Tree of Life Review



AIRMAIL: Bodhi Blues — A Year in India: Questioning The Maitreya Project by Jessica Falcone

COLUMN: Storiedmusic — The Night I Walked Out by DJ T’challah

NOVEL EXCERPT: In a State of Partition by Aneesha Capur

UP THE CREEK: Editor’s Notes — Art, Yoga, and Abu Ghraib

Jesus and the Guinea Pig

Jesus and a guinea pig: words you rarely find together in the same sentence — or in the same religious encyclopedia, for that matter. But in the convent of San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador, I not only found them in the same sentence muttered by passersby, I also found them in the same painting. In this painting, a representation of the Last Supper, Jesus plays the part of Jesus — a bit of typecasting perhaps, but it works. The guinea pig, on the other hand, plays the part of the bread, the last meal Jesus was to have on Earth. The painting itself is aptly guarded by a nun so old she may have been present at the Last Supper herself. Her demeanor alone made it clear that my taking a picture of the painting would result in a fate worse than that experienced by the guinea pig.

It turns out that guinea pigs have held a unique place in Ecuadorian culture for centuries, particularly in northern Ecuador. They are not only eaten for food but are also kept as pets and are considered harbingers of good fortune. Their urine is a source of warding off unwanted apparitions, and their entire selves, urine and all, play a prominent role in coming-of-age and wedding celebrations. So it could quite naturally be expected that the guinea pig would show up in religious symbolism and, in the case of said painting, as the main course of the supper to end all suppers.

Imagine, for a moment, that Ecuador had set an international trend for bread replacement in representations of the Last Supper. In Maine, Jesus might be eating a lobster; in Chicago, perhaps digging into a porterhouse steak. And in Wisconsin, Jesus would be slicing a wedge of extra-sharp cheddar. Worldwide, we would find Him depicted with a forkful of paella in Spain, chopsticks of sushi in Tokyo, or a handful of tiki masala in India — or most any city block in London.

Of course, where there is food, there must also be drink, so in these regional representations of the Last Supper, we would find Him swigging a stein of lager in Frankfurt, drinking a mate in Montevideo, or sipping a chardonnay in Sydney.

For those with interests both religious and commercial, we’d find Jesus in a Manchester United jersey, Peter doling out leftovers into Tupperware, and John in the latest pair of Nikes. For an added touch of scandal, Judas could be wearing Manolo Blahniks, just to give the Da Vinci Code fanatics a little more to chew on. You get the picture — or painting. Slightly altered, of course.

Perhaps this is what many religions strive for: supplanting one established culture onto another, like when Spanish soldiers imposed Catholicism on the native population of Ecuador in the 1500s. In their zeal to pile it on, the Spanish deluged these indigenous people with paintings of horrific images to encourage their religious conversions. One such painting can be found in Ecuador’s Museo del Banco Central: hellfire rages down on the unconverted in such a way making Botticelli’s version of Dante’s Inferno seems like a bicycle trip.

So in the grand scheme of things, keeping the guinea pig and using it to replace bread is a minor victory in a nation that was forced to replace its entire belief system.

It makes one wonder what Jesus would have thought — or, for that matter, the guinea pig.

Nick Ladany

Nick Ladany

Nick Ladany has written extensively about the training of psychologists, which is about as exciting as it sounds. In the end, he’d much rather spend his day writing fiction based on the quirky realities of life. He is currently working on his first novel about a woman who unknowingly starts dating her therapist’s best friend.

ESSAY: Jesus and the Guinea Pig