José Rafael Aragón (ca. 1783/96-1862)
Retablo of the Archangel St. Michael/San Miguel Arcangel
by Jose Rafael Aragon, dated to 1840
San Miguel Retablo by Rafael Aragon
San Miguel is the Leader of the Heavenly Host. He is Patron Saint of Brussels, Germany, Papua New Guinea, Basques, police, bankers, grocers, radiologists, paratroopers, the dying, cemeteries, doctors, mariners, protector against peril at sea, protection against robbers, guardian of high treacherous places and guardian against illness. Feast Day September 29.
Two Versions of San Miguel by Rafael Aragon from the Barnes Foundation Collection
St. Michael is depicted ready to fight or to judge. Holding a sword used to battle Satan who is depicted as the serpent (or dragon) and holding scales which he uses to assist with Judgement Day and weigh the souls of the dead. Satan is always trying to alter the balance of St. Michael’s scales. Michael is an Angel of the Lord. He is God’s commander-in-chief in the war against the Devil, he is “the Great Captain”. Along with Gabriel and Rafael, he is the central figure of one of three archangels: the princely seraph, angel of supreme power and leader of God’s army. At God’s command he will reprise his role against the Antichrist in the End of Times. The Archangel Michael figures prominently in Judaism and Islam. He first appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush, discoursed with Abraham and inspired Joan of Arc. The Koran states that his tears formed the cherubim, protectors of the Garden of Eden. In Persia, originating as a god of light and battling the forces of evil, Michael became popular when he appeared on the battlefields in Italy, France and England during various wars.
San Miguel by Molleno Harwood Museum, Mabel Dodge Luhan Collection
It should be considered that due to the range of strong positive attributes for this Patron Saint that he would be an extremely popular one in northern New Mexico, thus the many versions of San Miguel especially the many attributed to Rafael Aragon. In this particular retablo Aragon depicts San Miguel battling a snake-like serpent, in others the serpent is more beast or dragon-like, sometimes with human facial features. The snake here is not quite an Oroboros, or snake eating its tail, known to symbolize the cyclic nature of the universe, i.e. creation out of destruction or life out of death.
San Miguel by Rafael Aragon in the Palace of the Governors Collection
José Rafael Aragón’s work is considered the pinnacle of the art of the santero in northern New Mexico. He was active for over forty years, from 1820 to 1862 during the Golden Age of Spanish Colonial Art in New Mexico.
Rafael Aragon Retablos & Bultos at the Palace of the Governors from the Larry Frank Collection
Rafael Aragón was responsible for numerous monumental altar screens and carved images throughout northern New Mexico, many of which suggest the help of other hands. It is probable that he worked with family members and other artists, as in an atelier or informal guild/workshop with apprentices. One of his apprentices is thought to be his son Jose Miguel Aragon born 1842. Jose Manuel Benavides was also considered to be an apprentice of Rafael at one time. He was listed as a resident of the barrio de San Francisco, which was considered the woodworkers' district of Santa Fe, in 1821 and 1823, Sometime around 1835, Aragon moved the village of Quemado (Córdova), New Mexico. His work is evident in most of the churches of the area including Santa Cruz, El Valle, Truchas, Chimayó, Hernández, Pojoaque and the Taos area. He is considered the most prolific and popular santero artist of the mid nineteenth-century.
Rafael Aragon Reredo Altar Screen at the Palace of the Governors formerly of the Llano Quemado Capilla
José Rafael Aragón’s style has been defined by a small sampling of signed pieces. His sculptural figures are noted for his creative decorative motifs, color contrasts, elongated and graceful proportions, delicate features and a distinctive bump on the nose. This retablo of San Miguel Arcangel would be placed in the period of Aragon’s ‘Fine Style’. Jose Rafael Aragon’s retablo characteristics include careful attention to facial expression, heavy and arched eyebrows, a tilted head with delicate features, a shaded eyelid, high prominent forehead, nose connected to eyebrow by a continuous line, a light colored background, bright colors, simple depictions of fingers and toes. All of these attributes are included in this San Miguel retablo. Lastly, the image with raised right arm holding a sword is in a classic ‘action’ pose which is also another classic format of Aragon’s.
