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A Santero refers to an artist who makes images of saints. Early New Mexican Santos (saints or other devotional images) can be traced as far back as 1775 and possibly earlier and flourished in New Mexico from about 1820-1880.


Santos made in two dimensional form are referred to as retablos and are usually flat wooden pine panels which are hung on walls. Three dimensional Santos referred to as bultos are usually in the form of statues and are traditionally fashioned from cottonwood root. Contemporary Santeros like to use basswood or Jelutong because of its softness.

After the wood is prepared, Santos are covered in a home-made gesso made of gypsum and wheat paste. Rabbit or animal hide glue is used as a binder. After the gesso dries it is ready for paint.

 

Early New Mexican Santeros used native (and some imported) vegetable and mineral pigments such as micaceous clay, chamisa, vermillion,indigo, black walnut, and madder root Black was made by using charcoal or soot. Once the Santo was painted, a homemade varnish made of piñon sap and grain alcohol was applied.

Santos were very important to early New Mexicans, who were largely isolated, and were incorporated in daily life as well as in ceremonies and feast days in which the whole community was involved. After a period of decline, the tradition of New Mexican Santos is going strong today. Many traditional artists participate in the Spanish Market in the Santa Fe Plaza every summer.

Top: Felipe Rivera prepares a board for a retablo. Right: A tiny retablo is painted with traditional natural pigments.

 


On the right, artist Felipe Rivera carves a bulto. On the left is a finished bulto of San Rafael.


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