Stories About the Saints of New Mexico with Pictures to Color
Saints and the Santero
Saints were an active part of the lives of settlers in the isolated villages of Northern New Mexico. Since the road to their new settlement had been long and arduous, they arrived hungry and tired, carrying only those items which had survived the journey. They formed small communities of friends and family and relied on their skills and ingenuity in order to build and furnish their homes. In many instances it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to bring more than the bare necessities with them, so their newly established homes and churches lacked decoration and ornamentation.
To solve the problem, a folk art which originated in the mid to late 1700s in Northern New Mexico is the art of the Santero. He was a painter and carver of images of saints and his craft evolved primarily because of this lack of religious ornamentation for homes and more particularly for churches. The Santero painted images of saints on pine panels called “retablos” and carved images in the round called “bultos.” Because religion played a large part in their daily lives, every home had its patron saint, an image made by the Santero. Deeply devout, many families had an area set aside in the home where private worship could be conducted. Wealthier families built private chapels which were adorned with altar screens, santos and other decorative elements such as hand-embroidered altar cloths and tin candleholders.
The Santero was usually paid for his work by trade for food or livestock. It was not unusual for him to receive several chickens in payment for a retablo or bulto of the family’s patron saint. Although the Santero was familiar with panels made in his homeland that were painted in oils and were a highly sophisticated art, he did not have access to these supplies and had to devise a method by which the ornamentation could be accomplished. He took a pine log and split it into various panels. He then evened out the front and back of each panel with a hand adze and sanded the front of it to provide a smooth painting surface. He then crushed baked gypsum rocks which were ground into a fine powder, mixed with water and a glue made from rabbit skins and animal hooves. The cooked mixture was then applied to the front of the pine panel and when dry, sanded smooth. The Santero was now ready to paint an image of a saint, either by using a light pencil sketch or painting free-hand. Since it was unlikely that he had brought many paints with him, once again he had to rely on his ingenuity to create a palette of colors with which to paint. It is of interest to note that by this time the pueblo Indians had been using earthen pigments to decorate their clay pots and wooden kachinas, and this might have influenced the Santero. He gathered clay to make yellow ochres and reds; azure from the nearby pueblos and the imported indigo to use as blues; sumach berries for bright reds, and blacks were made from lampblack and charcoal. Many colors were adapted from pigments utilized by local weavers, dyes made from chamisa plants, apple barks and onion skins. Dried cochineal bugs from Mexico were crushed and used in combination with other pigments. The images were painted with brushes made from yucca fibers, animal hair or chicken feathers, or whatever else might have been available.
In creating a bulto, the image was generally carved from cottonwood roots and branches. Larger pieces were usually carved from pine or other available wood. The parts for the figures were carved separately – head, arms and hands were later attached to the carved torso of the saint, using dowels fashioned from wood slivers and pressed together with animal glue. After sanding, the piece was gessoed and painted in much the same fashion as the retablo. The figure was then attached to a base made from a hand adzed pine panel and coated with a varnish made from pine pitch. Its attributes (crosses, swords, hats, etc.) were added and the piece was then complete.
The more proficient of the Santeros were commissioned to paint and construct large altar screens called “reredos”. These panels were painted in the same manner as the smaller retablos. In some instances, oil paintings were subsituted for the painted panels in these screens. The vertical and horizontal beams surrounding the panels or paintings were then decorated in floral or leafy designs. Many fine examples of these large altar screens built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still exist in major churches in Northern New Mexico at Chimayo, Santa Cruz, Cordova, Truchas, Trampas and Ranchos de Taos, and in Santa Fe at San Miguel Church.
The art of the Santero flourished until well into the mid-1800s, after which time traders and merchants brought commercially produced plaster of Paris statues and religious prints to the area, slowly diminishing the need for the craft of the Santero. French priests introduced to this area in the 1860s found the art to be distasteful and primitive. The Santero’s craft was barely visible by the turn of the 20th century and completely disappeared shortly thereafter until its revival with WPA programs in the 1930s and later through the efforts of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society beginning in the 1950s and continuing to date. Contemporary saint makers now use various modern methods to create this age-old folk art.
—Marie Romero Cash
Santa Fe, 2008