The Rafael Aragon Retablo before cleaning
“In New Mexican Folk Art, as in the work of the masters, it is not always possible to identify an image by a single symbol or attribute, but a combination of two or more usually gives the necessary clues. Considering that the saunter did not always use as many symbols and attributes as artists of academic tradition, the problems of identification are sometimes, but not often, bothersome.” Saints in the Valley, Jose Espinosa 1960
San Rafael Archangel by Rafael Aragon in the collection of the Barnes Foundation
The retablo panel itself is most likely made from ponderosa pine which was cut, hand-adzed and chiseled until smooth enough on the front surface to apply a gesso of white clay from the region, mixed with a wheat paste as binder. Pigments were made of plant and minerals mostly from the region, occasionally imported and these then mixed with a binder which could often be a pine sap thinned with a white alcohol. This particular piece also includes a semi-circular lunette/shell added as a decorative element to the top.
Close up of the Lunette on the San Miguel Retablo
“These mostly self-taught santeros used local woods such as pine, aspen and cottonwood root to develop a unique regional style of santos based on popular Spanish and Mexican saints. Early New Mexican santos reflect the same subjects and iconography as their colonial counterparts, while expressing a distinct local character and style.
In addition to the santeros’ use of native woods, their constant innovation and skilled craftsmanship resulted in a new kind of new World santo. For example, their practice of combining imported oil paints and gold leaf with mineral and vegetal paints and pigments that the Pueblo Indians taught them to use brought a thoroughly original look to their age-old art.” Conexiones, Connections in Spanish Colonial Art, Carmella Padilla 2002
Retablos & Bultos from the Millicent Rogers Museum Collection
“Aragon produced miniature carvings, massive altar screens for area Churches, and retablos depicting popular saints of the era; all were strong and sensitively rendered, with careful attention to detail. His works embody a more individual style than those of other santeros, who were often heavily influenced by orthodox religious iconography. Aragon is considered by many to be the premier santero of his time, because of his lengthy working period (forty years or longer) and his versatility.” Santos, Enduring Images of Northern New Mexican Village Churches, Marie Romero Cash, 1999.
Altar Screen Reredo from a northern New Mexico area Church
“Rafael Aragon developed an individual style with more freedom of form and less reliance on print sources. The lithe proportions, delicate gestures, innocent expressions, and soft clear color of the rococo reached an exquisitely stylized manifestation in the painting and sculpture of Rafael Aragon. Rafael Aragon’s style is characterized by figures with tilted heads, delicately shaded eyelids, and rosy cheeks.” Spanish New Mexico, the Spanish Colonial Arts Society Collection Vol. 1, D. Pierce & M Weigle 1996
Holy Family by Rafael Aragon from the Mabel Dodge Luhan Collection in the Harwood Museum
In Popular Arts of Spanish New Mexico, (1974), E. Boyd sites “There is no relationship between this santero (Jose Rafael Aragon) and Jose Aragon, who signed and dated many of his works and moved to the El Paso region about 1835. Jose Rafael Aragon lived for much of his life at Pueblo Quemado (now Cordova), New Mexico…He was a prolific santero; his work was much in demand, as it is today. His gracefully elongated figures, their large pensive eyes and fresh, clear coloring are elegant yet spiritual. In the literature Aragon’s work has been referred to as the ‘Santa Cruz School’ or of the Cordova style because many santos and altar screens by him were found in those places. However, they were also located in several other villages and valleys and in number around Taos. Four examples with more or less complete signatures are known.” Please note in some citings Jose Aragon is thought to be Rafael’s older brother.
San Raphael partial retablo by Rafael Aragon in the Millicent Rogers Museum Collection
Collecting of northern New Mexico Santos of retablos and bultos began pre-1928 and continues to this day. Early collectors were a competitive group which included Andrew Dasburg, E.I. Couse, Dorothy Benrimo, E. Boyd, Frank Applegate, Mabel Dodge Luhan, the Fred Harvey Company, Mary Wheelwright, John Gaw Meem, Ralph Meyers, Cady Wells, and Dr. Albert C. Barnes, along with others. Today most santos are retained in museum collections, once every so often they are sold or traded privately. It is rare to find outstanding examples in the marketplace or even at auction.
