“The use of religious imagery in The House of Bernarda Alba and Chronicle of a Death Foretold”


Both The House of Bernarda Alba and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, set in rural Spain before the Spanish Civil War and Colombia in the 1950s, respectively, are suffused with religious imagery. Lorca and Marquez have chosen to exploit these images to convey similar themes: the glaring inadequacies of their respective societies, the forced hypocrisy that comes with these, and its ultimately fatal consequences.


The circumstances of Adela’s life and death in The House of Bernarda Alba hold many Christ-like connotations and hence many criticisms of her bigoted society. Adela merely wished to be able to live freely; to not “waste away and grow old in [her] rooms,” yet in the end, she found that “the whole town [had turned]” against her: she was “persecuted by people who claim[ed] to be decent,” much like how Christ was driven away from his hometown for standing by his identity. The phrase “claim[ed] to be decent” is laden with irony, as the persecution of a Christ-like innocent like Adela is certainly no “decent” thing to do, therefore highlighting the defects in the system. Adela’s resemblance to Christ is further accentuated when she claims that she will “put on a crown of thorns,” a potent symbol of his last sufferings which brings with it a strong sense of martyrdom. Through this, Lorca portrays Adela as the ultimate ‘hero’ that remains steadfast to her true self, even unto her tragically fatal end. The religious imagery surrounding her death reveals how Adela, and hence anyone possessing the same noble, vibrant spirit that Lorca believed she had, could find no place in the oppressive society of that time.


This pre-Spanish Civil War society is further criticised by subtle predictions of Adela’s death, which may have been used to convey the unrest brewing prior to the Civil War that broke out soon after the play’s publication. Poncia, the supposedly loyal maid who in actuality wishes to “spit [on Bernarda] for a whole year” astutely sees that “there’s a storm…in every room” and predicts that “the day it bursts, [they’ll] all be swept away!” This could tentatively be seen as a reference to the Biblical Flood, which swept away all the World’s evil, and could be a foreshadowing of the flood of the Civil War, which aimed, like Poncia’s ‘prophesy,’ to sweep away the conservative oppression that Bernarda represented – something that Lorca, being a Liberal Activist, would have seen as the true evil in the World.


Similarly, Marquez uses the Christ-like death of Santiago Nasar in Chronicle of a Death Foretold to express like criticisms of his own society, though with a different focus in mind. While Lorca condemned his society’s constraints, Marquez’s imagery instead censures the dogmatic sense of honour that perpetrated Santiago’s unmerited death. Santiago’s appearance is what initially conveys the parallel nature of his and Christ’s deaths. The day he was to be “carved up like a pig,” he was dressed in “white linen that had been washed in plain water.” Both the whiteness of the linen and the fact that it was unstarched are clear symbols of purity and innocence, giving Santiago the appearance of a lamb being led to slaughter. This is analogous to Christ’s, the Lamb of God’s, crucifixion. Their perforations, too were similar: Santiago had “a deep stab….[that] looked like a stigma of the crucified Christ,”  displaying parallel levels of suffering.


Marquez clearly uses this portrayal of Santiago’s death to shed light on the flaws of both their societies’ concept of honour: murder was seen merely as a “legitimate defense” of this honour, just as Christ’s murderers saw his death as simply defending their peremptory moral codes. However, in both cases, these ideals led to the punishment of innocents who had committed no crime. This sense of justified crime is further explored during the scene of murder when the twins’ knife “kept coming out clean,” as if absolving the twins of the horrific public slaughter, much like crucifixion, that they had committed. The atrocities of crucifixion were once seen as acceptable as it was felt that the worst criminals rightly deserved such humiliation and pain, and this reflects the mentality of the Columbian society of the 1950s. Yet Marquez’s eerily Christ-like depiction of Santiago’s death also highlights how both these murders brought with them a re-evaluation of their respective society’s values: Christianity and its then-shocking values spread like wildfire soon after Christ’s death, and Santiago’s town was left “an open wound” that couldn’t reconcile the justification of their values to his vicious death. In doing so, Marquez paints a critical picture of the dogmatism of their honour and how one cannot follow it religiously without it soon crumbling beneath them.


