Discover New Mexico's Spanish colonial art in timeless High Road villages, historic churches, galleries, and a vibrant new museum

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.” 

Connecting with the past

Spanish art arrived in New Mexico with the early explorers from Spain during Coronado’s 1540-42 explorations. The expedition included a landscape painter named Cristóbal de Quesada.

New Mexico’s distinctive Spanish arts tradition continues to flourish today. At Spanish Market, one of Santa Fe’s biggest events, artists display bultos (carved and painted devotional figures) and retablos that they create using the same techniques and materials employed by their ancestors. Artists at the market carry on other traditional Spanish art forms as well, including tinwork, weaving, and straw appliqué.

Many of the market’s artists live in the isolated mountain villages around Santa Fe―especially along the High Road (State 76) to Taos. Here in this bastion of Hispanic culture, a creative tradition unlike any other in the United States endures. The village of Cordova has evolved its own distinctive carving style and is renowned for unpainted, somewhat abstract carvings made from aspen and juniper. Some artists sell from showrooms at their homes, advertised only by handwritten signs on the roadside. 

Homegrown art

Despite personal and creative roots that reach deeply into the state’s history, many of these artists have been largely overlooked.

“Back in the 1940s,” says Cruz Flores, a santero from Las Vegas, New Mexico, “a lot of people, including some well-known artists who ventured to New Mexico, thought this art was cartoonish and childlike, and that it might be lacking in sophistication. That it wasn’t refined.”

Flores, who carves sacred images in wood, is very much a traditionalist and maintains that the art is an expression of the artist’s faith and soul. Like many santeros, he learned from other artists, including the renowned Charles M. Carrillo. For Flores, there is almost a ritual aspect to his work that begins when he goes out each year to the forest to find piñon pitch for varnish and plants for natural pigments.

Other artists, including past Spanish Market winner Luis Eligio Tapia, break from the past by blending traditional iconography with contemporary imagery. Tapia’s work includes an updated image of the Virgin Mary, as she mourns over the body of Christ. In Tapia’s painted carving, a mother dressed in a colorful, flowing rebozo cradles her shirtless, jeans-wearing son beneath the glow of a streetlight as he lies dying from gang violence.

“If you suppress your freedom of speech, you suppress your art. You suppress your heart,” says Tapia. “And there’s a need to teach the young. If I show a gang member or a low rider, a kid may then see that piece and be able to understand it.”

Look at the crowd assembled for Sunday mass at Chimayo, and it’s clear that today’s Spanish colonial art―whether traditional or contemporary―is anything but an anachronism. It directly connects the past and present. Some of the parishioners’ faces are straight out of the reredos on the church walls, while motorcyclists bearing votive candles and teenagers in T-shirts and basketball shoes could have stepped out of one of Tapia’s works.

“The art is something truly New Mexican that continues,” says Cruz Flores. “Something that only New Mexico could produce.”

Keep Reading: