Historic Acquisition: Laguna Santero, “La Virgen Dolorosa”

Laguna Santero (1776-1815)

La Virgen Dolorosa,  ca. 1790’s

wood, gesso, natural pigments

38.25  x 19 inches


Private collection, Denver, CO


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)