Imagine walking home one day and finding a beautiful rug placed unceremoniously in the middle of the street. Its colors are exquisite; its design is unique and intricate. From a distance it looks like an ordinary rug; but as you get closer, you are surprised to discover that it is actually ingeniously created using nothing but colored sawdust, fruits, clovers, flowers, and pines. You might be tempted to question, “What is this strange thing, who put it here, and why the heck is it in the middle of the street?” Well, as strange as it may seem to us in the United States, this is a common sight during a special celebration in a beautiful corner of the world that you might not expect.
That place is Guatemala, and the rug is called an alfombra (al-foam-bruh), which means “carpet” in Spanish. You can find alfombras—like the one depicted at left—covering the streets of Antigua, an ancient city, during the week of Semana Santa (Holy Week).
Although alfombras are made out of natural elements such as fruits, pines, and flowers, sawdust is the primary element. Sawdust is painted vibrant colors and poured into temporary stencil molds to create elaborate symbols and designs. These designs can range anywhere from a flamingo, to an abstract shape, to a depiction of Christ carrying a cross. Many of them contain religious symbolism.
Cultural and Religious Significance
A common religious symbol used is the butterfly. A caterpillar’s evolution to a butterfly represents the life of Christ. A butterfly begins life as a plain caterpillar. It dies to the world by entering a cocoon for a time and is reborn as a beautiful butterfly—symbolizing the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ three days later.
It is not just the design of the alfombras that have symbolic meaning; the materials used to create them, such as pine boughs, feathers, and incense, are the same sacrificial materials that were used in Christian theology’s history. The Spanish first introduced Christianity and the Semana Santa celebration when they colonized Guatemala.
Alfombras are traditionally created to honor Christ and to show their devotion to Him. Catholicism stuck long after the Spanish left, and active members are still found creating alfombras during Holy Week throughout Guatemala today. Catholics celebrate Semana Santa in remembrance of the Atonement of Jesus Christ in the last week of His life. Alfombras are finished in time for Good Friday, the day Christ was crucified.
They are created along the path of a parade of los hermandades (the brotherhoods), who carry floats depicting Christ burdened with His cross. The hermandades trample the alfombras along their route, often destroying them mere minutes after they have been completed. To the people of Antigua, it is okay for their masterpieces to be destroyed. The physical alfombra is not the important thing to them; it’s the act of showing their devotion to their Savior that matters most. They want only the best carpets for the hermandades to carry their sacred statues over.
During the Renaissance, hundreds of Italian artists immortalized the Madonna through drawings, paintings, and sculptures. But the artists who won the title of madonnari had an unusual domain—the streets. They were chalk painters, wandering artists who venerated the beloved Virgin by stretching her face across the surface of churchyards and
Although traditional madonnari allegedly disappeared during World War II, street painting has come back full force since then. Madonnari like Melanie Stimmell (pictured at left) have come to be respected as creators of high art instead of simple folk artists, and the genre is now celebrated primarily through local and international festivals rather than through solo exhibitions. The first of these festivals was held in Grazie di Curtatone, Italy, in 1972 and became the mother of hundreds of such festivals across Europe and the United States.
Early madonnari used whatever materials were available to them, such as charcoal, white chalk, or even scrap materials from buildings. Contemporary artists now use multi-colored chalk with a creamy consistency that blends well, like oil pastels. Some madonnari even use tempera, a water-based paint, as a base so that the chalk holds even when
the wind blows.
Cultural and Religious Significance
Early street painters likely painted the Virgin Mary out of their own religious fervor—and the fervor of those who would be tossing them coins. Today, some chalk artists have begun to paint secular subjects, but many continue to depict classical subjects to pay homage to the talent of the great Renaissance artists. This combination of classical and contemporary culture is a rich artistic juxtaposition. Nevertheless, street painting’s greatest contribution to contemporary and past culture lies in its creative process, not its subject matter.
When you walk through a museum, you survey collection after collection of finished products; you can only guess what these paintings might have looked like in their first stages. With chalk art, the finished product is inevitably destroyed, by weather or crowds, but you can see every step of the creation process if you stand there long enough. Although individual chalk paintings survive only in photography, street painting’s four-century heritage is a testament to the value of witnessing the artistic process.
Street painting festivals have amplified the art form’s status as a performance art. Renaissance street painters had to travel from town to town to find appreciative crowds, but modern crowds now come in hordes seeking the street painters. These festivals expose thousands of spectators in one day to the artistic process.
The festival has also introduced a more formal edge of competition to the art. In chalk art’s original days, the artists were solitary and essentially nomadic. If they competed, it was probably two at a time on opposite street corners, not fifty at a time in front of a county courthouse. Today, street painters gather from around the world to compete, and they have something to gain besides bread money—prestige. Most festivals offer prizes and awards, but the annual festival in Grazie di Curtatone offers the most prestigious of all: the title of maestro madonnaro/madonnara.
Street painting festivals are fantastic places to witness the creation of art and to explore why it is created. Although simply looking at photographs of these pieces can be inspiring, the full beauty of the art forms are best understood when you can see them for yourself.
Semana Santa/Holy Week
April 5–6, 2012
(search Semana Santa)
Denver Chalk Art Festival on Larimer Square
June 2–3, 2012
Featuring maestra madonnara
Incontro Nazionale Madonnari
Grazie di Curtatone, Italy
August 15, 2012
Carlsbad Art Splash
September 22–23, 2012