Saints preserve us! New Mexican santos in the Barnes Collection

Saints preserve us! New Mexican santos in the Barnes Collection


As part of my graduate studies at Buffalo State College’s Art Conservation program, I spent the summer doing an internship in the Conservation Department at the Barnes.

I got to spend a lot of time in the galleries and I enjoyed the unique integrated displays of art and craft from all over the world. I was particularly intrigued by the arrangements of beautiful ethnographic objects with 19th- and 20th-century western art and I was thrilled when I got the opportunity to work with the conservation team on one of the cultural collections: the New Mexican santos

Dr. Barnes developed an interest in santo figures and paintings during the early 1930s, collecting thirty-four of them. The term santos refers to holy images created in the Spanish colonial and Mexican aesthetic traditions, either painted icons (retablos) or carved and painted sculptures (bultos). These objects served an important function in the New World, where young colonial communities had limited access to established religious infrastructure. Commissioned by families and churches for worship and celebration of faith and devotion, they were made from inexpensive and readily available materials, such as local hand-ground mineral and vegetable water-based pigments and dyes.

Image: Ortega’s Saint Joseph before treatment.

This santo figure, or bulto, was created by José Benito Ortega (1858–1941), and depicts Saint Joseph, or San José. Ortega was known to travel from village to village creating beautiful santo paintings and sculptures. The rapid economic and cultural changes taking place during his lifetime affected his choices of materials and his craft as a whole. With the opening of the region to tourism and industry came an influx of cheap and easily accessible substitutes for santo figures, and the demand became virtually irrelevant. Still, the tradition of the santos continues as a dynamic, historical craft.

Room 18, north wall
Image: The north wall of Room 18, where New Mexican retablos are displayed among other artistic traditions. Ortega’s retablo of Saint Raphael can be seen at the far right, center.

Among the santo pieces that Dr. Barnes collected, three are by Ortega: two painted retablos and this standing bulto. The Barnes’s Saint Joseph is holding the Christ child in his left hand. His right hand likely would have held a flowering staff, which is typical of depictions of Saint Joseph. The sculpture is carved from wood, coated with gesso (animal glue and gypsum), and painted. Unfortunately, it is in need of repairs. There is a long tradition of these objects being repainted by their caretakers; these extra paint layers, in addition to Ortega’s original materials, move in response to fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity as they age. All of these factors create challenges to the stability of the sculpture, and flaking paint threatens its original integrity. It’s the conservator’s job to understand the object’s history, construction, and materials, and to stabilize it. In the picture above, Barnes Assistant Conservator of Paintings Anya Shutov and I discuss strategies for stabilizing lifting paint on this figure.

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