Painted Faith: Traditional New Mexican Devotional Images

by Cody James Hartley



European Saints Adapted for New Mexico

Our Lady of Guadalupe was a popular subject for New Mexican santeros. The Guadalupe images included in this exhibition demonstrate a clear affinity for prototypes, maintaining the basic composition of the Virgin wearing a deep blue robe and standing upon an upturned crescent moon held by a small cherub or angel. Each has been reduced into the linear folk style of the New Mexican retablo, eliminating the landscape rendered in perspective and the more fully modeled figures and drapery that exist in the eighteenth-century paintings and prints. Stylistically, these images have been rendered in a New Mexican style, distinguished by simplicity and directness. Devotional images could also undergo iconographic changes as they became New Mexican. For example, New Mexican versions of Our Lady of Guadalupe demonstrate some of the changes that can occur when well-known devotional images become localized. While many Mexican versions of the image make specific reference to the church built at Tepeyac -- the site of Juan Diego's original vision -- by picturing it in a vignette framing the Virgin, in New Mexican versions of the Virgin, the location is more ambiguous, even in those examples that include vignettes around the frame. Indications of the hill of Tepeyac frequently disappear in New Mexican Guadalupes, eliminating the place-specificity of the Virgin of Guadalupe. No longer identified with an actual place outside of Mexico City, Our Lady is now a more generic New World divinity.

Saint Jerome, or San Gerónimo, is another popular New Mexican devotional subject that frequently deviates from European or Mexican precedents. In European art, Jerome appears most commonly in three scenes: the Penitent in the Desert, the man of learning in his study, and the Doctor of the Church. Among these scenes, several attributes are typical. In the desert, St. Jerome is usually unkempt and partially naked. He often kneels before a crucifix, occasionally beating his chest with a stone in penance. A skull as a memento mori is not uncommon. Occasionally a trumpet appears, referring to the vision in which he imagined the trumpet of God announcing the Last Judgment. As a scholar, St. Jerome translated the Old and New Testaments into Latin; hence he is often seen in his study with his books and writing instruments. As one of the four traditional Doctors of the Latin Church, Jerome is usually shown standing, often holding a model of the Church, with his red cardinal's robes (despite the fact that Jerome was never actually a cardinal). In all of these scenes, he often appears with a cardinal's hat and a lion- -- an association rooted in a legend of Saint Jerome removing a thorn from a lion's paw, winning the animal's life-long devotion.

In New Mexico, San Gerónimo rarely appears as a scholar or Doctor of the Church. In this exhibition, Molleno's San Gerónimo is a typical example. The penitent St. Jerome is presented, presumably in the desert. The preference for this version compliments both the local geography and the popularity of penitential brotherhoods in New Mexico, in spite of the Church's censure of flagellant societies. In his hand a rock appears, but rather than being used to beat his breast until the fever of his hallucinations has passed, it appears almost to be hanging from a string around his neck. In this and other San Gerónimo retablos, the rock takes a form akin to the sacred heart. Molleno has added bright dabs of red, suggestive of flames or blood. We also see the Lord's trumpet in a form different from European models, appearing more like a flower than a musical instrument. If Molleno was exposed to contemporary European or Mexican prints showing a realistic trumpet, which is highly likely, he actively chose to disregard these "foreign" models in favor of the local "language." As is common in New Mexican images of Jerome, the Saint holds a crucifix with a stick-figure-like suggestion of Christ. Perhaps the greatest variation from European models can be found in the beast underneath Jerome's feet. Hardly recognizable as the noble lion familiar from European prints, this animal reminds one of the Archangel Michael's iconography, which suggests the triumph over evil by presenting Michael standing victoriously upon a dragon, a semi-human form of Satan, or some beastly variation.


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