Surviving the Centuries: Discover New Mexico's Spanish Colonial Art in Timeless High Road Villages, Historic, Churches, Galleries, and a Vibrant New Museum. (Travel)

By Jaffe, Matthew | Sunset, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Surviving the Centuries: Discover New Mexico's Spanish Colonial Art in Timeless High Road Villages, Historic, Churches, Galleries, and a Vibrant New Museum. (Travel)


Jaffe, Matthew, Sunset


At noon on a quiet Sunday in northern New Mexico, villagers gather at El Santuario de Chimayo to pray before a 19th-century gold-leaf altar imported from Mexico.

When you first walk into the 180-year-old church and face the altar, there is a moment of practically being thrown off balance. The room widens almost imperceptibly, then narrows again as the adobe walls converge on either side of the altar. Undulating, roughly carved ceiling beams add to the vertiginous sensation.

And so your eye focuses on the altar and the painted details that surround it: a busy screen (known as reredos) of colorful false drapes, spiraling columns, and sacred paintings.

Painted when Chimayo was a distant outpost of Spain, the altar and reredos are prime examples of New Mexico's Spanish heritage. Last month, the state's 450-year-old arts tradition gained a shrine of its own with the opening of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe.

The museum's focus is on the art forms brought from Spain before New Mexico came under Mexican rule in 1821--art forms and traditions that still influence New Mexican artists today. It's an ideal starting point for anyone interested in exploring the state's Spanish arts legacy near Santa Fe.

"The museum will provide a deeper understanding of the development of Hispanic New Mexican culture and how it has evolved to the present day," says executive director Stuart Ashman. "But in another sense, this is the museum of the first settlers of the United States, the people who came to New Mexico before the pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock. This is really a museum of American heritage."

Connecting with the past

Spanish art arrived in New Mexico with early explorers from Spain during Coronado's 1540-42 explorations. The expedition included a painter named Cristobal de Quesada.

New Mexico's distinctive Spanish arts tradition continues to flourish today. At Spanish Market, one of Santa Fe's biggest events, artists display bultos (carved and painted wooden devotional figures) and retablos that they create using the same techniques and materials employed by their ancestors. Artists at the market carry on other traditional Spanish art forms as well, including tinwork, weaving, and straw applique.

Many artists live in the isolated mountain villages around Santa Fe--especially along the High Road (State 76) to Taos. Here, the Hispanic creative tradition of wood carving endures. Some artists sell from showrooms at their homes, advertised only by handwritten signs on the roadside.

Homegrown art

Despite personal and creative roots that reach deeply into the state's history, many of these artists have been largely overlooked. A few, however, including Luis Eligio Tapia of La Cienega, are beginning to reach a wider audience. A past winner at Spanish Market, Tapia blends traditional iconography with contemporary imagery. His work includes an updated image of the Virgin Mary as she mourns over the body of Christ. In Tapia's painted carving, a mother dressed in a colorful, flowing rebozo cradles her shirtless, jeans-wearing son beneath the glow of a streetlight as he lies dying from gang violence.

"There's a need to teach the young," says Tapia. "If I show a gang member or a low rider, a kid may then see that piece and be able to understand it."

Look at the crowd assembled for Sunday mass at Chimayo, and it's clear that today's Spanish colonial art--whether traditional or contemporary--is anything but an anachronism. It directly connects the past and present. Some of the parishioners' faces are straight out of the reredos on the church walls, while motorcyclists bearing votive candles and teenagers in T-shirts and basketball shoes could have stepped out of one of Tapia's works.

"The art is something truly New Mexican that continues," says wood-carver Cruz Flores. "Something that only New Mexico could produce. …

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