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Religious And Folkart In The Southwest
( Article orginally published August 1963 )
With the invasion of the Spanish Conquistadores at the end of the sixteenth century, the territory which now embraces the southwestern United States received its introduction to Christianity. The physical manifestations of the religion, however, seldom withstood the hazardous and difficult voyages which brought the Spaniards to the new land. The desire of the devout to glorify and make beautiful their places of worship produced from this void a form of Folk Art that has endured for more than three hundred years.
Many examples of this religious Folk Art are still to be found in the settings for which they were createdthe churches of little mountain villages throughout New Mexico and California. Beside art works intended for churches, there were reredos and bultos (altars and statues) which the more religious placed in their homes. Frequently the more skilled craftsman would copy an art work remembered from his homeland. As a consequence, the Spanish influence is often so strong that it is difficult to determine whether a piece is of local origin or was imported from the Old World.
Art works of this period and style have been assembled into fine collections, both private and museum. Perhaps the most notable is in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the Museum of International Folk Art. There can be seen and appreciated the charm of these crudely made pieces which bear the stamp of individuality and sincerity given them by early artisans, untutored in the ways of sophisticated European art.
Below: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patron Saint of Mexico, was a frequent subject for woodcarvers in New Mexico. The bulto shown, representing this sacred figure from the Classic Period of New Mexican Art, dates between 1820 and 1840. Particularly strong and vital, this carving would seem to be the work of a more skilled artisan than most.
During the Mexican-Indian Insurrection of 1847, most religious figures were destroyed. The Saint Joseph pictured is one of the few early santos that remain intact today.
This 19th century santo of San Ysidro, Patron Saint of the New Mexican farmer, was carved near Cordova, New Mexico. Because of the fragile nature of these elongated figures, the few remaining examples are among the most highly prized of all religious carvings.
(Not Pictured) Of a different order are decorations on a ceiling in the Church of Santo Thomas in the village of Las Trampas, New Mexico, so similar in character to those of early Dutch and German settlers that at first sight their origin might be mistaken. Legend has it that wood from decorated chests was used in constructing the church 200 years ago.