La Muerte Barroca / Baroque Death


Rain in La Candalaria, Bogotá




La Muerte Barroca / Baroque Death

Emily Paskevics


I get so accustomed to the ghosts of the place I call home that I hardly notice them anymore. When I travel, it’s with an awareness that I’m being immersed in a new landscape, absorbing different energy and unknown histories. And in those places where the past ruptures into the hectic present—old houses and churches, graveyards, museums—I often find myself shivering in the presence of unfamiliar ghosts.


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Recently arrived in Bogotá for an eight-month stay in the city that claims to be “2600 metres closer to the stars,” due to its high elevation in the Andes, I experienced an intense bout of altitude sickness.

It had been brought on by over-confidence: earlier that day I’d borrowed a bike and joined in the city’s weekly Ciclovía, which officially closes off some of Bogotá’s main arteries for the exclusive use of cyclists, rollerbladers, and skateboaders every Sunday. My boyfriend (for whom I’d moved to the city on a hot-headed, heart-driven whim) cautioned me about the altitude, how it can be hard for extranjeros. I figured I would be fine—I’m in good shape, I cycle daily. And I wanted to work off the anxiety that had been rising from my stomach to my throat as I adjusted to a city so entirely different from my own.

My first lesson in survival had come during the drive from the airport to our apartment, when my boyfriend told me not to keep my purse on my lap because someone could try to smash the window and snatch it. It had happened to his cousin a week before.

So I biked long and hard, on an empty stomach, only noticing that I was more out of breath than usual. We stopped for some juicy salpicón de frutas at a roadside stand along the way. Afterward, with that post-workout glow, we stopped in to the distinctively bright-yellow Iglesia de la Candalaria. It was empty and smelled like incense and burnt meat. I thought of body sacrifice—some bloody ritual, some poor beast. The Virgin agonized over her dying son, and I craved air. My flesh stung. We left as it was starting to rain.


Muerte Barroca exhibit, Bogotá 2





That night, I woke feverish to the sound of a stray dog howling. I was sweaty but shivering, and aching all over. The bed spun. I crawled to the bathroom and hung over the toilet bowl, heaving.

When I woke again, I was still on the bathroom floor. It felt as though someone was stroking my hair. The room smelled like rosewater, which reminded me of my grandmothers. Beyond the barred window the stray dog was still howling, and beyond that, there was the distant clanging of church bells.

I dreamed of arranging roses, first in a woman-shaped vase and then around a woman’s face. I dreamed of white veils and black habits. Hushed voices, a dark chamber, prayers being recited over a woman sleeping. No, not sleeping. I kept fumbling the roses, dropping them, pricking my thumbs.

The next morning my boyfriend brought me a bowl of warm caldo de pollo in bed and suggested that I avoid biking until I could handle the altitude. I admitted defeat.


Bogotá Cityscape





Later that week, I went downtown to La Candalaria to take photos of the neighbourhood’s infamous street art. There was a sudden downpour, and I headed to a nearby public art museum. Crossing the street, I passed a woman carrying what I thought was a baby in her arms, wrapped in pink cloth. With a shriek she slipped on a stone and dropped it, and as it shattered across the concrete I choked back a scream. The woman clucked and exclaimed, ¡ay, que pena! What a shame. Her black umbrella snapped wide as she walked away. The baby turned out to be an overripe papaya, but I don’t if I ever really got over the shock.


Muerte Barroca exhibit, Bogotá 1





In the museum, I was drawn to an exhibit called La Muerte Barroca. Venturing into the darkened room, I found myself surrounded by two-dozen or more paintings of dead nuns. The exhibit was entirely dedicated to these posthumous portraits, representing an eighteenth-century practice of commissioning deathbed pictures of women who devoted themselves to an austerely religious life.

There was whispering all around me, voices reciting something I could only vaguely understand: Dios te salve, María …. ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. It was a disembodied unison of prayers.

Strictly cloistered, these women were rarely painted while they were alive. Now adorned and decorated, their deaths become acts of creation—offering a single glimpse of their pale faces, clasped hands. Framed by black habits and pink flowers arranged as intricate crowns, they are captured forever in the moments before decay. My own flesh crawled as I examined each portrait, feeling compelled to memorize each woman’s distinct features—one had a heart-shaped mouth, another a crooked nose—and read the tidy gold cursive that outlined the dates of their births and deaths.

According to the belief system that these women shared, this was also the moment of their highest glory, when they would ascend and be redeemed. Death, embodied in an elaborate dream of religious grandeur. Above their closed eyes, the floral crowns are vivacious, but also slowly dying.

The death-day of the nun with a heart-shaped mouth was the same as my birthday, exactly two hundred years prior. The sudden smell of a candle blown out. Common sense clawed at my throat. I had to leave.


Abandoned in Armenia, Colombia





With a gasp I was back on the street. At an intersection, a man without hands was praying. I stared at the bald scalps of his wrists as he mumbled el pecado, el pecado. Something about sin. The Canal de San Francisco reeked behind me, blackened and swollen from the pissing rain. The man without hands looked at my legs and said: en paz descanse. Rest in peace.



In Bogotá it always looks like a storm is pushing at the eastern horizon, where the hard-hacked edges of the city become mountains. It might be 2600 metres closer to the stars, as they say, but I lived in Bogotá for almost a year and never saw them. Just the ghost of a moon, on the other side of the barred window.



Currently based in Montreal, Emily Paskevics is the author of a chapbook called “The Night That Was Animal, or Methods in the Art of Rogue Taxidermy” (Dancing Girl Press, 2014). Other publications include Hart House Review, Vallum Magazine, Acta Victoriana, Rogue Agent, OCCULUM, and UofT Magazine. She works with literary translation for OOMPH Press, and has contributed to Lola WhoLuna Luna Magazine, and Culture Trip. Follow along @epaskev.


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