St. Steven of Ácoma
St. Steven of Ácoma
Ácoma Mission. The mission of St. Steven of Ácoma (San Esteban del Rey), built from 1629 to 1642, is one of the best preserved and most representative prerevolt churches in New Mexico. It still functions today as a parish church atop Ácoma Pueblo’s mesa. Loosely based on Mexican mission plans, Ácoma demonstrates clear evidence of indigenous Pueblo influence in both its structure and decoration. It was named after a Hungarian saint famous for converting the Magyars to Christianity.
Mexican Influences. Dramatically sited on the mesa top in an eminently defensible position, the majestic adobe church is based on sixteenth-century fortress mission churches in Mexico such as St. Michael the Archangel in Huejotzingo, Puebla. Like its Mexican precedents, Ácoma mission includes a large, single nave church with a fortresslike exterior, an adjoining cloister, an atrium or open church yard, and elevated open balcony chapels. Franciscan friars, many of whom had trained at Huejotzingo, a major religious center in Mexico, brought Mexican architectural influences with them to New Mexico. The major differences between New Mexican and Mexican missions is the use of indigenous adobe building techniques.
Adobe Architecture. The use of adobe exemplifies the syncretic nature of Indo-Christian art and architecture in New Mexico. It has been suggested that adobe was employed in colonial buildings because the Pueblo Indians refused to learn European architectural techniques. In fact, Native Americans in New Mexico did strongly resist Spanish colonization. Two additional factors, however, may have conditioned the choice of adobe. First, New Mexico did not have enough trees to build stone architecture, which requires extensive wooden scaffolding. Second, the Franciscans may have intentionally employed local building techniques to facilitate native conversion to Catholicism. In any case, Ácoma retains many traits of traditional Pueblo architecture. Whatever its genesis, the use of adobe to build Spanish Colonial churches was an innovation unique to New Mexico. Never before had indigenous construction techniques been retained to such an extent in the colonial era. Its use in New Mexican missions is a significant example of the survival of indigenous building techniques after the Spanish conquest.
Influence. The use of adobe dramatically influenced the form and style of Ácoma’s church. First, the structure is simple and stark, with no arches or domes, standard traits of classical European stone architecture. Nor does the church have buttresses since adobe walls are lighter than stone and therefore do not require such support. Because of their lightness, though, adobe walls cannot support vaulted stone ceilings. As a result, the church has a flat wooden roof built on a framework of vigas, cut from tree trunks, in the style of traditional Pueblo architecture. Accordingly, the nave measures only forty feet in width, the maximum length of a viga. Due to their adobe and viga construction, New Mexican churches are generally narrower and smaller than their Mexican counterparts. They also have few windows since adobe walls cannot withstand extensive fenestration. The fortresslike whitewashed adobe church measures 150 feet long and 40 feet wide, with walls sixty feet tall and ten feet thick.
Typical Adobe Style. The simple cubic design of San Esteban del Rey is typical of New Mexican adobe mission style. The facade, with a simple portal flanked by two massive adobe towers, is plain and unadorned. A single choir window above the entrance may have originally functioned as an elevated balcony chapel for preaching, similar to Quarai and Pecos. The facade has no additional windows, no decorative columns, no cornice, and no pediment. Its massive, simple contours and lack of windows recall fortress architecture.
Interior. The church’s interior mirrors the exterior in its stark simplicity. It preserves its original packed-dirt floor. The church has few windows, and those that it does have are strategically placed to light the sanctuary. Because window glass was unavailable in seventeenth-century New Mexico, translucent native selenite stone was used, creating soft, subdued lighting effects. The windows are located just below the flat ceiling, which sits upon a framework of vigas resting on decoratively carved corbels or brackets. The sacred space of the sanctuary, where the altar is located, is separated from the nave by a series of steps. The sanctuary’s walls slant backward, a
dramatic strategy to heighten the optical illusion of spatial recession. Like the Pecos church, Ácoma also once had a dramatic hidden window to light the altar area.
Decoration. The original interior decoration was typical of early New Mexican missions in its minimalism. All early New Mexican missions, like their Mexican counterparts, had frescoed walls, although few of these paintings still exist. At Ácoma one can still detect fragments of the stations of the cross. Undoubtedly, these frescoes were syncretic in nature. The retablo, wooden altar screen, visible today in the church dates from the late seventeenth century. It has been attributed to the Laguna Santero, one of New Mexico’s most famous (although still unidentified) Spanish colonial artists. The retablo was extensively repainted in the 1920s and has lost its original aspect. The church was probably also originally decorated with buffalo-hide paintings.
Mission Complex. In addition to the church, the Ácoma missionary complex includes an atrium, cloister, portería, and elevated open balcony chapels, just like Mexican missions. Because of the siting of the church near the side of the mesa, the enclosed atrium (or church yard) is irregular in shape. It measures about two hundred square feet. Like other New Mexican mission atria, it functioned as a campo santo, or burial ground, for Christianized Indians. It also served as a large outdoor churchyard, complete with a trial cross. Indian neophytes listened to the preacher standing in one of the elevated open chapels, one originally found on the church facade, the other located in the lookout tower on the northeast corner of the cloister’s exterior face. A one-story friary or cloister, the friars’ residence, is located on the north side of the Ácoma church. A portería, a vestibule which allows access into the friary, is located on the exterior. Modeled on similar porterías found in Mexican missions such as Acolman, the portería was a type of waiting room for Native Americans wishing to consult the friars.
Revolt. Ácoma’s San Esteban del Rey was one of the only New Mexican churches to survive the Pueblo Revolt. According to letters written by Diego de Vargas, the leader of the expedition to reconquer New Mexico, the church was still standing in 1692. Thus, with the exception of the revolt period of 1680 to 1692, the Ácoma church has been in continuous use from the seventeenth century to the present. It is in many ways the quintessential example of New Mexican mission style.
E. Elizabeth Boyd, Popular Arts of Spanish New Mexico (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1974);
Mary Grizzard, Spanish Colonial Art and Architecture of Mexico and the U.S. Southwest (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986);
George Kubler, The Religious Architecture of New Mexico in the Colonial Period and since the American Occupation (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990);
Trent Elwood Sanford, The Architecture of the Southwest: Indian, Spanish, American (New York: Norton, 1950).