Our Lady by Rafael Aragon in the Couse-Sharp Foundation Collection
“The artist’s attraction to Spanish Colonial art was ‘part of a universal revaluation of popular and primitive arts… proclaimed as the most original American Folk Art. Their ingenious qualities which happily ignored academic conventions immediately appealed to the newly emerging aesthetic of the 1920’s.’ Applegate’s interest in the religious art was due in part to this realization. ‘To me they are the only really primitive paintings ever done in America,’ he wrote, referring to the retablos. ‘They are very beautiful and interesting. The only thing that amazes me is that they have not been exploited long ago.’ He and other artists and writers found a spiritual force in the emotional intensity of the works… ‘Here was an abundance of emotion made visible in vivid ritual, and here was a powerful metaphor for creativity held before artists who had left genteel traditions in the East and Europe to create an art of Spiritual strength.’” Frank Applegate of Santa Fe Artist & Preservationist, d. Labinsky & S. Hieronymus 2001
Retablos in the collection of the Denver Art Museum
“Perhaps the great appeal of the santos for many of us is just that very thing that others would discredit—that is, the element of romance. They have become surrounded by a nimbus of conjecture, legend and wonder. The santos, for many artists, occupy something of the same position as a folk-tale or a myth that is capable of infinite expansion and embellishment in the imaginative retelling.” Santos: a Primitive Modern Art, William Hougland, 1946.
San Santiago retablo by Jose Aragon, note stylistic differences, in the collection of the Taos Historic Museums
“It has been asserted that the entire production of New Mexican art was the work of perhaps a dozen men. Their fewness was recently confirmed by careful statistical reassessments, establishing the stylistic identities of twelve painters since 1750 and ten carvers. New Mexico after 1750 and until about 1900 was not only the end of the geographic line but it was also the last recipient of the accumulated traditions of Christian imagery. In the twentieth century, another art has taken form to clothe the old meanings of Christianity, and it is likely that the santeros of New Mexico were the last exponents of the prior tradition(s).” Santos, George Kubler, 1999
Selection of Retablos from the Couse-Sharp Foundation Collection
“I discovered in one valley a belief that the burning of the old santos helped to alleviate disaster. This valley was peculiarly subject to violent storms and every time a storm developed, santos were burned by the devout to avoid dire consequences.” William Hoagland.
Retablo of San Francisco de Asis by Fresquis at the Mabel Dodge Luhan B&B
This may be one of the two she refers to in Edge of Taos Desert .
“Be that as it may, the tradition of the New Mexico saunter is one of great invention and originality - one of which Spanish New Mexicans may well be proud.” The New Mexico Santero E. Boyd, 1969.
San Ramon ratable by Rafael Aragon in the collection of the Spanish Colonial Museum
“What makes Rafael Aragon so commanding in his field is that he produced some of the finest bultos as well as retablos.” A Land So Remote, Volume II, Larry Frank, 2001.
The Holy Family by Rafael Aragon at the Harwood Museum from the collection of Mabel Dodge Luhan
From Edge of Taos Desert, Mabel Dodge Luhan, 1937 is this comprehensive account of collecting santos.
"…Andrew had started hunting…He hunted the old Santos painted on hand-hewn boards that we had discovered soon after we came to Taos. No one had ever noticed them…but here was an authentic primitive art, quite unexploited. We were, I do believe, the first people who ever bought them from the (New) Mexicans, and they were so used to them and valued them so little, they sold them to us for small sums, varying from a quarter to a dollar; on a rare occasion, a finer specimen brought a dollar and a half, but this was infrequent.
They were hanging in every (New) Mexican house and Chapel when we came here; and even in Manby’s house, two or three of them hung on the wall. The naivete of the Santos was of the most genuine kind, their wistfulness utterly touching. They were pressed out of nowhere by inarticulate and untutored men in their extreme need for something to answer their religious needs, something to hang their love upon, something tangible that would picture the inner image.
“We started collecting them whenever we saw them. It was not long before the little population knew we bought them, and they began to bring them to our house. One night two (New) Mexican boys of fourteen or fifteen years came knocking on our thick door. We let them come in and show us a package wrapped in paper. Two beautiful Santos!
Do you really buy these old Santos?” one of them asked his eyes sparkling with wonder and hope. We did. I bought them for a dollar apiece, and they are set in the doors of the back cupboard in our kitchen to this very day.
Andrew was soon absorbed in Saint-hunting. He managed to hire an old horse and buggy, and he went all round the valley looking for them.
At night, at our round table under the lamp, he washed them in kerosene oil,…and to remove the top layer of dirt—the dirt and grease of a century or more, in some cases. The colors emerged, rich and real and true, colors made out of vegetables and weeds by people who had no paints: the yellow of sage, the lovely brown extracted from Brazilian nuts that came up with the traders from the South, red from cochineal, and beautiful greens, too.
