Powerful Religious Images From Southwest


August 25, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Jose Benito Ortega's sculpture "Christ Crucified with Angel" is bloody from head to foot. It bleeds down the face from the crown of thorns, down the arms, down the chest from the wound in the side, down the legs from the gashed knees.

This crucifixion, one of the santos -- or holy images -- from the 19th and early 20th century southwest, doesn't pull any punches; it gives you all that suffering right in the eyes.

Ortega's "Our Lady of Sorrows" however, is altogether different: Eyes downcast and with a slight, sad smile as if understanding all the world's sorrows, this representation of the Virgin Mary is an image of mercy.

These are typical of the figures that comprise "Images of Penance, Images of Mercy," opening at the Walters Art Gallery today (through Oct. 20). Sometimes crude but moving in their very awkwardness, sometimes visually repellent but dramatically compelling, santos of the American southwest sprang from a society rooted in traditions, including self-mortification, that go back to the much earlier history of the Christian church.

Now avidly collected, the retablos (paintings) and bultos (sculptures) known as santos are recognized as a powerful form of folk art. And at the Walters they receive a fine presentation that helps put them in the context of their society.

The area from which they come, New Mexico and what is now southern Colorado, was the northern frontier of the Spanish colonial empire in America. Far from the center of that empire, the province's life centered on the church and produced a form of religious folk art at most loosely based on academic precedents from urban centers.

When the United States occupied the territory in 1846, the influx threatened the very existence of the church-centered Hispanic community. A major force for keeping that community alive was the Catholic confraternity (lay brotherhood) then known as the Brotherhood of the Sangre de Cristo (blood of Christ), now the Brotherhood of Our Father Jesus Nazarene, or more simply the Penitentes.

It is not known how long the Penitentes had been active in New Mexico; but they practiced rites, especially during Holy Week, that incorporated forms of penance descending from medieval times or earlier and introduced from Spain via Mexico. These included self-flagellation and the carrying of heavy crosses. Observers of these rites earlier in this century have left vivid accounts. Wrote one, Reyes N. Martinez:

"They are stripped to the waist and . . . a special process of massage . . . benumbs the muscles on both sides of the spine. Using a razor-edged piece of flint [a brother] . . . makes from three to six surface cuts into the flesh, lengthwise on each side, then hands the Brother a whip made of hemp or sizal with which he at once starts to whip himself with vigor. . . .

"Then from two to six very heavy wooden crosses are brought forward and placed on the naked shoulders of the men. . . . [Processions were characterized by] the lashing of backs and the rasping noise of crosses as they are dragged along the ground. Occasionally one or two with big loads of cactus strapped to their naked backs, the spines penetrating deep into their flesh, or bound with chains accompany the procession."

For their moradas (meetinghouses) and their homes the Penitentes continued to demand folk art santos from the local santeros (makers of santos) into the 20th century. Not only presevers of traditional ritual, the Penitentes were (and are) a community-oriented group whose charitable work includes giving aid to the poor and sick and burying the dead. And the santos created for them include the crucifixion figures, images of the Virgin and figures of saints.

The Walters exhibit of these works has two parts. The first, an introduction to the world of the Penitentes, includes an impressive room-sized model of a morada, with its adobe walls, simple wooden roof and altar with grouping of figures of Christ and saints.

The viewer next embarks on something like a Holy Week processional, meeting figures that were carried on platforms and used to enact the events of the Passion: the seizure of Christ, the last encounter with the Virgin, carrying the cross to Calvary, the crucifixion and entombment.

Most of these works are articulated, so that their limbs can be moved in re-enactments of the events -- to embrace the Virgin Mary, for instance. One, a Christ figure (about 1860-1890) by santero Jose Miguel Herrera, even has an articulated jaw, which could open and close in simulation of the final agony. This is placed in a casketlike representation of the holy sepulchre, in front of which is one of the figures of death used in the processions as reminders of mortality.

After this dramatic, and dramatically lighted, presentation, seeing the bulk of the santos in a more straightforward museum display comes as a bit of an anticlimax. But they are well and instructively presented.

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