SANTA FE – At the end of her maiden tour of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, a puzzled Louisiana tourist asked about the Virgin of Guadalupe.
“She said, ‘I didn’t know you were into voodoo,'” guest curator and museum volunteer Ren Moure said.
The befuddled tourist was confused by the pointed radiation spires emanating from the figure’s body in countless iterations.
“The rays looked like something she’d seen around a voodoo figure,” Moure explained.
That unknowing visitor planted the seed for what would become “Secrets of the Symbols: The Hidden Language of Spanish Colonial Art,” now on view at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe.
The exhibition gathers a sampling of historic bultos, paintings and retablos from the museum’s collection to teach visitors how to decode artwork.
Viewers who were not raised Catholic or avoided art history can often become confused by the iconography, Moure said.
“I know to see a lady with a dagger through her heart is a little off-putting,” she explained. “They walk right by and you can almost see their physical discomfort. I grew up Catholic, and it was not something I was taught in 12 years of catechism.”
Religious symbolism pre-dates Christianity. The Greeks and Romans often depicted Hermes/Mercury, the messenger of the gods, as a young man with a winged helmet.
The ancient Egyptians showed Anubis, the protector of the dead and their tombs, as a jackal-headed man holding a wand and an Ankh (the symbol of life).
These images also were meant to be read in context.
While a Chinese dragon can mean power, strength or good luck, in Christian art it symbolizes evil or the devil.
In the Spanish colonies, religious motifs were often seen as the ideal way to offer instruction in areas with multiple languages where some congregants were illiterate.
Representing chastity, purity and innocence, the lily is most often associated with images of the Virgin Mary.
It also appears in depictions of St. Anthony and in the virgin saints and martyrs.
“Saint Rose of Lima” (anonymous, Peru or Bolivia, late-18th-early-19th century) holds a stem of lilies in her left hand.
The saint was known for her severe asceticism and care for the needy.
The palm is the sign of the martyr, a person who suffered greatly or died for a cause.
The palm appears regularly in images of saints Barbara, Raymond, Lawrence and John Nepomuk. Its fronds became a symbol of victory in Greek and Roman times. Officials presented branches to Olympic winners, onlookers waved them like flags at victorious armies.
The museum displays a “Saint Barbara” santo, possibly carved by Molleno, from early-19th-century New Mexico, holding a palm next to the tower that imprisoned her because she refused to marry.
A retablo by the New Mexican santero Rafael Aragón shows “The Soul of Mary” (mid-19th century) cradling a dove in her lap. Symbol of the holy spirit, it appears in images of the trinity, the Virgin, the apostles and John the Baptist.
In “Saint John the Baptist” (anonymous, Mexico, 19th century) the figure stands next to a lamb, the symbol of Christ. Before Christianity, the lamb was the chosen Jewish sacrificial animal.
It became the ideal representation of Christ’s offering of himself for humanity. When artists portray Christ or Mary as a shepherd, the animals symbolize the sinners in their care.
A circa 1830 retablo of “Saint Michael” by the Quill Pen Santero shows the figure standing atop a snake, symbol of evil and death.
“He’s the warrior saint,” Moure said. “He cast the devil out of heaven.”
The serpent often appears in depictions of the Virgin Mary and Adam and Eve. The Virgin conquered evil by bringing Christ into the world and crushes a serpent beneath her feet.
The beating, bleeding sacred heart in “Saint Gertrude” by Domingo Ortiz (Mexico, late-18th-early-19th century) shows Christ’s love for humanity in a pierced heart, wrapped in a crown of thorns and sometimes topped with a cross and flame.
When paired with an image of a saint, it carries their devotion to the compassion and suffering of Christ.
As art grew increasingly secularized, some symbols maintained their original meaning without any spiritual association.
A red rose still symbolizes love, scales reflect judgment and the skull still implies death. Others nearly reverse their original purpose.
The swastika (the word has Sanskrit roots) shifted from an ancient symbol of luck and life to the stigma of World War II German atrocities.
Today we see Our Lady of Guadalupe in gang tattoos.