Santos of New Mexico

A four-hundred year tradition


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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. Santos (painted and carved images of saints) have lived in the homes of Hispanic New Mexican as well as Native American families for hundreds of years. The missionary priests 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, 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 occurances 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.

Luis Tapia

Image: © Luis Tapia
"San Miguel" Bulto
As seen in
Our Saints Among Us

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.

Hispanic Heritage

Part of the Hispanic Heritage Wing Exhibit
Museum of International Folk Art remote
Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe

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. 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 pic 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 in 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.

The best place to see the work of contemporary santerosis at the annual summer and winter markets in Santa Fe. Traditional Spanish Market remote 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 pic 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 remote has a fine display of santos.

The Museum of International Folk Art remote in Santa Fe has a permanent display of santos in the Hispanic Heritage Wing.

Thanks to Barbe Awalt and Paul Rhetts are the publishers of Tradicion Revista remote magazine and several books on Hispanic art and culture. They have also curated the traveling exhibit "Our Saints Among Us."

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 13

Related Pages

Casa San Ysidro article
Glossary of Hispanic Folk Art Terms article
Marco Oviedo, Carver article
The National Hispanic Cultural Center of NM article
The Pomegranate in New Spain article

Patrociño Barela, Carver article
Museum of Spanish Colonial Art article
Three Hispanic New Mexico Metal Traditions article
A Tradition of Making Straw into Gold article
Traditional New Mexican Hispanic Crafts article
Straw Art in New Mexico article

Collector’s Resources


Cowboys & Indians Antiques | 505-255-4054

Santa Fe

Castillo Gallery | 505-351-4067
Chimayo Trading & Mercantile | 505-351-4566
Montez Gallery / Montez + Santa Fe aka Heaven | 505-982-1828
Museum of International Folk Art | 505-476-1145
Oviedo Carvings & Bronze | 505-351-2280
Peyton Wright Gallery | 505-989-9888
Que Tenga Buena Mano | 505-983-2358


Millicent Rogers Museum | 575-758-2462


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