José Benito Ortega
Cristo, ca. 1880
wood, gesso, cloth, pigment
83 x 43 x 11 inches
Guadelupita Morada, Mora County, NM
José Benito Ortega, the last of the late 19th-century santeros, traveled throughout northern New Mexico and southern Colorado making santos for small chapels, meeting houses, village homes, and for Penitentes (members of a religious brotherhood) from the 1870s to the early 1900s.
His career was predated by New Mexico’s first documented sawmill, installed by the American army in 1846. His figures were often created from scrap mill board and widely available calico rags, upon which he applied prepared gesso.
Most of his work was done in the remote villages near Mora, his home, at a time when the clergy was attempting to replace santos with mass-produced plaster statues. In spite of this, Ortega continued to produce traditional images for Penitente moradas and for church, chapel, and private use.
Ortega’s nephew, José L. Morris, said that his uncle would travel between villages on foot, carrying a small bundle of tools. He would stay with the families who ordered the santos until he completed them. apparently he would gather carving wood from nearby cottonwood trees.
In 1907, after the death of his wife, he moved to Raton and ceased making santos. He took up work as a house plasterer and died in Raton in 1941.
Today there are more images attributed to Ortega than any other New Mexican santero of the nineteenth century.