Historic Santeros of New Mexico

The Peyton Wright Gallery  is  pleased to present our collection  of  historic bultos, retablos and Cristos  from renowned New Mexico  artists throughout the ages,  including works by Jose Rafael Aragon, Pedro Antiono Fresquis,  Molleno Santero, Laguna Santero, and others.

About the Artists
(1776 - 1815)
W.S. Stallings named the Laguna Santero for the large altar screens painted by an anonymous Santero in the churches at Laguna and Acoma pueblos. These screens are the two most significant examples of the genre surviving in the early santero period.

The Laguna Santero was probably trained in the arts and was a versatile artist. He was capable of constructing elaborate altar screens for these churches in addition to producing the many smaller retablos attributed to him.

His style influenced a number of the santeros who were to work in the Northern New Mexico for the next century.  Because the Laguna Santero produced so many large works as well as a considerable body of smaller works in several media, it is likely he had a taller ( or workshop) under his direction. Among the likely apprentices in the workshop was the Santero Molleno.

The Laguna Santero might have been named differently if early historians had been aware of his artistic endeavors at the San Miguel Church in Santa Fe in 1798, where he painted the main altar screen and at the Holy Cross church at Santa Cruz, where the three remaining altar screens in situ were originally painted by him. 

The Laguna Santero and others in his time surely must have been influenced by the existing church art in their homelands. The colonist recruits for the 1693 resettlement expedition were comprised of "low status artisan Espanoles, many related by occupation, family or quasi-familial ties and drawn predominantly from New Spain's dominant urban centers, Mexico City and Puebla."

An interesting puzzle occurs when one attempts to identify the Laguna Santero. Because of the great distance between Acoma, Laguna, Santa Fe, and Santa Cruz, it Is logical to conclude that the Laguna Santero may have been a Franciscan friar who was stationed at the various churches and constructed altar screens in each during his tenure.

The station assignments of the priests in this era were well documented, and Fray Ramon Antonio Gonzalez emerges as the only one who served at almost all of the churches where the Laguna Santero is known to have painted altar screens: Acoma, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, and Pojoaque. His station assignment closest to Santa Fe was Nambe. He was also stationed at San Juan, from which Picuris Pueblo would have been accessible.

In 1783, Gonzalez was appointed as Vice Custos; on July 20th 1805, he was appointed Secretario de la Custodia Verdadera de la Coversion de San Pablo de la Provincia de Nuevo Mexico. As such, he traveled extensively and compiled numerous documents regarding the missions during his years of appointment. 

In a number of documents dated between 1793 and 1805, Gonzalez's handwriting shows as clear, distinctive, and artistic in nature. He wrote with neatness and clarity, placing clearly legible columns of numbers and data in equal spaces on hand drawn charts. Samples of his handwriting were taken from these documents and compared with the existing inscriptions from  altar screens attributed to the Laguna Santero. The inscriptions from the San Miguel altar screen in Santa Fe, the nave altar screen at Santa Cruz, and the Acoma Pueblo altar screen were compared with the samples of Gonzalez's handwriting. 

This comparison, which is the process of comparing letters and documents containing dates identical to the October 1795 inscription the Santa Cruz, leave little doubt that the Laguna Santero and Fray Ramon Antonio Gonzalez are one and the same.

A native of La Provincia de Los Angeles, Ciudad de Sevilla, Spain, Gonzalez served at various missions in New Mexico beginning at Acoma Pueblo in February 1769. He served as Vice-Custos and then Custos for many years beginning in 1783. During these years he traveled to the many missions, either in the capacity of this office or as resident priest.

 Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike, the first Anglo visitor to New Mexico, visited San Juan Pueblo in March of 1807 and described Gonzalez has an “old boy”  who bored him with a two-hour discourse but it also amused him Gonzalez was a learned man:

"This father was a great naturalist, or rather florist: he had a large collection of flowers plants etc. and several works on his favorite studies the margins and bottoms of which were filled with his notes in the Castilian language."

On March 31st, 1815, Fray Custos Isidro Barcenilla, while visiting at Zia Pueblo, received word of the death of Gonzalez at San Juan on March 28th 1815. The long career of one of the area's most prolific santeros had ended.

