The Folksy Majesty of Santero Art

Hispanic yet also quintessentially American, santero art is found in the western and southwestern parts of the United States. It takes its name from the santero or santera—literally the saintmaker who creates images of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the angels, and the saints. These images come in different forms, mainly as crucifijos (crucifixes), bultos (statues), paneles (panels), or retablos (retables or altar screens). In addition, the images are found on other religious objects such as relicarios (reliquaries) or in nichos (niches). Some early examples of this folk art can be found on animal hides, but later ones were carved and painted on wood. The santeros would also occasionally use metals such as tin or wrought iron and, less frequently, silver. The tradition continues today.

Santero art dates back four centuries, beginning with the first Spanish settlement in New Mexico in 1598. After pushing north from Mexico, Juan de Onate and a group of Spaniards reached the Rio Grande River and established San Juan de los Caballeros. Eight Franciscans traveled with the expedition as missionaries to the indigenous peoples of the area. They also brought with them their aesthestic sensibilities, which they shared with those they met. The Renaissance and Baroque art styles they were familiar with in peninsular Spain and Mexico were then transformed on the frontier to a simpler, more direct art form. In many ways, santero art is a throwback to medieval art or iconography, in which themes and figures are symbolic and repeat themselves. Each artist, however, leaves his huella, or mark. While the first santeros were actually the missionaries and a few artisans that arrived with them, the native peoples soon took up the form as well.

For the missionaries, religious art essentially had two goals: to instruct and to inspire. On the one hand, its purpose was to tell a story, biblical or otherwise, of a particular holy one; and on the other, to uplift the spirits by making beautiful the sacred spaces honoring our Lord. Together, the missionaries and new converts worked to build humble yet hauntingly beautiful mission churches and hacienda chapels that were subsequently decorated with these unusual works of santero art. Although most of the pieces date from the 18th and 19th centuries, there are references to earlier works—one record from 1663 found in New Mexican archives refers to an Indian artist making a painting of San Miguel (St. Michael) on an animal hide.

San Juan Nepomuceno (St. John Nepomucene), wooden panel, Laguna Santero, circa 1796-1810, Taylor Museum Collection of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado

So what is the patron saint of Bohemia doing in a collection of 18th-century santero art? Part of the reason for the existence of this Czech saint in santero art is that John Nepomucene was canonized in 1729, and devotion to him spread quickly throughout the Church, including mission territories. But more than that, the dramatic story of his martyrdom and role as the patron saint of confessors, secrecy in the confessional, protection against slander and calumny, bridges, and water-related problems (drought, drowning, irrigation, etc.), were significant issues in the Southwest. One challenge the missionaries faced as they sought to Christianize the indigenous peoples was to encourage frequent and proper use of the sacraments, especially confession. Another was the lack of sufficient water for the arid lands. Both prompted the frequent invocation of this saint’s intercession.

Born around 1340 as John Wolfin at Nepomuk, a village near Pilsen, Bohemia, he was ordained a priest and eventually became the auxiliary bishop of Prague. Known for his concern for the poor and outstanding preaching, it is said that thousands converted after listening to him. Popular tradition has it that he was confessor to Queen Joanna at the court of King Wenceslaus IV, where he refused to divulge the queen’s confession to a jealous and notoriously cruel king (not to be confused with “Good King Wenceslaus” the saint). For this John Nepomucene was tortured, put into chains, and thrown to his death off the Charles Bridge and into the Moldau River.

