Art

Where does art end and the sacred begin?

Religious imagery brought solace while shaping a singular creative outlet

By Rick Romancito
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 8/15/19

As quietly as a humble ritual you might witness in a colonial capilla, a new exhibit is opening without fanfare this weekend at the Millicent Rogers Museum, one that offers a look at Hispanic Colonial folk art that may surprise, delight and certainly enlighten.

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Art

Where does art end and the sacred begin?

Religious imagery brought solace while shaping a singular creative outlet

Posted

As quietly as a humble ritual you might witness in a colonial capilla, a new exhibit is opening without fanfare this weekend at the Millicent Rogers Museum, one that offers a look at Hispanic Colonial folk art that may surprise, delight and certainly enlighten.

The show is titled “The Faithful,” and it opens Saturday (Aug. 17) in the museum’s largest changing exhibit galleries. It is being installed this week to include 30 works of historic and contemporary works by curator Carmela Quinto.

“Catholic devotional art in the Southwest (southern Colorado and New Mexico) is distinctly different from Catholic devotional art anywhere else in the world,” Quinto says in a museum statement. “Early iconography created in the Southwest had a heavy Franciscan influence. With focus on passion and death as a vehicle for salvation. Images were usually bloody – reflecting suffering – addressing the difficulties and sufferings of early life in New Mexico.”

One of the pieces in the show is a remarkable contemporary painting by renowned artist Paul Pletka, 73, titled “The Autumn Procession,” which shows a group of the faithful in a procession with a figure of the Virgin at the front — but in the back you may notice the figure of death sneaking in with the group, to suggest its presence at all times and everywhere. Pletka, incidentally, has had a long relationship with the museum through its founder and namesake’s son, the late Paul Peralta Ramos. 

Windows to the saints

Quinto contends that “these images were not created as art and do not operate in the aesthetic realm but in the sacred. Saints images are not worshiped but are used as conduits or windows to the saints. Communication with the saints allows a person to request assistance from the holy person. Much like a best friend would be asked to help in a crisis.”

The majority of works are from the museum collection, which is how this idea came about, Quinto explains. “The MRM has a fabulous collection of devotional art. It’s not something we are really known for, but it should be. Some of the pieces we are pulling out from the vault are pieces we have not exhibited before because they did not fit into a particular theme for an exhibit.”

Focusing in the ideas and subjects is paramount here, which is why the show features works by recognized artists alongside those who created them as part of devotional practice.

The selection of santeros is very diverse. “We have some of our traditional local santeros and santeras such as Lydia Garcia, Daniel Rael and Victor Goler, of Ranchos de Taos,” Quinto said. “Kenneth Gallegos from Questa and an early piece by Ed Sandoval. We borrowed some exciting works by Luis Tapia and Nick Herrera, both from Santa Fe, but most are local, including a piece by Lonnie Martinez of Taos Pueblo. We are fortunate to have an icon by Father Bill (William Hart McNichols) in our collection and we have borrowed two more of his pieces for this exhibition.”

Quinto said she thinks visitors to the exhibit will be “most surprised to see that we are also exhibiting works by Frank Applegate and Ellen Bradbury, who were big supporters of the preservation and revival of both Hispanic and Native arts in the 1920s. There is also a piece by Gisella Loeffler, who moved to Taos and considered herself part of the Taos Art Colony. They are examples of Anglo artists creating what they saw and what they loved when they came to New Mexico.”

Soon after Franciscan friars arrived in New Mexico in 1692, they began painting images on animal hide. This was to assist them in teaching the faith by crossing language barriers. These were the first santos. With the influence of the Franciscans, native-born santeros began creating santos with available materials. By 1800, santeros were very busy providing images in all forms.

Lamy enforces change

In 1851, Jean Baptiste Lamy, the first Archbishop of Santa Fe, arrived in New Mexico. He took on the job of “reforming the church in New Mexico,” Quinto explains. He ordered the removal of the handmade religious images from the churches and replaced them with imported plaster images. Because of the orders from Lamy, plus the arrival of the railroad and access to machine-made statues and pictures, the work of the santero declined after 1850.

The founding of the Spanish Colonial Arts Society in 1929 created a revival that transformed the creation of santos into art instead of the sacred. The annual Spanish Market in Santa Fe has created a market for and resurgence for the santero. New styles of carving and interpretation of religious images continue to be created.

For 400 years, the santeros of this region have continued and evolved the tradition of creating religious images. Most have discovered that this form of creating religious imagery has also become a form of art. Secular collectors are among the strongest supporters of Hispanic devotional art and have also produced some of the most beloved santos themselves.

Where does art end and the sacred begin? Can the sacred and the art co-exist?, Quinto asks rhetorically. If an image is a valuable piece of art, can it be used for sacred devotion? This exhibition features various interpretations of los santos by a very diverse group of santeros, paying tribute to both the art and the sacred. 

Overriding ideas

Quinto said she selected works for the show based on two overriding ideas: “The first is that each one follows the tradition of the santeros I call ‘The Old Masters’ such as Jose Rafael Aragón, Antonio Molleno and Jose Benito Ortega, and others that we feature in our Gallery 8. The second thing is that each one of these santeros has added their own style, whether it be how the saint is portrayed or displays a different way to look at a particular image. Usually we can look at an image and figure out who they are by what they are wearing or what they are holding, which is their attributes.

“These santeros mixed things up a bit so you spend some time looking at the image. It’s like learning a new part of the saint’s personality. There are also some pieces that don’t reflect a saint, but a point in time or scripture, which is something the early Franciscan friars created, usually on buffalo hide. However, through the generations, our ‘traditional’ images became sole images of the saint or person. So seeing these santeros create a scene and tell a story in a piece of wood is different.”

“The Faithful” continues through Jan. 31, 2020. The Millicent Rogers Museum is located at 1504 Millicent Rogers Road, on the mesa northwest of El Prado via U.S. 64. Call (575) 758-2462 or visit millicentrogers.org.

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