Saint Makers: A Living Tradition in American Folk Art

September 23 - December 3, 2005



The Saint Makers: A Historic Perspective

Essay by Father Thomas J. Steele, S.J.


After the Pueblo Indian Rebellion of 1680-93, the re-conquering Spaniards offered a new deal, allowing the Pueblos to govern themselves. The Pueblos and the Spanish cooperated on topics of mutual interest such as irrigation, acceptance of Catholicism, and defense against the nomadic tribes. As a result, New Mexico resembled a small island in a great ocean of nomadic raiders, and in this safe haven, the vecinos (settlers) created towns and villages where they enjoyed village life and frontier freedom. It took several decades to develop a socio-economic infrastructure, where survival took precedence over luxuries.

As early as 1700, examples of religious art, such as hide paintings, were being produced primarily by Franciscan friars, as well as other locals, all of whom were born in Spain or in what is now Mexico. In about 1760, artists arrived from the south skilled in the art of carving wooden statues and tablets. The statues were covered with gypsum and homemade animal glue and painted with various water-base pigments that were imported from the south or available from the natural landscape.

With the Bourbon reforms of the 1770s, New Mexico experienced some relative affluence, and various types of religious culture appeared and flourished: churches and chapels, Spanish hymns mostly from Mexico, the Stations of the Cross, Passion plays staged during Holy Week, and the Brotherhood of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene (Penitentes). Most importantly, however, was the representation of santos - images of holy persons such as the Trinity, Jesus Christ, Mary under various titles, angels and saints. Some of these statues were large enough to take part in traditional ceremonies such as Passion plays, dramatic presentations which depict the suffering and death of Jesus.

The village santeros (or saint makers) thrived from the last decades of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, fashioning their own tools and brushes, shaping wood for panel-paintings and statues, and gessoing and polychroming them to suit. Several santeros worked anonymously like the Laguna Santero and the Arroyo Hondo Santero, while others signed their work.

The 1800s brought change due to modernization, threatening the early and developing santero tradition. In 1821, Mexican independence brought the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, and into New Mexico arrived inexpensive woodcuts, engravings, and lithographs. Tinned goods, solder, and window-glass were also made available to make frames. In the twenty-five years that followed, the tradition of painting on panels tapered off. In 1880 came the railroad, and into New Mexico rolled the boxcars filled with inexpensive mass-produced plaster statues further endangering the santero tradition. By the early twentieth-century, only a few santeros in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado continued to carve statues in wood, particularly for the Penitentes, a local religious society recognized by the Catholic Church, who used santos during Lent and Holy Week.

During this time, the writers and artists of Santa Fe and Taos became fascinated by the pre-Renaissance style of the New Mexican santos. Writer Mary Austin, artist Frank Applegate, and some like-minded friends instigated a revival of New Mexican arts. They visited villages like Agua Fria near Santa Fe, Córdova on the High Road to Taos, and Cañón de Taos finding many talented artists some of whose style and subjects were influenced by outsiders. In 1925, Austin and Applegate founded the Spanish Colonial Arts Society and opened a shop that attracted paying patrons, thus paving the way for a productive period.

Unfortunately, the following events made the santero tradition vulnerable once again - the Great Depression, Applegate's sudden demise, and Mary Austin's death. It was the W.P.A. Artists' Project that helped maintain this tradition during this troublesome period. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was a government funded arts program which had an artists' division during the 1930s and 40s. The popular consumerism that took hold during the 1950s and early `60s ironically marked a low point for Nuevomejicano culture. Scholar and conservator for the Museum of International Folk Art, E. Boyd, however, revived the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, prompting young Chicanos to become interested in their cultural traditions established by the early santeros. As a result, a second revival took place and the Spanish Market -- an annual festival showcasing the work of local artists - thrived throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

The artists featured in this exhibition from the collection of Chuck and Jan Rosenak represent the development and scope of the santero tradition from its origins to the present. The Applegate santos in this collection mark the beginning of the revival of New Mexican santero art; Charlie Carrillo, Marie Romero Cash, and James Córdova are scholars of santo history as well as creators of santos; Sabinita López Ortiz can boast of multigenerational traditions; Catherine Robles Shaw, Arlene Cisneros Sena and Malcolm Withers have tended toward fine art and away from village style; the three Lucero brothers create santos that are at once similar and diverse; Luis Tapia and Nicholas Herrera turn often to outsider, contemporary, satirist, surrealist veins. In addition, other artists not mentioned have made their respective contributions to this historic art form.

Chuck and Jan Rosenak's keen eye for choosing artists who excel in areas of technique, drawing and carving has made their collection an exceptional example of santero art from the New Mexican area. Due to their acquired expertise, the selections for this exhibition at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum highlight some of the most significant artists working in this tradition.

-- Thomas J. Steele, S.J.


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