Religious Art at St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe

The altar screen at St. Francis Cathedral.

If you’ve ever wondered about the back story of some of the incredible art at St. Francis Cathedral here’s a description of the altar screen by the artist Arlene Cisneros Sena:

The Role of the Santero in Spanish Colonial Art

The art of traditional santo-making has been central to the Hispanic culture in New Mexico for more than 400 years. It has provided generations of New Mexicans with symbols of identity and faith. For the New Mexicans of Spanish descent, sacred images are as rooted in their culture as the language itself.

Saints Used for Protection

Whenever the early colonists established a settlement they appointed a patron saint to protect the community. In times of trouble and gratitude the people prayed to their patron. The santero created art for both the church and home. These men did not train artists. In the early days creating religious art was a calling. During colonial times the saint images created a devotional homage.

Natural Pigments & Animal Hides

Traditional retablos consisted of painted pine panels coated with homemade gesso. The homemade materials consisted of animal hide, glue and crushed gypsum. This process provided the surface on which to paint. The pigments used to paint also came from natural materials. Yellows and oranges came from iron oxides, blue from indigo, reds and magentas from cochineal. Black walnut and micaceous clay created different hues of brown. The finished retablo was then sealed with pinesap varnish. These traditional techniques are still in use today.

Men & Women Carry on the Ancient Traditions

Early santeros received most of the credit in the creation of santos, although women were obviously involved. More than likely, women lent a hand in the fashioning of robes, clothing and wigs for the santos. Today, women santeras are included within the family of New Mexican devotional artists.

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