With a scythe in one hand and a skeleton’s face gazing out from a cloak, Santa Muerte appears like a cross between the Grim Reaper and the Virgin Mary. Her cult is one of the most popular religious practices in Mexico. In Santa Muerte, out last month from Trolley Books and the Photographers’ Gallery, photographer Angus Fraser documents the devotees around the three most active shrines in Mexico City.
Fraser writes in an introduction:
The origins of Santa Muerte – a religion/ cult that has been denounced as satanic by the Mexican Catholic Church – can be dated back hundreds of years. It was developed through a syncretism between indigenous Mesoamerican and Spanish Catholic beliefs and practices. Only in the last decade however has it become more predominant in Mexican society, where many commentators have noted its rise with the killing and violence associated with the war between rival drug cartels and the Mexican Government.
Santa Muerte has spread from Mexican folk saint to a growing global presence — there’s even a chapel in Queens, New York. Most of her shrines are inside private places like homes, as devotion to the “Bony Lady” is not accepted within the Catholic Church. As for why the ominous figure with the sardonic grin is so popular, she is seen as accepting of not just ever-present mortality but also of all people, no matter their faults or differences. “While the Catholic Church considers homosexuals, prostitutes and criminals to be sinners, La Santa Muerte does not ask them to change or repent,” Mexican filmmaker Eva Aridjis, who created the 2007 documentary La Santa Muerte, writes in the book. “And while the Catholic Church calls the cult of Saint Death pagan and satanic, all of La Santa Muerte’s followers consider themselves Catholics.”
The London-based Fraser started visiting Mexico in 2011 and in the following years built up connections to the community around Saint Death. His photographs show quiet moments of meditation at her shrines, where candles surrounding statues of the saint mingle with marigold, cigarette, and tequila offerings, as well as public celebrations. In one particularly striking image, a monumental skeleton saint looms over the International Temple of Santa Muerte, making a small crowd gathered under a nearby awning appear minuscule. Death can often be pushed aside in daily life, especially in Western faith, but Santa Muerte is a reminder that this skeletal face is always just below the skin of both saints and sinners.