A tradition of martyr photography flourished during Mexico’s religiously motivated Cristero War (1926–29). Graphic photographic prints and postcards depicting executed Catholic activists and priests circulated widely during the conflict as a form of antigovernment propaganda, justifying comparisons of the Cristeros to the earliest persecuted Christians. Taking into account the iconographic and material features of these photographs as well as the medium’s particular ontological qualities, I explore how Cristero martyr images fulfilled comparable functions to early martyr narratives and relics by providing a compelling visual testimony and material trace of the martyr’s sacrifice. In these photographic images, the testimonial value and heightened verisimilitude of the early martyr text finds a parallel in a graphic documentary visual language that emerged with the increased mediatization of violence during the Revolution (1910–17). At the same time, these visual mementos sought to appeal to viewers on an affective level by drawing from long-standing iconographic vocabularies and material modes of devotional experience, most notably the tactile intimacy of the portable relic. Approaching the Cristero conflict from the analytical perspectives of visual culture and material religion, my research sheds new light on how Catholic activists conceptualized and justified violent sacrifice in their struggle for religious freedom while also making novel contributions to the history of Mexican photography. These complex visual artifacts reveal how Cristero propagandists utilized familiar religious images and concepts to provide a meaningful religious framework for their activism while also adapting strategies of martyr memorialization to the age of mechanical reproduction.

Durante la Guerra Cristera en México (1926–29), que surgió por motivos religiosos, floreció una tradición de fotografía de mártires. Como propaganda antigubernamental, se difundieron fotos y postales explícitas que mostraban a católicos ejecutados, justificando comparaciones entre los cristeros y los primeros cristianos perseguidos. Al explorar los aspectos iconográficos y materiales de estas fotos, junto con las cualidades únicas del medio, analizo cómo las imágenes de mártires cumplían funciones similares a las narrativas y reliquias martiriales tempranas. Estas ofrecían un testimonio visual convincente y un rastro material del sacrificio del mártir. En estas imágenes, el valor testimonial y la credibilidad de los textos martiriales tempranos encuentran un paralelo en un gráfico lenguaje visual documental que surgió con la creciente mediatización de la violencia durante la Revolución (1910–17). Al mismo tiempo, estos recuerdos visuales buscaban involucrar emocionalmente a los espectadores, inspirándose en antiguos vocabularios iconográficos y modos materiales de la experiencia devocional, especialmente en la intimidad táctil de las reliquias portátiles. Al abordar el conflicto cristero desde perspectivas de la cultura visual y la religión material, mi investigación arroja luz sobre cómo los activistas católicos conceptualizaron y justificaron el sacrificio en su lucha por la libertad religiosa, contribuyendo a la vez a la historia de la fotografía mexicana. Estos complejos artefactos visuales revelan cómo los propagandistas cristeros utilizaron imágenes y conceptos religiosos para proporcionar un marco religioso a su activismo, adaptando estrategias de conmemoración de mártires a la era de la reproducción mecánica.

Uma tradição de fotografia de mártires floresceu durante a Guerra dos Cristeros, de motivação religiosa, no México (1926–29). Impressões gráficas fotográficas e cartões postais retratando ativistas e padres católicos executados circularam amplamente durante o conflito como uma forma de propaganda antigovernamental, justificando comparações dos Cristeros com os primeiros cristãos perseguidos. Tendo em conta as características iconográficas e materiais destas fotografias, bem como as qualidades ontológicas específicas do meio, exploro como as imagens dos mártires Cristeros cumpriram funções comparáveis às narrativas e relíquias dos primeiros mártires, fornecendo um testemunho visual e um vestígio material convincentes do sacrifício do mártir. Nestas imagens fotográficas, o valor testemunhal e a verossimilhança elevada do texto dos mártires anteriores encontram um paralelo numa linguagem visual documental gráfica que emergiu com o aumento da mediatização da violência durante a Revolução (1910-17). Ao mesmo tempo, estas lembranças visuais procuravam atrair os espectadores a um nível afetivo, recorrendo a vocabulários iconográficos de longa data e a modos materiais de experiência devocional, mais notavelmente a intimidade táctil da relíquia portátil. Abordando o conflito Cristero a partir das perspectivas analíticas da cultura visual e da religião material, a minha investigação lança uma nova luz sobre como os ativistas católicos conceitualizaram e justificaram o sacrifício violento na sua luta pela liberdade religiosa, enquanto faziam novas contribuições para a história da fotografia mexicana. Estes complexos artefatos visuais revelam como os propagandistas Cristeros utilizaram imagens e conceitos religiosos familiares para fornecer uma estrutura religiosa significativa para o seu ativismo, simultaneamente adaptando estratégias de memorialização de mártires à era da reprodução mecânica.

Mexico’s Cristero War (1926–29) saw Catholic rebels rise up against the government of Plutarco Elías Calles following its enforcement of the anticlerical provisions of the 1917 Constitution. Postrevolutionary anticlericalism, which had historical roots in the Enlightenment values of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Bourbon and Liberal reformers, promoted the restriction of Church influence and eradication of fanaticism as part of a broader process of revolutionary societal redemption that would forge a secular, scientific, and progressive populace.1 When the Episcopate responded by suspending religious services and closing churches across the country in 1926, the Liga Nacional Defensora de la Libertad Religiosa (LNDLR), an umbrella organization encompassing existing lay Catholic groups such as the Asociación Católica de la Juventud Mexicana (ACJM), called a national revolt.2 The resulting armed struggle, which ravaged Mexico’s central-western states, posed a significant internal threat to the stability of the nascent regime and by 1929 had claimed between seventy thousand and eighty-five thousand lives.3 In the longer term, the Cristero movement played an important role in shaping Mexico’s political landscape in the twentieth century by fostering conservative Catholic opposition to the dominant revolutionary party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).

While historians have paid increasing attention to the Cristero rebellion in recent years, little consideration has been given to the profound visual dimensions of this conflict, which was marked by the destruction, censoring, appropriation, and resignification of images within the public domain.4 This article considers what visual cultural analysis can tell us about this pivotal yet often poorly understood chapter in Mexican history by examining the phenomenon of Cristero martyr photographs in comparative relation to early Christian forms of martyr memorialization and in the context of early twentieth-century photojournalistic practices. Attending to the iconographic and tactile features of the photographs, as well as the indexical quality, which provides the basis for the medium’s perceived status as an empirical record and a material conduit of presence, I explore how these images fulfilled comparable functions to early martyr narratives and relics by providing both a compelling visual testimony and material trace of the martyr’s suffering. Contextualizing these prints and postcards within the long-established iconographic and material traditions of Catholic devotion, as well as the modern mass media visual environment in which they were produced, I argue that the testimonial quality and heightened verisimilitude of the early martyr text finds a counterpart in a graphic visual language similar to that used by early twentieth-century photojournalists to document violent death. Alongside anecdotal evidence from historians, a photograph held at the Centro de Estudios de Historia de México (CEHM) archive dating from 1927 depicting a makeshift shrine composed of photographs of some of the most famous Cristero martyrs reveals that these images also possessed a strong devotional value (fig. 1).5 The article explores this underexamined aspect of Cristero culture in detail, proposing that these photographic mementos sought to appeal to viewers on an affective level by working within long-standing visual and material frameworks of devotional experience, most notably by inviting the intimate and tactile gaze associated with portable relics.6 In this way, my research draws insight from the still emerging field of material religion, which examines how religious meaning is constructed through embodied, material forms of practice to shed light on the potency of martyr photographs as a form of visual propaganda.7

Figure 1.

Unidentified photographer(s), shrine composed of photographs of Miguel Pro and other Cristero martyrs executed in November 1927, 1927, black-and-white photograph, dimensions unknown. Archivo del Centro de Estudios de Historia de México (CEHM) (photograph provided by Centro de Estudios de Historia de México Carso Fundación Carlos Slim dependiente de Servicios Condumex S.A. de C.V.)

Figure 1.

Unidentified photographer(s), shrine composed of photographs of Miguel Pro and other Cristero martyrs executed in November 1927, 1927, black-and-white photograph, dimensions unknown. Archivo del Centro de Estudios de Historia de México (CEHM) (photograph provided by Centro de Estudios de Historia de México Carso Fundación Carlos Slim dependiente de Servicios Condumex S.A. de C.V.)

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Examining these images as novel forms of martyr memorialization can enable us to better understand the terms in which counterrevolutionary Catholic partisans interpreted and justified violence during the Cristero War as we approach its centenary in 2026. Specifically, the unofficial martyr cults that developed around slain Catholics reveal how the Cristeros reconfigured religious concepts and expressions of piety during these decades of societal transformation. Historians have described how prominent lay Catholic organizations such as the LNDLR and the ACJM diverged from the Church’s official position by embracing an alternative, noncanonical interpretation of martyrdom that encompassed deceased Catholics who had resorted to violence to protect their religious liberty.8 My analysis shows how Cristero activists not only modified the concept of martyrdom to suit their political agenda but also adapted traditional methods of martyr memorialization to the age of mechanical reproduction.

