craft wax, creations with ritual meaning
By Jessica Chilián
Photography & Cinema by Roberto Ruizgomar
Reading Time: 7 minutes
Chandlery is the art of working with wax, especially making candles. The workshop or shop where wax is worked is also called a “cereria”. The chandler is the person who makes or sells wax and candles. Wax is a fatty substance secreted by the cherry glands of young worker bees and is obtained by melting the wax combs that bees build inside their hives. With the arrival of Christianity, the wax began to have a religious meaning: it symbolizes the flesh of Christ because of its pure and indestructible aspect. Hence it came to be used in worship in the form of lights, candles and paschal candles.
For a long time, the Church ordained that temple lights should be, for the most part, pure wax.
In many towns the use of wax on a large scale led to religious magical uses. The art of candle making was started in the country by the cloistered religious communities, who made waxed flowers for the crowns that the novices were to wear on the day of profession. Among the natives, the wax tradition is manifested mainly in the festivities for the dead and Holy Week.
For the indigenous and rural communities of our country, candles and waxes have a ritual meaning. They are never lacking in family or community events or festivities: festivities, funeral ceremonies, weddings, baptisms, healings or sacred invocations. However, the artistic value that its manufacture implies practically goes unnoticed, it is a work little appreciated beyond the ceremonial sense that surrounds them.
In the Sierra Norte de Puebla, specifically in Cuetzalan, this artistic expression is preserved, to erect majestic carved, scaled and flowery pieces, which each preserve their techniques and transmit them to new generations. These works of art are known and made by the Mendez Nava Family of the San Andres Tzicuilan community and are aimed at the divinities of spiritual planes and involve the participation of artists who capture a magnificent aesthetic, which only lasts a few hours or as long as contemplate the party, it is an ephemeral art that is recycled.
Since time immemorial and in all human settlements, fire has been an indispensable element in ritual, and in Mexico this diversity and mastery of materials and forms is unique.
Mr. Eugenio Mendez Nava, National Prize of Popular Art in 2015, was the one who started this tradition, first he started with miniature figures carved in wood, he worked with textiles, he made quetzal plumes, until he found a future in the candle shop, he was 14 years old. when he wanted to become a craftsman, to help his family, but also to spread the culture of his community. He preserved his craft when he began teaching his technique to children and youth until he passed away in 2018; The knowledge of him continues to be passed from generation to generation.
When Eugenio was 25 years old, he realized that the candle shop was about to be lost because the only ones who knew how to make the pieces were already very old and if they died, no one in his community would be able to continue with that tradition, so he decided to rescue the trade and print his stamp, which has characterized his workshop over the years, to make it one of the best known and most visited.
The raw material for the production of waxes in the Nahua community of Puebla is obtained from the melipona or pisilnekmej bee.
Currently, Mrs. Ines Mendez Nava is in charge of continuing the family tradition and is the head of the workshop where structures with reliefs and sculptural details are manufactured, which give a three-dimensional shape, rare to sculptures. The waxes called stewardship candles are made up of seven symbols: three for the Holy Trinity represented by a candle in the center with the highest height, plus four candles around it that represent the four cardinal points; the horizontal circle is the world and the vertical circle represents the universe. It depends on the festivity and the saint they celebrate, the image in the center of the candle will be different, be it a Virgin, the Christ or a Saint located in the center.
Mrs. Ines tells us that “in our community the use of wax is very important, because we use it in different ceremonies and festivals dedicated to community patrons.” He assured that “this tradition has been transmitted from generation to generation” and that in his community “wax is used for celebrations of ancestral origin such as the dedicated Saint Francis of Asis, and it is the “mayordomos”, who are in charge of carving the candles that are offer”. Within the Nahuatl indigenous community, “mayordomia”, exercised voluntarily, is a way of demonstrating devotion to the saint and gives prestige to those who fulfill it responsibly. The steward is the intermediary between the saint and the group, and must be splendid and spare no expense.
