Preserving the beauty of the past for the future - Albuquerque Journal

Preserving the beauty of the past for the future

Felix Lopez of La Mesilla is part of a team working to clean and stabilize the altar screens at the San Antonio de Padua church in Córdova. He is using distilled water to clean parts of the screen. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

CÓRDOVA — Tucked away in the folds of brown arroyos, a stone’s throw off the High Road to Taos, this tiny community has a church with historic altar screens that are in need of a little touch-up.

San Antonio de Padua Catholic Church, vintage 1832, is in good hands — white-gloved hands — of several local santeros who are meticulously dusting and cleaning three altar screens crafted by one of northern New Mexico’s famed santeros. The church is familiarly known as St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, as indicated by the sign outside the adobe structure.

The dull hum of a small vacuum cleaner operated by santero Felix Lopez filled the nave last week beyond rows of simple wooden pews. In the sacristy, santeros Victor Goler and Jerry Sandoval cleaned and wiped bultos and retablos with distilled water and detergent.

Retablos are religious works of art depicted in individual flat panels while bultos are three-dimensional sculptures.

Church Mayordomo Angelo Sandoval, Jerry Sandoval’s nephew, takes care of the church and proudly points out the religious art that abounds.

The church has not had a regularly scheduled Mass for at least 10 years, but there is a Mass on the Feast Day of San Antonio in June and for the Posadas in December, Angelo Sandoval said.

Two rubber bands secure the arm of a bulto of the Virgin Mary. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Numerous pieces of religious art adorn the large screens, presenting their own set of problems.

“Some of the challenges are the sheer number of pieces that we have and the different conditions they are in,” said Goler, who grew up in a family of art conservators and restorers.

He started at 13 and was mentored by uncles who taught him how to carve after his father died. “They saw that I had a knack for it,” he said. “They put me to work on New Mexico santos.” His career has been two-track as a santero, or an artist who creates Spanish-style religious works, and conservator specializing in New Mexico devotional santos.

Different treatments are required for different pieces and accessibility in the small church can be difficult.

“Some of these altars (are) pretty far back so if you bring scaffolding in to get to the top areas you are having to reach a little farther out, so we are trying to overcome that,” said Goler.

Famed santero

Many of the retablos and bultos at the church are the work of José Rafael Aragón, “one of the most prolific and popular santeros in nineteenth-century New Mexico,” according to an article by William Wroth in New Mexico History – State Records Center & Archives.

Santeros Victor Goler, left, from Taos, and Jerry Sandoval work on a bulto in the sacristy of San Antonio de Padua Church in Córdova on Wednesday. They are part of a team of artists cleaning and repairing the altar screens, some of which date from the 1830s. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Although Córdova was settled by 1750, the church was not finished until 1832. Aragón, who was born between 1783 and 1790, was commissioned to work on the church design between 1834 and 1838 and to paint the altar screens.

Santero art had its zenith in New Mexico from around 1750 to 1900 and New Mexico santeros had their own style that had roots “to the spiritualized art of the European Middle Ages,” according to the article.

“They not only made new pieces but retouched, restored, and sometimes completely repainted older pieces. … The artists made images of the most important holy persons and saints revered in Spain and the New World.”

Conservation work

Goler, 58, from Taos, delineates the difference between conservation versus restoration of the screens. It’s delicate work that is not for the heavy-handed, he said.

“We are only here to do conservation, so no real restoration,” Goler said. “So we are following through with surface cleaning primarily, removing of surface dirt, not actual varnish layers, and then we are having to stabilize the pigment and so that requires a certain amount of work and we have to sit there with syringes — insert adhesive behind the cracks and some cases having to iron them back down so they adhere to the wood.”

A bulto is placed in a pew while repairs are made to the altar screen. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Restoration is a more in-depth process involving “the replacement of color and the replacement of missing parts, so that would be arms or legs you are actually restoring and that could include even a deeper cleaning where you remove original varnish layers and getting to the original pigment color. …,” said Goler.

Felix Lopez, 79, from La Mesilla in Rio Arriba County, has been a santero since 1976 and the work in Córdova, which he calls “very rewarding,” carries a special significance for him.

“We are preserving this beautiful art work that our ancestors created and used for their worship, for their devotion, for their faith and it would be a real pity to lose this beautiful heritage that we were left with,” said Lopez.

Goler estimates the work could be finished in about 200 hours. With the threesome working two days a week that translates to a month or six weeks.

The project is spearheaded by Nuevo Mexico Profundo, an organization developed by Frank Graziano, Rebecca Montoya and Pete Warzel “to raise funds for historic church maintenance and restoration” and to “contribute to cultural enhancement and economic development in rural areas,” according to their website. The Córdova project was funded by the Thaw Charitable Trust, Susan Foote and other private donors, Graziano said in an email.

Jerry Sandoval works on a bulto.

Goler, Lopez and Jerry Sandoval are addressing the perhaps unintentional results of past good intentions.

“They (the altars) have suffered loss, they have suffered too many cleaning procedures from well meant (cleanings),” said Goler.

The importance of the original santeros’ efforts and the condition of the artworks are not lost on the three santeros doing the conservation work.

“It’s important because after 200 years of sometimes a lot of neglect in these churches and neglect with the art also, things start to deteriorate and then the result is we see the art in this condition,” said Lopez.

Goler said that when work on the art is done, “It will be stable and will last a lot longer.”

The church remains a bulwark of the community of about 400 souls, said Angelo Sandoval, 43.

“This is probably the last institution that we have in Córdova, we don’t have any stores anymore, they closed our school … this (the church) is the last thing that we have,” he said.

A portrayal of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows is among the many pieces needing repair. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Priceless treasures

And within that last institution there is much that is priceless to preserve.

“These are treasures that we have inherited and it’s so important to try and maintain their beauty — the purpose that they were created for which was to maintain the faith of the people in the communities,” Lopez said.

The conservation efforts are timely and much needed, according to the santeros, whose talents mesh in the cool air of the church nave.

“The conditions of the altars now are that they are flaking apart so we are losing the ground (paint) layer, the gesso (primer, often made with animal hide glue) layer, the pigment layer,” said Goler.

“There was a lot of cloth that was used between scenes where they put pieces of wood together and so all of that is starting to come off and so we are going to reglue all of that,” Goler said.

The labors are more an attempt to maintain the status quo and arrest the ravages that time has inflicted on the artworks. “Basically we are saving the altar — the santos, the devotional carvings and preserving them as they are right now,” said Goler.

“The pieces are not going to change that much from what we see here, other than they will be slightly cleaner and they will be stable and they will have a nice conservation varnish layer that has UV protectors and is non-yellowing and is easily removable.”

It’s painstaking work, but it has its own element of relaxation for Jerry Sandoval, 66. Sandoval discussed his passion for what he’s been doing since he was 20, as he removes paint from the face of St. Michael, the archangel.

“I’m trying to clean it up and stabilize it, move some of the parts back to keep it from falling apart. “I do this just as a pastime … just like a hobby to me, but I have been doing it forever and I have my own little studio where I work at with my retablos and bultos.”

St. Michael is known for being the guardian of the Church. In Córdova he now has four guardian helpers.

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