The symbolic image of death for Hispanic New Mexico through the mid-19th century featured the wooden carvings of Doña Sebastiana. This allegorical icon of death for the Penitente brotherhood represented Doña Sebastiana as the feminization of St. Sebastian. The Italian saint was martyred with arrows for his efforts in spreading Christianity in 283 A.D. The image of Doña Sebastian, or La Muerte, as she is also known, is presented in three ways: One as a skeleton wearing a black shroud with an arrow representing death as being swift, striking anyone at any time. The second version is that of a skeleton blindfolded to infer that people are blind to the realization that death can occur at any moment.
The third image is of a skeleton in a cart holding a bow and arrow. Symbolically, the cart (life) moves inevitably toward death. The symbolism of La Muerte and her death cart dates back to the Spanish Inquisition and the Black Plague that decimated Europe during 1347-1350. During the epidemic the dead travelled in carts for mass burials. Historically, the carreta is also symbolic with early death practices in New Mexico. The two-wheeled wooden cart came with the Spanish colonists during their first expedition in 1598. As they traveled the 1,500 mile Camino Real the carts often carried the people who died along the route.
Death & Art
In colonial New Mexico the symbolism of death came in the way of the art carvings of Doña Sebastiana. In Spain and Mexico the wealthy commissioned artists to create postmortem portraits of their deceased loved ones. The artists also created clay masks and sculptures to memorialize their dead family members. These artists worked in the presence of the corpse. They peeled back the eyelids of the deceased to get the correct eye color. Most often the paintings of the deceased featured the dead with their eyes open as if they were still alive.