Sanctuary In Adobe


The date 1816 is incised on the doors of the Santuario. It is built of sun dried adobe bricks; the walls ate five feet thick in the nave and ten in the apse. Mountain pines provided its vigas —beams—and the carved doors, gates, crosses, all now worn to splintered silver. Women mounted ladders to smooth on, with their delicate touch, the final scaling coat of clay. No matter how plumb they are at the outset, adobes settle into massive, vital forms, and storms erode them; soon the women must come again, softly chattering, to renew the outer coat. Over the years, adobes become folk sculpture. The tall reredos at left was made by local carvers and painters, probably around 1830. An 1826 letter from a visiting priest orders that their timid imitations of engravings on skins and boards be removed. Still using what they had—soft woods, native dyes and earths, gesso and tempera—these little-known artists began to achieve for santos de retablo —paintings—a rich calligraphic freedom. For santos de bulto —statues—they worked with such intense directness that every bulto , no matter how crude, is a personality with a meaning. The Apostle James the Greater is shown above. Santiago they call him, Spain’s patron saint, his name their war cry.

“Crude daubs,” “tawdry, bedizened dolls”—so the nineteenth century saw the santos . They shocked Jean Baptiste Lamy, the French missionary (on whose life Willa Cather based Death Comes for the Archbishop ), almost as much as the flagellations and the crucifixions; in 1852 he ordered all the santos burned and replaced by plaster saints and chromos from France. Deprived of Mass and the sacrements until they should give up their extreme practices, some of the Penitentes in lonely villages nevertheless kept their art; secretly, in places guarded by Brothers with shot-guns, the flagellantes chanted and exalted their Christus. The twentieth century saw things differently; poets and painters were drawn to the humble, poignant beauty of Santa Fe and the mountain villages, to the force and eloquence of the santos , which some think have the stab of Goya, the strange spiritual exaltation of El Greco. When, owing to a rival chapel across the plaza, the Santuarion fell on evil days, Anglos headed by the writer Mary Austin bought it from Abeyta’s heirs, tracked down the santos they had been forced to sell, and in 1929 gave everything to the diocese. The Penitentes have made their peace with the Church; still to their beloved santos they bring paper roses, rosaries, warm quilts and new robes, even little shoes that the saints may walk well-shod on nocturnal errands of mercy. Jesus Nazareno, on these two pages, is one of the most beloved. At the left, above, the santo appears in a decorated reredos. In the center close-up, the decorations are stripped away, and finally the robes; the figure has leather knees and elbows and, beneath the clothing, the wounds of the Crucifixion. In the detail at right, blood flows from the crown of thorns.