Carvings of God’s Word:
Santos and Retablos
By Barbara Armijo
Santos (painted and carved images of saints) started out as the visual aids used by missionary priests who were charged with the task of explaining Catholicism to the native people. Besides using printed images from Spain, they used santos, and their needs were met by various artists who took the craft to new levels of detail with every carving.
Santeros, wood-carvers, continue to bring the stories of the saints and the Passion of Christ to people today. New Mexico has its share of legendary santeros, including Patrociño Barela, José Inés Herrera and his great-nephew, Nicholas Herrera.
One of the most influential modern-day santeros is Juan Sandoval, a South Valley resident who considers himself first and foremost a teacher of Christ’s lessons.
Sandoval has created hundreds of santos in the 40 years he has practiced his craft. He is not content to just carve and then display his work. He said that since each of the santos tells a story, he believes it is his responsibility to continue to use the santos as teaching tools and to spread God’s word to people around the state.
“I preach and teach the articles of the Catholic faith,” he said from his South Valley home. “It has taken me 25 years to complete my own lessons so that I can teach God’s word. I believe God wants to see what we are all doing with the gifts he has given us.”
Sandoval’s gift, of course, is his ability to create some of the most unusual santos in history. His work is on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. He said that even when the Smithsonian officials asked him for a piece of work to display as an example of Spanish-influenced wood carving he made sure that its main purpose would be told.
“I told them I would do it if they also would make a video that told the story of the santos,” he said. “They agreed and both the work and the video are there in D.C.”
Sandoval said his work developed through “trial and error,” and that he never really studied the wood carving of other santeros. He said, however, that each of the artists who make santos do so because they believe that it’s God’s way of preserving the faith. He said he holds every santero before him and those who will come after him in high regard.
Those coming after Sandoval are artists such as Mark Garcia – a 33-year-old artist and high school physical education teacher who learned the craft from his uncle who himself was schooled from the masters of the art form in New Mexico. Garcia also is the athletic director for the new Atrisco Heritage Academy High School in Albuquerque’s South Valley.
“My uncle taught me the art,” Garcia said. “It was something he took very seriously. And the way he taught me was by making sure I understood the stories behind every piece. It was not about carving this way or that way. It was about understanding what each saint stood for and what their relevance was in the Catholic faith.”
Garcia knows that some people buy santeros strictly as artwork. But he hopes that the meaning of each piece does not get lost simply because they are beautiful.
“We have to remember the sanctity of santos,” he said. “That has to come from each santero.”
Sandoval said he is glad that he didn’t have to make a living as a santero. “Because how can you put a price on these stories that God wants told?”
Santos have lived in the homes of Hispanic New Mexicans as well as Native American families for hundreds of years. At first, some statues were brought from Spain and Mexico but the responsibility for making santos was handled by Franciscan friars and then by local craftspersons and artists, many of whom set up schools or escuelitas. Gradually santeros, the artists who made the images of saints, began to carve and paint the popular saints to supply New Mexican churches, homes, and moradas (village worship space for the Penitente Brotherhood). The santos were made either two dimensionally (retablos), or three dimensionally (bultos).
The stories and images of the saints differed from those seen in Europe. We attribute that to limited contact with the source material and word of mouth spreading the stories, gradually changing some of the facts along the way. The isolation of the New Mexico villages made visits by priests rare occurrences and necessitated the use of lay clergy to keep the faith alive. Village processions and celebrations centered around the treasured santos that were on display in the church and morada.
Some of the early Franciscan santeros include: "Franciscan F”, a hide painter; "Franciscan B" (who may have been Francisco Xavier Romero of Mexico City); Fray Andrés Garcia; and don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco, famous for the Castrense altarscreen which is now located at the Cristo Rey Church in Santa Fe. The first native-born santero was Pedro Antonio Fresquis of Truchas, 1785-1831. He was followed by the Laguna Santero, Antonio Molleno, the Master of the Lattice-work Cross, and the Santero of the Mountain Village Crucifixes. Many of these early artists we only know by their style, as most santos were not signed.
José Rafael Aragon was known for his many beautiful altar screens in Talpa, Llano Quemado, Picurís, Córdova, Chimayó, Chama, Vadito, and Santa Cruz. He was prolific and many wonderful pieces remain in collections today. José Aragon (no relation), the Arroyo Hondo Santero, the A.J. Santero, the Quill Pen Santero, and the Santo Niño Santero all worked from early 1800 to about 1850. Many of their pieces survive today in museums and private collections to be studied and serve as inspiration for modern santeros.