Beyond deepening our understanding of the forms and concepts that provided a meaningful religious structure for Cristero activism, my discussion of counterrevolutionary uses of photography by Catholic partisans during the rebellion contributes to the extensive scholarship on early twentieth-century Mexican photography, which has tended to focus on revolutionary-era photojournalism and the modernist experimentation of the twenties and thirties. While experts such as Andrea Noble have interpreted photographs of deceased revolutionary caudillos through the lens of martyrial iconography and gestured to their “relic-like quality,” this piece takes up a lesser-explored perspective by exploring how Catholic activists drew from revolutionary-era photographic innovations to construct new forms of devotional imagery during the same period.9 Looking to the present, these images can also provide an important historical reference point for understanding Mexico’s contemporary image environment and, in particular, continued uses of the broken body as visual statement in the country’s cartel-related conflicts.

Mexico’s postrevolutionary religious conflicts played out as much in the realm of images as they did through physical violence. Iconoclasm, which commonly occurred during the revolution, played an important role in the national and regional anticlerical campaigns of the twenties and thirties.10 Among the most spectacular examples of icon destruction were an attempt to blow up the Virgen de Guadalupe, Mexican Catholics’ most hallowed icon, at the Tepeyac sanctuary in 1921 and the dynamiting of the monument to the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Guanajuato’s Cerro del Cubilete in 1928. Smaller-scale acts of sacrilegious vandalism included the public incineration of images by activists known as quemasantos (“saint burners”), as well as the mutilation and decapitation of icons and staged “executions” of images and statues of holy figures in church doorways.11 Catholics responded to this iconoclastic fury by guarding venerated icons or placing them in hiding, as in the case of the Guadalupana.12

Much like attempts by iconophilic devotees to protect them, the destruction and degradation of figurative religious icons by revolutionary iconoclasts stemmed from the perception of these objects as sentient entities rather than inanimate artworks.13 This blurring of boundaries between images and living bodies, which is ingrained in Mexico’s syncretic Catholicism, allows us to interpret the mutilation of real Catholic bodies during the Cristiada as an extension of this symbolic violence.14 As W. J. T. Mitchell argues, following the logic of Imago Dei (the idea that humankind is created in God’s image), “the mutilation of a corpse is thus the mutilation of an image, an act of iconoclasm that is reproduced as an image in another medium.”15 In the context of the Cristero conflict, this symmetry between the violation of human bodies and icons comes into focus in the martyrdom of Jesuit priest Pro who was executed in November 1927 for his alleged involvement in an attempt to assassinate former President Álvaro Obregón in the capital’s Chapultepec Park.16 Although only indirectly implicated in the plot, Pro was sentenced to execution without trial along with three other accused.17 The publication of graphic photographs depicting their deaths in mainstream national newspapers was in keeping with a strategy of exemplary disciplinary photography or fotografía de escarmiento that has persisted in Mexico from the nineteenth-century dictatorial regime of Porfirio Díaz through to today’s cartel-related violence.18 By spreading his arms in the form of the cross as he faced the firing squad, however, Pro radically resignified the destruction of his own body, converting the government’s punitive visual message into an image of martyrial sacrifice (fig. 2).

Figure 2.

Unidentified photographer, execution of Miguel Pro, 1927, black-and-white photograph, approx. 5½ x 3½ in. (14 x 8.9 cm). Archivo del CEHM (photograph provided by Centro de Estudios de Historia de México Carso Fundación Carlos Slim dependiente de Servicios Condumex S.A. de C.V.)

Figure 2.

Unidentified photographer, execution of Miguel Pro, 1927, black-and-white photograph, approx. 5½ x 3½ in. (14 x 8.9 cm). Archivo del CEHM (photograph provided by Centro de Estudios de Historia de México Carso Fundación Carlos Slim dependiente de Servicios Condumex S.A. de C.V.)

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At a time when sacred images were under threat from iconoclastic attacks and increasingly inaccessible to the faithful due to the suspension of public worship, Cristero martyr photographs came to function as powerful religious icons and artifacts in their own right. Alongside images depicting other deceased militant and pacifist Cristeros, photographs of the Chapultepec martyrs were iconoclastically appropriated by the LNDLR as evidence of religious persecution, providing justification for historical comparisons of the Cristeros to early Christian martyrs and of President Calles to merciless anti-Christian Roman emperors such as Nero and Diocletian.19 Reproduced as prints, postcards, prayer cards, and even in albums known as “martyr galleries,” these photographs were disseminated widely in Mexico and played an important role in internationalizing the conflict with the assistance of Catholic organizations in Latin America, the United States, and Europe.20 Cristero martyr images ranged from traditional mortuary-style photographs depicting bodies lying in repose or propped up by family members to more graphic images of executions and mutilated corpses.21 Government efforts to suppress the circulation of these images indicate that they were considered a serious propaganda threat. An article reportedly published in the magazine América in February 1928 claimed that three hundred students and twenty devotees had been arrested for circulating a photograph of Pro, and there is evidence of continued efforts to censor postcards bearing his image as late as 1936.22 As noted by Rebeca Monroy Nasr, the handling of Catholic José de León Toral’s execution in early 1929 reflected further attempts by the government to restrict photographic reporting on the conflict after 1927. In contrast to the 1927 executions, when fotorreporteros were invited to the shooting gallery and even granted access to the morgue, journalists were prohibited from photographing Toral’s final moments before the firing squad.23 Also revealing in this regard is the archive of General Joaquín Amaro, Mexico’s minister of war during the conflict, which contains inventories of devotional items that were confiscated from Catholic rebels and various examples of religious ephemera and pro-Cristero propaganda. Among the saints’ cards and prayer books is a deliberately defaced pamphlet composed of a photograph of the four Cristero martyrs of León, Guanajuato, an image I will return to later, and a short prayer praising their triumph over “every cruelty/on the cross of suffering.”24 The trajectory of this postcard from a Peruvian publisher in Lima to the minister’s personal archives demonstrates both the international reach of Cristero martyr imagery and the government’s deep concern regarding the circulation of such materials.

Although it is clear that Cristero militants could be just as ruthless as their federal counterparts, martyr photography centered on the violence suffered rather than inflicted by Catholic rebels, to validate comparisons with the earliest Christian martyrs.25 In the Christian tradition, the martyr is one who “bears witness to Christ” and whose sacrifice is in turn witnessed or authenticated by an audience. Discussing the phenomenon across different religious traditions, David Cook explains that this audience “need not be physically present at either the pre-martyrdom suffering or the act of martyrdom, but must have access to information concerning” these events via some kind of “communicative agent.”26 In the context of early Christian persecution, the most common form of communicative agent was the martyr narrative. Starting in the second century, such texts (conventionally categorized as acta martyrum or passiones martyrum), often employed first-person narrative perspectives and a high degree of verisimilitude to recreate the spectacle of sacrifice with “freshness and immediacy, suggesting a closeness to the facts.”27 To encourage confidence in their authenticity, martyr texts routinely took the form of letters or trial reports containing eyewitness testimony (in keeping with the original Greek term martus, referring to a legal witness) and described the physical suffering and death of martyrs with graphic immediacy in an attempt to collapse the boundary between primary and secondary audience.28 A prime example of this is the Martyrdom of Polycarp, a mid-second-century text describing the trial and death of the Christian bishop of Smyrna. The explicit description of Polycarp’s torture and the presentation of this narrative in the form of an eyewitness report lends it a powerful visual texture and impression of testimonial authority that positions the reader as a secondary witness to these events. Alongside these vivid textual accounts, portable relics functioned as vehicles for communicating martyrdom and contributed to the development of martyr cults around the fourth century.29 These sacred artifacts were typically categorized as either (primary) corporeal relics, such as bones, blood, teeth, and strands of hair, or as (secondary) “contact” relics, which had come into direct contact with the individual in question.30 As relics were believed to be imbued with the praesentia or physical presence of a saint, they provided not only tangible proof of a martyr’s suffering, but also a palpable point of contact with their absent body.

During and after the Cristero War, written accounts (sometimes explicitly classified as acta) narrating the trials, torture, and deaths of priests and activists, along with primary and secondary relics associated with these martyrs, circulated among the faithful as textual and material evidence of their suffering.31 However, alongside these traditional forms of martyr authentication and memorialization, Cristero activists also relied heavily on modern mass media forms of communication to raise awareness of religious persecution. For example, Anacleto González Flores, a prominent Catholic lawyer and key representative of both the LNDLR and the ACJM in Jalisco, consistently compared the Cristeros to early Christian martyrs. But, as Robert Curley explains, they also conceptualized their struggle as a battle “constituted by the new systems, resources, and means of dissemination that may be mobilized with the objective of reaching out to and conquering the masses of modern society.”32 While the Cristeros’ use of print forms of communication for propaganda purposes has been relatively well documented, their reliance on modern visual media, and photography in particular, remains curiously understudied, despite its evidently critical role in the construction of martyr cults.33 On a practical level, mass-produced photographic prints and postcards displaying images of dead Cristeros offered an efficient, discrete, and universally legible means of disseminating proof of religious persecution in Mexico and abroad. Even so, the notable preference for photography over more traditional modes of illustration merits discussion, particularly when we take into account that the LNDLR and the ACJM counted competent artists in their ranks.34 In what follows, I argue that this particular reliance on photography as a tool of martyr memorialization can be attributed to the ontological particularities of the medium, principally its perceived ability to operate as a form of empirical documentation and tangible trace of an absent referent, which enable these images to fulfill comparable communicative functions to early martyr narratives and relics.

