Painted Faith: Traditional New Mexican Devotional Images

by Cody James Hartley



Regional Saints: New Mexican Devotional Imagery

Juan de Oñate and his colonists first settled New Mexico in 1598. For centuries after, New Mexico maintained a tenuous grasp on survival as Spain's most distant colony at the far northern end of the Chihuahua trail. One would expect the Spanish to bring the fresh lessons of colonization to bear on this new region. As a colonial project, New Mexico may have appeared to represent a difference in degree from Mexico. There were established indigenous populations, many living in stable communities of two- and three-story apartment-like complexes, with an elaborate cosmology and advanced social and political organization. Several language families and a multitude of dialects were present. The area's economy was based on small-scale agriculture, hunting and gathering, and regional trade. The land appeared to the Spanish to be rich in both human and natural resources, a belief fueled by rumors of the Seven Cities of Cibola. In practice, the colonization of New Mexico was a very different experience from that of Mexico. As the Spanish soon realized, this new colony was a land of few resources, with a harsher climate than central Mexico. New Mexico proved to be less desirable than initially believed, while her indigenous people proved themselves more recalcitrant and tenacious than originally expected.

With the realization that New Mexico lacked mineral wealth, Spain's emphasis shifted to the mining of spiritual gold. During the seventeenth century, Franciscan missionaries employed techniques perfected in Mexico to convert the Pueblo Indians to Catholicism. Their methods included strictly regimenting the daily lives of the Pueblos around the Church and destroying sacred Pueblo artifacts and kivas in an attempt to force them to abandon their own belief systems. Insulted and angered by their treatment at the hands of the Spaniards, the Pueblo Indians secured the assistance of the Apaches and revolted in 1680, driving the Spanish as far south as El Paso. While there is documentation suggesting that Pueblo Indians were trained by the Franciscans to produce devotional paintings on hides and wood panels, creating the earliest prototypes for the eighteenth- and ninteteenth-century retablos, almost all evidence of the Spanish presence was destroyed following the revolt. It took the Spanish over a decade to regain control of the colony. Don Diego de Vargas recaptured Santa Fe in 1792, with recolonization proceeding at a slow pace until 1778 when the Spanish King endorsed broader colonization to ensure the security of existing settlers against the continuing threat of Apaches. New Mexico also provided a defensive buffer protecting Spanish interests in Mexico from the incursion of the French.

Isolated from the Viceroyalty, the Spanish crown's appointed administrator in Mexico City, by distance, geography, and climate, New Mexico's settlers and their descendents produced a unique culture, a derivative of both Old and New World precedents. With a healthy dose of indigenous Pueblo knowledge and an occasional infusion of outside models, the Hispanic culture of New Mexico was hybrid, idiosyncratic, and entirely endemic. Music, food, and other cultural expressions developed a particular inflection that marks them as specifically New Mexico. There is no better example of this localization than santos, the uniquely New Mexican devotional images. Derived from a much broader tradition of Christian imagery, representations of saints took on novel aspects as they were "translated" by santeros into a local style. European saints were made specifically addressable on a more intimate level by undergoing a transformation into a New Mexican visual idiom that favored simplicity, linearity, and striking graphic effect.

European academic and Renaissance models, emphasizing visual similitude, were rare in New Mexico and formal art training was non-existent. In light of these facts, one can consider santos a very practical solution to an urgent need for devotional imagery. But santos were more than just provincial imitations made in the absence of better trade routes or more proficient artists. Embodied in the form of the santo, be it a carved bulto or a painted retablo, the foreign saint is made over as a local. The saint "speaks" like the native New Mexican. Santos use a local language and pictorial grammar naturally and transparently. They tap into standardized expressions, conveying a fixed meaning that is not always deducible and does not always follow exactly from European or even Mexican prototypes. Iconography and symbols usually reserved for a specific saint in the canon of Christian devotional images are freely used as generic markers of Christianity suitable for use with any New Mexican saint or divine figure. For example, the Archangel Michael's dragon became a generic beast or monster under the feet of several saints to demonstrate triumph over evil.

In the first few decades after the Reconquest, Franciscan friars often produced imagery derived from a theological and academic tradition. Together with imported oil paintings, popular prints, and a limited number of sculptures, these images provided the seeds for the New Mexican santo tradition. Almost immediately the images began to deviate from their European and Mexican sources. With limited training and poor materials, the devotional images produced in the "Franciscan" style became increasingly simplified, linear and, to a degree, abstract. Often working on hide and possibly from wood engravings or from their memories of murals in Mexico, the Franciscans tried to recreate the images they needed to teach and inspire their followers. Wood panels provided a better working surface than hides, but by 1780, the modeling, composition, and control that typify the academic source images had become scarce. A few artists tried to remain faithful to the artistic trends in Mexico, most notably military cartographer and artist Captain Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, who is best remembered for the large baroque altar screen he carved for Santa Fe's La Castrense chapel in 1761. As local artists took over the tradition, it became increasingly a purely vernacular folk tradition, developing idiosyncratic forms and a unique style.

Miera y Pacheco is among the first generations of "true" santeros, those artists active from ca. 1750-1790 who laid a foundation and provided primary prototypes for the New Mexican-born artists who would follow. By the beginning of the 1800s, the "classical" period of santero art had begun. During this period, up until about 1850, native-born and -trained artists, many with identifiable personal styles, and some leading workshops or schools, produced the most characteristically "New Mexican" paintings and carvings.

Traditional santeros, or saint makers, were respected figures in their society. They were expected to be exemplary citizens with a deep commitment to the faith. They were not expected to perform miracles or experience visions, but rather, were to produce sacred images that, like the Byzantine icon or the medieval miraculous image, would carry the supernatural and divine power of the saint or divine figure portrayed. Santeros, almost exclusively male, were trained by their fathers or other elders and spent a lifetime developing a personal representational style. Santeros produced recognizable, distinctly individual techniques and styles, while never straying too far from the known iconography. Their work could take the form of a painted image on a wood panel, or less frequently on hide, or a carved figure, a bulto. A few santeros produced both types of santos, retablos and bultos, but most specialized in one or the other, based on their training and aptitude. Using locally gathered materials, often the same woods and pigments Native Americans used for kachina carvings, they fulfilled their society's need for personal devotional objects and ecclesiastical décor.

While the academic tradition survived to some degree in the stone altar at La Castrense and in imported images used in a 1795 altar screen at the mission church of Santa Cruz Pueblo, the more intimate and personal retablos followed their own line of development and gradually overtook the academic style in regional popularity. New Mexico's santeros drew upon the larger tradition of Christian images, but they favored a relatively limited list of well-known and locally popular patron saints and devotional figures, including many forms of Christ and the Virgin Mary, The Holy Family, Saint Anthony, Archangels Michael and Rafael, Saint Francis, Saint Rita of Casia, Saint Barbara, Saint Gertrude, Saint Jerome, and Saint Cajetan. Santeros dispensed with textual sources altogether and relied on preexisting visual sources in the region, helping to reinforce local variations and deviations from earlier models.


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