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Art in Denver: Traditional and Contemporary Santos

Updated on April 8, 2013
Traditional art in a contemporary way: Ronn Miera's santos on skateboards.
Traditional art in a contemporary way: Ronn Miera's santos on skateboards. | Source

Traditional Hispanic art often includes crosses and images of saints. In fact, an entire tradition of artists called santeros has been creating these original works of art for generations. The Chicano Humanities & Arts Council (CHAC) Gallery on Santa Fe Drive in Denver hosts an annual show called "Traditional and Contemporary Santos and Crosses" featuring contemporary artists working in both traditional and modern media.

La Conquistadora

La Conquistadora in Santa Fe, NM.
La Conquistadora in Santa Fe, NM. | Source

The History

The tradition of creating religious images of biblical scenes and Catholic saints dates back generations, to 1598 in New Mexico. Such pieces of original art first came with colonists settling in what is now New Mexico; Don Juan de Oñate's journey was the first of such. Spanish Missionaries, that founded from 30 to 50 churches at that time, used the images of saints and religious scenes in their missionary work. A well-known example of this art form is La Conquistadora, a statue of the Virgin Mary brought to New Mexico in 1624; she now resides in The Cathedral of Santa Fe.

The Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680 halted the northern flow of original santo art. Many of the images that had been brought were destroyed. However, in 1692, Don Diego de Vargas reconquered New Mexico and set up Spanish rule. Churches and homes were re-built, and they needed new crosses and works of santo art, which was brought up the Camino Real. In addition, the colonists asked the local Franciscan friars to work with the painters and carpenters of the region to create santos and religious scenes. For the first time, this art was being created in New Mexico.

Eventually, with modern materials and processes at hand, the tradition started to die out. Plaster of paris made carvings obsolete just as the printing press did to paintings. However, the Penitente brotherhood continued to use santo art in their Holy Week ceremonies, which kept the traditions alive. Now, the crosses and santos are viewed as the works of art that they are. Santeros and santeras have revived the traditional form and added contemporary touches, particularly in Colorado and New Mexico.


Penitente Church in La Puebla, NM.
Penitente Church in La Puebla, NM. | Source

Where to Eat in Denver

Mile Hi Life -- Places Worth the Splurge: The 9th Door. Mile Hi-Life looks at Denver-area restaurants that are a little higher-priced, but worth the splurge. At The 9th Door a meal with wine will cost around $40-$60.

Mile Hi Life -- Places Worth the Splurge: Le Central. Mile Hi-Life looks at Denver-area restaurants that are a little higher-priced, but worth the splurge. At The 9th Door a meal with wine will cost around $40-$60.

Denver Restaurant Week. Every year Visit Denver presents an event to celebrate the culinary offerings of the Mile Hi City.

Denver Dives Worth the Descent: Gomez Burritos: Located in Commerce City, Gomez Burritos is a hidey-hole worth finding.

Denver Dives Worth the Descent: Emilio's: Located on Colfax Avenue in Denver, Emilio's offers the best deal in margaritas.

Denver Dives Worth the Descent: Fat Bros. Fat Bros offers 50-cent chicken wings and other Happy Hour deals.

Santo Art in Colorado

Though settlements came to Denver, Colorado almost two centuries later, the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado saw colonies contemporary to those in New Mexico; in fact, they were part of the same land grant. These villages also needed crosses and santos for their homes and churches. As these villages had a less-established santos scene, they became a source of work for santeros. Accomplished santero Jose de Gracia Gonzales of Arroyo Hondo traveled north to complete a few pieces. Several santeros took up residence in the San Luis Valley itself: Jose Francisco Vigil, Juan Ascedro Maes, and Antonio Herrera. These local artists created santos for local homes, churches, and the moradas, or Penitente chapel. Examples of these can still be seen in the region, though many are closed down.

When Hispanic peoples moved north, they took their traditions of santo art with them. The Penitente brotherhood also followed. Just like with the history of the santo art form, the traditions died out for a short time. However, mid-20th century interest in Hispanic arts created a revival of the traditions. Denver's own santero, Carlos Santistevan, entered the Spanish Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1977; he was the first Colorado santero to enter this prestigious market for Hispanic art.

Catholic saints started showing up in murals and paintings created by Hispanic artists in Denver. The CHAC Gallery hosted a chile harvest festival in 1992, which drew Denver santeros as well as other Hispanic artists. In 1996, the Aurora Histoy Museum hosted an exhibit called "Santeros Del Norte" featuring no fewer than 15 Colorado-based santeros. In fact, 10 of these santeros created an altar screen for the exhibit; interestingly, this was the first such altar screen created in Colorado. Not to be outdone, Regis University featured 17 Colorado-based santeros in their 1997 exhibit "Santos, Sacred Art of Colorado." Since then, Colorado's santeros and santeras (female santo artists) have been receiving more recognition.

San Luis Valley, Home of American Santos

Ronn Miera and his santos, both traditional and contemporary.
Ronn Miera and his santos, both traditional and contemporary. | Source

The CHAC Exhibit

The Chicano Humanities & Arts Council (CHAC) gallery hosted their first santos group show in 2002. They have held one every year since then.

The artists featured at CHAC Gallery's exhibit have made original works of art based around the tradition of the santos. The artists have used both traditional materials and contemporary to create their pieces. Featured artists include Ronn Miera, Jose Esquibel, Teresa Duran, Lynn Fresquez, Vanessa Fresquez, Master Santero Carlos Santistevan, and his children, Carlos Santistevan Jr., and Brigida Montes.

The show includes a "Familia" exhibit by the celebrated Carlos Santistevan, and his children. On April 20 at 1:00 PM, the art gallery will host a presentation by Jose Esquibel called "The Modern Usage of Santos." Sure to display examples of contemporary art, Esquibel will present his vision of using the santo art medium to "reconnect us to each other by touching our universal humanity," as the promotional advertisement states, and to "ease some of the pain and sorrow of this time and the circumstance in which we live."

In addition to the crosses and santos, these contemporary artists are working in the traditional field creating santitos, or small blessings. The blessings, conveyed and created by a parent or grandparent, were often given to a child. The santitos are also traditionally given to a person going on a long journey or when they are parting ways.

The Chicano Arts and Humanities Council Art Gallery.
The Chicano Arts and Humanities Council Art Gallery. | Source

The Chicano Humanities & Arts Council

A group of artists formed the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council (CHAC) in 1978. Their vision included a space in which Hispanic artists could explore both performance and visual art. Their aim is to " preserve the Chicano/Latino culture through the expression of the arts."

Every month, the art gallery hosts two shows both by local visual artists as well as performers. During the month of October, I attended a performance of local American Indian dancers for their version of El Dia De Los Muertos, or a remembrance of those who have passed.

In addition to art exhibits, the gallery works with Denver Public Schools to provide a space for children to explore their heritage through art. In fact, their Children's Outreach Program will actually provide an artist for projects related to cultural storytelling or visual art. Their art gallery is comprised of two spaces at 772 Santa Fe Drive: the southern gallery hosts the main art exhibits and the gift shop while the northern gallery hosts ancillary art exhibits and the performing art shows. The two are connected by a back courtyard in which people can enjoy beverages and mingle with artists and art-lovers alike.


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