To explore the dual dimensions of the martyr photograph as testimonial document and fetish object, I turn first to a postcard-size photographic print produced by the ACJM between 1927 and 1929 (fig. 3). Entitled Galería de mártires mexicanos, the print shows a collage of photographic images depicting Cristero martyrs arranged around the central illustrated figure of Cristo Rey, who stands with arms outstretched. In the upper section, close-up post-mortem shots of the faces of Pro and Luis Segura Vilchis, also executed for his involvement in the Chapultepec assassination attempt, flank a central image allegedly depicting Jaliscan priest Francisco Vera before a firing squad in 1927. In the lower section, a photograph of four martyrs from León, Guanajuato (José Valencia Gallardo, Nicolás Navarro, Ezequiel Gómez, and Salvador Vargas), who were also killed in 1927, borders another showing anonymous corpses hanging from telegraph poles along a railway track in Ciudad Guzmán in Jalisco.35

Figure 3.

Unidentified photographer(s), gallery of Mexican martyrs, n.d., black-and-white photographic print, approx. 7 x 5 in. (17.8 x 12.7 cm). Archivo del CEHM (photograph provided by Centro de Estudios de Historia de México Carso Fundación Carlos Slim dependiente de Servicios Condumex S.A. de C.V.)

Figure 3.

Unidentified photographer(s), gallery of Mexican martyrs, n.d., black-and-white photographic print, approx. 7 x 5 in. (17.8 x 12.7 cm). Archivo del CEHM (photograph provided by Centro de Estudios de Historia de México Carso Fundación Carlos Slim dependiente de Servicios Condumex S.A. de C.V.)

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In using such alarmingly explicit photographs to stage the spectacle of sacrifice, here and in numerous other martyr images, ACJM propagandists were harnessing the same testimonial power that was attributed to photography during the revolution’s armed phase (1910–17).36 Photographs of the mutilated corpses of Villa and Zapata, of Agustín Víctor Casasola and other photojournalists holding forth the blood-soaked clothing of Francisco Madero and José María Pino Suárez during the Decena Trágica (“Ten Tragic Days”) of 1913, and of the triple execution carried out by Carranza’s troops in Ciudad Juárez are just a few examples of the atrocity images that proliferated in the illustrated press and in the form of portable postcards during the 1910s and early 1920s.37 At a time of frequently unreliable reporting, these photographs claimed to provide authoritative visual updates on the conflict and its latest casualties on the basis of the medium’s perceived “truth value.” During the Porfiriato, the positivist emphasis on scientific observation as the foundation of human knowledge had underpinned the use of photography as a tool for substantiating reports of violence in the emergent field of sensationalist crime journalism known as the nota roja.38 As John Mraz explains:

Both the news items and the photos belonged to the same logic of modernity, which was finally based on the inductive principles of the Enlightenment, that “truth” was to be discovered from observation of the world.…The participation of photography, among the newest of scientific technologies, was no doubt definitive in convincing readers that this was the perfect embodiment of empirical validation and verification.39

Pablo Piccato explains that during the twenties, a period when mistrust of the justice system was widespread, nota roja publications served a critical function within the public sphere by challenging the image of the state as a trustworthy arbiter of justice.40 He argues that after the abolition of the jury trial in 1929 following the execution of Cristero activist Toral, the nota roja increasingly became the forum for public discussion of crime and justice and offered an alternative means of cultivating citizens’ “criminal literacy.”41 From the twenties and thirties onwards, graphic crime-scene shots, images of blood-soaked evidence, and graphic autopsy photographs claimed to offer nota roja readers raw proximity to the facts of the latest violent transgression.42 These images often adhered to a forensic aesthetic of visual detail, minimalist composition, and close-up frontal perspectives that accentuated the medium’s evidentiary authority.

In the ACJM’s martyr gallery, photography is similarly exploited as a visual tool for authenticating death but with the distinct purpose of converting viewers into witnesses of martyrial sacrifice. In these and the countless other Cristero postcards and prints showing gruesome mutilated bodies, the textual realism and testimonial quality of early accounts of Christian martyrdom is replaced by a representational language of forensic detail and eye-witness proximity that promotes confidence in the accuracy and authenticity of the mechanically reproduced image. Although the title identifies those depicted as martyrs, the close-range shots revealing Segura Vilchis’s bloated face and Pro’s slackened jaw bear a remarkable resemblance to the photographs of victims published in the nota roja, which, according to Piccato, “showed little regard for their dignity: images identified bodies and presented them at the crime scene as if they were another piece of evidence.”43 Other features, such as the numbering of the photographs in sequence from one to five and the use of a collage layout to enhance their cumulative testimonial weight, recall the representational conventions of nota roja visual reporting. In reproducing the arresting graphics and compositional strategies associated with police-style reportage, these images upheld the view, frequently communicated through Cristero propaganda, that the persecution of Catholics was first and foremost a brutal crime.44 This conscious blurring between religious and legal forms of witnessing (already reflected in the Greek term martus and the integration of trial transcripts into early martyr narratives) is unsurprising when we consider that several prominent ACJM and LNDLR figures, such as González Flores, René Capistrán Garza, and Miguel Palomar y Vizcarra, were lawyers and journalists by training.45

While martyr photographs varied considerably in their content and composition, their frequent use or evocation of the postcard format, widely used to disseminate images of atrocity during the revolution, invites further comparisons with the testimonial function and epistolary framework of many early martyr narratives.46 The Gallery of Mexican Martyrs uses the multiview style common in postcard design in the early twentieth century; in the ACJM photographic collage dedicated to the martyrs of León, Guanajuato, a photograph of their bloodied corpses is set against a panoramic shot of their native city (fig. 4). These compositional arrangements enhance the testimonial impact of the photographs by evoking the “having-been-thereness” associated with postcard imagery. As Ceri Price notes, the implicit message of any image-bearing postcard is “this is where I have been, this is what I have seen,” and it invites the recipient to vicariously share those experiences.47 According to Shawn Michelle Smith, it is through this sense that both sender and receiver(s) have beheld the same scene, that these visual mementos create “an imagined community of senders and receivers.”48 If, as Price and Smith suggest, a key purpose of the postcard is to share sites or scenes supposedly witnessed firsthand by the sender, direct comparisons can be drawn between these portable images and the testimonial function of early martyr narratives, particularly those presented in epistolary form as eye-witness accounts, such as the Martyrdom of Polycarp, in their aim to construct a broad witnessing public to Catholic suffering.

Figure 4.

Unidentified photographer(s), the four martyrs of León, Guanajuato, n.d., black-and-white photographic print, approx. 4 x 6 in. (10.2 x 15.2 cm). Archivo del CEHM (photograph provided by Centro de Estudios de Historia de México Carso Fundación Carlos Slim dependiente de Servicios Condumex S.A. de C.V.)

Figure 4.

Unidentified photographer(s), the four martyrs of León, Guanajuato, n.d., black-and-white photographic print, approx. 4 x 6 in. (10.2 x 15.2 cm). Archivo del CEHM (photograph provided by Centro de Estudios de Historia de México Carso Fundación Carlos Slim dependiente de Servicios Condumex S.A. de C.V.)

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Alongside these evidentiary and communicative functions, other aspects of the Galería de mártires hint at the devotional dimensions of Cristero martyr photography. Most obviously, the photographic content reflects the longstanding focus on bodily suffering in Catholic visual culture and displays what Andrea Noble, in relation to recent photographs of narco-related atrocities, has described as a “baroque” quality of visual excess.49 In addition to these familiar visual vocabularies, the portable nature of the image and its decorative use of visual motifs of martyrdom such as palm fronds, red roses, swords, and a cephalophore possibly representing St. Paul recall the form and content of prayer cards or estampas religiosas that invite an intimate form of looking mediated by touch.50 By evoking the form of these holy cards that are typically held, carried close to the body, or even kissed by the faithful, this piece of visual propaganda taps into the profound embodied and material dimensions of Catholic devotional practice.

