Lent, Day 23

LOOK: Mola from the San Blas Islands

Christ on the Cross (mola)
Christ Nailed to the Cross, mola (reverse appliqué panel) from the San Blas Islands, late 20th century. Bowden Collections.

The Kuna (also spelled Guna or Cuna) Indians live on the San Blas archipelago off the east coast of Panama, a cluster of some 378 islands in the Caribbean Sea. They are politically autonomous, and much of their traditional culture is intact.

Since the late nineteenth century, Kuna women have been making what are called molas, reverse appliqué panels made in pairs for the front and back of women’s blouses. As mola collector Jane Gruver describes, “several layers of cloth are stacked together and the design is made by cutting through the different layers of fabric to expose the desired color. Once the specific shape is achieved, the area is stitched around. Sometimes embroidery and applique are also used to add detail.” This colorful, wearable textile art is an integral part of Kuna culture.

The earliest molas featured geometric designs, which the Kunas translated from their customary body painting designs, but now a vast variety of representational subjects are common, including animals, plants, domestic scenes, political satire, dragons, mermaids, superheroes, spacecraft—and biblical stories!

The first Christian missionary to the San Blas Islands was Annie Coope, a single woman from the United States who arrived in the first decade of the 1900s and established a school on the island of Nirgana in 1913. A significant number of the Kuna embraced Christianity, such that there are now churches on thirty of the islands, as well as eighteen Kuna churches in and around Panama City, according to Wycliffe. A Kuna translation of the New Testament was published in 1995, at the behest of Kuna pastor Lino Smith Arango, and a Kuna Old Testament was completed in 2014.

The mola above shows two men hammering nails into Christ’s palms as two mourning figures—presumably John and Mary—stand behind. This piece is from the collection of Sandra and Bob Bowden in Chatham, Massachusetts, who are among today’s major collectors of modern biblical art. It is one of forty molas in the traveling exhibition Eden to Eternity: Molas from the San Blas Islands, available for rental for a nominal fee.

LISTEN: “Nailed” by Nicholas Andrew Barber, on Stations (2020)

They nailed you to your cross
Yes, they nailed you to your cross
Like you said they would
Like you said they would

And they drove those nails through your hands
And they drove those nails through your feet
Like a criminal
Like a criminal

O the pain you must have felt
O the pain you must have felt
O the agony
O the agony

Behold the precious Lamb of God
Behold the precious Lamb of God
Nailed to the cross
Nailed to the cross

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