Donning royal purple robes trimmed with white rope, Cristian Montesa waits expectantly to bear his load of the Lord of Miracles litter on his shoulders.
“It’s a mental, spiritual, and physical challenge, as it weighs a lot,” says the member of the fourth division, or cuadrilla, of the Nazarenas brotherhood.
For three centuries, teams of men have hefted the two-and-a-half ton image of Jesus Christ on trusses through the festooned streets of the Peruvian capital of Lima throughout October. Ahead of them, women in white veils sprinkle incense and chants hymns, charting the path for South America’s largest religious procession.
“You feel divine with the Lord at the side,” Montesa adds, with rising anticipation.
Every October, the Lord of Miracles, or Señor de los Milagros, parade attracts tens of thousands violet-clad worshippers, who follow a float bearing a canvas painting of Christ in acts of veneration.
The name originated after two huge earthquakes that shook Lima in the 17th century razed much of the city to the ground but left the mural of Christ intact.
The image, painted by an Angolan slave, was then copied onto a canvas and paraded around for all to revere. In 1747, Peru’s viceroy ordered the Temple of Nazarenas – where the canvas remains today – to be built to protect it from future tremors
“It’s a Catholic tradition our fathers handed down to us, and their fathers handed down to them,” says Tomas Rie, who has been carrying the litter for 25 years in the fourth cuadrilla.
“Every year more come as they attribute even more miracles to the Lord of Miracles.”
Hordes of devotees thronged streets in Lima’s colonial center on Saturday for what is considered the principal procession of the month. Many were physically moved, hands clasped together in prayer and tears streaming.
Some with terminal illnesses had traveled far in the hope of cure. Others who had witnessed miracles walked barefoot as a sign of appreciation.
“I feel like I am close to heaven,” says one female devotee, recounting how prayers to the Lord of Miracles ensured her father passed away peacefully after a complicated illness.
“It’s an indescribable feeling, because you see it and you cannot stop crying. I am here to give thanks for all he has done.”
While celebrations are concentrated in Lima, versions in the United States and elsewhere are gaining momentum. The Nazarenas Brotherhood alone has 5,000 members in Lima, while dozens of similar groups have sprung up, both in Peru and abroad, over the years. Wherever major Peruvian populations exist, the faithful increases.
The event’s reconciliation of Peru’s class and racial divisions is also clear. The country’s marginalized black community makes up a large bloc of believers. Due in part to its creation at the hands of the humble Angolan painter, the image is often referred to as ‘Cristo Moreno’ – Black, or dark-skinned, Christ.
During Saturday’s procession, Peru’s President Ollanta Humala made an offering to the litter and the Archbishop of Lima addressed the crowd.
“The air is so full with faith,” says one worshipper. “The Lord of Miracles will always exist.”
All photos by Alex Pashley