It is the specific use of photographic imagery, however, that establishes a direct physical connection with the figures depicted and imbues the image with its reliclike quality. Much like contemporary uses of photographic portraits as “surrogate presences” of devotees in petitionary rituals, cult uses of post-mortem photographs in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century rural Mexico, as in other parts of the world, were rooted in the belief that such images retained the aura of a departed loved one.51 Such practices stem from the specific ontological nature of the photograph, which has been conceptualized by theorists as an “emanation” or “material vestige” of the referent on the basis of its indexicality.52 Indexicality here refers to the direct physical relationship between the photograph and the thing it represents: the image is produced by the reflected light of an object being imprinted onto a photosensitive surface. The resulting interpretation of the photograph as an index or material trace of its referent has encouraged comparisons with corporeal tokens of remembrance such as locks of hair, which represent an absent body. Film theorist André Bazin went so far as to eliminate any distinction between image and referent, claiming that “the photographic image is the object itself …freed from the conditions of time and space.”53 Such linkages between the photograph and the relic, conventionally understood as a portable and incorruptible bodily trace that stands in metonymically for the absent body, are reflected in a number of historical and more recent photographic prayer cards commemorating Pro that feature plastic capsules allegedly containing scraps of his clothing, flecks of blood, or splinters of wood from his coffin.54 Such images render explicit a correlation between photograph and relic that is implicit in numerous other martyr images, particularly those depicting the corporeal and contact relics of deceased Catholic activists. In the following sections, I examine two such examples, considering how these images attempt to construct a community of witnesses by using the photograph as both an empirical device for authenticating the martyr’s death and a trace of his body.

The first of these photographic images (fig. 5) commemorates José de León Toral, an ACJM activist and friend of the Pro brothers, who was thrust into the national spotlight on July 17, 1928, when he assassinated Álvaro Obregón at a Mexico City restaurant called La Bombilla. An art student at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, Toral had attended the banquet as a sketch artist and shot Obregón after approaching him under the pretense of presenting a completed portrait. Following a sensational public trial, Toral was executed at Lecumberri prison on February 9, 1929. Although the Church condemned the assassination, many Catholics celebrated Toral as a martyr and justified Obregón’s murder as an act of tyrannicide. The government’s handling of Toral’s execution suggests that it was aware of the political potency of martyrial devotionalia. As previously noted, journalists were prohibited from photographing the event, and some accounts allege that Toral’s corpse was drained of blood using syringes and his clothing destroyed in order to prevent the production of relics.55 Despite these precautionary measures, Toral’s relatives managed to salvage a primary and a secondary relic from the body: the martyr’s heart, which was extracted by a doctor known to the family, and the blood-stained sheet used to carry his corpse, dubbed the “Shroud of Toral.”56 This ad hoc procedure also produced a visual relic: a photograph of the perforated heart taken by the Catholic photographer Manuel Ramos, which was reproduced and circulated within the Catholic community.

Figure 5.

Manuel Ramos, heart of José de León Toral, n.d., black-and-white photograph, dimensions unknown. Archivo del CEHM (photograph provided by Centro de Estudios de Historia de México Carso Fundación Carlos Slim dependiente de Servicios Condumex S.A. de C.V.)

Figure 5.

Manuel Ramos, heart of José de León Toral, n.d., black-and-white photograph, dimensions unknown. Archivo del CEHM (photograph provided by Centro de Estudios de Historia de México Carso Fundación Carlos Slim dependiente de Servicios Condumex S.A. de C.V.)

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Ramos’s cardiocentric image is unusual within the broader corpus of martyr photographs; it was taken by an accomplished photographer. Before assisting in the production of propaganda images during the Cristero conflict, Ramos had risen to prominence as a photojournalist during the Porfiriato, and his photograph of Toral’s heart reflects an essentially positivist view of the camera as a tool of empirical documentation.57 At first glance, the austere composition of the image and the intentional inclusion of surgical forceps within the frame appears to be more in keeping with the gruesome autopsy photographs reproduced in the nota roja than traditional hagiographical imagery. Ramos’s image also displays several of the representational codes historically associated with the “legal” style of photography often reproduced in such publications. Tracing evidentiary applications of the medium since the nineteenth century, John Tagg explains that photographs employed in criminal cases adhered to a realist mode characterized by “sharpness and frontality, exhaustive description and true representation” and the apparent avoidance of overt manipulation.58 In Ramos’s photograph, the central positioning and frontal view of the heart, the tight cropping of the image, and the inclusion of handwritten caption identifying the “rear” view of the organ closely follow the conventions of forensic representation, inviting the viewer to examine the specimen as a piece of evidence.59 The close-up provides a detailed view of the intersecting veins and fleshy contours of the heart’s surface, which, along with the nondescript background, serves to signify scientific objectivity and technical precision, reinforcing its authority as a tool of authentication. A handwritten description on the back of the image further reassures the beholder that the image has not been embellished in any way: “Unedited photograph showing the heart of José de León Toral pierced by a bullet, taken moments after it was extracted by Dr. Aristeo Domínguez.”

Once again, we can establish intermedial linkages between these visual features, typical of both nota roja photojournalism and Cristero martyr photography, and the representational strategies employed in early Christian martyr narratives. Much like the graphic narration of the martyr’s death found in those early texts, the strikingly explicit image of the heart fulfills the primary function of converting the viewer into a witness of Toral’s martyrdom by providing compelling evidence of his corporeal sacrifice. The photograph’s forensic, documentary quality, combined with the accompanying written guarantee that it was taken “moments after” the heart was extracted, reproduces in visual form the characteristics of authenticity and immediacy that encouraged faith in the veracity of early Christian narratives and thus enabled them to effectively function as communicative agents of martyrdom.

Like the other martyr images examined here, the photograph devoted to Toral is relevant to the field of material religion as it demonstrates how Cristero activists harnessed certain material and embodied aspects of Catholic devotional experience for their propaganda purposes. While there is little concrete information regarding the distribution or reception of the photograph, Toral’s nephew Jorge Antonio de León y de la Mora claims that reproductions of the image were disseminated and preserved in many Catholic homes as a form of relic.60 Such uses would again reflect the shared indexical and metonymic functions of the relic and the photograph. Within the historical context of Mexico’s Catholic visual culture, this close connection between a photograph and the relic it depicts can be further illuminated by its obvious iconographic links to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. According to Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, this cult flourished in eighteenth-century New Spain due to a proliferation of realistic pictorial representations that blurred the distinction between visual image and physical relic.61 The compositional structure and technical detail of Ramos’s photograph powerfully recalls, in mechanically produced form, the naturalism and anatomical precision of portrayals of the Sacred Heart by Mexican artists in New Spain, such as Miguel Cabrera’s El Sagrado Corazón de Jesús (c. 1756) and Patricio Morlete Ruiz’s El Corazón de Jesús (1759).62 Kilroy-Ewbank explains how in such works, the detailed rendering of the intersecting veins and fresh wound, as if the heart has just “been removed from his chest and placed before our very eyes,” encouraged devotees to perceive the Sacred Heart as a “pulpy, carnal heart,” a real object that they could touch or smell.63 These pictorial techniques generated a mode of haptic visuality that, as David Morgan explains, “maps the visual terrain in terms of touch, texture, proximity, all sensory features that the hands and the body use to register the material character of something.”64 Kilroy-Ewbank notes that such visual sensory engagement was frequently combined with real physical interaction. Small devotional paintings of the late-colonial era were intended for “close up viewing and touching,” offering a tangible connection to the divine.65 The close-up focus of the photograph and its hyperrealist depiction of the sacred organ generates a similar blurring of boundaries between image and relic that is accentuated by its material form. The photograph of Toral’s heart also replicates the mnemonic strategies of Spanish colonial representations that employed established “iconographic motifs and pictorial conventions” to elicit affective responses that would encourage acceptance of this new devotion. By evoking the universally recognizable Catholic icon of the Sacred Heart and reproducing the sensory qualities associated with its portrayal in New Spain, Ramos’s image similarly activates the “sense memory” of the Catholic viewer, activating personal and collective memories of religious images and objects in an effort to legitimize this unofficial martyr cult.66

In Ramos’s photograph, the still glistening organ rests on a sheet of paper, suggesting that another contact relic may be in the making at the time of the photograph’s production. A small martyr image produced by the ACJM between 1927 and 1929 to memorialize Antonio Verástegui and the miraculous contact relic associated with his death plays on the affinity between the photographic image and this secondary class of relic (fig. 6).67 Verástegui participated in the first waves of military action initiated by the ACJM in Coahuila and was executed in the town of Santa María de las Parras on January 21, 1927, at the age of just sixteen.68 In this commemorative postcard, which is currently held at the Archivo Histórico de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (AHUNAM), a central portrait of the adolescent martyr displaying the ACJM logo on his chest is flanked by two photographs depicting stained sheets of cloth. Although its specific origin is unknown, the image of Verástegui neatly dressed and groomed against a curtain background was likely produced for an ACJM membership card. Once again, photography here fulfills a comparable function to the early martyr narrative as a “communicative agent” that can authenticate and create a witnessing public for the martyr’s sacrifice.69 Verástegui’s youthful appearance contrasts sharply with the spectral quality of the death shroud presented in the two accompanying photographs. A caption explains that these images display “the silhouette imprinted on the stretcher by the martyr’s blood.” According to a handwritten note also held in the AHUNAM archive, these photographs show the cloth used to carry Verástegui’s corpse, which miraculously retained the blood-stained impression of his body after it was washed. It claims that the textile was preserved as a relic by Verástegui’s grandfather and visited by over three thousand pilgrims.70

Figure 6.

