A term of Spanish origin adopted into English to designate religious images made in Spanish colonies, particularly in the southwestern U.S. A santo may be a statue (bulto ), or a flat image painted on wood, canvas, metal, paper, or leather (retablo ). One who makes santos is called a santero. A bulto was made of smoothed sections of dried cottonwood root, pegged together and coated with gesso, then painted with water-soluble native pigments. The New Mexico santero carved a figure in the round, but drew within a two-dimensional plane when painting a retablo, where emphasis was on symbolism rather than on realism and perspective.
Santos developed in frontier new mexico Franciscan headquarters for the conversion of Pueblo (villagedwelling) peoples. Lacking academic works of art for visual instruction of Pueblo pupils, resourceful if impoverished Franciscans painted fundamental subjects with available dyestuffs on tanned buffalo hides. These santos hung in all New Mexican missions, until they were discarded by bishops from the Diocese of Durango, Mexico (1820–51). Well-known carvers of wooden santos were Fray Andres Garcia, who served in New Mexico (1747–79), and Bernardo Mieray Pacheco (d. 1785), a military engineer who was also the first to map New Mexico from personal surveys.
By 1800 Spanish power had collapsed and Franciscan missionaries were withdrawn from New Mexico, but semiliterate laymen continued to make santos, sometimes continuing an imagery that was considered heretical or had lost favor elsewhere, such as that of the Holy Trinity represented as three identical persons. Interpreting the Council of Trent (Session 25, on sacred images, H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer 1821–25) foreign clergy condemned santos for unorthodox symbolism during the 19th century, but New Mexicans still cherished them. New Mexican santeros of record are: Molleno (probably the "Chili painter") José Aragon, José Rafael Aragon, Miguel Herrera, Juan Ramon Velasquez, and José Benito Ortega, last of the great "saintmakers" (1858–1907).
Santos are recognized today as the most original body of folk art produced within the territorial U.S. since the arrival of Europeans. Without formal training or rich materials, but with purity of color and direct, if sometimes naïve, composition, the santero expressed the intense piety of the Spanish New Mexicans.
Bibliography: e. boyd, Saints and Saint Makers of New Mexico (Santa Fe 1946); "Literature of Santos," Southwest Review 35 (1950) 128–140. a. carrillo y gariel, Imaginería popular novoespañola (Mexico City 1950). j. e. espinosa, Saints in the Valleys (Albuquerque 1960). m. mauron, Santos of Provence (New York 1959). m. a. wilder and e. breitenbach, Santos: The Religious Folk Art of New Mexico (Colorado Springs 1943). f. zobel de ayala, "Philippine Colonial Sculpture: A Short Survey," Philippine Studies 6 (1958) 249–294; Philippine Religious Imagery (Manila 1963). g. kubler, The Religious Architecture of New Mexico (Colorado Springs 1940; repr. Chicago 1962).