Historical accounts of the era present a slightly different version of what happened. As auxiliary bishop, John Nepomucene refused to acquiese a second time to King Wenceslaus, who wanted to confiscate a Benedictine abbey upon the death of its abbot and turn it into a cathedral in western Bohemia. Even after the bishop and four other officials had met with the king and reached an agreement, historical records indicate that Wenceslaus, reportedly drunk, fell into a rage and had all of them tortured. He himself participated, wielding his sword wildly. The four officials were seriously injured and the bishop was mortally wounded. In an attempt to try and cover up their crime, the king and his closest aides offered the others their liberty if they would remain silent. Bishop Nepomucene then had his hands tied to his feet, a block of wood wedged into his mouth, and in the darkness of the night was thrown off the aforementioned bridge in 1393. That night, unusual lights—or as some say, five flaming stars—were seen over the area where his body sank. The bishop’s remains were found and then buried at St. Vitus Cathedral where they rest today. By all accounts his tongue is incorrupt. Often he is depicted in art with five stars in his halo.

In a sermon he gave during a pastoral visit to the Czech Republic in 1997, John Paul II referred to this brave man: “Another cause of joy are the saintly figures, men and women who have made this land great: Ludmila, Wenceslaus, Adalbert…. In this host of saints there are not lacking priests and martyrs, such as John Nepomucene and John Sarkander….” St. John Nepomucene’s feast day is May 16.

On the painted panel, St. John Nepomucene wears a priest’s biretta and bishop’s robes. He holds both a cross, representing his vocation as priest and confessor, and a palm branch, symbolizing his martyrdom. Overhead are fan-like rays of light recalling the unusual lights that had hovered over the site of his martyrdom. The identity of the artist, the Laguna Santero, was unknown until recently, when research revealed he was a priest, Fray Ram6n Antonio Gonzalez, from Puebla, Mexico. Commissioned to paint several altar screens across the border in New Mexico, he worked mainly in the church located at the Laguna Pueblo. Known for his flowing robes and flat emblematic backgrounds, Fray Ramon Antonio was a good example of a provincial folk artist who had moved away from the ornate, three-dimensional style prevalent in Mexican Baroque art to a flatter, two-dimensional treatment of his subjects.

San Rafael (St. Raphael), wooden statue, Santo Nino Santero, early/mid-19th century, Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Sculpted and painted by a follower of the Santo Nino Santero, this striking bulto of St. Raphael is one of the masterpieces of santero art found in New Mexico. Just as in medieval art, the figure itself is somewhat out of proportion, but great emphasis is placed on the symbolism connected with the archangel’s story—his sharply angled wings, the large hands holding a staff and a fish, and the leggings for one who has to journey some distance. A curious detail reflecting the indigenous influence is the red-and-black Native American—style dress. Another curious detail is the pouch hung on the staff. What is in the pouch? The answer lies in the Book of Tobias and the fascinating story of a father and son.

After one of the Old Testament persecutions, Tobias the elder insisted on burying the fallen Israelites, even though it was risky to do so. Exhausted after completing the burials, he collapsed against the wall of his home and fell asleep. “[H]ot dung out of a swallow’s nest [then] fell upon his eyes and he was made blind” (Tb 2:11). Though deeply distressed by the trial that “had befallen him, [Tobias] continued immoveable in the fear of the Lord, giving thanks to God all the days of his life” (Tb 2:13-14). He asks the Lord to “do with me according to thy will, and command my spirit to be received in peace, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Tb 3:6).

Feeling that the Lord had answered his prayers and that his end was near, Tobias called in his son to counsel him and then sent him on a journey to Rages, a city of the Medes (today in northern Iraq), where he was to collect a debt from Gabelus. As young Tobias set forth, he encountered “a beautiful young man standing girded, as if he were ready to walk” (Tb 5:5), who introduced himself as Azarias and agreed to accompany the younger Tobias on his journey. In fact, Azarias is really St. Raphael in disguise. Several times during the journey he offered his guidance and protection to the young traveler. While both were camped near the Tigris River, a monstrous fish rose out of the waters. It was about to devour young Tobias but Azarias quickly told him how to overpower and catch the fish. He also advised him to “lay up his heart, and his gall [bladder] and his liver… for these are useful medicines” (Tb 6:5). They placed the entrails in a pouch and then roasted some of the fish and salted the rest for their trip.

