November 30, 2006
The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia observes the Day of the Innocents, and The Day of the Dead
The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, in observance of November, 1st The Day of the Innocents and November, 2nd The Day of the Dead, have created an Altar of the Dead. On this occasion, the Art Galley of Nova Scotia is honouring the passing of a group of Canadian artists with ties to the AGNS and whose work is part of our collection. On the altar, you will find their pictures, surrounded by humble offerings, and much gratitude and appreciation for their lives, talent and work. From left to right: Gordon McNamara, Nancy Edell, Kenneth Lochhead and Lynn Donoghue.
The Altar to the Dead at AGNS was created by Enrique Ferreol. The AGNS will host a media viewing with Mexican Consul General Galo Carrera and Enrique Ferreol on Wednesday November 1st at 11:00am. The altar will remain on view through November 5, 2006.
“Hundreds of years ago, in the land we now call Mexico, people celebrated death as a portal to another realm. This was a practice observed by the Toltecs, the Olmecs and after them the Aztecs, who gave the land its current name, Mexico.
In order to be celebrated, the cause of death had to be honorable. This is why Mexican warriors never killed their prisoners. They liberated them, and then hunted them down to bring dignity to their death. Their hearts and blood were used to feed the son god, and their skulls were piled up in structures called "Xompantli", as a reminder that dying was good; death was just part of life, death fed life.
Each year, at the end of the harvest, the peoples of Mexico would cover these piles of skulls with golden marigolds, to honour the dead, to include them in the cycle of life and abundance. Marigolds are recognized as the flower of the harvest season in Mexico, cultivated specifically for this occasion. Its Aztec name is "Cempazuchitl".
When Spaniards invaded and conquered these peoples, the original culture and traditions continued on, strongly influencing Spanish Catholic culture. Syncretism blended the aspects of the traditional Mexican religions with Catholicism. The deities of "Mictlan", the Aztec netherworld, represented at the time as skeleton beings, acquired the robes and garbs of the European Catholic pantheon, thus giving birth to images like the one which can be seen here at the centre of this altar, The Holy Death.
The pyramids of actual skulls gave way to skull and skeleton representations made of paper, clay, and sugar. The main focus of the altars became the honouring of the dearly departed. Today, altars to the dead are primarily located in cemeteries, or in people's homes.
Every year in Mexico, on November, 1st The Day of the Innocents and November, 2nd The Day of the Dead, people visit their loved ones' graves. It is no coincidence that this is observed the same day as the Catholic Festival of All Saints, and of course, the primeval harvest in the Northern Hemisphere. They bring the traditional marigolds, candles, incense (copal) as well as all the ancient elements utilized by the Aztecs and Mestizos. In addition, people would set altars at home, the main focus being a photograph or portrait of the person they wish to honour, surrounded by offerings of flowers, candy, fruit, salt, water, chocolate, tobacco and mainly, all the foods and things the dearly departed loves most.