In the late 1800s Juan Ramón Velásquez of Canjilón was one of the first santeros to use housepaint, which was brought into the area after the arrival of the railroad. José Benito Ortega of La Cueva was also prolific and is sought after by today's collectors. His images are bold and easily recognizable. José Inés Herrera worked in El Rito from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. He is called the El Rito Santero or the Death Cart Santero because of his large and threatening images, one of which is in the Denver Art Museum. Santero Nicholas Herrera, his great-nephew, continues this tradition in El Rito today.
The early and mid-1900s brought forth some important creative figures who have had a profound effect on today's artists. Celso Gallegos carved unpainted figures while tending to the needs of the Agua Fria chapel in Santa Fe. José Dolores López was the first of a long line of unpainted aspen wood carvers in Córdova. His son George, who died in 1993, is known for his unpainted carvings of the Tree of Life. Gloria López Córdova and Sabinita López Ortiz, along with others in the Cõrdova area, keep the tradition strong today.
Frank Appelgate, the first known Anglo santero, along with Mary Austin, started the Spanish Colonial Arts Society and had a profound effect on the type of images produced by Hispanic artists and the marketing of their craft. Even E. Boyd, chief curator at the Museum of New Mexico from the 1950s until her death in 1974, painted images of the saints. Both are highly collectible today.
In the 1930s, Taos santero Patrociño Barela was "discovered" by the New York art scene and became a darling of the media. His unpainted carvings were sensual, evocative and abstract. They became known as retablos, which were much like santos only set on tablet form more like paintings.
At the height of his career he disappeared back to Taos. A revival of his work was brought about by the recent publication of Spirit Ascendant by Edward Gonzales and David L Witt (Red Crane Books, Santa Fe). The 1950s and 1960s saw many master artists begin their careers. Frank Brito, Paula Rodríquez with straw, anglos Howard Shupe and Malcolm Withers, and the late Ben Ortega and Max Roybal were leaders in their art. But it was the class of the 1970s that brought out the innovators and the teachers who are responsible for the powerful interest today in New Mexican santos.
At the head are Charlie Carrillo, Marie Romero Cash, Ramón José López, Félix, Manuel and Leroy López, and Luisito Luján. These artists not only create their own work but conduct research and teach others the traditional ways, which has accounted for the explosion of artists today. Through their passion and research, they have helped to educate interested collectors of the traditions that they represent. To this day, these artists are aggressive in their desire to see traditional Hispanic New Mexican arts take their rightful place among the great artforms of the world.
Nineteenth-century Mexico was a period of unprecedented political turmoil. One result of this instability was that many religious practices moved from the church to the home, and the retablo art form--sacred paintings on tin--flourished.
With over 1,700 objects, New Mexico State University holds the largest collection of retablos of any museum in the United States. Eleven eminent Latin Americanists from the U.S. and Mexico have studied this collection and placed it in a broad cultural context. They have looked at the retablos from the standpoint of art history, history, anthropology, folk art, and religion to bring a new understanding of and appreciation for these paintings. This interdisciplinary approach brings together multiple influences in considering, for example, Baroque images as popular icons, Aztec gods and home altars, popular images in nineteenth-century Mexico, European and viceregal paintings, and bultos and santos from New Mexico. The richly varied retablo tradition continues to the present, making this volume a much-needed addition to the literature on the complex society that formed along the Camino Real between Mexico City and Santa Fe.
Where to See Santos and Retablos
The best place to see the work of contemporary santeros and retablos is at the annual summer and winter markets in Santa Fe. Traditional Spanish Market is held the last full weekend in July on the Plaza in Santa Fe. More than 300 adults and children show and sell traditional crafts including ironwork, straw, tin, weaving, pottery, ramilletes, colcha, jewelry, furniture and, of course, santos.
The first full weekend in December, Hispanic artists sell their work at Winter Market in Santa Fe.
In September, The New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque is also a fine venue for traditional arts and crafts in the Hispanic Arts Building.
At any time of year, the newly-opened Casa San Ysidro, the Gutierrez/Minge House (part of The Albuquerque Museum), shows santos and Spanish Colonial textiles and furniture in a traditional home setting in Corrales, NM. Guided tours are booked in advance (closed Dec-Jan). 505-898-3915.
In Taos, the Millicent Rogers Museum has a fine display of santos. The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe has a permanent display of santos in the Hispanic Heritage Wing.
And, of course, most Catholic Churches in New Mexico are filled with the works of famous and not-so-famous santeros who have believed in their craft as a way of displaying and teaching their faith.
Information for this article came from Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts are the publishers of Tradicion Revista magazine and several books on Hispanic art and culture. They have also curated the traveling exhibit "Our Saints Among Us.” Also information was used from “The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 13.”