In Hispanic santo enthusiast culture, there is a recurring talk of unción sagrada, a concept unheard-of by Protestants and even some Catholics who are not in such a company. What is “unción sagrada?” How is holy unction (the literal translation of unción sagrada) which is a term only used in regards to talking about the Sacrament of Extreme Unction applied to the usage of statues and icons of saints?
It is understandable even amongst Catholics that such a talk of unción sagrada is largely unknown. The term itself is undeniably Spanish and its Hispanic origins confined it to the Iberian Peninsula (although Catholic Portuguese might have some understanding of the concept) and to the former Spanish dominions such as Mexíco, Latino-America, and Islas Filipinas. Territories which the Spanish culture resonates deeply even today, for the natives considered Hispanic culture as theirs, and made it theirs.
This is not to say that such a concept is completely absent in other Catholic cultures, but rather, in my humble opinion, there are no cultures that emphasize this sort of concept as much as the Hispanic Catholic culture, where processions are much more formalized and unique, especially in the Andalucia region of Spain, where the famed Semana Santa en Sevilla is known from far and wide.
The term “unción sagrada”
This term is, as said above, very undeniably Hispanic. It is then necessary to introduce our
brethren who are not Hispanic Catholics to such a term in order to help them understand the content and message of this post. This is not made to impose the Spanish way of doing things, but rather to introduce or reintroduce in undeniably larger parts of the Catholic world that still cares for the Catholic culture of doing things and for Catholic tradition, that such a concept like this may help them in some way, especially when having commissioned an image. Many times I have seen good well-meaning Catholics commission religious images that look more like cold monumental images of their patron saint, rather than an image that would aid them in their contemplation. In worse cases, I have seen financially well-off parishes dedicated to say, the Blessed Virgin, but who do not have a proper image of her in the parish church, many times in which the only image of her is some plaster statue from the 50s that might as well have been too vulgar and whose quality is cheap. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in this, but it would be firm and proper that a suitably decent, liturgically, and theologically appropriate image of the patron saint, or the Blessed Virgin Mary be put , unless it is financially impossible to do so.
Suffice to say that Unción sagrada is the way of measuring the way that a sacred image resonates deeply to the viewer or the devotee, how such an image looks like in front of the devotee, and to what extent the devotee would be encouraged to simply kneel or pray in front of it. It is the art of moving the devotee or the viewer to contemplate the mysteries of which the image represents.
Hence it is called sacred unction. The unction refers to the way religious or spiritual fervor, of a particular image could manifest to the viewer, how the viewer could be anointed, so to speak, with awe and sense of veneration. It is a fluid and almost subjective concept. Most people may feel the unción sagrada of an image, while others might not.
Individuals might not feel the unción of a certain image primarly due to personal and subjective factors, such as it not appealing to them aesthetically, physically or emotionally or what they would love to find in such an image. Similarly another factor could be the fact that what the image conveys does not resonate with them. In regards to this specific reason, it is then in part of the viewer that such unción is lacking in the individual.
Similarly a given image might be innapropriate, in which case it is the sculptor’s or the comissioner’s or the camarero’s (caretaker’s) fault. Either because one or many factors, such as (a) the image is not presented properly, (b) the image did not use prescribed iconography or violated the standards of the Church in making images, or (c) the image has physical defects that while it projects to us the essence of what saint or holy figure the specific image represents, has failed to impart unción upon their looks through physical deviances , not necessarily because it is ugly, but because it is inappropriate (e.g, a smiling corpus in a crucifix, a laughing Sacred Heart image, etc.)
How could unción sagrada be achieved?
This begs us to ask the question, how could unción sagrada be achieved, so that the image could indeed convey the sort of ‘sacred quality’ that it should be expressing and that the onlooker might feel that ‘sacred quality’ that such an image should impress upon him?
Such a question does not have much of a directly specific answer. To each his own, to be honest. But then again, there are principles to be followed in order that unción sagrada be achieved for these images.
First, it should be decently made, in such as way that no worldly qualities or ultra-realism is imposed upon making such an image. It has to be steady upon the balance of realism and naturalism on the one hand, and the abstract and mystical on the other. It should not curtail the mysteries that it depicts, but it should show and explain them further to the comprehension of the viewer.
Second, it should be clear that in order for unción to be achieved, it must be clear that the image being made is for sacred purposes, that is to say, for veneration. Therefore, it is only right that such an image not be made in the style of secular art depicting sacred mysteries. In other words it should not look like dolls or toys. It should above all, be treated as a sacred image. Therefore it is imperative that prescribed iconography be followed in making the image. If it is a statue, care must be made that such a statue not degenerate into monumental figures that are not fit for veneration. Instead it should be made in order that people may emphathize with the image, and that the image may let the devotee feel and sense the sacred.
Third and lastly, in order for unción sagrada to be achieved, the daily proper devotional prayers are to be said before it, and such statutes should not lie in a corner in which no one ever lights a votive candle in front of it or which is left not venerated.
The historical exemption to this rule in regards to a sacred image being made in the classical and proportionate style is in regards to what are known as mamarachos in Latin America, which are often considered “ugly” in regards to the tastes of the professional artist and which are often depicted as “naïve” in style. These are rather curious exemptions, for somehow they capture unción without ever asking for it. It is the folk appeal that allow these images achieve unción, in which such statues are not delibarely made “ugly” as a deliberate act of the artist, but in which the artist does what he could best afford to do. In this case it is the simple faith and testament of the artist which allows it to achieve unción sagrada by itself.