Saturday, August 9, 2014


Virginia Marie Romero

Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality's surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery. The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one's own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things. All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendour which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit. (St. John Paul Letter to Artists, 1999)

Some of my favorite art comes from the Southwest. While the artists I present here are alive- and I pray well- their folk art tradition, dates back to the arrival of the first Roman Catholic missionaries from Spain over four centuries ago. This art is about the Catholic tradition influenced by the early priests traveling into this nearly untouched Northern regions of New Mexico.

Since New Mexico was one of the out-lying territories of the New World,  images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints (called santos), were important in helping Spanish settlers and Native American converts keep their faith in the long intervals between visits by itinerant priests.  Since the art from Spain and Mexico was rare, local artisans, who came to be known as santeros (saint-makers), developed an indigenous school of retablo panel painting which was tantamount to the devotional life of the faithful.

With the coming of the railroads in the 19th century mass-produced plaster saints and holy postcards abounded, and the art of the santeros went into decline. It was successfully revived in 1925 by  the Spanish Colonial Arts Society. Today this same organization sponsors the Spanish Colonial Market in Santa Fe every summer and winter, offering santeros a chance to display their works in juried competition. Many of the modern santeros are second and third generation saint-makers.  Lydia Garcia continues her art in the same pueblo home where she worked alongside her father.
Lydia Garcia

Traditionally santos painting are made on hand-carved panels of wood (although sometimes one can find tin used), primed with homemade gesso and using natural water-based pigments, and pinon pine sap varnish, though some modern santeros have succumbed to the use of acrylics. There are no set rules on themes or styles, but today artists tend to draw inspiration from the works of old santero masters. Santeros still work in a deeply-rooted faith tradition, talking of the inspiration they receive directly from their favorite saints.


VIRGINIA MARIA ROMERO is one of a handful of “Anglos” to be counted among the santero artists whose work is found in national and international private and museum collections.

VMR- Conception

 Virginia's art is  inspired by the culture of New Mexico and her Polish/Irish heritage.  “Romero has taken an ancient art form and redefined it, reinvented it, and made it her own.Virginia Maria Romero’s art speaks a language unlike any other…it is a language of the heart, of the soul, of life...”

CATHERINE ROBLES SHAW writes: "As a Santera,(Saint Maker) I hope to preserve some of the unique traditions of my Hispanic culture. Retablos are the story tellers of my ancestors. They are the natural extension of the beauty and simplicity of our Spanish lives. My husband, Michael, and I aspire to represent our work with as much historic accuracy as possible.

San Pascal- CRS

My art process uses the same materials that were used in the 18th and 19th centuries and each piece is one of a kind. My first exposure to this art came when, as a child, I visited the churches in the San Luis Valley where my family was among the first settlers.

Marriage of Mary & Joseph- CRS

After visiting these old churches, as an adult, I came to realize the meaning of the little retablos that had been in our family. In 1991 I began making retablos for my family and friends. I have been an artist in the Spanish Colonial Arts Society since 1995."


Not all Santera come from New Mexico. TERESA MAY DURAN is a respected Colorado santera who, like many latter-day practitioners of the art, took up ‘saint-making’ only later in life while raising a family and pursuing another career. Teresa has participated in both the Summer and Winter Spanish Markets every year.

She started to study Christian symbolism and sacred art in her spare time, especially Byzantine and Spanish Colonial art. On vacations in the American Southwest and South America, she and her husband made a point of visiting places that had examples of Spanish Colonial art as it developed in these regions; and in each of them, Teresa found new inspiration which she brought into her painting.

Her work is distinguished from that of many other santeras by her attention to symbolic detail and cultural context and by the incorporation of Byzantine iconography. In all of her art, there is a strong sense of story and her depiction of a spiritual or moral ideal.

LYDIA GARCIA  is a life-long Taos, New Mexico resident and her art reflects the remote Northern New Mexico rural atmosphere she lives in. Her work reflects the passion and depth of her cultural Hispanic heritage. She believes that life should include prayer, as well as humor and art and so she signs her finished art pieces on the back and adds a short prayer.  "No one knows that the prayers are on the back and I have always kept this a secret to myself. They seem too personal to share, as then I would have to share my feelings as well. Some things are better left unsaid... don't you agree"?  
Lydia Garcia

MRC- The Good Shepherd
MRC- Pieta
MARIE ROMERO CASH is a folk artist and writer. Her  works are featured in the collections around the world, including The Smithsonian Institution and the Vatican. She has been creating traditional religious paintings and carvings since 1975. She has written several books about New Mexican art and a memoir about growing up in Santa Fe. She says of herself: I believe most of what I see and little of what I hear. I'm a dog lover at heart".   

Her works today tend to move away from the "traditional" aspect of my art but still using the same materials.

MARY JO MADRID was born in Yonkers, NY, to an Irish father and Italian mother. She now lives in NM. with her husband Jimmy and son Nicolás. All the Madrids are accomplished santeros, showing at Spanish Market in Santa Fe in recent years.

MJM- San Pasqual

Like Thersa May Duran, she studied Russian icon painting in addition to other forms and is known for her distinctive retablos style. She makes her own gesso and piñon sap varnishes, as has been the tradition in New Mexico for centuries.

MJM- Holy Family

"We've always earned our living from working with our hands. It is the ultimate spiritual test. Making art must be combined with spirituality. When we're not making art we're raising pigeons and chickens."

Two of the saints most often portrayed in santera art are St. Pasqual (patron of the kitchen) and St. Francis. It is fun to compare these wonderful artists, each unique in her own style and passion for her art.

Virginia Marie Romero

Mary Jo Madrid

Catherine Robles Shaw

Mary Jo Madrid

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