Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Understanding New Mexico's Santos

The santos of New Mexico are unique,  unlike any other religious art you will encounter.
Each year collectors come to Santa Fe's famed Spanish Colonial Market to look at and buy the retablos (flat painted images) and bultos (statues) displayed by over two-hundred saint-makers, the santeros and santeras.  But, as fabulous as these pieces are visually, they are much more than just artwork and have had  a fascinating history and role in the religious lives in the people of New Mexico.

Bulto of Mary with Jesus 
Retablo of the Holy Trinity
St. Joseph holding Christ Child
Bulto of the Flight to Egypt
Various Retablos and Bultos at Spanish Market, Santa Fe, NM
Retablo of Virgin and Child with Holy Spirit descending

Bulto of St. Francis of Assisi
Bulto of Virgin Mary saving souls from Purgatory

In his sermon at the recent Spanish Market Mass in Santa Fe, NM, the archbishop commented that the saint-makers, the santeros "have their religion in their fingertips".  In these few words, he summarized the history and purpose of the beautiful santos and bultos created by the makers of this form of religious art.  You see, for many years when there were very few priests in New Mexico, these paintings and statues were the New Mexican peoples' primary connection with the spiritual domain.

 Although New Mexican Santos are collected as art, this is not their real purpose. For the faithful, they link heaven and earth and for them these objects were and are plug-ins to the divine. Although the santo is not the saint it represents it takes on in its holiness and functions as a kind of go-between the earthly and heavenly realms. The santeros who created and create santos were and are expected to live morally and religiously exemplary lives.  They are not just artists, because to create a holy image they must lead lives of holiness, as well. 

Stylistically, the New Mexican santos had nothing in common with the Renaissance-baroque images of colonial central Mexico.  The retablos were painted on pieces of wood cut by the santero from local trees and do not show the attempts at perspective or scale that characterize Renaissance art.  The bultos, the statues, were also carved by their makers in a style unknown outside of New Mexico. During colonial times New Mexico was completely isolated from the outside culture and had a whole different and unique set of influences-  Franciscan piety and spirituality, local folk traditions and the indigenous cultures of the area. 

New Mexican History: Its Isolation and the Santos

Why was New Mexico so isolated?  First settled by the Spanish in 1658, the area was  intended to be a buffer zone protecting the silver-rich north of Mexico against incursions by hostile Indian groups and to prevent expansion by the English and French. Initially, missions were set up by the Franciscan order to instruct the indigenous Pueblo peoples in Christianity, but the relationship with these peoples was never an easy one.  There was a major uprising in 1680, the Pueblo Revolt,  in which many New Mexican settlers were killed and  the 2,000 settlers of Santa Fe had to evacuate; twelve years later the area was peaceably resettled.         I

Initially there were a relatively large number of priests in the area of New Mexico, but in the 18th century as the population of New Mexico became more spread out, the mission system disintegrated, The missions were understaffed and whereas in 1760 there had been 26 missions with 25 friars by 1776 there were only 19 priests and by 1820 with a population four times the size it had been in 1776, there were even fewer priests.  Some pueblos were visited only once a year by a priest.

In the latter part of the 18th century a group of lay religious societies grew up to fill the void left by the absence of clergy and church services; the most significant of these was known as the Penitentes.  They created a network of moradas, a kind of meeting-house that was open only to members, which provided a religious structure for the community in the absence of the church. These penitentes, almost exclusively male,  strove to imitate Christ's suffering and live lives of holiness and as the penitentes grew so did the demand for religious images, the santos.  A very large number of santos relative to the population were created; 5-6,000 santos from the years 1800-62 still exist.

Bulto of Christ used by Penitentes during Holy Week procession

Santo-making declined after the middle 19th century as New Mexico became less isolated and trade routes opened and connected it with Mexico and the rest of the world. Prints of saints and plaster statues from Europe began to be imported and the production of santos decreased somewhat.  The Penitentes continued to be the main customers for local religious art, primarily statues which they used in their rituals, and this continued until the 1920's when the group declined and along with this, santo production.  

In the later part of the 20th century interest in santos was again stimulated through the efforts of a  group of scholars, collectors and artists.  Santa Fe's Spanish Colonial Market was begun 61 years ago and was central in focusing attention and interest in the Hispanic culture and art of New Mexico.  

How were Santos used?

Bulto of Archangel Rafael from ChimayĆ³ Sanctuary

It was their relationship with these santos that gave the people of  New Mexico  a sense of control and security in their perilous environment. They turned to these retablos and bultos  in times of danger or need.  Scholar Thomas J. Steele describes the santos as "the parts of a power system that reached from heaven to earth and controlled hell".  The statue in the photo above is the archangel Rafael, the patron saint of fisherman and there were saints (scholar Thomas J. Steele listed 143 of them) to petition for nearly every sort of issue: San Blas for throat troubles,  San Isidro Labrador for a good harvest, San Ignacio for protection against witch-craft, Saint Rita of Cascia for women looking for a husband and many more.  

The relationship that people had with their santos was very personal. When a santo answered prayers they were rewarded (a fiesta or new dress for a statue) and when petitions were not fulfilled, a santo might be punished by being turned to face the wall.

Here is a link to my video of Santa Fe's Spanish Market and Mass:

Further Reading:
If you would like to see or know more about New Mexican santos, here are three excellent books:
Larry Frank.  New Kingdom of the Saints: Religious Art of New Mexico 1780-1907
Thomas J. Steele, SJ.  Santos and Saints.
William Wroth.  Christian Images in Hispanic New Mexico


  1. Marina, I thought this post was fascinating. I really enjoy learning about history in context of art. I had no idea about this time in the history of New Mexico especially what happened to the missions! I can understand why scholars are interested in santos, they were in indeed a survival tool in tumultuous times. This post makes me want to go to Spanish Market next year! Hopefully you will be there lecturing on the subject. Please remember to call the Chamber of Commerce there and have them suggest a link to your blog. Tell me … how can I get the fishing Santos and the one that keeps you from going to hell?

    1. I'm sure you can find them and many more at Spanish Market in Santa Fe.