Saving the Slaves

Our last full day in Colombia.  It was 10 in the morning and already scorching hot in Cartagena.  Lynn and I stepped into the foyer of San Pedro Claver Church; it was cool and dark.  We made our way to some sort of service desk, where a young man was immersed in praying the rosary.  A glass case contained items for sale: Crucifixes, rosaries, scapulars.   In case you don’t know, scapulars are stamp-sized images of saints and such joined by a ribbon and worn around the neck under one’s clothes.

I’m not sure if they’re for good luck or protection or what.

A man stepped up to us from seemingly out of nowhere and I did a double take because in the dimness I thought for a nanosecond he was my long-dead grandfather, Ralph.  He was thin and olive-skinned with slicked down black hair and thick black glasses, and he smelled like tobacco.

He introduced himself as Charles, and launched into a breakneck Spanglish spiel with some French and German thrown in just to keep us on our toes.

“I have studied in France and Italy and Eeenglahterrrrra,” he told us.  He offered to be our guide for a small fee.  And it really was small; I don’t recall how much it was but he showed us around for over an hour and showed us some places I was pretty sure we weren’t supposed to be.

Even so, he didn’t waste any time.  Charles marched us out of the foyer into the main sanctuary and began pointing.  “This stained glass, she is from Italy,” he recited.  “And this eh-statue, she is from Germany.  All the things you see, they are gifts from other countries.”

Maybe because it was a mish-mash of donated features from European countries, the sanctuary wasn’t particularly beautiful.  The dome was pretty.

The altar had something glowing orange … yes, that’s …

… the bones of St. Peter, who died of Parkinson’s in 1654.

My personal favorite work of art in the sanctuary was this painting depicting a priest converting Chinese, Japanese and Indian heathens all in one go.  The Taj Mahal is in the background.  Nice!

Charles led us onward at a brisk pace, walking and talking.

There was a gallery with an incredible collection of religious and other art, including African carvings and contemporary marble statues.  All of it, even the centuries-old wood sculptures and oil paintings were just there, in the extreme heat and humidity, with stray cats wandering around.

This was a Hall of Bishops or some such.

As Charles waved his hands around, naming every single potentate, I could tell from Lynn’s body language that she was not excited.  When you’ve seen these types of places in Italy, France, and every other European capital, one glowering bishop looks much like another.

This was St. P. in his hunky youth.

Charles kept up a stream of commentary as Lynn and I wandered around the gallery.  I liked this French altar with all-seeing eye at the apex, like on a dollar bill.

Some of the Jesus figures could have been modeled on indigenous people.

There were a number of miracle-performing virgins, some as old as 16th Century.

There was a lovely courtyard.

And the usual dead people everywhere in the walls and floors.  Charles said his parents were among the dead, and that it was only the bones that were interred. What happened to the rest I didn’t want to know.

The upper floor, where St. Peter lived.

The saint’s bedroom.  “He was so humble, he slept on the floor,” Charles said.

You could say St. Peter filled a niche.

Some of the art was very much in the”white savior” genre.

Three hundred thousand slaves were baptized in this font.

“St. Peter, he was a friend to the slaves that were bought and sold in the Black Market,” Charles said.

A friend.  St. Peter had baptized slaves, but had he fed them or advocated for abolition? Charles indicated that St. Peter had ruffled the feathers of the slave traders, which was good, but as usual, I came away with more questions than when I’d started.

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