Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on February 28, 2005 with the permission of the Reynolds Gallery at Westmont College and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Reynolds Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Painted Faith: Traditional New Mexican Devotional Images

by Cody James Hartley

 




Eighteenth-Century Saints in the Twenty First-Century

Santos, as the painted panels of Catholic saints are known in New Mexico, are one of the defining traditional art forms of the region. They are an enduring source of pride and identity for New Mexican Hispanics and a continuing artistic inspiration for hundreds of living santeros, contemporary artists who perpetuate the legacy of their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century predecessors. Yet despite the close association between santos and Spanish New Mexico, credit for the survival of these original American folk-art masterpieces goes largely to a small group of Anglo artists and writers who arrived in the first decades of the twentieth century.

The Spanish Colonial Arts Society formally incorporated in 1929, "to preserve and revive the Spanish Colonial art of every character." It was largely due to the effort of writer Mary Austin and artist Frank Applegate, neighbors in Santa Fe, that the Society formed. Among its most immediate and lasting successes was the acquisition of the famous Santuario at Chimayó, with its important altar screens and santos paintings. Purchasing the chapel from a private owner and transferring ownership to the Archbishop ensured its survival as both a place of worship and an important historical monument. Even before they acquired the Santuario, Society members collected examples of traditional Spanish Colonial art, buying retablos and altar screens as they became available from curio dealers, cash-strapped churches, and other collectors. These objects formed the basis of the Society's collection and have frequently been exhibited in Santa Fe over the decades, helping to build awareness and collector interest. By the 1940s and 1950s, New Mexican santos were highly collectable as folk art and as high-end souvenirs for wealthy tourists.

To its credit, the Society's efforts have rescued many objects from destruction and it continues to be an important force in the preservation of New Mexico's cultural patrimony. By increasing the value placed on these artifacts -- making them desirable and collectable art objects -- the Society has not only ensured the preservation of historic examples, but also created a market for living artists. Society members have actively encouraged Hispanic artists to study traditional examples and to revive the old methods and styles. The hundreds of artists who exhibit in the annual Spanish Market, sponsored by the Society, and make a living selling traditional New Mexican artworks, are a tribute to those early efforts to preserve and revive the old arts.

On the other hand, it must be recognized that commodification of santero art, an inevitable consequence of the Society's activities, has fundamentally changed the nature of how we see and understand these visual expressions of faith. Visitors to the Santuario at Chimayó can attest to the power of the site. Called the Lourdes of America, this small chapel is known for the healing soil found in an open pit in a tiny room off to the side of the altar. Regardless of one's faith, it is hard not to be moved by the small side room filled with crutches, photographs, votive offerings, and humble shrines left as tributes by those helped by the miraculous earth. An imperfect adobe church with sagging lines and weathered towers, the Santuario conveys a sincerity of faith and devotion that is rarely matched in the grandest and most decorated of cathedrals. As a living, active place of worship it also presents santos in their original context. The authentic devotional character of the Santuario offers a striking contrast to the spaces in which many santos are now presented, as artifacts in exhibitions or personal collections.

To begin to understand and appreciate santos, one must accept that they are frequently seen divorced from the spiritual and domestic spaces they originally adorned. Like many artworks now securely stored in museums, separated from their creators and their intended users, these santos have lost a significant portion of their meaning. But in exchange, they have gained new meaning. What can these painted wooden panels from the nineteenth century tell us about New Mexico? They have many stories to tell. There is a story about a small band of settlers and their descendants surviving in a dangerous and inhospitable climate with little contact from the outside world, developing a unique regional culture that continues to survive hundreds of years later in the mountain villages of New Mexico. There is also a story about the colonial exploits of Europe and the results of cultural interaction and syncretism. One could also talk about a land ruled at different times by Spain, Mexico, and the United States and the social impact of those political changes. In their original context, images of the saints were often an entry point into the heavens -- a gateway for accessing the divine presence through prayer and meditation or for requesting a saint's intercession on behalf of the faithful. In a secular context, santos can still function in this manner, as windows onto a culture and history that are as remote from us now as they were from Spain and Mexico City in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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