Day of the Dead Art - Celebrating the Souls of the Departed
by Greg Rutkowski
The Day of the Dead is a Mexican ceremony conducted annually from 31st October to 2nd November. It's a season of bonding with and honoring the spirits of the dead. Every person uses this time to connect to loved ones who had passed on, and it's characterized by artistic traditions, decoration, folk art and toys/trinkets. Food and drinks also flow in abundance, accompanied with photography and lighting of candles.
Mexico is one of the countries worldwide that is so rich in art and culture.
If you've ever experienced the day of the dead celebrations, then you know exactly what we are talking about. In this article, we want to explain in detail what the celebrations entail and why it's so important as far as Mexican culture is concerned.
What Does Day Of The Dead Entail?
Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) is a holiday that the Mexicans celebrate from October 31 to November 2 every year.
Every man, woman and child honors the bond between them and the loved ones who passed away during this day. The frontier between the dead and the living also becomes less distinct. Over the past decades, this holiday has rapidly spread from Mexico to other nations, including America. Currently, the holiday is celebrated by the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, and it brings out a distinctive, colorful, and very inspiring artistic tradition.
The Sugar Skulls, also known as Calaveras de azúcar, are some of the iconic symbols of the holiday, and they are prevalent during the days and weeks when Day of the Dead approaches. You will find the market stalls lined with colorful sugar skulls decorated with shiny foil, multi-colored icing, glitter, and sequins during these days. In most cases, the sugar skulls serve as offerings on the altars to the dead or as gifts.
The creation of the first artwork of the sugar skull was in 2005. It has blossomed over the years into a collection of more than 100 artworks. In accord with the spirit of Day of the Dead, the sugar skulls are cheerful and are not intended for scary, morbid, or creepy motives. They are grinning reminders that everyone should enjoy their earthly existence and embrace life while they cherish their connection to the loved ones who have departed.
Traditions of Day of the Dead
During these ceremonies, the people would build altars with ofrendas (offering to the souls of the loved ones) in their homes. Candles are also used to light the photos and items that the deceased left behind. The families read poems and letters, and they tell jokes and anecdotes about the dead. They also use bright yellow or orange cempasúchil flowers and marigolds to line up the offerings of chilis, tamales, tequila, pan de Muerto (a specific type of bread for the ceremony), and water. The strong scent of the flowers and marigolds helps to guide the souls of the dead home.
After that, they light copal incense, which was very common in ancient ceremonies. The role of the incense is to draw in the departed spirits. They also paint and decorate the sugar skulls with foil, icing, and feathers and write the name of the dead across the foreheads. The altars feature all the four elements of life, including food for the earth, water, candle for wind, fire, and a folk art known as papel picado. Other families on the altar include an image of Mexico's patron saint (Virgin of Guadalupe) or a Christian crucifix.
The Mexican families clean graves at the cemeteries while they prepare for the coming of the spirit. On November 2, the families carry food along to the graves to share in the celebration and attract the departed spirits. People also dance, and the bands perform to excite the visiting souls.
Day of the Dead Handicrafts
Day of the Dead's celebrations occur throughout the entire Mexican region every year, and the celebrations mark the visiting of the departed souls to the world of the living from the world of the dead. The objective of the festival is making the souls feel cherished and welcome.
The altars are the essential elements in these celebrations, and most of the craftwork is for decorating the altars. Some handicrafts include skeletons, chiseled paper flags, skulls, incense burners (sahumerios), clay candle holders, sugar skulls, and cempasuchil paper flowers.
Day of the Dead Folk Art
The reason behind the development of folk art was because it was challenging to understand Day of the Dead without the legacy of Jose Guadalupe Posada.
Posada was a Mexican printmaker and lithographer during the pre-revolution times. He is commonly known for creating La Calaca Garbancera, the skeleton lady featured in the Day of the Dead celebrations. This creation later became known as La Catrina.
The scholars consider Posada to be the father of modern art in Mexico and his art passes through from generation to generation expressing the culture of Mexico. Folk artists all over Mexico have been following Posada's artistic styles and steps to successfully come up with arts that portray the relationship between the living and the dead in Mexico.