 - Marie Romero Cash, “Santos: Enduring Images From Northern New Mexico Village Churches,”  1999, University Press of Colorado  (Additional material New Mexico History Museum)
During the latter part of the Laguna Santero's working period, other altar screen were under construction in the norther churches by santero known only as Molleno. Molleno, whose early works are reminiscent of those by the Laguna Santero, worked in bright reds, yellows, blacks, and blues, sometimes limiting his palette to only two colors in addition to the write of the gesso. His distinctive brushwork, large strokes with feathered detail, is recognizable on both his panels and his carvings.

In 1948, E. Boyde discovered the name "Molleno" on an inscription on the reverse side of a small retablo: a pine panel with a painting of San Francisco de Asis in Molleno's style that bore the notation "San Francisco pintado en el ano 1845 por el escultor Molleno." (St. Francis, painted in the year 1845 by the sculptor Molleno." Although no archival references have been discovered to provide additional information on the santero's identity and the extent of his works, he appears to have been very prolific, painting massive altar screen as well as many small panels. His works are original and reflect the ability to generate images without meticulously following the standard prototypes used by earlier santeros.

In the early 1800s, at the church of San Francisco de Asis at Ranchos de Taos, Molleno constructed and painted two large altar screens; although they are now heavily restored, both are still in the church. In an 1817 inventory, the mail altar is described as consisting of imported oil paintings on canvas arranged and framed within a locally constructed and painted screen. The paintings are surrounded by geometric and floral motifs set off by bold bars of bright color.

Private and museum collections contain numerous examples from Molleno's long working period. There are many unusual subjects in his repertoire, such as those incorporated into Ranchos de Taos altar screen. Despite the numerous works created by this santero, Molleno's true identify remains a mystery. To pin down his actual working dates, we refer to data obtain in dendrochronological studies conducted by W.W. Stallings on the works of this santero from various sources. Stallings's studies indicate that out of forty panels tested, the average date range fro the group would be 1800 to 1830 as the earliest and latest possible dates. He took into consideration the fact that santeros frequently used old wood.
(1749 - 1831)
Pedro Antonio Fresquís, a santero believed to be of Flemish decent, was born at Santa Cruz parish on October 29, 1749. He married Maria Dolores Vigil in the 1760s and they had 5 children: Mariana de Jesus (Micela?), Juana Catarina, Ana Gregoria, Juan Bautista, and another child named Mariana de Jesus.

Works attributed to Fresquís span many years, dating up to the time of his death in 1831. He painted unusual retablo images such as the Martyrdom of Santa Apolonia, probably as a tribute to his grandmother Polonia Vigil; the Mass of St. Gregory, a panel on the small side altar of the churches at Truchas, probably as a dedication to the donor of the screen, Gregorio Sandobal {sic}; and Santa Coleta.

On March 20, 1831, Fresquís, who was then advanced in age, asked the parish priest at Santa Cruz that he be allowed to be buried in the cemetery next to the Chimayó Church, citing the work he had done not only at Holy Cross Church but also at Truchas and the Santuario de Chimayó. Chimayó was then in the parish of Santa Cruz, but prior to 1985 it was not known that the santero had painted the altar screen in the side chapel at Santa Cruz. Because of its visible stylistic traits, even in its over-painted state, the carved wooden crucifix displayed in the glass and wooden box in the room containing the holy earth could be attributable to Fresquís.

(unknown - 1840)
The Arroyo Hondo Santero appears to have been strongly influenced by the works of Jose Aragon, as many of his painted panels are similar in execution to those of Aragon. This santero apparently worked only for a short period of time, beginning around 1830. His works for churches seem to have been limited to the area around Arroyo Hondo, near Taos, and the surrounding communities.

Marie Romero Cash, Santos
There has been considerable speculation about José Aragón's identity and place of residence. According to historian Elizabeth Boyd, José Aragón was a Spaniard who immigrated to northern New Mexico from Spain and resided in the area for 15 years. A group of dated and signed retablos bear inscriptions indicating that they were completed at various places in Northern New Mexico beginning in 1821. Several are dated in 1825; one group of six panels is dated July 21 and 22nd, 1830 and is inscribed with the town Chamisal. It is not known whether the santero was living in Chamisal in New Mexico at the time, or if the village referred to may be the one near El Paso.

