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Penitente Canyon: Magic and Mystery in Southern Colorado

The painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe was painted by the Penitent Brothers on a cliff in Penitente Canyon in southern Colorado's San Luis Valley. Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Penitente Canyon, on the western edge of the San Luis Valley, a Connecticut-sized basin in southern Colorado, has long been a sacred place. While climbers come in droves now to ascend the gritty walls of volcanic tuff, the solidified remains of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in the earth’s history, other peoples have visited and lived in the canyon for literally thousands of years.

Paleo-people hunted game, gathered edible plants, and lived among the rocks as long ago as 10,000 years. More recent native people include the Ancestral Puebloans, descendants of the ancient ones who once lived in the Four Corners region, the Utes, and the Jicarilla Apache. Remains of their passage are occasional projectile points found on the stony canyon rims and a legacy of rock art, mostly pictographs painted on secluded overhanging rock walls.

High on a south-facing wall in Penitente Canyon is perhaps the most visible reminder of those who came before, a painting of the Virgen de Guadalupe, also called Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.

The Virgin, revered by Mexican Catholics, appeared four times in December 1531 to poor Juan Diego and once to his uncle Juan Bernadino on Tepeyac, a hill near Mexico City. The beautiful apparition spoke to him in his native Nahuatl, telling him to build a chapel there to honor her. Juan Diego reported the visitation to the archbishop, who, of course, didn’t believe him and asked for proof. On her fifth visit, the Virgen told Juan Diego to gather roses on the mountaintop and she placed them in his cloak. When he returned to the archbishop, he opened his cloak and the flowers fell to the floor, and an image of Nuestra Señora appeared on the cloak’s fabric. Que milagro!

The painting of the Virgen de Guadalupe was probably painted in the 1920s or 1930s by members of Los Hermanos Penitentes, the Penitent Brothers, a Catholic sect that integrated Catholicism and Franciscan mysticism with native beliefs and rituals. The Penitentes incorporated physical suffering, including flagellation, ritual death, and crucifixion, as part of the symbolism of moving from darkness into the light.

The brothers gathered by the early 1800s in moradas, a type of chapel without ecclesiastical oversight, and also evolved into political organizations. Without sacraments and priests, the Penitentes developed their own rituals and pathways to enlightenment.

One of these rituals was a reenactment of the Passion Play, the death of the Christ by crucifixion. Some Hermanos actually nailed a member to a cross and several died from their crucifixion wounds, a personal stigmata. The Brotherhood, retreating underground away from negative publicity, still exists as an egalitarian religious community in the San Luis Valley and northern New Mexico.

One of the Penitentes, using a basic palette of red, blue, white, and black, painted the Virgin about 40 feet above the cliff base in the central section of the canyon, probably suspended by a rope. Above the likeness, the words “Con Sufrimiento y Consuelo,” translated “With Suffering and Consolation,” were inscribed in red paint. The names of three of the brothers, Victor, Abel, and Victor, were painted at the cliff base but are now almost faded away.

In the early 1980s, the painting was touched up, supposedly by an artist sitting in a tire suspended from the clifftop with his paint pots around him. The three names at the base were possibly made at that time. Not long afterward a drunkard stopped by to use the sacred Virgin for target practice, destroying the face and pocking the surrounding rock. A couple climbers later rappelled down and filled the offending holes.

Here are a couple of photographs that I shot of the Virgin painting. One is an image I took a couple of weeks ago and the other is of Ian Green climbing to the right of the Virgin in 1996. The painting has faded and flakes of paint have fallen off since I first saw the unique painting in 1989 on my first visit to Penitente Canyon.

It is still a compelling icon. Walking up the canyon now on a deserted morning, it’s easy to imagine a band of hooded Brothers gathered among the scrub oak below the painting during Easter week, their voices raised in hymn and prayer and echoing down the soulful canyon.

Want to go rock climbing at Penitente Canyon? Check out my book ROCK CLIMBING COLORADO for directions, route descriptions, photo topos, and action photographs.


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