Much of the other ‘religious’ imagery in The House of Bernarda Alba surrounds the women in it and helps to convey their hidden, more vicious natures. One can primarily see this in Bernarda Alba’s hypocritical self-righteousness: upon hearing of her daughter, Adela’s, wanton behaviour, she cries out, “how poor I am, with no bolt of lightning between my fingers!” Bolts of lightning have symbolised punishments of not only the Christian God, but numerous pagan gods and goddesses as well, and in this metaphor, Bernarda grieves the loss of her once god-like power. The image deifies her, yet the people she wants to strike are her own daughters, who only wish to be free of her oppressive restraint. Lorca has specifically chosen to use the hypocrisy of religious imagery throughout the play because religion was the foundation of the peoples’ way of life in 1930s Spain. The hidden viciousness this imagery conveys, found in even the superficially most pious woman like Bernarda, shows how her society’s foundation is actually one of vindictiveness and self-destruction. It atomised people as they feared being seen as something other than what they should be, and they turned on each other to prove their piety, as in the way that Bernarda spitefully counsels the people to “put burning coals in the place where [Librada’s daugher] sinned”. Bernarda encapsulates this bitterness when she exclaims, ““this [is] a...town of wells…you drink…fearing that it’s poisoned!” Like the well, the town is stagnant and unchanging, and its hidden depths of feeling contain the poison of hypocrisy that forces people to turn in on themselves. Nevertheless people continue to “drink” from this ‘poison’ as the religious constraints Lorca condemns do not allow them to survive otherwise. Like a well, the water in it, although poisoned, is their only source of life and Lorca uses religious imagery to deplore this.


Correspondingly, much of the religious imagery in Chronicle of a Death Foretold also revolves around its women: there are many hypocritical allusions to saint-like, Biblical characters, which serve to reveal the co-existence of opposites in their society. Perhaps the best illustration of this is in the descriptions of Maria Alejandrina Cervantes, famed brothel owner of the town. In Chronicle, we are first introduced to her when the author relates his recovery “from the wedding revels in [her] apostolic lap” after having spent a night of debauchery in her “house of mercies.” The reverential use of “apostolic,” a description often found in relation to either the Pope or Christ’s own 12 apostles, gives Maria the image of a deified saint. In her “house of mercies,” a depiction of her brothel that brings to mind a convent dedicated to helping the poor and unfortunate, she helps the author “recover,” much akin to redemption in the lap of God.


Yet the irony of this portrayal is clear when we realise that the ‘help’ she offers is in fact her sexual services, an act that would have been forbidden by the Catholic Church, which dominated Colombian society in the 1950s. Marquez contrasts this with how Luisa Santiaga condones two girls who have “been raised to suffer” as “any man will be happy with them” when they were joined in holy matrimony. Conversely, however, Marquez uses this comparison more as a celebration of the divergent sides of his culture than to attack his society’s system. It accentuates the Magic Realism of his novel as these irreconcilable opposites co-exist peacefully. This also highlights the impossibility of truth: just as the author could not “put the broken mirror of memory back from so many scattered shards,” Marquez uses the hypocrisy of his religious references to show that it is impossible to determine the true nature of society in general.


 Although both Lorca and Marquez adeptly integrate religious imagery in their works to convey their varying views on society, the strength of their views deviate. Lorca provides us with a definite criticism of his society’s machinery, but Marquez, although at times critical, offers us more a reflection of his society’s state than a condemnation of everything in it. Nevertheless, the one thing both authors seem to agree on is that being true to one’s own ideals is what life should be about.




Lorca, Federico Garcia., The House of Bernarda Alba and Other Plays. translated by Michael Dewell and Carmen Zapata. London: Penguin, 2001.


Marquez, Gabriel Garcia., Chronicle of a Death Foretold. translated by Gregory Rabassa. London: Penguin, 1982.