SANTA FE, N.M. — Artists have longed to capture the divine since the first painter put yucca brush to petroglyph.
Spanish Colonial Viceregal paintings convey a sense of the sacred, transforming transcendence into the seamless fabric of everyday life.
Santa Fe’s Peyton Wright Gallery will showcase that radiance with its “25th Annual Art of Devotion – Historic Art of the Americas” exhibition. This collection of 17th to 19th century artwork features paintings, sculpture, furniture, silver and objects from the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies, including Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Venezuela, Brazil, Guatemala and the Philippines, as well as New Mexico. About 400 pieces span eight gallery rooms.
Gallery owner John Wright Schaefer launched the annual show with about a dozen works and a few hundred visitors. Today the event draws art lovers by the thousands.
This year’s version includes more sculpture, including a rare “Cristo, Con la Cruz” carved and painted bulto by famed New Mexico santero José Rafael Aragón, circa 1830. The saint comes with provenance grounded in a catalog listing written by the Spanish colonial scholar E. Boyd.
For the Spanish colonists, devotion was integral to daily life. The devout never cloistered artwork in churches but kept it in private homes and chapels. From about 1502 to 1820, European religious orders sailed to the New World to evangelize the Natives. They brought thousands of liturgical prints to help communicate the lives of the Catholic saints. Local artists learned to reproduce European styles and motifs as well as using their own materials, methods and subjects. The results grew into an artistic hybrid that remains unique in history.
Aragón is considered to be one of the most prolific and highly regarded classic santeros in early New Mexico. His work spanned four decades, during which he produced not only altar screens and carvings for churches, but also hundreds of images for private clients.
“Virgen de la Merced,” circa 1720, the work of an unknown artist, is a diminutive oil-on-copper from Mexico.
The painting depicts the central figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy holding the infant Jesus. The Trinity hovers above her as Joseph and John the Evangelist flank her figure.
The intricately carved “Saint Martin of Tours,” circa 1700, Mexico, shows the French bishop using his military sword to cut his cloak in two, to give half to a beggar.
“It’s a very theatrical piece executed in the heat of the New World Baroque period,” Wright Schaefer said. “The artist is unknown, but I would venture that the artist would have been exposed to the training of one of the Spanish masters. The cloak is unlike any other carving I’ve ever seen.”
“Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe,” circa 1750, oil on copper, Mexico, depicts the 1531 story of Mary’s appearance to a native named Juan Diego. The image has become Mexico’s most popular religious and cultural symbol.
“Copper was somewhat precious in the 17th and 18th centuries and typically found only in the masters’ studios,” Wright Schaefer said. “It has an interesting surface. Copper could be gessoed, and the paint would flow beautifully.”
Alexandro Guerrero’s dark “The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane,” 1781, Mexico, is another oil-on-copper.
The show features at least one purely decorative piece.
A nearly 14-pound silver milk can, circa 1800, features a crest medallion and bovine finial with delicate sgraffito decoration at the bottom.
“The folklore has it that milk would keep for three days in solid silver,” Wright Schaefer said. “I haven’t tried it.”