Saint makers (santeros) and santos (saints) flourished in New Mexico between 1790 and 1907. When the Franciscan Friars practiced missionary methods to teach the then population of Hispanics, Navajos and Pueblo Indians Catholicism, they realized that visual arts were necessary to explain the religion. A wonderful Mexican folk art resulted, unique to the region as Hispanic art, or New Mexico art.
The friars began by teaching how to make adobe (sun baked) bricks made of mud and straw, for churches. Then they introduced 2 forms of folk art for the santos creation. One is retablos which are flat painted wood panels, metal or animal skin. Whatever available local berries, herbs and minerals were used for paint colors. The other is bultos which are wood carved statues. They were created to remind viewers of the earthly sufferings of Christ. The cucifixion was the major suffering portrayed.
Folk art is traditionally produced by unknown artists. The New Mexico culture at the time enabled the santos creation according to the religious, economic, and social environment of each region. Beliefs, mores and cultural patterns all played a role. The santeros traveled from village to village and bartered with the people (everyone was fairly poor) to make their families santos. Every family had an altar to place their chosen santos on. The santeros were identified by the the town they came from or when they actually signed their art.
Patron saints of villages helped define the image of the community and gave the local chapel a name. They also provided meaning for the annual saint’s day fiesta. Baptism provided a way for a godparent to give a saint name to a child. They were definitely the focus of ceremonies throughout the year. The villagers were farmers and had patron saints aplenty to pray to and hold ceremonies or fiestas for. The intention was to show gratitude for whatever the saint had provided for them. This was shown by touching up or repainting a statue, or placing flowers or a rosary on a statue. Sometimes a milagro (tiny charm) of a small representative of an animal or male or female figure to accompany the saint was made and placed by the statue. The devotional figures played an important role as intermediaries from the individual to God. Religious belief was that the santos served as protectors, benefactors, and an earthly spiritual presence.
Santos were accepted to be capable of direct action between a devotee and the heavenly being who was petitioned. Of course, a painting or statue had to have the right attributes and appropriate iconography to provide the owner with the support of the divine. Everyday problems were the focus of the creations, not necessarily art. The symbolic images were made from local wood, pine, and cottonwood roots because hardwood wasn’t available. Once the saint was decided to be made, the santero had to have some knowledge of the visual attributes (iconography) of the being, and portray it with a specific stylistic trait. The basic model of religious painting and sculpture was the Baroque art from Spain.
Although the Spanish colonies, like Mexico, were influenced by the Baroque art, the New Mexico santos differed. They didn’t have the ornate golf leaf decorations or elaborate details with figural realism. Instead, they were idealized, two dimensional figures that symbolized a scene, not realistically. The isolated villages and deeply superstitious natives (witchcraft was commonly referred to) were relatively poor. Mexican paintings did influence the New Mexican retablos because they were transported and mass produced more easily than bultos, so there was some guidelines for santeros to create the icons. The small New Mexican churches had to have bultos created locally with native materials because they weren’t rich enough to import any. What was imported did help stimulate production of more local santos, mainly retablos.
Classic New Mexican santeros depicted the human form unrealistically. They abstracted into symmetrical patterns of decoration even such details as the folds of a dress, a man’s mustache and beard, a woman’s hair, and particularly the displays of blood and wounds of the crucified Jesus. (A Land So Remote, vol.1, pg 33) This remains to be a unique feature of the native-born santeros.
New Mexican history up to 1930 shows the Roman Catholic clergy leaning towards indifference and negative views about the santos. They were considered as childish idolatry images, and many were destroyed as a new clergyman would move into a church. I find this so interesting because the Franciscan Friars actually urged and inspired the santos creations originally in New Mexico, doing their missionary work.
Besides the view from the clergy, other factors contributed to the decline of the santero tradition. Trade routes became better, and railroads delivered manufactured goods. Milled lumber, commercial paint, and steel nails changed forever the use of the old materials for cheaper, faster and a change in taste plastic saints from Europe and other places in the states. Commercial prints (like from Currier and Ives), also promoted the use of glass, wallpaper, and the use of soldering (tin melting to join surfaces) created a greater demand for framed prints and the introduced reproductive lithography techniques. The once isolated villages dependent upon farming disappeared with the automobile, World War II, and catalogs that offered mass produced religious figures.
A revival of the New Mexico history of the Hispanic art began in the 1980’s. Hispanic artists began to reinterpret the traditional art in a cultural renaissance in traditional and non-traditional formats. Since the living tradition of the santeros and santeras has changed over the generations, modern interpretations have been showing up at universities and museums world-wide. Innovative works used with modern resources still show a spirit sensitive to deep, old beliefs of the mysteries surrounding the santos. Many modern santeros have a desire to keep alive the cultural tradition of the past. This involves restoration of existing santos, or to recreate an old, destroyed one.
The contemporary folk art of the New Mexico santos endures and delights one’s sense of old and new. The earthly mysteries connect with the otherworldly powers in a protective and beneficial experience for all.
Text source: A Land So Remote, Volume 1, Religious Art of New Mexico 1780-1907, Larry Frank.
Photo credit: footloose