Painted Faith: Traditional New Mexican Devotional Images

by Cody James Hartley

 



 

In the Vernacular: Local Usage of Patron Saints

Santos were not only presented in a visual style particular to the region, the Saints were also made over as "locals" in function and use. Treating textual sources as freely as santero's handled visual precedents, devout New Mexicans adapted and modified the legends of saints and holy figures to emphasize aspects reminiscent of the challenges and conditions faced in New Mexico. In addition to Saint Jerome, another example can be found in the Holy Child of Atocha, which became quite popular as a patron for the imprisoned and protector of those in danger of being take captive by the "heathen" Indians, still a real threat in the nineteenth century. Consider Saint Cajetan, or San Cayetano, who is rarely represented elsewhere, but seems to have enjoyed some popularity in New Mexico. Cajetan was a Venetian noble who studied law, but turned down government posts for a religious life. He dedicated himself to helping the sick and poor. Among his accomplishments was the founding of a bank to help the poor and protect them from ruthless lenders. Run as something of a non-profit pawnshop, it was a forerunner of the modern credit union. Outside of New Mexico, he was typically represented holding the Christ child or having a vision of the Holy Family. In New Mexico he often appears with references to the crucifixion and surrounded by elements of the Arma Christi (instruments of Christ's passion like nails, a crown of thorns, a ladder, and a spear). While Cajetan's bank is a minor footnote in his life, the association with a pawn brokerage, either through a logical connection or a distortion of the history, made Cajetan more popular in New Mexico. While Saint Nicholas is more properly considered the patron saint of pawnbrokers, New Mexicans have long considered San Cayetano the patron saint of those frequent pawnshop customers, gamblers.

Both the Holy Child of Atocha and Saint Cajetan, as they existed in New Mexico, suggest the particular way in which the Catholic faithful of the region though about their saints. The strength and character of their belief is attested to by the endurance of some specifically New Mexican ways of thinking about and treating devotional art. In World War II, New Mexican solders captured in Bataan prayed to the Santo Niño, much as their forebearers had prayed to the child saint for rescue from their Apache or Pawnee captors. Even into the 1970s, there were reports of the devout gambling with Saint Cajetan by saying, "I'll bet you a rosary in your honor you don't do this favor for me." Centuries of theological debate about the potential benefit and incumbent dangers of images aside, New Mexicans treated the pictures of the saints and holy figures as active, living participants in daily life.

Located somewhere between icon and idol, santos were often treated as active agents, rewarded when they behaved and provided benefits to the faithful, and ignored or mistreated when they failed to perform. A good santo might receive new clothes or a new rosary, while a santo that failed to protect a field from locusts could be left in the field to face the elements for a season. José Aragón's Santa Rita de Casia possibly shows physical evidence of a a saint being punished. Tales of punishment further confirm the localization of the santos by suggesting that they were viewed only as local manifestations of divine power and not as direct representations of the divinity. This is a subtle but crucial distinction. The devoted would be willing to inflict punishments on a local expression of the saint only so long as such punishment could not be construed as a true affront to the divine.

 

Conclusion

In 1821, the Santa Fe Trail opened, establishing a trade route to the United States and bringing new printed devotional art to New Mexico. By 1850, when New Mexico became a U.S. territory, increased trade made it even easier to secure commercially printed images, leading to a rapid decline in demand for the handcrafted santos. The skills and techniques slowly died with the last generation of traditional santeros. Their artwork continued to be passed down within families, decorating small domestic altars, or remained hanging on the walls of the village chapels. With time, more and more of the objects fell into the hands of traders and recently-arrived Anglo settlers and tourists. The artists that moved to Taos and Santa Fe in the first decades of the twentieth century decorated their newly acquired adobe homes with rough-hewn furniture, local weavings, and santos to capture the local atmosphere and create "authentic" Hispanic-looking homes.

About this same time, the territory of New Mexico began aggressively seeking statehood. In order to attract new residents -- and outside capital -- territorial leaders created a Bureau of Immigration that remained active from 1880 until statehood was granted in 1912. While concerned with practical economic matters like surveying mineral and agricultural resources, the Bureau was also the chief promotional agency for the territory. Bureau officials developed a promotional rhetoric based upon the notion of tri-cultural diversity and harmony (Pueblo, Hispanic, and Anglo's living in peace). They emphasized the region's deep history and dramatic landscape. Adapting their message to the audience, they would present an idealized territory, either a booming marketplace rich in resources or as an exotic destination filled with ancient architecture, mysterious people, and unheard of natural beauty. This effort was enhanced and extended by the Santa Fe Railway, hoping to boost passenger rail traffic.

One outgrowth of these promotional activities, and the people attracted to New Mexico by the Bureau and Railway attracted, was the creation of new cultural institutions like the Museum of New Mexico and the Spanish Colonial Arts Society in the teens and twenties. After almost one hundred years of contact with Anglo America, the very forces that led to the decline of santero art were responsible for preserving the old relics and reviving the traditional techniques amongst a new generation. Anglo patronage from people like Applegate, Austin, and their friends in the Spanish Colonial Arts Society kept a small number of Hispanic artists working, but it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that the contemporary revival truly exploded and become a self-consciously Hispanic activity. Following upon the civil rights advances of the 1960s, Hispanic artists gained newfound respect for their ancestry and recognized the important role traditional folk art played in preserving and perpetuating their heritage.

Today, santos are as alive and as vivid a part of the cultural landscape in New Mexico as they were in the 1820s. There are hundreds of contemporary santeros who work within the framework of the old methods, substantially more than the dozen or so known artists active during the classical santero period. Respectful of tradition, these modern artists allow for their own artistic innovation and creativity, maintaining an art that is both sincere and faithful to precedent while remaining vital and relevant. The old painted saints are both windows onto New Mexico's past and touchstones for New Mexico's contemporary Hispanic population.

© 2004, Cody James Hartley

 

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