From the dusty shelves of an Albuquerque antiques stall, a faded statue of Saint Michael stares at me. With a blank gaze on his face—as if he's done it a million times before—he wields his sword to slay the dragon, a curious creature cowering at his feet that resembles lizards I've seen roaming the desert just south of here.
Some of the most fascinating works of Hispanic devotional art come from New Mexico, where Spanish colonists established settlements as they pushed north from Mexico along the Rio Grande in the 1500s and 1600s. Statues of saints and religious paintings aided missionaries in spreading the stories and lessons of Catholicism to Pueblo Indians, and they served as devotional pieces for Hispanic colonists. Ultimately, these religious images stemmed from Europe, but they found renewed vigor in early Latin America. These santos played a starring role in church liturgies, processions, and other public displays, the glue that held Spanish colonial society together. From the beginning, people also incorporated santos into altars and other devotional spaces in their homes.
Santos is a broad term that encapsulates several categories of religious art, including two-dimensional works like panel paintings (retablos) and altar screens used in churches (reredos), as well as three-dimensional statues, or bultos. Over four centuries, New Mexican craftspeople developed a vocabulary of favorite local saints and subjects distinct from their Mexican prototypes, a measure of their evolving local culture and geographic separation.
The ingenuity of early New Mexican santeros, or makers of santos, lay in rendering precious-seeming objects from the humblest local materials—objects of rustic beauty and substance that helped shape the Southwest's aesthetic sensibility. Utilizing the limited natural resources at their disposal, they learned to fashion the bodies of saints and altar frames from ponderosa pine and cottonwood roots, and to turn animal hides into blank canvases. They learned which local plants yielded the brightly colored pigments they desired, and how to concoct varnish from the sap of the piñon tree. They worked with basic tools, roughing out figures and slabs with an adze, carving bodies and faces, and coating surfaces with gesso in preparation for painting, and with varnish to impart a slick, glossy finish. Santeros connected the arms and legs of free-standing bultos with wooden dowels.