Upon reaching their destination, young Tobias met the young widow Sara and decided to marry her. Because seven of her previous husbands had been slain by a demon, Azarias counseled the groom-to-be on how to protect himself after he married her. He was to wait three days before consummating the marriage, and then on the third night place the fish’s liver on hot coals. Tobias did so and lived. Azarias likewise helped to recover the money from Gabelus. On their way back, Azarias gave the fish’s gallbladder to the recently married youth. He told him that when Tobias got home, he was to first give thanks to the Lord, kiss his blind and aged father, and then “immediately annoint his eyes with the gall of the fish” (Tb11:8). Tobias again followed Azarias’s advice and his father’s sight was fully restored. In thanksgiving, all (Tobias the elder; his wife, Anna; Tobias the younger; his new wife, Sara; and their wedding entourage) began praising the Lord. Just as they were about to give Azarias half of the possesions brought from the Medes, he revealed himself as the Archangel Raphael, one of the seven who stand before the Lord. In Hebrew, Raphael means one sent to heal.

Who was the Santo Nino Santero, and what about his followers? He was called the Santo Nino Santero because he did many images of the Holy Child. One of the finest folk artists in New Mexico, he has recently been identified as Jose Manuel Benavides, a sculptor who worked closely with another outstanding santero called Jose Rafael Aragon. Both lived in Santa Cruz de la Canada near Santa Fe. Certain characteristics are his hallmarks: long slender noses, thin lips, slightly protruding almond-shaped eyes, and carefully carved hands and fingers. The follower who did this piece was either someone who worked closely with Benavides or followed his style.

Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe), wooden panel, Truchas Master, 1780-1840, Taylor Museum Collection of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado

First, the story of the apparition. On December 9, 1531, Juan Diego, a macehuali or poor Indian, was walking a great distance to go to Mass in Tlatelolco, a village near Tenochtitlan. Some years earlier he and his wife, Maria Lucia, had converted to Christianity, but four years after their conversion his wife died. On that particular Saturday, Juan Diego was alone. As he neared Tepeyac hill just before dawn, he heard celestial music and a voice from the top calling to him: “Juanito, Juan Dieguito.” Moving closer, he saw a beautiful young lady in dazzling garments surrounded by a resplendent rainbow of light. She asked Juan Diego to carry a message to Bishop Zumarraga to build a temple where she was standing. Juan Diego delivered her message, but the unbelieving bishop said no.

The following day, the bishop, who wanted to know more details of the apparition, cross-examined Juan Diego and requested that he present a sign. Returning home, Juan Diego related this to Our Lady. The next day he didn’t go by Tepeyac hill because he was busy caring for his dying uncle, Bernardino. The following day, his uncle took a turn for the worse and the humble Indian rushed to get a priest. He decided to go by a different route so as to avoid the apparition, but Our Lady still came down to meet him. She told him not to worry about Bernardino and said that, even though it was December, he was to gather roses in some nearby rocks and take them to the bishop. Juan Diego found the rocks, gathered as many of the beautiful roses as he could, and put them into his tilma or cloak. He hurried to the episcopal residence, and as he unfolded his cloak to show them the roses, Bishop Zumarraga and his attendants fell on their knees: A life-size image of Our Lady appeared on the tilma. The bishop then said to Juan Diego, “Show us where the Lady from heaven wants the temple built,” and a shrine was built to honor Our Lady and house the miraculous image.

In this work of art, an artistic representation of the miraculous image found on Juan Diego’s tilma, Our Lady is standing on the moon. Underneath, an angel supports her and, in essence, is transporting the Blessed Virgin to the people as a sign that a new age has come. This symbolism is significant because in Meso-America, only royalty and dignitaries were carried. Our Lady’s turquoise mantle, covered with stars, was another sign of royalty for the native people. Moreover, research by Rev. Rojas Sanchez and Dr. Hernandez Illescas indicates that the pattern of stars coincides with the stars of the winter solstice found in the early morning sky on December 12, 1531. Our Lady wears a crown as queen of heaven and is surrounded by multicolored rays of light similar to those in the apparition. These rays also harken back to the biblical verse referring to “a woman clothed with the sun” (Rv 12:1).

