SANTA FE – The Virgin of Guadalupe embellishes everything from tattoos to mouse pads and water bottles.
The New Mexico roots of the lady in the blue cloak braid from Spanish colonial artists through today’s Spanish markets.
For the first time, Santa Fe’s Museum of Spanish Colonial Art has dedicated a gallery to her image in retablos, bultos and three-dimensional nichos. Incorporating artwork from Spanish colonial masters such as the Laguna Santero, Pedro Antonio Fresquís and Rafael Aragon, the exhibition will be open through April.
Guadalupe’s story began on Dec. 9, 1531, when a native Mexican named Juan Diego saw an apparition of a young, dark-skinned woman at the Hill of Tepeyac on the northern outskirts of Mexico City. She called to him in his native language and requested a church be built in her honor.
On his third visit to the bishop, an image of the virgin appeared on Juan Diego’s tilma or cloak as proof of the miracle.
The first New Mexican church dedicated to Guadalupe’s image appeared in 1668 in what is now Juarez; at the time, the city was part of New Mexico, museum curator Robin Farwell Gavin said.
Others followed at Zuni Pueblo (1706), Pojoaque (1707) and in Santa Fe (1795). Genízaros (Hispanicized indigenous people and their descendants), as well as new settlers from Mexico were her earliest devotees.
Today she remains one of the most commonly portrayed religious figures created by New Mexican santeros. Traditional images place her on a crescent moon above a cherub.
Santeros create images of saints, known as santos. According to the office of the State Historian, the art of the santero flourished in New Mexico from about 1750 to 1900. These artists developed a distinctive folk art style in both painting and sculpture. They made images of the most important holy persons and saints revered in both Spain and the New World.
An ornate Laguna Santero retablo (panel painting) shows the familiar Guadalupe figure with light rays serrating her blue cloak (late 18th-early 19th century). The painting’s inner and outer borders reveal a Baroque influence through floral and diamond shapes. To confirm the figure’s importance, the santero painted the diamonds using a metallic pigment consisting of gold or copper.
“We haven’t tested it yet,” Farwell Gavin said.
Rafael Aragón, the prolific santero who was part of the critical 19th-century Santa Fe santero workshop, epitomizes the artwork of the Spanish colonial period, she continued. Stylized and framed in a decorative border, his figure is both ethereal and spiritual.
Fresquís painted flat figures defined by simple outlines featuring long, narrow noses incorporating an eyebrow. He used sgraffito (incising) in wet gesso or paint to decorate borders. Cross-hatching formed the centers his of flowers, leading some scholars to surmise he picked up the technique from engravings.
The contemporary bulto (wooden statue) by La Mesilla santero Felix A. López shows a submissive, contented Mary, her head tilted to the side. Inlaid straw appliqué scatters stars across her cloak.
In contrast, the work of modern Santa Fe santero David Nabor Lucero features highly expressive carving with bold colors. His bultos burst with strong lines of color, extravagant forms and elaborate gestures. Lucero’s explosive style contrasts sharply with the traditional folk forms often permeating the genre.
The legend lives on. Several New Mexican pueblos still host feast days in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Farwell Gavin said. Her image has become Mexico’s most popular religious and cultural symbol.