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Art Review : Images of 'Santos': Fascinating Portrait of Catholic Devotion

September 15, 1994|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Amid the often aggressively publicized loan exhibitions a museum presents, its permanent collection can quietly languish in the background. But the art a museum makes a commitment to acquire and preserve is in fact the institution's spine, without which it tosses on the tides of passing fashion.

Temporary loan shows are significant, but the collection's the thing.

Ample evidence in support of this creed will be found in "Images of Penance, Images of Mercy: Santos and Ceremonies of the Hispanic Southwest," which opened this week in the Williamson Gallery at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design. Organized three years ago, this absorbing show grew out of an effort to finish cataloguing the collection of santos , or Catholic devotional paintings and sculptures of Christian saints, housed at the Taylor Museum for Southwestern Studies at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

The Taylor Museum, specializing in the Native American and Hispanic material culture of the southwestern United States, is home to 15,000 artifacts. Of these, about 750 are santos , ranging in date from the early 1700s to the present day.

The exhibition focuses on a specific aspect of that collection, one that its curator, William Wroth, puzzled out while cataloguing the museum's holdings. Wroth noted that, among the Taylor Museum's 125 or so santos dating from the late-19th Century, a preponderance of images were associated with the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ. That subject, while hardly uncommon in the earlier art of Spain's New World colonies, appeared with far greater concentration in New Mexico in the decades after the American Occupation of 1846.

Thus was born "Images of Penance, Images of Mercy," which chronicles the impact and tenacity of a Catholic lay order long active in New Mexico. Formally called the Brotherhood of Our Father Jesus Nazarene, and popularly known as the Penitentes, the order's original name more tellingly describes the emotional and spiritual depth of its religious commitments: The Brotherhood of the Blood of Christ, as they first named themselves, lived their lives according to the example of the suffering and execution of Jesus.

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The santos inspired by the Brotherhood do chronicle the miraculous powers of assorted saints, but special prominence is given to figures of a suffering Christ and a sorrowful Virgin Mary. In a way, the retablos (paintings) and bultos (statues) depicting the Passion are vessels into which the penitent viewer pours his own earthly suffering, in a mystical ritual of purification of the soul.

About 50 retablos and a like number of bultos are on view. Among the most powerful is a 3-foot-tall figure of Jesus, carved by an unidentified artist today known as the Abiquiu Santero.

The figure's body is hidden inside voluminous, blood-red robes, sewn from cotton and lace and reminiscent of those worn by a cardinal. The slightly downturned head, fitted with human hair and a spiky crown of thorns, creates an extraordinary vision of transcendent suffering.

Carved from cottonwood with a delicate simplicity and a soft, almost geometric regularity, its forehead is streaked with blood from the wounds of the crown, its cheeks with tears of blood that stream from its eyes. Still, the placid face stares serenely into infinity.

The figure stands atop a litter, on which it would be carried during Holy Week processionals. These New Mexican santos retain elements of European medieval religious function, while acting as theatrical props for a communal pageant. Rendered in a style that might be called "folk Baroque," they record the stresses and strains of a period of profound social and technological upheaval and of the difficult endurance of a specific religious belief.

Imagine the moment. Late-19th Century New Mexico saw a dizzying clash of world views--between Catholic Hispanics and Protestant Americans, between spiritual faith and earthly wealth, between traditional Catholicism and an urge to modernize the religion, between agricultural society and industrial capitalism. The show begins before 1860, so that resulting shifts in the fabrication of santos can be witnessed: the replacement of hand-hewn planks with milled wood, for example, and of transparent, fragile, water-based tempera with opaque, durable, oil-based house paints.

A remarkable and poignant juxtaposition pairs a chromolithograph of the elaborately dressed Santo Nino de Atocha with a sweet drawing in crayon and pencil, which closely mimics it. By century's end the arrival of inexpensive, mass-produced chromolithographs had pretty much eradicated the tradition of hand-painted retablos . And the commercial proliferation of plaster saints began to intrude on the centuries-long artisanal production of bultos .

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The greatest resistance to the period's tumultuous changes came from the Penitentes, whose rituals included self-flagellation in simulation of Christ's trials. Their tenacious hold on traditional religious faith assured that santos depicting the Passion would continue to be made long after those of other Catholic sects disappeared.

The show at Art Center lays out the fascinating and complex story--almost in too much detail. Heavily didactic, the objects are nearly overwhelmed with printed labels. (The catalogue accompanying the show is excellent.) The paintings and statues sometimes have to fight for prominence amid the welter of words.

Still, they manage to hold their own. In this, the santos are not unlike the Brotherhood of the Blood of Christ, to which they owe their often amazing creation.

* Williamson Gallery, Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena, (818) 396-2244. Closed Mondays.

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