By Aubrey Hobart
Curator of Collections
Roswell Museum and Art Center
Santos are the topic of discussion at the Roswell Museum and Art Center, 1011 N. Richardson Ave., this month. The word itself simply means saints in Spanish, but in the art world, santos refers to painted or carved depictions of the saints made in areas of the Americas that were once under the control of Spain. Images of the saints first came to New Mexico with Hispanic priests in the 1500s, but demand for these images soon outstripped supply, so local Catholics eventually began to make their own simplified versions with a distinct regional flavor.
Starting in the late 1700s, New Mexico’s saint-makers — known as santeros — made two different kinds of santos. These included retablos, two-dimensional images painted on tin sheets or wood, and bultos, three-dimensional carved sculptures that were usually brightly colored. Both kinds of santos were made of local materials and pigments, and tended to be relatively small and portable. The Virgin Mary and Jesus were popular subjects, of course, but santeros also produced many images of San Francisco, the patron saint of animals and the environment; San Isidro/Ysidro, the patron saint of farmers; and San Pascual/Pasqual, the patron saint of cooks. For those trying to make a living in the remote borderlands of the Colonial Spanish empire, the production of food was clearly a major concern.
Since saint-making is a traditional New Mexico art form, it makes sense for RMAC to have a collection of santos. The collection began with a group of 19th-century retablos donated to RMAC by Donald and Patricia Anderson in 1966. The museum has since collected several other works, including a beautiful sculpture of Saint Gertrude from 1937 that represents the revival of the art form during the Works Progress Administration era, more contemporary works from this century, and an unusual double-sided example from the well-known santero Patrocino Barela.
However, the largest part of our santos collection entails 68 individual figures carved by George López (1900-1993) in the 1970s and early 1980s. Some of the figures are standalone bultos, like the sculpture of San Francisco shown here, but others are charming little rabbits, birds, squirrels and burros that are combined to make a tree of life or Nativity scenes. What makes this collection stand out is the fact that in defiance of tradition, these works are unpainted: a style that originated in the town of Córdova, New Mexico, which is located roughly halfway between Santa Fe and Taos. As of the 2010 census, the population of Córdova was just over 400 people.
The Córdova style of unpainted bultos originated with George López’s father, José Dolores López. The elder López took up carving in 1917 to take his mind off a son who had gone away to war. After making gifts for friends and family, he started carving saints for the local church. He eventually gained a following and began selling his work in Santa Fe. After some experimentation, José López found that unpainted santos were more appealing to the largely Protestant tourists visiting from the East Coast, so the Córdova style was born.
Although George López learned to carve from his father, it wasn’t his full-time profession until 1952. Not having any children to pass his own legacy to, he asked his brother Ricardo if he could adopt one of his five kids. The third-oldest child, Sabinita, agreed to be raised by George and his wife, and she eventually became a saint-maker, as well. The family now has five generations of santeros with more than 20 people involved in the making of Córdova-style saints.
Coincidentally, a santero will be visiting RMAC this month to evaluate our santos collection and give a public talk on the subject. James Córdova has been making santos since he was young. An award-winning sculptor and painter who shows his work most years at the Spanish Market in Santa Fe, Córdova is also a Professor of Art History at the University of Colorado where he studies and teaches Spanish Colonial art. Anyone who wants to hear Córdova speak is encouraged to bring their lunch and enjoy this free event on May 17 from noon to 1 p.m. The talk will also be broadcast on Facebook Live, so if you can’t make it in person, subscribe to us on Facebook at @rmacroswell and you’ll still be able to watch. It’s a unique opportunity to hear a master craftsman discuss the intersection of his work as an artist and scholar, so it’s not to be missed.
Santos are a key component of Hispanic New Mexico traditional culture, and we’re proud to collect and display them for the Roswell community. Several examples are available to view right now in our permanent exhibition titled, “West of Beyond: The Rogers and Mary Ellen Aston Collection of the American West.” We’re also discussing the possibility of putting more on display for the holidays, including George López’s beautiful Nativity set, so keep an eye out for more information.