On a quiet Sunday in northern New Mexico, villagers gather at El Santuario de Chimayo to pray before a 19th-century gold-leaf altar imported from Mexico.
When you first walk into the 180-year-old church and face the altar, there is a moment of practically being thrown off balance. The room widens almost imperceptibly, then narrows again as the adobe walls converge on either side of the altar. Undulating, roughly carved ceiling beams add to the vertiginous sensation.
And so your eye focuses on the altar and the painted details that surround it: a busy screen (known as reredos) of colorful false drapes, spiraling columns, and sacred paintings. The pure and simple paintings depict religious imagery―a Franciscan emblem on one, a cross with a lance on another―with none of the baroque formality that one sees in the cathedrals of Mexico. El Santuario was, and still is, a country church.
Painted when Chimayo was a distant outpost of Spain, the altar and reredos are prime examples of New Mexico's Spanish heritage. Last month, the state's 450-year-old arts tradition gained a shrine of its own with the opening of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe.
The museum's focus is on the art forms that were brought from Spain before New Mexico came under Mexican rule in 1821―art forms and traditions that still influence New Mexican artists today. It's an ideal starting point for anyone interested in exploring the state's Spanish arts legacy at the galleries and historic sites and in the mountain villages outside of Santa Fe.
"The museum will provide a deeper understanding of the development of Hispanic New Mexican culture and how it has evolved to the present day," says executive director Stuart Ashman. "But in another sense, this is the museum of the first settlers of the United States, the people who came to New Mexico before the pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock. This is really a museum of American heritage."