Hispanic Colonial Folk Art
The A.R. Mitchell Museum's Hispanic Colonial Art collection contains many religious objects, some dating from the 18th century, that were used in homes and moradas, the ‘dwelling’ or meeting places of the Penitente Brotherhood in the southern Colorado area. The Penitente Brotherhood, also known as ‘Brothers of Light’ and as ‘La Sociedad de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno’, were a secret organization committed to acts of penance and especially to acts of charity. They helped each other and members of their communities especially in times of illness or death. This folk-art was made by untrained hands as acts of piety. The makers, who usually lived in isolated areas, relied on their memories of the statues and paintings seen earlier in the far-away churches. They used materials that were on hand: cottonwood roots or pine slabs; gesso made of native gypsum and organic colors.
The paintings on flat boards are called ‘retablos’, the molded or sculptured figures are referred to as ‘bultos’. Everything is loosely referred to as ‘santos’: meaning anything holy; either a person or an object. The various saints are usually identified by their attributes—the objects they wear or carry. San Jose wears a crown and carries a flowering staff, San Felipe has a rosary and a spray of lilies, San Rafael carries a fish, San Antonio and Santa Rita carry skulls and San Ramon, a monstrance. These attributes referred to the stories of their lives or their martyrdom.
The Virgin Mary is depicted in many ways, but as Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe the patron saint of Mexico, she is usually shown standing on a quarter moon with the rays of the sun behind her.
The black figure represents death, usually called ‘La Muerte’ or ‘Doña Sebastiani', and was used to remind all that death was always near and was inevitable. She was often pulled in a cart in processions and usually carried a bow, an arrow, and a spear or ax.
A Short History of the Penitente Brotherhood
1492 - Columbus discovered America and claimed it for the King and Queen of Spain. After this discovery, the King had two goals: to find and claim all the gold in the New World and convert all the inhabitants to Christianity
1540 - Spanish conquistadors came into the Rio Grande Valley area of New Mexico accompanied by Franciscan Friars (the order of Franciscan Friars practiced extreme penitence, including self-flagellation). The Spanish brutally conquered the Pueblo Indians, forcing them to convert to Christianity, and enslaved them.
1598 - Juan de Oñate led Spanish soldiers, priests and colonists into the Rio Grande Valley area of New Mexico. There, the colonists began a cooperative and interdependent relationship with the Pueblo Indians.
1680 - After 140 years of subjugation, the Pueblo Indians organized and revolted against the Spanish priests, soldiers, and government officials who had enslaved and brutalized them. During the revolt, approximately 400 Spanish were killed and 600 Pueblo Indians. The Spanish who survived, fearing for their lives, fled to Mexico.
Many colonists who had intermarried and established interdependence with the Pueblo Indians remained. However, there were no officials to enforce laws or priests to perform religious functions in these remote areas. Out of necessity, the most respected men in each village took over these functions. This was the beginning of Los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno, more commonly known as the Pentitente Brotherhood.
1693 - The soldiers returned, subdued the Indians, and took over the governing functions of the colonies. Since the Franciscan priests did not return, the Penitente Brotherhood continued to help the needy and perform all religious functions.
1821 - Mexico declared its independence from Spain.
1848 - The War with Mexico ended, establishing New Mexico as part of the United States.
1850 - Jean Baptiste Lamy came to New Mexico as the first Bishop of the Diocese of Santa Fe.
1927 - Archbishop Edwin V. Byrne declared the Penitente Brotherhood as fully accepted by the Catholic Church.
About the Curators
The original exhibit at the museum was prepared by Curator Juanito (John) Jimenez and assisted by Carol Patrick.
Jimenez, a Trinidad native, has lived in Santa Fe, NM since 1967. Jimenez is a professional artist and santero and instructs courses in retablo painting. He shares his expertise in Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe. Jimenez’ work is widely exhibited; he has pieces in the permanent collections of the New Mexico International Folk Art Museum, Albuquerque Museum of Fine Arts, Millicent Rogers Museum, the Santuario de Chimayo Church and many noteworthy collections in New Mexico and Colorado as well as private collections in the US, Europe, South America, Mexico, Canada and Australia.
Carol Patrick, is a Trinidad native, a retired educator and administrator at Trinidad State Junior College. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Colorado College and a Master’s Degree from the University of Northern Colorado. Her senior thesis was titled, The Sacred Images of the Penitente Brotherhood.