The Archdiocese of Santa Fe Art Collection

Helping preserve important local artistic and religious traditions

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The 400th anniversary of the establishment of the first Spanish settlement of New Mexico reminds us of New Mexico's rich and, at times, controversial past. The Catholic Church has been an integral part of New Mexico's past and has added both to the richness and the controversy of this distinctive state.

The visitor is drawn here for many reasons—from the beauty of the landscape to the traditions of its people. The beautiful and haunting churches are among the attractions which fascinate and tempt the visitor and encourage longer and more expansive visits. While the architecture of the churches and their location—among ancient pueblos or in remote mountain villages—first attracts visitors, it is their spiritual quality that calls people back. The spiritual presence of the churches can be felt and seen in the thick adobe walls, the viga ceilings and the wooden floors. The sensation of being in a sacred place is enhanced by the beauty of artwork that calls to mind the drama and mystery of the Catholic faith. The painted altar screens (reredos) and numerous wooden statues (bultos) on the altars and in nichos throughout the churches generate an emotion that is at once frightening and comforting.

The long tradition of embellishing churches with artwork came to New Mexico with the Franciscans who accompanied the Spanish here in 1598. On September 9, less than five months after the Spanish crossed the Rio Grande into New Mexico, the Franciscan Friars were sent out to establish missions among the Indian villages. Efforts at first concentrated on teaching the natives the basic elements of the Catholic faith and the building of churches. Early mission churches built during this time include those at the Pueblos of Picuris and Isleta (still used for Catholic worship), and those at the Salinas missions which were abandoned prior to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

After 1609, a regular, every-three-year caravan arrived from Mexico with supplies for the missions and the Spanish settlers. Supplies included building materials and items for the Friars such as honey, wine, chocolate and fabric and needles to make vestments and altar linens. Some years, special items such as religious paintings, gifts from the Spanish Crown, also arrived. These images, as well as those depicted in missals, were used by the Friars to create images for the missions. Early church art was applied directly on the plastered interior walls, at first by the Friars and later by native converts. By the late 1700s, art was being painted on other surfaces rather than the walls which were being damaged by rain water coming in through leaky roofs. The materials readily available were animal hides and wood.

The late 1700s was a period of great expansion and increased settlement throughout New Mexico. Churches were among the first buildings constructed in newly-established settlements; through the early nineteenth century, production of religious art for these churches increased and encouraged artistic progress in New Mexico.

Santa Cruz Altar Screen

Image: ©Thomas R. Velarde
Altar Screen
Santa Cruz de la Cañada
Santa Cruz, NM

Artists whose names are known and valued today were in demand throughout the area. The artwork at the church at Santa Cruz de la Cañada, built in 1733, includes an important altar screen painted in 1795.

Images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, angels, archangels and numerous saints are common to all New Mexico's churches and are a blend of the old and the new. Images of Our Lady painted on bison or other animal hides from the late 1700s can be seen along with recent plaster of paris statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus obtained in the 1950s. The pieces range from small bultos of the infant Jesus placed in cribs or in Mary's arms to large altar screens that are permanently set in the church walls. Historic pieces on animal hides or carved from unmilled wood and painted with natural pigments are of special interest to most visitors not only for their beauty and antiquity, but also for their uniqueness of style and methods of production.

The primary care of these pieces has been the responsibility of the people who worship in these churches. The men and women who maintain the church structure have also been the ones to clean the artwork and have oftentimes been supportive of having some of the early pieces overpainted and even removed from the churches and replaced by newer or more modern pieces. After the establishment of the Vicariate Apostolic of New Mexico in 1850 and the resulting establishment of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in 1875, much of New Mexico's church art was lost. This was due in part to an insensitive clergy and the arrival of commercial church art seen as more appropriate and more beautiful. Many who had grown used to and tired of the old church art welcomed the new, more life-like statues and paintings brought or commissioned by the predominantly French clergy. Original pieces, including large altar screens, began to disappear from churches and found their way to museums and private art collections. The church did nothing to stop the alienation of these pieces and is often seen as having been negligent in its responsibility.

MR Cash Station V

Image: © Marie Romero Cash
Station V
Saint Francis Cathedral Basilica
Santa Fe, NM

The establishment of the Office of Historic-Artistic Patrimony in 1983 was the first concerted effort on the part of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe to initiate a program of responsibility for this important part of New Mexico's religious heritage. Prior to this, efforts by interested organizations such as the Museum of New Mexico, prompted the Archdiocese to establish guidelines that assured against the alienation or uncalled-for destruction of pieces. The Office of Historic-Artistic Patrimony drew from previous Archdiocesan guidelines and church law to establish policies to strengthen church responsibility for this art and to institute a program of professional care for their collection.

Today, parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Santa Fe work closely with the Office of Historic-Artistic Patrimony, which was expanded in 1986 to include the care for the archdiocesan archives (1678–1900) and which opened an archdiocesan museum in Santa Fe in 1993, to provide adequate care and appropriate preservation/conservation measures.

Inventories of items with full descriptions, measurements and photographs are now kept and updated. Conservation efforts are carefully considered and documented in order to maintain the historic integrity of the piece.

Particular items removed from churches because they are no longer used for church worship or which are no longer in the care of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe are held by the Office of Historic-Artistic Patrimony or are on loan to the Museum of New Mexico. These pieces are used for exhibits and research and inspiration by contemporary artists and santeros.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has become fully aware of the importance of this art and its responsibility for its care. It is also involved in helping to preserve the art of the santero and its perpetuation. An Archbishop's Award is given annually at the yearly Spanish Market and recently, the Archdiocese installed Stations of the Cross by santera Marie Romero Cash in Saint Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe.

Religious art of New Mexico can be seen in churches during regular worship times or by special arrangement. Many churches throughout northern New Mexico are open on a regular basis. Admission fees are not charged, however donations are appreciated.

For more information on the art collection of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe contact Marina Ochoa, Director of the Office of Historic-Artistic Patrimony and Archives, Archdiocese of Santa Fe remote
223 Cathedral Place, Santa Fe, NM 87501. Telephone 505-983-3811

Thanks to Marina Ochoa

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe and Taos - Volume 12

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