Day of the Dead Folk Art Styles
Below are some of the successful and representative folk styles of nowadays:
Mario Moreno and Saulo Moreno sculpt whimsical calaveritas that constitute wired figures covered in papier mache and with paintings of acrylic colors.
Linares Family Skeletons
Using his skills, Pedro Linares, who created alebrijes, also represented the skeletons of Posada in papier-mache. Elsa Linares and Miguel also inherited the workshop from Pedro, and they continued promoting the Mexican culture and Posada's work.
Jesus Sosa Calvo's Oaxacan Wood Carvings for Day of the Dead.
Jesus Sosa Calvo's skulls and skeletons are curved and painted skillfully. His skulls, masks, skeleton painters, puppets, musicians, and Catrinas are severe and whimsical.
The skeleton lady sculpture, or Catrina, was initially depicted in Capula Michoacan on clay during the 1980s by Juan Torres, a sculptor and painter. The detailed and delicate clay Catrinas became famous when the crafters of the millenary pottery tradition started following the school of the sculptor. Currently, the crafters use wood, paper, bread dough, plasters, and papier-mache to reproduce the sculpture of the skeleton lady throughout the country. It is an icon in the art of Day of the Dead.
Nicolas de Jesus
Nicolas de Jesus, a Nahuatl painter, has used his etchings and paintings on Amate paper to successfully portray the Day of the Dead's celebration. Through the etchings and paintings, he has expressed the traditions of his people.
Izucar de Matamoros Multicolored Day of the Dead Art
Izucar town has a long tradition of making trees of life and candle holders. Several families have come up with a very famous, colorful, and intricate painting style. The Castilla family first used sahumerios to introduce the art of the Day of the Dead, after which they involved the skulls and skeletons. The most known skull is the one with butterflies on it.
Based on the retablos and altars of the Day of the Dead, the colorful dioramas (nichos) on the wood cages and tins depict the colleges with skulls, skeletons, pictures, and flowers. All these are collectables for the fans of the Day of the Dead all over the world.
Day Of The Dead Decorations
The decorations are also for honoring the souls in a very triumphant way. The decorations often incorporate the playful skull motifs, and they dazzle with very bright colors.
Papel Picado (chiseled paper) is a product of Technicolor tissue paper, and it is flag-like. It developed from a Pre-Colombian version crafted from the bark of a tree that the Aztecs used to adorn the religious sites and compile codices.
Flor de Muerto
The Ofrendas also feature Flor de Muerto (yellow and bright orange marigolds). Its purpose is to cheer up the deceased with the sweet scent and bright colors.
Calaveras are colorful skulls that consist of molded sugar paste, and they are part of the décor for the Day of the Dead. These small skulls feature motifs like spiderwebs and flowers and with the names of the deceased written on the foreheads in icing or foil. Some Calaveras have inedible adornments such as sequins, feathers, and beads, while others are edible.
Day Of The Dead Food And Drink
On top of the edible offerings on the altar of the Day of the Dead for the dead, most ofrendas also feature spirited drinks and pan de Muerto.
Pan De Muerto
It is a sweet roll known as "bread of the dead" and with bone-like décor. It typically has a flavor of orange zest and anise seed. Like the other offerings, the people believe that the spirits absorb and enjoy this pan de Muerte, although the people consume it.
For the spirits to relax and enjoy the ceremony, the people often offer alcoholic drinks such as Tequila, Pulque, and Mezcal produced from fermented agave.
Most of the altars have photographs of the spirits to whom the ofrenda is dedicated. In most cases, the photograph is always for the family member, but in some cases, it may be a celebrity, a beloved pet, or a friend.
The purpose of the candles is to memorialize the departed souls and symbolically guide them to where the altar is. In some cases, the family places the candles in a cross formation to call up the crucifix and act as a compass rose. However, you may find some arrangements very ambiguous.
Toys, Trinkets, And Other Items
At some point, the participants add objects that belonged to the dead to the altar to give it a personal touch. These items may include clothing, toys, and cigarettes. Statutes and religious figures are always very popular in this case, and clay figures of skeletons and paper-mache.
Edited on: 12/12/2022