Unidentified photographer, photographic postcard commemorating Antonio Verástegui, n.d., gelatin silver print, 5½ x 3½ in. (14 x 8.9 cm). IISUE/AHUNAM, Fondo Aurelio Robles Acevedo, Sección Gráfica, Serie: Asociación Católica de la Juventud Mexicana, Exp.8, ARA-0126 (photograph provided by Archivo Histórico de la UNAM)

Figure 6.

Unidentified photographer, photographic postcard commemorating Antonio Verástegui, n.d., gelatin silver print, 5½ x 3½ in. (14 x 8.9 cm). IISUE/AHUNAM, Fondo Aurelio Robles Acevedo, Sección Gráfica, Serie: Asociación Católica de la Juventud Mexicana, Exp.8, ARA-0126 (photograph provided by Archivo Histórico de la UNAM)

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Considered in light of this contextual information, the ACJM postcard provides insight into the Cristero War as a phase of religious transformation that, as Matthew Butler has demonstrated, saw lay actors embrace experimental modes of piety such as spontaneous peregrinations to sites of purported miracles and relics.71 Verástegui’s “imprinted silhouette” also evokes a long-standing Catholic tradition of textiles bearing miraculous bodily traces, dating back to the Turin Shroud and St. Veronica’s veil, which miraculously received the vera icon (“true image”) of Christ’s face. In the Mexican context, the most celebrated example of this is of course the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe, which appears in the ACJM logo at the center of this composition.72 According to the legend, when Mexico’s first archbishop Juan de Zumárraga demanded that the Nahua shepherd Juan Diego provide proof of the Virgin’s apparition on the hill of Tepeyac in 1531, she projected her luminous image onto the peasant’s tilma (cloak). The photographs of Verástegui’s burial shroud serve a comparable function by authenticating a miraculous event, but in this case the viewer is encouraged to accept the photograph as a mechanically produced vera icon on the basis of its scientific accuracy and objectivity. The content and testimonial purpose of this image recalls photographs documenting revolutionary-era violence, most strikingly that of Casasola and other photojournalists holding up the bloodied garments of Madero and Pino Suárez during the Decena Trágica. As in the photograph of Toral’s heart, the close-up shots of Verástegui’s burial shroud and the explanatory labels identifying the “front” and “rear” angles invite the viewer to inspect the textile as firsthand visual evidence of the martyr’s sacrifice and the alleged miracle. Like acheiropoieta (images not crafted by human hands) such as the Guadalupan tilma, the photograph’s claim to authenticity derives from the assumption that it is produced by the indexical agency of light rather than the creative intervention of an artist. Indeed, in El guadalupanismo mexicano (1953), art historian Francisco de la Maza explicitly compared the creation of the Guadalupan image to the photochemical process of photography (literally “drawing with light”), likening the Virgin to a camera and Diego’s cloak to film.73

The connection between the commemorative postcard and image-relics such as the Guadalupan tilma and Veronica’s sudarium is enhanced by its combination of photographic indexicality and materiality. As Martin Lister explains, it is due to this specific combination of qualities that we perceive the photographic image as “something which is as important to hold, touch, feel and check as it is for us to see, and which we sense has literally touched something that exists but is absent or has existed but is no more.”74 In the postcard memorializing Verástegui, the viewer’s perception of the image as a point of contact with the shroud, and by extension the martyr’s body, is encouraged by the two prominent photographs depicting the cloth, which again activate the form of haptic visuality conventionally associated with pictorial representations of celebrated acheiropoieta. This multisensory visuality is exemplified in the religiously themed works of seventeenth-century Spanish baroque painter Francisco de Zurbarán, whose naturalist and tactile style were influential among Mexican artists in New Spain.75 In paintings such as La Santa Faz (1631), the contrasts of light and shadow and the accentuated volume of the drapery create a trompe l'oeil effect that blurs the boundaries between vision and touch, inviting the eye to reach out and grasp the veil (fig. 7). The grainy photographs on the ACJM postcard encourage a similarly tactile mode of vision. The creased, uneven quality of the bloodied cloth, combined with the exaggerated folds of the half-drawn curtain behind Verástegui, establish a visual association between the surface of the postcard and the textures of fabric. Combined with the materiality of the postcard, these optical-tactile elements look to dissolve the perceptual boundaries between relic and photographic reproduction, encouraging the beholder to engage with the image as a visual and material trace of the absent martyr.

Figure 7.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Veil of Veronica, c. 1635–40, oil on canvas, 27½ x 20⅛ in. (70 x 51.1 cm). National Museum, Stockholm (photograph provided by Anna Danielsson/National Museum)

Figure 7.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Veil of Veronica, c. 1635–40, oil on canvas, 27½ x 20⅛ in. (70 x 51.1 cm). National Museum, Stockholm (photograph provided by Anna Danielsson/National Museum)

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Attention to these iconographic and tactile features sheds light on how the postcard itself functions as a form of contact relic, thus generating its powerful affective appeal as a form of visual propaganda. This visual artifact works within familiar iconographic frameworks of devotional experience but also exploits what Margaret Olin describes as the particular capacity of the tactile photograph to “participate in and create relationships and communities.”76 Like the previously discussed Galería de mártires mexicanos print, the postcard design suggests that it was intended to be passed from hand to hand, establishing a physical chain of contact not just between beholder and absent martyr but also with other viewers, creating an imagined community of witnesses connected through shared experiences of vision and touch. Beholding (a verb which, as David Morgan notes, captures this intimate connection between sight and touch) this postcard engages the spectator in an act of witnessing that within the Christian tradition inevitably entails both religious and political consequences.77 By creating an audience for Verástegui’s suffering, the image looks to consolidate and legitimize this unofficial martyr cult but also, following Tertullian’s maxim “the blood of the martyrs is seed,” to foster community bonds and perhaps even inspire imitation of his exemplary sacrifice.

Like the iconography of the Sacred Heart recalled by Ramos’s photograph, the Virgen de Guadalupe, whose image occupies the very center of the ACJM postcard and contributes to its sacred aura, embodies a baroque religious sensibility that emerged in Mexico in the aftermath of the conquest. Noble describes how the iconoclastic violence of that period, which saw the Spanish colonizers attempt to systematically eradicate and substitute Indigenous idols with Christian icons, gave rise to an “anti-iconoclastic tendency” in the baroque visual culture of New Spain that blended and blurred Indigenous and Euro-Christian cultural influences and stylistic conventions.78 During the Cristero War, religious persecution and revolutionary iconoclasm provoked similarly dynamic responses within the sphere of religious visual and material culture. The martyr photographs produced by Cristero propagandists during this period evoke the visual aesthetic of the colonial baroque not only in their spectacular iconography of blood sacrifice and multisensory appeal, but also through their blending and blurring of different visual styles and elements.79

This article has explored how these images functioned as powerful “communicative agents” of Cristero martyrdom by creatively combining photojournalistic representational strategies drawn from Mexico’s contemporary mass media landscape with long-standing elements of religious visual and material culture. As we have seen, these forms of Cristero visual propaganda sought to construct a witnessing public for the martyrs’ sacrifice by replacing the heightened realism and testimonial value of the early martyr text with a visual language of graphic detail, proximity, and immediacy similar to that employed in photojournalistic portrayals of violence during the Revolution. The images examined here also communicate martyrial sacrifice by playing on familiar iconographic repertoires such as the image of the crucifix (and the figure of the mutilated martyr more generally), the icon of the Sacred Heart, and the Guadalupan tilma, as well as long-established material forms of devotional experience such as the optical-tactile qualities of the relic. Given that many Cristero sympathizers embraced an alternative noncanonical interpretation of martyrdom by venerating slain militant Catholics, the presence of such features may be interpreted as an attempt to lend greater legitimacy to these unofficial cults that were rejected by the Episcopate. In examining how these reliclike propaganda images tap into the embodied aspects of Catholic devotion to lend meaning to the violence of the Cristero period, this discussion contributes to the rapidly evolving field of material religion and incipient scholarly debates regarding the intersections among religion, conflict, and materiality.80

The use of these mass media forms by Cristero propagandists build communal bonds between religious spectators provides a broader historical context for understanding the linkages between media technologies and Catholic social imaginaries in Mexico, where recently religious websites and social media networks have flourished. Indeed, many Cristero martyr photographs today enjoy an active digital afterlife in the numerous Facebook groups devoted to the movement. My analysis of photography as a medium of martyrdom during Mexico’s Cristero War also builds on more recent investigations into the role of visual media in creating witnessing publics for martyrdom, which has tended to focus on the use of digital technologies such as video testimonies in contemporary Islamic contexts where, as in the Christian tradition, the concept of martyrdom stems from the notion of “bearing witness” to God.81 Emerging from the Cristero conflict, a hitherto largely neglected chapter in the global history of modern religious conflict, the photographic images analyzed in this article provide a much earlier example of experimentation with technologized modes of martyr authentication and memorialization in the twentieth century.

