From the Collection

Larry and Alyce Frank Collection NMHM/DCA 2007.032.228

San Ignacio de Loyola retablo by José Aragón, ca. 1820-1835.
San Ignacio de Loyola / St. Ignatius of Loyola (Oct 23, 1491-July 31,1556) was part of a noble Basque family who underwent a spiritual conversion following a military campaign where he was severely injured. This experience led him to write the Spiritual Exercises as a path for seeking the will of God. San Ignacio co-founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1540, and spent the rest of his life promoting missionization and education.

José Aragón, a well-known santero (maker of Nuevomexicano Catholic objects) active in the Mexican period of New Mexico’s history, produced retablos (paintings on panel) and bultos (carved wooden sculptures) in and around the Santa Fe area. His depiction of San Ignacio shows the saint in a typical pose, holding what is presumably the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus with the order’s Christogram on the front.

This retablo is part of the Larry and Alyce Frank Collection of over two hundred retablos, bultos, and cristos (crucifixes) that the couple collected for nearly forty years throughout northern New Mexico. Regular visitors to the museum will remember seeing the Frank Collection in Tesoros de Devoción, a beloved exhibition in the Palace of the Governors that celebrated the work of Nuevomexicano santeros and their santos.

An NM PBS video highlighting the Tesoros de Devocion exhibtion

From Mexico City to Santa Fe: How the Camino Real Changed the Santeros’ Craft

Earlier this year, History Museum Director Frances Levine and Josef Diaz, curator of Southwest and Mexican Colonial Art and History Collections, were in Mexico City, talking to officials at the Museo Franz Mayer about their museum possibly exhibiting some of the retablos and bultos from our Treasures of Devotion/Tesoros de Devoción exhibition. At one point, Director Héctor Rivero Borrell brought out a few retablos he had recently purchased for the Franz Mayer.

“He asked what we thought of them,” Diaz recalls. “They were very similar to New Mexican pieces but were not New Mexican. I could tell they were not made in New Mexico.”

At that moment, the seed of a future exhibition took root.

In a grand partnership resembling the mash-up of three U.S. museums and a Spanish museum behind last year’s exhibition, The Threads of Memory: Spain and the United States, the History Museum is now partnering with the Franz Mayer, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe, and the San Antonio (Texas) Museum of Art for yet another bi-national exhibition. We recently received a $23,000 convening grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago to lay the groundwork for a collaborative exhibition on the art of santos, one of the most definining art forms of this region.

(Santos are carved and painted images of saints. Santeros are the people who create them. Santos include bultos, three-dimensional figures, like the one above, and retablos, two-dimensional pieces painted on wood, like the one below. Both of these santos are from Treasures of Devotion.)

Images of saints that are manufactured like this are often treated like stepchildren in Mexico because they’re not done in the academic tradition,” Diaz said. “They’re a little naive in how they’re painted.”

When he and Levine saw the Franz Mayer pieces, Diaz recalls, “We thought maybe they were produced along the Camino Real corridor, outside of the academic center, where they didn’t have the formal schools but were aware of the academic training. Maybe they were a prelude to what was being made in New Mexico along the corridor.”

With the grant, the museums are looking at the larger picture of the art of santos and may revise historical interpretations of the  tradition from the mid-18th century to the first quarter of the 20th century in New Mexico, using works from the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors, Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, other museums and private collections.

The plan is to mount an exhibit that will illustrate how the art form developed as it moved beyond the academic center of Mexico City into the colonial “wilds” of northern New Spain. Were different native materials used? Did the long distance and relative isolation affect santeros’ artistic interpretations? By  juxtaposing Mexican and New Mexican devotional pieces, organizers hope to emphasize their connections in terms of style and religious conviction.

“Maybe these Mexican pieces can fill in the scholarly gap between Mexico City’s and northern New Mexico’s styles,” Diaz said. “We know that there was a strong artistic connection along the Camino Real, and this makes me think that these pieces are predecessors to what was eventually made in New Mexico.”

Anyone who’s visited Santa Fe during Spanish Market knows that this artistic tradition is still a vibrant part of the lives of Hispanic communities in New Mexico. To emphasize that, the exhibition will include a sampling of modern works.

The exhibit is anticipated to run from 2015 through 2016. It will first travel to Mexico City, then San Antonio, and finally to the Palace of the Governors.

In July, museum directors and scholars from Mexico, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico gathered at the History Museum to begin their planning. Attendees brought their expertise on santos and Mexican religious craftsmanship. The group visited the Palace of the Governors, Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, and Museum of International Folk Art to begin assembling a collection for the exhibit. They also discussed conceptual material and a research plan to move the project forward.

Next step? The group reconvenes in Mexico City in October.


NEH Teachers Take Up NM Crafts

NEH teachers - retablos 2The Palace Courtyard was cool, with a reasonable amount of shade this morning — a far cry from the lightning storm predicted for later today. A perfect time, in short, to try out a little plein air painting, New Mexico-style. The teachers participating in this week’s NEH-UNM program, “Contested Homelands: Knowledge, History and Culture of Historic Santa Fe,” ditched the lecture tables in favor of some hands-on activities: creating retablos and punched-tin frames, under the guidance of two notable New Mexico artists.

Santero Gabriel J. Vigil is a Raton native who gave up dreams of professional boxing to build an artist’s career in Santa Fe. Winner of multiple awards for his retablos and bultos at Spanish Market, he hasn’t forgotten his roots and regularly works with children, passing along his art skills to them. Thanks to that experience, he likely had a few tricks up his sleeve when he set out to teach our teachers. He gave them a few hints, provided some drawings for them to work off of, then set them loose.

The results? Soulful and stirring.

A group of teachers in the NEH-UNM workshop enjoy painting retablos on a cool Santa Fe morning.

A group of teachers in the NEH-UNM workshop enjoy painting retablos on a cool Santa Fe morning.

A sacred heart design takes wing.

A sacred heart design takes wing.

Inside the Palace, another group of teachers created a din usually reserved for construction sites. Cleo Romero, a Nambe-based artist, showed them a selection of her punched-tin work — which, in 2006, won top honors in Santa Fe’s Spanish Market. With the assistance of some patterns, nails and hammers, she let the participants work off any potential aggressions by pounding out their own creations.

NEH teachers - tinwork 2

Using a paper pattern, one of the teachers lines up her punched-tin design.

With Romero's works for inspiration (hanging, at right), teachers get to pounding.

With Romero's works for inspiration (hanging, at right), teachers get to pounding.

If any of that got you inspired,take note: Cleo will teach a free tinwork class next Wednesday from 10 am to 2 pm at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts. (Call 982-2226 for details.) For further inspiration, check out the online version of Treasures of Devotion; Tesoros de Devocion, the exquisite exhibit in the Palace of the Governors celebrating the work of New Mexico’s legendary santeros.