Local Icons


Santa Fe’s pantheon of multicultural saints

La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís was the official name given to the capital city of New Mexico when it was founded in 1608. Santa Fe (Spanish for “Holy Faith”) sits at the endpoint of an ancient trading route created by the Spanish that linked to Mexico City, and by extension to Spain. The Spanish established settlements and missions along the route during the 16th century, mixing, clashing, and making up with the indigenous peoples.

For the Spanish missionaries, religious art was an integral part of their efforts to convert Native Americans to Catholicism. Artwork from Spain was in limited supply, so the missionaries took to carving Baroque-style saints and other religious figures out of wood. Over time, these carvings (santos) were influenced by indigenous designs and materials, resulting in a hybrid folk-art style that continues to this day, especially around Santa Fe. The area’s Catholic churches feature altar screens (reredos or retablos) that display this distinct artistic style, and sometimes incorporate oil paintings from Mexico and Spain.

San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe is the best example of this early New Mexican blending of styles in religious art. The small adobe chapel is the oldest extant church in the United States, built around 1610 by Tlaxcala Indians from Mexico under the direction of Franciscan friars. The church is dedicated to San Miguel Arcángel (Saint Michael the Archangel), who is worshiped as an angelic warrior and leads the forces of God in their triumph over Satan. The chapel’s reredo is the oldest in New Mexico and includes a small, gold-painted santo of Saint Michael and six oil paintings from Mexico.

In the early 1600s, another significant church was built in Santa Fe dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi, the city’s patron saint. The original adobe chapel was mostly destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and the present-day church, completed in 1886, was constructed in a unique mixture of French Romanesque and Santa Fe styles. The chapel’s modern reredo features an 18th century statue of Saint Francis surrounded by contemporary paintings of the saints from the New World. Adjacent to the main altar is a small chapel dedicated to La Conquistadora (Our Lady of Conquering Love), the oldest Madonna statue in the United States. Carved in Spain in the early 1600s, she was brought to Santa Fe in 1625 by a Franciscan missionary and became known as Our Lady of the Rosary. During the Pueblo Revolt when the Native Americans drove the Spanish out of Santa Fe, Our Lady was miraculously rescued from the burning church and taken to El Paso. Twelve years later, upon the peaceful resettlement of Santa Fe by the Spanish, the statue was returned to the city, renamed La Conquistadora and deemed the “Patroness and Protectress of the Kingdom and Villa of Santa Fe.” Our Lady holds a special place in the hearts of local residents, who come to the shrine to pray for her help and protection.

Connecting Santa Fe to the spiritual and cultural heritage of Mexico is the Shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the oldest extant shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe in the United States. According to legend, in 1531 on a hilltop outside of Mexico City, an indigenous peasant named Juan Diego had a vision of the Virgin Mary and her image was miraculously imprinted on the inside of his cloak. Today this image (or the first painting of this image) is encased at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City and the faithful believe it has miraculous and supernatural powers. The iconography of her image is primarily Catholic, with a second level of symbols associated with the indigenous Aztec mother-goddess Tonantzin, which probably aided her acceptance among the native peoples of Mexico. Catholic Popes have given her such titles as the “Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas” and the “Mother of the Americas.”

In 1783, a large oil painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, copied from the original, was created in Mexico City and brought to the church in Santa Fe by mule caravan. Following that journey, in 2008 a twelve-foot bronze statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe made in Mexico City was brought to the church in Santa Fe by car. Three days of prayer and fiesta honored her arrival. The event brought the different peoples of Santa Fe together to celebrate of the new icon, and at the same time celebrated their distinct heritages, which are the heart and pride of this multi-cultural town.

Julie Hall traveled to Northern New Mexico for HAND/EYE in October 2011. For more information about her work see www.juliehall.net