As a novel and innovative method of memorializing Catholic martyrdom, the genre of martyr photography reflects what historians have identified as the religious “effervescence” of the Cristero period, which reflected “the extraordinary adaptability of local rituals and religious culture to a changing sociohistorical milieu.”82 This malleability has of course been displayed again more recently in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced the Mexican Episcopal Conference to suspend public services for the first time since 1926. These circumstances led to ritual change and innovation, most notably the relocation of devotion from public spaces of worship to private settings and the increased mediatization of everyday religious experience through digital visual technologies.83 In arguing that the persuasive power of Cristero martyr images derived from their intertwining of “sacred” and “scientific” visual languages, my discussion contributes to the ongoing scholarly shift away from reductive dichotomizing interpretations of this conflict as a clash of modern and traditional mentalities.84 As we have seen, Cristero activists were canny propagandists who harnessed the representational strategies of modern photojournalism to denounce religious persecution, and they reinvigorated existing iconographic traditions through experimentation with technologized modes of seeing. The multifaceted visual artifacts analyzed here reveal how Cristero partisans relied on familiar religious concepts such as martyrdom and long-established visual and material modes of devotional experience to provide a meaningful religious framework for their activism, while also refashioning religious visual identities using elements from the contemporary media environment

I am very grateful to the relatives of José de León Toral and Antonio Verástegui for offering additional contextual information on two of the photographs analyzed here. I would like to thank Dr. María del Pilar Blanco, the two anonymous reviewers for their comments on this article, and colleagues who provided feedback on an early presentation of this research at the Latin American Studies Association Congress in 2021. Finally, I would like to thank the Centro de Estudios de Historia de México Carso Fundación Carlos Slim and the Archivo Histórico de la UNAM for generously allowing me to reproduce images from their collections, as well as the Fideicomiso Archivos Plutarco Elías Calles y Fernando Torreblanca for providing access to their collections.

1.

Alan Knight, “The Mentality and Modus Operandi of Revolutionary Anticlericalism,” in Faith and Impiety in Revolutionary Mexico, ed. Matthew Butler (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 22.

2.

The LNDLR was founded in 1925 in response to increasing state hostility toward the Church. The ACJM had been established in Mexico in 1913 by the French Jesuit Bernardo Bergöend.

3.

Mark Lawrence, Insurgency, Counter-insurgency and Policing in Centre-West Mexico, 1926–1929: Fighting Cristeros (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), 6.

4.

See, for example, Moisés González Navarro, Cristeros y agraristas en Jalisco, 5 vols. (Mexico City: El Colegio de Mexico, 2000); Lourdes Celina Vázquez Parada, Testimonios sobre la revolución cristera: hacia una hermenéutica de la conciencia histórica (Guadalajara: Universidad de Guadalajara, 2001); Fernando M. González, Matar y morir por Cristo Rey: aspectos de la Cristiada (Mexico City: Plaza y Valdés Editores, 2001); Matthew Butler, Popular Piety and Political Identity in Mexico’s Cristero Rebellion: Michoacán, 1927–1929 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Julia G. Young, Mexican Exodus: Emigrants, Exiles, and Refugees of the Cristero War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015) and Lawrence, Insurgency, Counter-insurgency and Policing.

5.

Historian Jean Meyer, author of the first major study of the conflict, recalls seeing photographs of Cristero martyrs in Catholic households while carrying out fieldwork in west-central Mexico during the 1960s. Jean Meyer, email correspondence with the author, August 14, 2020.

6.

The most useful contextual source on Cristero photography is Aurelio de los Reyes, “Fotografía cristera,” Alquimia 68, no. 47 (2013): 60–69. In a more recent article, published after this essay was submitted for review, David Fajardo Tapia analyzes the emotive appeal of a photographic album memorializing the martyrdom of José de León Toral and alludes to, but does not explore in detail, the devotional potential of its imagery. David Fajardo Tapia, “A Visual History of a Sacrifice: Cristero Photography and the José de León Toral Commemorative Album,” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 31, no. 4 (2022): 573–89. In the absence of substantial evidence regarding the circulation and usage of these images, my discussion relies on close visual analysis and historical contextualization to evaluate how, in broad terms, they may have produced religious meaning for a Catholic audience that was far from uniform in its beliefs and customs. As Matthew Butler underlines, religion during the twenties was a “multiple variable,” and the “spiritual landscape of west-central Mexico …encompassed a rich variety of religious cultures.” Butler, Popular Piety, 9.

7.

David Morgan has led scholarly efforts to foreground materiality in the study of religion. His most recent contribution is The Thing about Religion: An Introduction to the Material Study of Religions (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

8.

The Cristero revolt produced bitter divisions within the clerical hierarchy and between the Church and lay Catholics on issues such as the use of violence to defend religious freedom. The examples of “martyrdom” examined in this article reflect the diverging interpretations of the concept that emerged during this period. Miguel Pro, whose final pose epitomized passive resistance, was readily recognized as a martyr by the Episcopate and beatified in 1988. By contrast, clerical authorities disassociated themselves from José de León Toral, who successfully assassinated Obregón in 1929. Toral was nevertheless venerated by many Catholics as a martyr. On the noncanonical interpretations of martyrdom embraced by militant Catholics during the postrevolutionary period, see Gema Kloppe-Santamaría, “Martyrs, Fanatics, and Pious Militants: Religious Violence and the Secular State in 1930s Mexico,” The Americas 79, no. 2 (2022): 197–227.

9.

Andrea Noble, Photography and Memory in Mexico: Icons of Revolution (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2010), 132–37.

10.

Adrian Bantjes, “The War against Idols: The Meanings of Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Mexico 1910–1940,” in Negating the Image: Case Studies in Iconoclasm, ed. Jess Johnson and Anne McClanan (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2017), 43.

11.

Bantjes, “War against Idols,” 53; Moisés González Navarro, Cristeros y agraristas en Jalisco, vol. 2 (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2001), 274; Jean Meyer, La Cristiada, vol. 2: El conflicto entre la iglesia y el estado 1926–1929 (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 2002), 210–11.

12.

In 1923 the Centro de Estudiantes Católicos provided armed security to guard the Virgin’s Basilica. Following the outbreak of violence in 1926, the original image was replaced by a copy and concealed in a wardrobe in Mexico City, where it remained until the end of the conflict. Carlos Salinas, Descubrimiento de un busto humano en los ojos de la Virgen de Guadalupe (Naucalpan, Mexico: Ediciones Ruz, 2008), 141.

13.

As David Freedberg explains, “any number of assaults on images …are predicated in one way or another on the attribution of life to the figure represented, or on the related assumption that the sign is in fact the signified, that image is prototype.” David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 415.

14.

Frank Graziano, Miraculous Images and Votive Offerings in Mexico (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 18.

15.

W. J. T. Mitchell, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 98. This conflation of broken bodies and images is reflected in the compositional similarities between photographs depicting slain Cristero martyrs and those documenting incidents of iconoclastic destruction during the twenties and thirties, which are arranged in artistic collage-like assemblages. See, for example, the following folder: Arquitectura Religiosa, Sección Gráfica, Fondo Aurelio Robles Acevedo, Archivo Histórico de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (AHUNAM), Mexico City.

16.

The definitive study of the martyrdom of Miguel Pro is Marisol López Menéndez, Miguel Pro: Martyrdom, Politics, and Society in Twentieth-Century Mexico (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016).

17.

The other executed men were Pro’s brother, Humberto Pro; Luis Segura Vilchis, a young engineer and head of military operations for the Liga; and another liguero named Juan Tirado Arias. Under interrogation, Segura Vilchis accepted responsibility for planning the assassination attempt in an effort to clear the Pro brothers of any involvement.

18.

The term fotografía de escarmiento is taken from Nasheli Jiménez del Val, “Government Gore: The Images of Beltrán Leyva's Body and the Mexican (Failed) State,” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 20, no.3 (2011): 281–301. Elsewhere, Jiménez del Val asserts that photographs of the executions published in El universal were taken by Fernando Sosa and Augustín Víctor Casasola. Nasheli Jiménez del Val, “El martirio de Padre Pro,” in Los pinceles de la historia, la arqueología del régimen, 1910–1955, ed. Renato González Mello (Mexico City: Patronato del Museo Nacional de Arte, 2003), 108. The connections between death and the violent finality of photography have been addressed by various theorists and scholars. Cristian Metz asserts that “the snapshot, like death, is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world into another world, and into another kind of time.…The photographic take is immediate and definitive, like death.” Such linkages are particularly apparent in the case of execution photography, where the capture of the image must coincide exactly with the bullet’s impact upon the body. Christian Metz, “Photography and Fetish,” October 34 (1985): 84.

19.

Here I follow Richard Clay’s definition of iconoclasm as “a form of material sign transformation with communicational intent.” Clay thus underlines the creative dimensions of iconoclastic acts, which involve the “remaking as well as breaking” of images. Richard Clay, Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: The Transformation of Signs (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2012), 8, 277.