Boyd connects José Aragón to the Fountain family through a painted wooden cross belonging to a Fountain descendant who says it was made by Aragón. It is through this cross that Boyd created the genealogy she believed to be that of the Santero. In a later interview of Teresita Fountain, she said her grandfather’s name was Rafael Vermonvil and her grandmother was Refugio Aragón. She had a great-grandfather José Aragón, who was a santo maker and she owns a crucifix that he made. This particular crucifix he gave to his wife, who later gave it to her daughter, who gave it to Mrs. Fountain. Refugio Aragón was born around 1840.

In a recent search of archival sources from the period, several people with the name José Aragón turned up in various areas of Northern New Mexico. Considering this santero’s assumed working dates, of particular interest is one José Antonio Aragón, whose name also simply appears as José Aragón in various references throughout a 15 year period. According to the Taos baptism records, José Antonio Aragón was baptized on February 16, 1800. The 1850 census gave his age as 54, indicating that he would have been born in 1796. His patents were Antonio Aragón, who died in 1823, and Maria Francesca Vigil.

He married Maria Nicolasa Quintana and they and they had one son, José Mariano Aragón, born in San Francisco del Rancho and baptized on September 4, 1827. On January 18, 1829, then a widower, he married Maria Dolores Fernandes at San Geronimo de Taos and they had eight more children, including Refugio.

In 1835 they still resided in El Rancho but by 1850 he had evidently moved his family to the Belen area, south of Albuquerque. Whatever his actual identity, this santero was clearly a literate man, as shown by the inscriptions on his painted panels.

For the most part, Aragón painted the usual santero subject matter, but he also sometimes depicted the less common. He painted both small devotional images and larger, more ornate retablos, many of which feature colorful borders. The only examples of his larger works that still exist in the churches are the two altar screens on the left wall at the Santuario de Chimayó. Because the Arroyo Hondo Santero’s style is similar to Aragón’s, the anonymous painter may have been an apprentice to the older more experienced Aragón for a short time.

Aragón was also a carver. Several of his carvings are documented in a 1987 survey, but were so completely over painted has to defy certain attribution. Apparently he seldom carved large images until later in his career; most of his carvings were small and delicate renderings.

Aragón appears to have been quite prolific during the brief period of time he worked in northern New Mexico, as many of his workers are in museums and private collections.

Source: Marie Romero Cash, Santos: Enduring Images of Northern New Mexican Village Churches, University of Colorado Press, 1999
(1858 - 1941)
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.
(1796 - 1862)
José Rafael Aragón is believed to have been born in Santa Cruz, New Mexico in 1796. Aragón is considered by many to the premier santero of his time, because of his lengthy working period (40 years or longer) and his versatility.

Aragón is mentioned in the 1823 census of Santa Fe as a rancher, 27 years old and married to Maria Josefa Lucero, age 30. Aragón was able to read and write clearly, as evidenced by the various inscriptions he placed on his works. One can assume that he received his early education in Santa Fe, which was the capital and cultural center of the area. Such an education would not have been available to those living in more isolated areas.

Although as many as ten santeros provided carved and painted images for the various churches beginning in the last quarter of the 18th century, most of the santos that remain in the churches today were executed by only two santeros; Molleno (because of the number of large altar screens) and José Rafael Aragón.

Aragón’s working period spanned more than four decades, beginning some time before 1820. He produced not only large altar screens and carvings for churches but also hundreds of works for private clients. He was extremely versatile as an artist, proficient both in painting panels and carving images, and he probably established a workshop to meet the great demand for his work.

Aragón produced miniature carvings, massive altar screens for area churches, and retablos depicting the popular saints of the era; all were strongly and sensitively rendered, with careful attention to detail. His works embody a more individual style than those of other santeros, who were often heavily influenced by orthodox religious iconography.

One of his first commissions, between 1820 and 1826, was the altar screen in the church of San Lorenzo at Picurís Pueblo. Around 1835, he moved to a new home in the village of Quemado, later named Córdova, New Mexico. There he carved and painted the main altar of the Church of San Antonio, and this became one of many projects that built his reputation throughout the Santa Cruz Valley. He did work in most of the churches in the area including Santa Cruz, El Valle, Truchas, Chimayó, Hernández, and Pojoaque. He also worked in the Taos area.

José Rafael Aragón’s style has been defined by the style of his few signed pieces. His sculptural figures are noted for his creative decorative motifs, color contrasts, elongated and graceful proportions, delicate features and a distinctive bump on the nose.