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A 400-Year-Old Tradition
by Bob Brooke

 

Latinos, especially those living in New Mexico, venerate wooden statues called santos. These sculptures lie at the very heart of a 400-year-old cultural tradition. They’ve existed for centuries, ever since the early Spanish Colonial era.

Santo literally means saint in Spanish. Besides taking the three-dimensional form of wooden figures, called bultos, they can also appear in the form of retablos, or paintings on wood panels. A distinctive santo style developed in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado in the 18th and 19th centuries. Using materials at hand, such as pine and cottonwood, and creating pigments from natural materials, santos makers, known as santeros, made objects for use in religious observances as well as for home devotions. Some santeros traveled from village to village, creating santos on commission. People prayed to specific reasons according to their individual powers, and also used them as intercessors, or go-betweens, to God. For example, Santa Bárbara might be prayed to for protection against fire while San Isidro Labrador might offer special protection against drought or other problems facing farmers.

Santos in the New World
Four hundred years ago, the Spanish came to the New World and brought significant changes. One of the most lasting changes was their faith, Catholicism. The missionaries needed "visual aids" to help explain the stories of the saints and the Passion of Christ to the native peoples and used printed images from Spain. At first, they brought some statues from Spain and Mexico. But eventually the making of santos fell to Franciscan friars and then by local craftspersons and artists, many of whom set up schools or escuelitas. Gradually santeros began to carve and paint the popular saints to supply New Mexican churches and homes.

In the Americas, three main traditions of artisanship—Flemish, Italian, and Spanish— contributed to a distinctly New World style, which blended local expressions and native materials with older imported styles. Generally, santos made for private devotion were smaller and not as elaborate as santos commissioned for the Church. But either way, the artisans who made them used the same materials and techniques regardless of the sculpture’s purpose.

Traditional santo production began to decline in the 19th century as mass-produced consumer goods, such as religious prints and painted plaster saints, made their way into New Mexico by way of the Santa Fe Trail and the Atchison,Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. While a few traditional santeros continued to work into the early 20th century, no one passed on the tradition to younger people. At the same time, a group of Anglo patrons in Santa Fe began collecting traditional santos as art objects. They encouraged New Mexican Latinos to revive their cultural traditions, primarily as a means to improve their economy through production and sale of local arts and crafts.

During the Great Depression, artists under the auspices of the Federal Art Project of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, recorded and reproduced traditional santos. As a result of this early 20th-century “revival,” artists inaugurated the annual Spanish Market featuring the work of contemporary santeros, held the last weekend of July in Santa Fe.

The stories and images of the saints differed from those seen in Europe, mostly because the indigenous peoples had limited contact with the Church and spread the stories associated with the santos by word of mouth, 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.

Noted Santeros
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, now located at the Cristo Rey Church in Santa Fe. Pedro Antonio Fresquis of Truchas, who lived from 1785 to 1831, was the first native-born santero. The Laguna Santero, Antonio Molleno, the Master of the Lattice-work Cross, and the Santero of the Mountain Village Crucifixes, followed him.. Many of these early artists are only known by their style, since they didn’t sign their works.

During the late 19th century, Juan Ramón Velásquez of Canjilón was one of the first santeros to use housepaint, brought into the area after the arrival of the railroad. José Benito Ortega of La Cueva, a prolific santero, created bold images. José Inés Herrera, known as El Rito Santero or the Death Cart Santero because of his large and threatening images, worked in El Rito, New Mexico, from the late 19th century to the early 20th.

Materials and Paints
Santeros, who had access to imported materials, used a range of woods including Spanish cedar, Cuban mahogany, or Honduras mahogany, in addition to local woods, including a variety of pines. Carvers preferred relatively soft woods with fine texture and straight grain and also sought those with durability and a resistance to insects.

Once a santero had carved a santo, he would paint it with either oil paint or egg tempera–pigment mixed with egg yokes. Santeros worked in the European tradition of polychrome, or painted wooden sculpture. Typically, a santero carved and sanded a locally available wood to achieve the contour and expression he wanted. Then he applied size, usually animal glue, and gesso—chalk mixed with animal glue—or gesso-soaked cloth to prepare the surface. He might have further sanded the gesso to achieve a smoother surface for painting. Gesso provided an ideal ground to receive paint. Without it, paint would sink into the wood, yielding less color. Sometimes, an artist applied colored bole, or fine clay mixed with glue, on top of gesso as a special preparation for gold leaf. To decorate more elaborate polychromes, he could also use gesso to build three-dimensional designs and then appled paint or gold leaf. And, to create the illusion of richly embroidered cloth, he could selectively scratch through the paint applied over gold leaf.

Generally, santeros used traditional colors. Ultramarine, a costly pigment, was expensive and signified luxury. During the Middle Ages, artists used it to paint the robes of the Virgin Mary, so santeros carried on the tradition. Wealthy patrons frequently specified its use in commissioned works. Other traditional pigments like lead white, ground chalk, vermillion, and red lake can be seen on many santos. During its lifetime, a santo may be repainted repeatedly during worship and normal use.


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