20.

Cristero propaganda was disseminated in Europe by VITA-México (Unión Internacional de Todos los Amigos de la Liga Nacional Defensora de la Libertad Religioso de México) and in the United States by the Unión Nacionalista Mexicana and the Order of the Knights of Columbus, among other organizations. María Alicia Puente Lutteroth, Movimiento cristero: una pluralidad desconocida (Mexico City: Progreso, 2002), 128. Robert Weis records that in Italy alone the Catholic press reproduced 71,600 photographs of the 1927 executions. Robert Weis, For Christ and Country: Militant Catholic Youth in Post-Revolutionary Mexico (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 95.

21.

Although their authorship is poorly documented, it is likely that photos of the first variety were taken by amateur Catholic photographers, while the latter were originally produced by federal soldiers to demonstrate their successful suppression of the revolt and later appropriated by Cristero activists. Few Cristero photographers have been individually identified. The Catholic photographer Manuel Ramos, discussed later in this article, helped to produce Cristero propaganda and photographed and filmed clandestine masses, while Aurelio de los Reyes claims that the Jesuit priest Heriberto Navarrete also photographed some Cristero activities. De los Reyes, “Fotografía cristera,” 65–66.

22.

“Nuevos ultrajes,” typed copy of an article published in the magazine América on February 11, 1928, CLXXXVI.6.560, Manuscritos del Movimiento Cristero, Colección Antonio Rius Facius, Centro de Estudios de Historia de México (CEHM) Carso Fundación Carlos Slim, Mexico City; Marisol López Menéndez, “El gesto, el cuerpo y la memoria: los ecos históricos de la ejecución de Miguel Pro,” Historia y grafía, no. 52 (2019): 201.

23.

Discussing the output of photojournalist Enrique Díaz during this period, Monroy Nasr notes that in the main newspapers of the time “no se encontraron publicadas las fotografías de Díaz sobre el conflicto cristero, que para 1929 ya eran cerca de 300 negativos…el Estado impuso serias restricciones para la circulación impresas de esas imágenes.” (Díaz’s photographs of the Cristero conflict, which as of 1929 already numbered about three hundred negatives, were not published …the State imposed serious restrictions on the printed circulation of those images.) Rebeca Monroy Nasr, Historias para ver: Enrique Díaz, fotorreportero (Mexico City: UNAM, 2003), 112.

24.

“A los católicos mexicanos,” pamphlet, undated, AJA/03.16, File.3, inventory 651, bundle 1/4, n.d., page 77, Documentos relativos a la cuestión religiosa (1908–1930), Archivo Joaquín Amaro, Fideicomiso Archivos Plutarco Elías Calles y Fernando Torreblanca, Mexico City.

25.

Julia Young notes that Cristero troops “were known to take hostages, raid and loot villages, and participate in torture.” Young, Mexican Exodus, 28.

26.

David Cook, Martyrdom in Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 2.

27.

J. K. Elliott, “Imitations in Literature and Life: Apocrypha and Martyrdom,” in The Routledge Companion to Early Christian Thought, ed. Jeffrey Bingham (London: Routledge, 2010), 97.

28.

Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Martyr Passions and Hagiography,” in The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, eds. Susan Ashbrook Harvey and David G. Hunter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 604; Stephanie Cobb, Divine Deliverance: Pain and Painlessness in Early Christian Martyr Texts (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 45–47.

29.

Robert Wiśniewski, The Beginnings of the Cult of Relics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 10. With regards to visual representations, Löx notes that the iconography of Christian martyrdom did not start to develop until the sixth century and was initially largely centered around Christ’s crucifixion. Markus Löx, “The Death of Peter: Anchoring an Image in the Context of Late Antique Representations of Martyrdom,” in The Early Reception and Appropriation of the Apostle Peter (60–800 CE) (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 150.

30.

Alexandra Walsham, “Introduction: Relics and Remains,” Past & Present 206, no.5 (2010): 9–36.

31.

For example, a pamphlet entitled “Las actas de los mártires,” held at the CEHM archive, describes the torture, trial and death of ACJM and Liga members Anacleto González Flores, Luis Padilla, and Joaquín Silva. “Las actas de los mártires,” undated document, CLXXXVI.46.4773, Manuscritos del Movimiento Cristero, Colección Antonio Rius Facius, CEHM Carso Fundación Carlos Slim, Mexico City. On relics associated with the Chapultepec martyrs, see Matthew Butler, “Trouble Afoot? Pilgrimage in Cristero Mexico City,” in Butler, Faith and Impiety, 158.

32.

Robert Curley, Citizens and Believers: Religion and Politics in Revolutionary Jalisco, 1900–1930 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2018), 24.

33.

For a compilation of Cristero journalistic texts, see Alicia Olivera de Bonfil, Peoresnada: periódico cristero (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2005). For a comprehensive survey of Cristero newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets, see Puente Lutteroth, Movimiento cristero, 159–65. Jean Meyer and Ulises Íñiguez Mendoza have also discussed the limited selection of films relating to Catholic experience from this period, including the documentary México y su gente 1926–1928 (undated), directed by the photographer Manuel Ramos, which captures aspects of everyday religious life during the conflict such as Catholic attendance at clandestine masses. Jean Meyer and Ulises Íñiguez Mendoza, La Cristiada en imágenes: del cine mudo al video (Guadalajara, Jalisco: Universidad de Guadalajara, 2006), 15–30.

34.

Several of the martyr photographs and prayer cards held in the archives of the Centro de Estudios de Historia de México (CEHM) and the Archivo Histórico de la UNAM (AHUNAM) feature hand-drawn or lithographic illustrations, and ACJM activist José de León Toral studied at the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes. Margarita Hanhausen Cole has analyzed a rare known example of Cristero painting, which contains imagery based on the press photographs of Pro’s execution. Margarita Hanhausen Cole, “Una estampa apocalíptica de los tiempos de la guerra cristera: el triunfo de Cristo Rey de Gonzalo Carrasco Espinosa SJ,” Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas 29, no. 90 (2007): 119–47.

35.

Each of these photographs also circulated in individual form.

36.

On photography during the Mexican Revolution, see John Mraz, Photographing the Mexican Revolution: Commitments, Testimonies, Icons (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012).

37.

See Noble, Photography and Memory in Mexico, 91, 120, 127–28. The “triple execution” photographs were taken by American photographer and prolific postcard producer Walter H. Horne.

38.

Pablo Piccato identifies El Universal’s afternoon edition El Universal Gráfico, founded in 1922, and La Prensa, founded in 1928, as two of the first periodicals to work within this journalistic mold. Pablo Piccato, A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 69.

39.

John Mraz, Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and National Identity (London: Duke University Press, 2009), 46. On sensationalist photographic reports centering on criminality during this period, see also Alberto del Castillo Troncoso, “La historia de la fotografía en México 1890–1920: la diversidad de los usos de la imagen,” in Imaginarios y fotografía en México, 1839–1970, ed. Rosa Casanova and Alberto del Castillo Troncoso (Mexico City: Lunwerg Editores/CONACULTA, 2005), 71.

40.

Piccato, History of Infamy, 64.

41.

Piccato, 44–66.

42.

For examples of such images, see Jesse Lerner, The Shock of Modernity: Crime Photography in Mexico City (Turner: Mexico City, 2007). Early nota roja publications also reproduced revolutionary-era images. See examples provided by Mraz, such as a photograph taken in Chihuahua in 1912 of a surgeon holding out the amputated leg of a federal soldier, Mraz, Photographing the Mexican Revolution, 86.

43.

Piccato, History of Infamy, 9.

44.

See, for example, “Cuatro crímenes más en México y cuatro mártires más en el cielo,” undated document, CLXXXVI.4.297, box 62, folder 479, Page 1272; “Crímenes y más crímenes del callismo,” La Voz de la Patria, April 22, 1928, box 100, folder 723, page 6803; “Nuevos crímenes oficiales se han registrado en Jalisco,” La voz de la patria, September 22, 1928, box 101, folder 729, page 7301; all three in Hemerografía, Fondo Miguel Palomar y Vizcarra, AHUNAM, Mexico City. The newspaper La voz de la patria was published by the ACJM in Los Angeles, California.

45.

Regarding the demographic profile of Cristeros, Butler notes in his study of the conflict in Michoacán that most Cristero troops “represented a wider cross-section of the rural milieu than their leaders, with only the very rich absent from rebel ranks.” Butler, Popular Piety, 204–5.

46.

Many of the photographic postcards and prints depicting Cristero martyrs closely followed revolutionary-era models. For example, the postcards depicting Cristero leaders Miguel Gómez Loza and Enrique Gorostieta Velarde, which display graphic post-mortem images accompanied by explanatory captions scrawled in white ink, bear a striking resemblance to the postcard depicting Villa’s corpse that circulated following his assassination.

47.

Ceri Price, “Tokens of Renewal: The Picture Postcard as a Secular Relic of Re-creation and Recreation,” Culture and Religion 14, no.1 (2013), 118.