Mrs. Ines Mendez is an expert in the process of making flowery crowns, it is a slow and artisan process that requires a lot of work, dedication and creativity. In a small container the paraffin is melted, then a wooden mold in the shape of a flower or leaf is introduced, it is removed and placed in a container with ice water and it is quickly removed; This operation is repeated from one to 3 times depending on the need and the required thickness. The flower is detached from the mold with the help of cold water, once the necessary flowers are finished, they are placed on a rack. Afterwards, the outline of the petals is slightly dipped in hot paraffin in natural color, to immediately pass it through the diamond of the desired color.
To glue the flowers, you must take the flower from the top and dip the tail in the hot paraffin, to soften it and cut the tip of the flowers that go in the first round and then glue them to the candle, they are literally sewn one by one. Once the first round is finished, a mixture of natural paraffin and tree resin, both melted, is smeared on it with a brush. Subsequently, the other flowers are passed through the hot paraffin, but without cutting the tip, they are glued to the candle and the procedure is repeated until once the flowers are glued, the leaves are glued to it.
The flowers can be of different shapes and colors and the decoration of the candle also varies according to taste. The approximate elaboration time per floral candle is 20 minutes, which depends on the skill of the artisan. Once the flowers are ready, they are placed on a grid and one by one they are glued around the natural-colored candle. Sometimes to give it shine and depth, gloss paper is used as a lining and to form them they make use of prefabricated molds that are adjusted to special orders. Each of the waxes produced in the workshop varies in size, color and image, but always carries a great load of faith.
Another technique used by the Mendez family is to put a wire frame lined with colored paper, such as metallic, on a large candle, and add flowers, leaves and other wax ornaments, which have previously been taken from the molds, usually made of wood, metal, plaster or clay. These molds are true relics, since they have been inherited from generation to generation.
During colonial times, the artisans who were dedicated to making candles were known as chandlery and, although their products were essential to keep houses and temples illuminated, they were not satisfied with just making candles, candles and tapers. They specialized in candles with religious designs and carved and scaled waxes, with which they adorned altars and altarpieces to offer to the patron saints of each neighborhood, city or town.
Historians specialized in Mexican popular art maintain that, in the case of wax, there is evidence that Mesoamerican cultures used wax in the jewelry technique called “lost wax”.
In ancient Mexico, melipona bees were already raised, and from there honey and wax were obtained. From the arrival of the Spanish, bees began to be brought from Europe, which were larger. With the arrival of the Augustinian fathers, the production of artisan candles began in Mexico, unknown until then in these large estates. During the Viceroyalty, some white wax religious medallions known as Agnus Dei were imported, of Italian origin (where they were made since the 4th century) and of which, unfortunately and due to their fragility, it is only possible to see some specimens in museums.
As the work of the candlesticks was so appreciated, the first laws were formulated to certify the purity of the wax. To this day, there are still families and workshops dedicated to the art of craft candle making in Mexico. In states like Queretaro, San Luis Potosi, Veracruz, Puebla, Morelos and Guanajuato, the tradition passes from generation to generation and, although it seems to be languishing, it still exists.
In Mexico, when the Colegio de Santa Rosa de Viterbo was founded in Queretaro (1670), the nuns made only figures of the Child Jesus and other saints in wax. When the making of wax figures left the walls of the convents and spread, the artisans made candles in the shape of fruits, toys and human figures that did not have a religious context.
In the Mendez Nava family workshop, the techniques for making candles and tapers have undergone many transformations and the designs have improved and evolved. Their work has led them to exhibit in museums supported by the National Fund for the Promotion of Crafts (FONART). The workshop is a place where the elaboration of candles goes beyond the technique, it is the knowledge about the meaning that its realization takes, it is the environment in which they must be carved, the rituals that certify their making, the music, the prayers and participants that must be during the creation of each piece.
Mendez Nava family
Adolfo Lopez Materos nº 376
San Andrés Tzicuilan. Cuetzalan del Progreso, Puebla
Tel. +52 (233) 331.11.46