In this painting, the Truchas Master heavily accentuates the wavy border around the aureole of light. Some of the Truchas Master’s hallmarks are the dramatic eyes and the long narrow noses with a distinctive loop at the bottom. The four corners and borders are graced with freely drawn flowers and vines (another one of this santero’s hallmarks). The Truchas Master, also known as Pedro Antonio Fresques, worked mainly in the town of Truchas north of Santa Fe. He is buried at the Santuario de Chimayo.

San Isidro Labrador (St. Isidore the Farmer), wooden statue, Anonymous Santero, late 18th or early 19th century, Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico

St. Isidore stands arms thrust in front and two pairs of oxen dragging plows on either side of him. Two brightly colored angels are guiding these plows without touching them and with seemingly little effort. The saint wears a red vest, a dark blue coat with 12 buttons, matching breeches, boots, and a flat-topped hat. This somewhat formal outfit was actually the typical attire of New Mexican farmers. Written across the front base in historic Spanish lettering is: Sn Ysidro Labxadox, patxon de los labxadoxes (Saint Isidore, patron of laborers). The sn is the abbreviation for san, the y was used instead of i, and the x instead of the r.

Born near Madrid around 1070, Isidore was a day laborer who worked on lands owned by Juan de Vargas. It was Isidore’s custom to go to Mass every day. Once, one of his fellow workers complained to the landowner that Isidore was always late for work. According to popular tradition, Juan de Vargas hid himself in a bush near the fields and watched Isidore to find out what was really happening. Sure enough, because he had attended Mass, Isidore did arrive somewhat late but began work immediately and prayed as he went. Much to the astonishment of Juan de Vargas, he saw that while Isidore was plowing, two angels appeared and started plowing alongside of him. In effect, his output was that of three laborers instead of one.

Isidore was married to a saintly woman, Maria Toribia, known in Spain as Santa Maria de la Cabeza, due to the fact that her head is carried in processions especially in times of drought. The couple had one son. They both took a vow of continence and lived separately after the boy was miraculously saved from drowning. Other stories of false accusations and astounding events abound in this laborer’s life. When Isidore was dying at age 90, Maria left her retreat and returned to their home to nurse him until his death. Soon after, devotion to the memory of this saintly man spread. One fascinating incident occurred four centuries later, when Felipe III, king of Spain (1579-1621), who had been declared by doctors to be dying from an incurable disease, touched the relics of Isidore and was immediately healed. Both Isidore and Maria are now buried in the Cathedral of Madrid. Isidore’s body is incorrupt. His feast day in May 15.

Next to nothing is known about the santero or santeros who produced this fine sculpture. However, art historians are quite certain that the angels, oxen, and plow were not created by the same person who did the figure of St. Isidore. Furthermore, recent investigation has found that this work shows some affinity with an isolated style found in either Chihuahua, Mexico, or in the Mesilla Valley of southern New Mexio.

In his book on saints, Semblanzas (Sketches), Tomas Morales, S.J., talks about St. Isidore. “[The] hidden life with Christ in the Lord [of this man] carries us away. [It is] a hidden life that puts sanctity within reach for all of us. Untiring laborer until his old age, he waters with his sweat the land of others…. Criticisms and calumnies of envious ones always surround him, but with humble fortitude he converts them into a prayerful plea. During his long hours of prayer, while laying open furrows or sowing grain, he keeps an eye on the future and offers himself for a better world.”


  • Maria Stella Ceplecha

    Maria Stella Ceplecha is a freelance writer and a Spanish language and culture professor from St. Paul, Minnesota. She lives part of the year in Avila, Spain.

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