Catholic Art in New Mexico: A Centuries-Long Collision of Faith, History, and Creativity


Listen to the story:

What do you picture when you hear the words “New Mexican Art”?

A small artist colony nestled in the foothills of the mountains? The stucco and adobe square of Santa Fe, stuffed with shops and artisans peddling their wares on colorful rugs? Or maybe a bustling Indian Market, with just a hint of fry bread scent in the air?

All of these are accurate, to be sure, but even the most die-hard art enthusiast may not be aware of a very special artistic tradition, passed down generation by generation from the first arrival of Spanish colonists.

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“When the settlers arrived here, they could only bring with them the bare necessities. And so to adorn their churches and homes, they remembered the work from back home and so the work of the santero was born.”

Arlene Cisneros Sena is a santera, a female artist who paints Catholic saints, or santos. She’s a master in a field of very specialized New Mexico artists whose families have lived in the state for hundreds of years. Most of them come from the northern villages near the Colorado border. Their art varies from painting to metalwork to sculpture, and each variation has its own old Spanish term – repohado, santos, retablos. At their core, each has one thing in common: they are outlets for the artist’s religious expression.

“When the Spanish first came here, the Franciscans came with them. And of course, they showed us how to pray the prayers, and they brought their Santos from Italy, and when they left, they took their Santos with them. So we had to make our own after they were gone. Like ‘I was praying to St. Joseph, but I don’t have a St. Joseph statue anymore, so I’m gonna go make one.’ So they would go make one. And they would use their own materials.”

Jerry Montoya is a master painter and tinworker, and he can tell you the history of each artistic method. And for the past 20 years, he’s also been the main founder of the Spanish Market, an annual gathering of artists who specialize in Spanish colonial art.

The tin work of Jerry Montoya.
The tin work of Jerry Montoya.

For the last two years, the Spanish Market has been held at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Gallup, and outside of a well-known cultural hub like Santa Fe, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger gathering of master artists and craftsman anywhere in New Mexico.

Here, most of the artists continue to gather materials and construct their pieces in nearly the same way their ancestors did 300 or even 400 years ago. Montoya and Sena both describe the process of gathering natural plants and insects for dyes and paint.

“The pigments are all made from homemade pigments, like mineral and vegetable dyes, plants and rocks and thing like that,” said Montoya. “Then they’re painted on wood, which is either pine or cedar, which is all we had here in New Mexico. Then they have piñon sap varnish put over them, made out of piñon from the piñon trees.”

Other colors can only be gotten in certain seasons, or in ways that make you wonder how much time the original settlers had on their hands.

“For our yellow, we use our chamisa plant, which is sagebrush that grows, but we can only get it in the fall. We use what’s called cochineal, which is a little bug that grows on cactus and that’s the red we use. The blue we use is indigo, which of course is a flower, indigo, which is European, although it has grown in the southern states. And that’s our blue, so we’ve got the three basic colors, and you can make any color you want.”

Arlene Cisneros Sena
Arlene Cisneros Sena

Luckily for him and other artists, they don’t necessarily have to gather their own insects anymore, although Sena has experience with collecting the color from the bugs.

“They’re mites – it’s a parasite is what it is, and you grind it and you mash it, you boil it, and it smells horrible. It congeals. But looks at this beautiful – it’s sort of a magenta, and then you add cream of tarter and allen, and you get sort of this bright red. They’re chemical reactions – with lime juice you get the purple.”

Cristobal Quezada specializes in micaceous pottery, and along with his wife, sits at a corner table happily conversing with attendees while they look over his pots, bowls and cookware. The clay he uses comes right out of the ground with mica, which gives off a sparkling sheen after being fired. Quezada never uses glazes on his pottery – only his fingers, a rough river stone, and an open fire pit. Most people buy his work to display, but he hopes they would use them in the kitchen.

“A lot of people purchase them and use them as bean pots. You can cook beans, stews, soups, these you can use for coffee, and you know, the coffee has that sweet taste. All of these pots give the food a sweet taste.”

Micaceous pottery, as seen here by artist Cristobal Quezada, naturally fires with a sparkling, golden sheen, and requires no glazing.
Micaceous pottery, as seen here by artist Cristobal Quezada, naturally fires with a sparkling, golden sheen, and requires no glazing.

Laughing, his wife chimes in that it’s her job to “test” the pots by cooking with them, seeing which dishes give the best taste, and what kind of heat works best for the cooking. It’s obvious that she is bursting with pride for her husband, and with a twinkle in her eye, mentions that all the pots that don’t sell “become mine eventually”.

This pride in the work, the process, is evident with all the artists, no matter the medium. For them, it’s not just a hobby or a job – it’s a way of life, a way to express and live a tradition passed down and honed over the years into something not quite Spanish, not quite New Mexican, but a combination of both.

Sena didn’t come to santos painting until later in life; her first paintings were landscapes. But now that she’s found it, she can’t see herself doing anything else, and she tries to spread her love of the artform to everyone she meets.

“When I used to do these shows, I’d get folks that would come in and ask ‘why is it so religious?’ Well, what it is is that it’s telling the stories, it’s telling the stories of New Mexico, telling the stories of culture and traditions. And so what I find in me is a sort of duty to educate, because this is historic, in addition to cultural, in addition to devotional, yes. For me it’s always devotional, but for someone purchasing it, and has no idea of why they were even begun, and they see it as an art form, I’ve always said ‘It can’t hurt to have a santo in every home.’ So you know, it’s educational, too. It’s something that we all need to share, because no one else knows about it.”

Bishop Wall blesses the Spanish Market artists at Mass.
Bishop Wall blesses the Spanish Market artists at Mass.

As Jerry Montoya watches the artists in the market he’s worked so hard to build, he too reflects on the historical aspect of the artwork. For him, and for the craftsman who are maintaining these traditions, the work is personal, honed through the spiritual and creative work of generations.

“This is like a trifecta of art. First you have, of course, the history of New Mexico, and then you have the artists’ artistic part of it, and then you have the spiritual part…There is history here, like no other place around. You don’t find this any other place in the United States. It’s all the same spiritual art, and I really think people need spirituality these days.”


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