Forged Iron Roof Crosses of Chiapas
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Guadalupe Hermisillo Escobar of Chiapas preserves a fading folk art tradition by continuing to hand forge a unique form of religious art; rooftop wrought-iron crosses. The crosses display a wide mix of both Christian and indigenous symbols.
From a distance as you enter San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, you can see the uniformity of the roofs and their curved red tiles, adorned with great crosses of iron or bronze and decorated with roosters, suns, moons, etc.
Guadalupe employs techniques introduced by the Spaniards in the 1500s. He produces iron crosses that are most commonly used as decorative house blessings. The crosses were first used as a show of religious fervor and as a symbol of the Passion of Christ during Holy Week.
Fifteen years ago, Guadalupe turned to metalwork, focusing on the forging and hammering of iron. His workshop is at home and with the help of family members, he produces a great variety of decorative and utilitarian items and also makes all the steel instruments he uses in shaping the metal.
Over the years, he has won many awards for his work. He buys his metals (iron, tin and bronze) by the kilogram, generally in the form of industrial waste. As his work begins, he heats the metal in his forge, then begins to hammer it over the appropriate shaped anvil with mallets and hammers of different shapes. This is a slow process but eventually Guadalupe wins the battle over the metal and it takes on a new shape.
There is increasing pressure on the herreros, or traditional ironworkers, to forge crosses that fit the tastes of the tourist trade. Crosses can still be seen on roofs of San Cristóbal, Chiapas. House Blessing (Cruces de Casa) is still used throughout Latin America, where the protection of home, family, and animals is sought by means of roof crosses, which are installed on the ridgepole at a roof-raising. Among the Zinacantan of Chiapas, Mexico, the crosses of various materials are adorned or replaced periodically, an event which is part of a larger religious celebration. They are placed on the roofs of tiled houses, jammed into a cross-beam through the tiles and indicated a family of faith and a belief in a protective power over the house. They are also seen on local church steeples, water springs, town entrances and many other local sites.
Humans have always used symbols as instruments of knowledge and as means of expression. One of our most persistent and ancient symbols is that of the Cross, which is both the classic cosmic symbol and the symbol of universal man. Its vertical line is considered male and spiritual; its horizontal line, female and earthly. It is the symbol of duality and the union of opposites.
The two basic cross shapes are the Greek, with arms of equal length, and the Roman, with the bottom of the vertical line elongated. Variations of the Greek and Roman crosses can be found throughout Latin America.
The Indians of the Americas used the Greek-style cross to represent the sun, the morning star and the four directions. It was their principal cosmological symbol, and it remains so today. Many of the Indian crosses contain combinations of old and new symbols, such as the sacred squash blossom motif, the dragonfly, and the swastika. Among the Maya, the cross is a symbol of Quetzalcoatl, in whose arms were birds and plants representing the four seasons, thus associating the cross with the Tree of Life.
If you are interested in learning more about the iron crosses of Chiapas, the book "Spirit of Chiapas: The Expressive Art of the Roof Cross Tradition" (hardcover) is an excellent reference. The book is by Virginia Ann Guest.
Guadalupe also makes utilitarian items such as knives, farm implements, fittings for draft animals all made of wrought iron. He is a featured artist in the landmark book "The Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art" published by Fomento Cultural Banamex.