pilgrimage. The highway is lined with thousands and thousands of people and get this...they march in complete silence. Some of them even walk barefoot. The first time I saw people walking barefoot in the gravel and bits of broken glass and other detritus along the side of the highway it gave me the shivers. I never cease to wonder about the faith of these people. I too have faith but I have more faith in my automobile than my own two legs so I drive to Salamanca and carefully pass the thousands of pilgrims who line the way.
I park my car in a parking lot in Salamanca about as close as I can to the church and then it generally takes me about a half an hour to work my way along with a river of people to get to the entrance of the church and then about another hour to get through the church and back out. Most of these people have already walked ten miles (or more) to get there and some of them are pretty weak. One time, a girl about five feet in front of me fainted dead away and they dragged her over to the side. Fortunately we were not yet in the thick part of the throng and there was a little space to revive her. The people who faint in the really thick press of the crowd can't fall down and have to be carried along with the crowd in an upright position until they can be rescued. After many baby steps and much patience you come within four feet of the Cristo Negro and I guarantee that you will not be disappointed. It is one of the most lifelike and beautiful crucifixes that I have ever seen. Most crucifixes are fairly stylized along the same pattern but with the Cristo Negro the body of Jesus hangs off the cross like a piece of dead meat and is probably more realistic that most people are ready for.
I was able to piece the story of the Cristo Negro together from several sources, all of which were in Spanish of course. Here is my condensed English version:
La Parroquia del Señor del Hospital
Salamanca, Guanajuato, Mexico
Today, Holy Thursday, March 20th in the year of Our Lord 2008 is the 445th anniversary of the Cristo Negro of Salamanca. According to Juan José Rodríguez Chávez, the City Historian of Salamanca, the history of the Cristo Negro goes back to the year 1563. At that time the figure of Christ on the cross had white skin and was already acclaimed for its representation of the agony suffered by Our lord on the cross. It was located in a town called Jilotepec in the State of Mexico not far from Mexico City. It was under the care of the chief usher or "elder" of the church there whose name was Juan Cardona.
One night Juan Cardona had a dream that he should take the "Cristo" underground and keep it hidden until he received a sign telling him where he should take it to be cared for in perpetuity. He thereafter sold all of his possessions to raise some money, gathered his family and a few friends around him and absconded with the Cristo. The local political boss, whose name was Jitzin, was very upset when he found out that Juan Cardona and the Cristo were both missing at the same time. He put two and two together and set out looking for them. When Juan Cardona and his flock learned that Jitzin was hot on their trail they hid the Cristo in a corn field near Querétaro and spent the night in some nearby caves crying and praying for the safety of the Cristo. In the morning Juan Cardona and company went back to look for the Cristo to see if it had been discovered by Jitzin and his men and behold, not only was the Cristo still there but its skin had miraculously turned from white to jet black so that it couldn't be seen by Jitzin's men against the dark earth.
Finally Juan Cardona and his followers arrived at village of Otomí Indians called "Xidoo". When they entered the village Juan Cardona met a man named Juan Lopez de Ledezma who convinced him that the Cristo, which was now the "Cristo Negro", should be placed in a chapel there which had recently been constructed and dedicated to the Holy Assumption. Jitzin was still running around looking for his "Cristo Blanco" so the sacristan of the aforementioned Capilla de la Santa Asunción came up with a contingency plan. He made a replica of the Cristo Negro but with white skin and the plan was to pull a "switcheroo" if Jitzin ever showed up again to claim his "Cristo" but the record is not clear about whether or not he ever did.
Anyway, as the story goes, Juan Cardona died about a year later and they buried his remains in the chapel at the feet of the Cristo Negro. The next morning, however, they found the Cristo Negro on the floor beneath its niche covered with dirt and the head was deeply inclined to ward the right side with the chin touching the chest and the eyes closed as we see it today. The Capilla de la Santa Asunción was the first place in the area where the priests gave medical assistance to the Otomí Indians and thus the name of the place became the Capilla del Señor del Hospital (ohs-pee-TAHL). The present day church which was built between 1888 and 1924 is called la Parroquia del Señor del Hospital. The same man who established the hospital for Otomí Indians in the 1560's at Xidoo (later called Estancia de Barahona and now Salamanca), was don Vasco de Quiroga, the same person who established "El Hospitalito" for the Tarasco Indians in Irapuato. He must have been a pretty nice guy because the people still talk about him with fondness. Getting back to the story...about three years after its arrival at Xidoo the tale of the Cristo Negro had spread far and wide enough that people began to visit the Cristo Negro when they came to the spring fair at what eventually became the Village of Salamanca and it became a tradition to pay homage to the Cristo Negro. Holy Thursday was adopted as the special day for visitation and thousands of people have been making annual pilgrimages to pray at the foot of the Cristo Negro every Holy Thursday for over 400 years.