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~Altar de Muertos~

Painting: "Noche de Muertos"

acrylic on canvas

70X80 cm

by Ute Hagen, 2009

copyright 2009 - All rights of the artist apply

my ART website:


:))))))))) this week... leading on to Halloween i will upload spooky photos, starting with my most recent painting about the fabulous Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, "Dia de los Muertos" and the "Altar de Muertos" ((((((((:


~El Altar de Muertos~The Altar for the Dead~


One of the most beautiful traditions of Mexico is “el altar de muertos”, the altar for the dead. As the legend in Mexico goes, on All Saints and All Souls Day, November 1 and 2, the souls of the deceased have obtained permission to visit with their families. “Pues el difunto podria volver ese día a la casa y hay que atenderlo bien", (“you see, the deceased might just come home that day so one has to look after them well”). Wanting these visiting souls to stay a while and not go off sampling the offerings on our neighbor’s altar we need to welcome them and make them most comfortable at an altar filled with their favorite things. Such an altar becomes an icon of love, a work of art and to create it lets gather a few things and use our imagination too.


A traditional Mexican altar for the dead is preferably installed in the main room of the house, on top of a table and consists of three levels. The highest level representing heaven, here you place an image of a Santo, la Virgen, a cross, or Jesus. On the middle level you place a photo, or multiple photos of the person you are dedicating the altar to, and on the lowest level, representing earth, you place all your offerings. Keep in mind each object will have to have a special significance. Traditional offerings dating back to the Aztecs include:


• Flowers of Tzempaxuchitl (the bright orange Marigold flowers)

• Calaveritas de azucar (sugar sculls that can be personalized)

• Pan de muerto (the traditional ‘day of the dead’ bread)

• Copal and incienso (pieces of copal and incense with a mystic scent)

• Velas (candles)


To these items you can add any objects the person has loved in her/his lifetime:

Special cooked foods, fruit of the season, chiles and tamales, salt, a glass of water to drink, cigarettes, a bottle of wine or liquor the person used to favor, a book, etc.


And don’t forget placing some of the whimsical decorative pieces of Mexican Arte Folklorico: a Catrina figure, a papier-mâché skeleton, toys made of wood and purple, orange or hot-pink papel picado (colorful cut-out Chinese paper). For an authentic atmosphere use plates and cups made of barro (clay) and maybe place a petate (woven reed mat) sprinkled with petals of Marigold in front of the altar. Chairs for the deceased are a welcoming gesture too.


Then on the night of Nov 2 light the candles, burn the incense and be still. Enjoy the visit with your ancestors - feel the breeze - listen for the chatter of their teeth - propose a toast and celebrate the memory of their life. Don’t be disappointed if your food offerings look untouched, surely it's essence has been absorbed.


***** Story by Ute Hagen, Mexico, October 2006 *****

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Taken on October 19, 2006