Handcrafts are traditionally made for two types of purposes: utilitarian and ceremonial. The superimposition of Catholicism over indigenous beliefs in Mexico meant that various old crafts were repurposed and new crafts were introduced.
Perhaps the most pervasive of the latter relates to the use of wax. Candles have been an important part Catholic rites at just about all levels, from home altars and local processions to major masses.
One important consideration is that the Church has not had very strict regulations about when, how and what type of candles to use. This allows much leeway for creativity. For example, wax of any type may be used, although pure beeswax still has a special status both because of its natural origin and for the way it burns.
Until the 20th century, candles were made by hand and thus a handcraft. Today just about all are industrially made. However, there are some important exceptions as well as other items made from wax. Artistically, the most important candles are those which are highly decorated, made for a specific purpose or event. The most impressive of these are the “velas esquemadas.” Their sizes and forms vary widely, but they usually consist of a single main candle which is highly embellished with wax decorative forms, often flowers and other vegetative matter. Their size can range from 15 cm to over 2 meters in height. These are often created as an offering for the community patron saint on his/her day or commissioned as an “ex-voto” a kind of thank-you for a miracle that is thought to have been received.
These esquemadas are made by working a wire frame over the candle and extending out from it. The metal is covered with crepe or metallic paper on which the wax elements are affixed. These elements are almost always made using wood molds. After molding, they are put directly onto the framework.
There are various areas that are noted for work of this type including Mexico City and several towns in the Bajio region of central Mexico such as Salamanca, Villagrán, Cortázar and Romita. Although they are made year round in various parts of Mexico, they are particularly important for the feast of Corpus Christi in the Bajio region. In the State of Mexico, they have become an important part of the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, where not only are the wax flowers and leaves colored, the Virgin herself appears in wax.
Some of the most impressive work of this type is done in San Luis Potosí where esquemada “gardens” are created. These works are large enough to include various kinds of figures and often include elements of other materials. While they are also made in honor of patron saints, this has not precluded the appearance of modern and other non-traditional elements such as images of airplanes and fireworks. The best place to see these gardens is in Santa María del Río (famous for its rebozos) at the beginning of August when its patron saint, the Virgin of the Assumption is celebrated.
Photos by Adam Jones and Alejandro Linares Garcia in CC licenses.