October is the “Purple Month” in Lima, when one of the largest religious processions in the world envelopes the Peruvian capital with incense, prayer and song. So called for the rich purple robes worn by the faithful, who carry the centuries-old image of El Señor de los Milagros, “Lord of Miracles,” through the capital, this is a cultural event unlike any other in the nation, celebrating the city’s rich history and heritage.
In the 1600s, about a third of Lima’s population was made up of Afro-Peruvians, most of them slaves brought from West Africa, primarily Angola. Many of these converted to Christianity, including a talented young man enslaved at the Pachacamilla Plantation, on what was then the outskirts of Lima. He may have been named Pedro Dalcón.
There, in the plantation chapel, this modest Angolan artist painted a remarkable mural, on a rough adobe wall near a drainage ditch. It depicts the crucifixion of Jesus, portrayed as an African—hence its alternate moniker, “El Cristo Moreno,” the Black Christ. The Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene are at Christ’s feet, as God the Father watches from above. Though the painting wasn’t properly finished to protect it from the elements, it remains among the oldest colonial works of art that survives today.
On November 13th, 1655, a devastating earthquake leveled Lima. Though the city lay in ruins, this one fragile wall somehow remained intact, with the image of Christ miraculously unharmed. Survivors saw this as a symbol of hope, renewal and rebirth, and came to venerate the painting even as they rebuilt their city.
As the mural became the focus of some pilgrimage, surrounded with flowers, incense and music, city authorities started to question its alleged powers to protect and heal the populace. They failed to have it painted over, however—all who tried were afflicted with tremors. And, after the painting miraculously survived another terrible earthquake in 1687, they finally gave in, and allowed the faithful to carry the image in procession around the city, on October 18th, 19th, and 28th of that year.
The Black Christ was named Patron Saint of Lima in 1715, and given the name “El Señor de los Miagros.”
Today, the celebration lasts all month long, and is equal parts solemn and festive. Many come to be healed, like Josefa Marmanillo, better known as Doña Pepa, who was miraculously cured of paralysis in 1800. Afterward, she enjoyed a vision that inspired her to create the famously decadent Turrón de Doña Pepa, a desert still served during El Mes Morado, along with other delicious traditional dishes.
Others come for the Fería Taurina del Señor de los Milagros, the most famous bullfights in Latin America, held at Plaza de Acho. Still more are drawn to Lima as spectators, to see El Señor carried from its home, the 1775 Iglesia de las Nazarenas and through the streets of the capital as inspiration for the largest annual Catholic gathering—more than a million believers—in the world.