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Sanctuary In Adobe

March 2023
4min read

Pilgrims on foot, burros, mules, horses, ox carts, and on their knees have worn deep the road to the chapel they call the Santuario, yet until the flivver, Chimayo, New Mexico, was nearly as remote as Tibet. Even now, the journey from Santa Fe up through the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo is a pilgrimage worthy of saints and mystics. From piñon-dotted foothills, you look over the Rio Grande and west through desert where majestic mesas appear and disappear in magical lights and shadows, to the Jemez peaks around Los Alamos. In summer, thunderstorms with rains walking under them lower and gleam across these distances. Over leopard-spotted hills, through coral badlands, you twist down to the gentle valley of the Santa Cruz. Horses graze free under the willows; water in ancient acequias ripples through cornfields. Cottonwoods shade adobe farm buildings, some newly whitewashed but most the ginger, pumpkin, coral, of native clay. In autumn, they are hung with blood-red ropes of chili peppers; along roads and rivers the silver chimisa blooms gold; aspens, pale gold, shimmer up mountain Hanks; and new snow gleams on the 13,000-foot peaks at Truchas. The passageways wander between shouldering adobes into wide plazas to which deep-set doors and windows give a curious monumentality. Mountain winds whirl down from the housetops the exquisite fragrance of piñon smoke. In winter, at sunset, the snow peaks above burn gold, then vermilion; then, long after twilight, red and rose, to an ashy violet. Here and there, a Penitente cross marks a lonely chapter house or, beside the road, a place for prayer where coffin-bearers may pause to rest.

From Chimayo, where they weave brilliant blankets on century-old looms, you cross the river to another plaza. Through huge old cotton woods, you look down at a little chapel. Blackbirds twitter from its towers and crosses; a lone horse or a flock of sheep like small gray boulders, with dull bells tinkling, may be drinking at its acequia . Across the bridge come blackshawled women with tragic, mortal faces, bright-kerchiefed girls, dark cowboys, Indians in braids and blankets, to light candles and pray before passing to the posito , a pit of curative dust. Men descend into it, lift down babies, scoop up a little for the ailing, pour a litile more inio bags and vials to take home. Rubbed on or made into tea, it eases arthritis, paralysis, sore throat, sadness, and the pains of childbirth. A pinch thrown into the fire will divert or disperse a storm.

Legends conflict about the Santuario and its builder, Bernardo Abeyta. Bernardo’s granddaughter said he once saw Hame over the pit and dug out a miraculous crucifix. Indians say it was a shrine of theirs and had been a geyser. Another tale has it that neighbors heard church bells ringing in the earth and that Bernardo, sick, saw across his acequia the Black Christ of Esquipulas, his patron. As he hobbled to cross the ditch, the vision vanished, but, kissing the spot where it had glowed, he was immediately cured. His rejoicing brought others, who were also cured; such crowds then came that he built a chapel at this place of miracles.

Spain’s empire was vast: little help was ever given to this remote frontier. In 1680 the pueblos revolted and drove the settlers back to El Paso: not until 1692 could the Spaniards muster the force to reconquer. By 1750 Spain was weak: Apaches, Comanches, Navajos fell like wolves on the pack trains from Mexico and the Gulf. The few priests who tried to reach the villages were often scalped. Alone in a vast high country among spectral peaks, the people turned to their last hope, the Cross. Most of them were Penitentes , or Penitent Brothers (not to be confused with the Brothers and Sisiters of Penance, the third order founded by St. Francis). Dimly they remembered the flagellant processions that, with kings and saints among them, had swept Europe since the twelfth century and still, despite the Inquisition, lingered in Spain. The moradas —chapter houses—became the core of their lives, and Holy Week the year’s climax. Brothers withdrew to pray, and the Stations of the Cross were made every afternoon.

Spring in New Mexico is a high wind; sand whips viciously, red dust smothers a valley, snow squalls make sudden ghosts, rains dissolve to exquisite drops in sunlight. Under such apocalyptic skies, on Good Friday, they held their Passion Play. Men, women, and children, chanting, bore articulated statues called santos , with glass eyes and real hair; or, in a boulder-weighted cart, they pulled along a terrifying Death shooting arrows into the crowd. In black hoods, lashing their own naked backs, came the flagellantes . He who by lot had the honor to be the Christus dragged his heavy cross, was tied to it and raised aloft. That night in the moradas , prayers were said for the dead, while thirteen candles, the only light, were blown out one by one. Then the doors were opened, often to the morning star.

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.

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