48.

Shawn Michelle Smith, Photography on the Color Line: W. E. B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 122.

49.

Andrea Noble, “History, Modernity and Atrocity in Mexican Visual Culture,” Bulletin of Spanish Studies 92, no. 3 (2015): 400.

50.

Another example of this kind of this kind of embellished martyr image is a mixed-media composition from 1927 featuring angels from Gustave Doré’s The Crowned Virgin: A Vision of John (c. 1866), superimposed over a photograph depicting the corpses of the Chapultepec martyrs. Document 39, November 23, 1927, folder 1, CCLVI.1, Fondo Miguel Augustín Pro, CEHM Carso Fundación Carlos Slim, Mexico City.

51.

On this photographic tradition, see Sara Bringas Cramer, “‘Angelitos’: la tradición de fotografiar a los pequeños difuntos,” Relatos e Historia de México 69 (2014): 65–69; Christopher Conway, Nineteenth-Century Spanish America: A Cultural History (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2015), 160–62. In his study of votive offerings in Mexico, Graziano notes that photographs, like other physical traces such as braids of hair, often serve as a surrogate presence for petitioners at shrines. Graziano, Miraculous Images, 220.

52.

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 81; Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Allen Lane, 1978), 154.

53.

André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” trans. Hugh Gray, Film Quarterly 13, no. 4 (1960): 8.

54.

Such images are widely available for purchase online and at the Church of the Sagrada Familia in Mexico City. Similar photographic relics can be found among the items on display at the Centro de Estudios Cristeros Alfredo Hernández Quesada in Encarnación de Díaz, Jalisco. For example, the display features a small silver frame containing a photograph of Cristero General Enrique Gorostieta, along with what is described as strands of his hair and a scrap of cloth bearing his blood.

55.

Rocha Cito, “Manuel Ramos, Corazon de JLT,” in Fotografía, ed. Paulina Rocha Cito (Mexico City: Fundación Televisa, 2005), 128. Photographs of Toral standing before the firing squad were later published in the magazine Hoy in 1940.

56.

Dooley also claims that the sheet was converted into a flag for the LNDLR. Francis Patrick Dooley, Los cristeros, Calles, y el catolicismo mexicano (Mexico City: SepSetentas, 1976), 172.

57.

Manuel Ramos, Fervores y epifanías en el México moderno, ed. Alfonso Morales (Tlaxcala: Archivo Fotográfico Manuel Ramos, La Casa de los Árboles de Apizaco, 2011), 124.

58.

John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographs and Histories (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 97–98.

59.

The accompanying photograph displaying the front of the heart is also held at the CEHM archive in Mexico City.

60.

Jorge Antonio de León y de la Mora, email correspondence with the author, October 14, 2020.

61.

Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, “Holy Organ or Unholy Idol? Forming a History of the Sacred Heart in New Spain,” Colonial Latin American Review 23, no. 3 (2014): 320–59.

62.

This iconographic reference likely also reflects Toral’s deep personal devotion to the cult of the Sacred Heart. Toral and his wife posed before the icon on their wedding day, and during his time in prison he produced a drawing entitled Toral y el Sagrado Corazón de Jesús (1928), depicting the artist and Jesus displaying identical flaming sacred hearts. Renato González Mello, “Of Intersections and Parallel Lives: José de León Toral and David Alfaro Siqueiros,” in True Stories of Crime in Modern Mexico, ed. Robert Buffington and Pablo Piccato (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009), 179–214.

63.

Kilroy-Ewbank, “Holy Organ or Unholy Idol?,” 339. In her book on the same subject, Kilroy-Ewbank asserts that this naturalist precision also reflected “scientific interest and medical theatrics of the early modern era” and the “broader Enlightenment trend of visualizing knowledge, in this case the truth about Christ’s sacred viscera, using scientific and medical ideas.” Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, Holy Organ or Unholy Idol?: The Sacred Heart in the Art, Religion, and Politics of New Spain (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 101.

64.

David Morgan, The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 111. The notion of haptic visuality has been explored most thoroughly in a cinematic context by Laura U. Marks, who draws from the art historian Alöis Riegel’s distinction between haptic and optical images. Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).

65.

Kilroy-Ewbank, Holy Organ or Unholy Idol?, 18.

66.

Kilroy-Ewbank, 110–11. Meyer notes that altars devoted to the Sagrado Corazón were common in Catholic households at the time of the conflict. Jean A. Meyer, La Cristiada, vol. 3: Los cristeros (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 2005), 177.

67.

As with most martyr images, the geographical circulation of this postcard is poorly documented. We know, however, that other images memorializing Verástegui preserved in AHUNAM were printed in Barcelona. Others can be found in the CEHM archive in Mexico City, the Knights of Columbus archive in New Haven, Connecticut, and the British Jesuit Archives in London.

68.

Jennie Purnell, Popular Movements and State Formation in Revolutionary Mexico: The Agraristas and Cristeros of Michoacán (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 97.

69.

Cook, Martyrdom in Islam, 2.

70.

ARA0125, document 125, 1927, file 8, cabinet 2, Asociación Católica de la Juventud Mexicana, Fondo Aurelio Robles Acevedo, AHUNAM, Mexico City. Verástegui’s great grandnephew recalls pilgrims visiting the cloth up until the mid-eighties, when the family arranged for the relic to be professionally photographed once again. Miguel Rodríguez, email correspondence with the author, November 28, 2021.

71.

Butler, “Trouble Afoot?,” 149–63.

72.

For other historical examples of the Virgin’s image being mobilized for political purposes, see Jeanette Favrot Peterson, “The Virgin of Guadalupe: Symbol of Conquest or Liberation?,” Art Journal 51, no. 4 (1992): 39–47. More recently, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has harnessed the broad popular appeal of the Virgen Morena (“the brown-skinned Virgin”), naming his political party MORENA (an acronym for Movimiento Regeneración Nacional) and registering his presidential candidacy on December 12, 2017, the Virgen de Guadalupe’s feast day.

73.

Francisco de la Maza, El guadalupanismo mexicano (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1953), 58.

74.

Martin Lister, “Photography in the Age of Electronic Imaging,” in Photography: A Critical Introduction, ed. Liz Wells (London: Routledge, 2004), 332.

75.

Rogelio Ruiz Gomar, “Unique Expressions: Painting in New Spain,” in Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life, 1521–1821, ed. Donna Pierce, Rogelio Ruiz Gomar, and Clara Bargellini (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 2004), 64.

76.

Margaret Olin, Touching Photography (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2011), 17.

77.

Morgan, Embodied Eye, 111; Rubén Rosario Rodríguez, Christian Martyrdom and Political Violence: A Comparative Theology with Judaism and Islam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 5.

78.

Noble, “History, Modernity and Atrocity,” 413.

79.

The mixed-media approach employed in many martyr photographs invites further comparisons with the stylistic characteristics of the baroque. As Zamora and Kaup explain, “baroque artifacts are almost always mixed media, ars combinatoria in their aesthetic and formal continuities, and often in their materials as well.” Lois Parkinson Zamora and Monika Kaup, “Baroque, New World Baroque, Neobaroque: Categories and Concepts,” in Baroque New Worlds: Representation, Transculturation, Counterconquest, ed. Lois Parkinson Zamora and Monika Kaup (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 22–23.

80.

Lucien van Liere and Erik Meinema, eds., Material Perspectives on Religion, Conflict, and Violence: Things of Conflict (Leiden: Brill, 2022).

81.

See, for example, Arjen Nauta, “Radical Islam, Globalisation and Social Media: Martyrdom Videos on the Internet,” in Social Media and Religious Change, ed. Marie Gillespie, David Eric John Herbert, and Anita Greenhill (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), 121–42; Bilal Tawfiq Hamamra, “Witness and Martyrdom: Palestinian Female Martyrs’ Video-Testimonies,” Journal for Cultural Research 22, no. 3 (2018): 224–38.

82.

Matthew Butler, “A Revolution in Spirit? Mexico, 1910–40,” in Butler, Faith and Impiety, 15; Fernando Cervantes, “Mexico’s ‘Ritual Constant’: Religion and Liberty from Colony to Post-Revolution,” in Butler, Faith and Impiety, 59.

83.

Like the Cristero conflict, the pandemic has also prompted the reemergence of clandestine religious services in Mexico. Alfredo Valadez Rodríguez, “En cuarentena, parroquia en Zacatecas celebra misa ‘clandestina,’”La jornada, May 20, 2020, accessed August 10, 2021, https://www.jornada.com.mx/ultimas/estados/2020/05/20/en-cuarentena-parroquia-en-zacatecas-celebra-misa-201cclandestina201d-3254.html; Analy Nuño and Caio Barretto Briso, “‘Enter through the Back Door’: Secret Church Services in Mexico and Brazil Defy Covid-19 Rules,” The Guardian, June 17, 2020, www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/jun/17/mexico-churches-catholic-mass-covid-19-coronavirus.

84.

This perspective is exemplified by Jean Meyer’s early research.