He grew more and more excited by the chase, so that the hunt thrilled him more than what he found; and he always needed more money to buy new Santos. I usually bought from him each night some of the ones he did not care for, so those and the ones I found for myself made a real collection before long. I had them in our house for years, until I gave them to the Harwood (Museum of Art) Foundation, for I finally came to feel they should be kept together and never leave this country where they were born.
It was Andrew (Dasburg) who started a market for them, and people began to want them and buy them; and I was always giving one or two away to friends who took them east where they looked forlorn and insignificant in sophisticated houses. People always thought they wanted them, though, and soon the stores had a demand for them.
Stephen Bourgeois finally had a fine exhibition of them in his gallery. All this makes them cost seventy-five, a hundred, or two hundred dollars today.
When Albert Barnes ran through our house like a madman, he ended up in the kitchen and saw my two Santos in the cupboard doors. He had already bought all the best silver and turquoise he had seen, and serapes out of vaults, and many Saints in curio shops; but he felt he had to have just those two of mine. He begged me to sell them, but I refused. They had been there so long. After he left, he wrote from his house about them. He said he simply had to have them. He said I must not be egotistical about them, but I must take an objective attitude.
“They belong here with my primitives,” he wrote. “They will fit in perfectly. Think of how many more people will enjoy them in my gallery than where they are.” (In my kitchen!) But I couldn’t help it. I didn’t let them go. He never wrote to me again, and dropped me from his acquaintance."
San Jose by Rafael Aragon at the Harwood Museum from the Mabel Dodge Luhan collection
The San Miguel retablo has been compared first-hand to other retablos by Jose Rafael Aragon in the collections of the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, the Harwood Museum of Art, the Couse-Sharp Foundation, and the Denver Art Museum. Quite importantly The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia owns a retablo of the Arcangel San Rafael which could be considered a companion piece to this San Miguel. Virginia Couse-Leavitt of the Couse-Sharp Foundation, Charlene Tamayo, co-author of The Couse Collection of Santos, Ross Frank, son of collector Larry Frank, Ray Trotter of RB Ravens Gallery, santero Gustavo Victor Goler, along with others, have all agreed this is a masterwork by the santero Jose Rafael Aragon.
Close up of the face of San Miguel
Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962) acquired early to mid 1930’s
Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962) acquired early to mid 1930’s
Tony Lujan (1879-1963) inherited upon the demise of Mable Dodge Luhan
Two Graces Plaza Gallery 2017, acquired through a Taos estate.
Detail of the Serpent on the Aragon retablo
A master Santero of Taos, Gustavo Victor Goler completed a cleaning and a light restoration on September 20, 2017.
Backside of the retablo before restoration, showing adze marks
Size 16 3/4” tall with Lunette x 10 1/2” wide
Painted on an adzed pine board with a shaped backside to the lunette
“Este retablo pinto por mano de maestro Rafael Aragon, el ano de 1840”
This Retablo was painted by the hand of the master Santero Rafael Aragon, in the year 1840.
Top of Lunette Backside showing the carved shaping of the shell
Museum Collections of Santos include the following:
Millicent Rogers Museum, Taos, NM
Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, NM
La Hacienda de los Martinez, Taos, NM
Couse-Sharp Foundation, Taos, NM
Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Santa Fe, NM
Palace of the Governors New Mexico History Museum, Santa Fe, NM
Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA
Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO
Wall of retablos in an alcove at the Palace of the Governors Museum
Definition of a Retablo:
A retablo is a wooden board, sometimes hand adzed with a hatchet type tool, chiseled smooth on one side. The board is cut into a rectangle, sizes vary between 4”x6” to 16”x20”. One side of the board is smoothed and surfaced with a layer of gesso. The figure of a popular Saint or commissioned image of a Saint is painted using natural pigments of earthen minerals and plant material. Retablos are purely a northern New Mexico art form, although some of the early santeros were thought to arrive here from various regions of Mexico. Here in Northern New Mexico is where the art form flourished. These were primarily displayed in the Mission Churches, outlier Capillas (small community Churches), Pueblo Churches, Penitente Moradas of the Brotherhood and occasionally Family Chapels. Retablos are considered to be a unique and original American art form. Many of the best examples are now in museum collections, due to scarcity they are rarely sold in the marketplace today, they have become valued treasures.
Our Lady retablo by Rafael Aragon in the Millicent Rogers Museum Collection
In conclusion to this information; the retablo has been acquired by a longtime admirer of Rafael Aragon’s work. We are grateful to this family who we know will care for the painting and honor it. We feel that although we did not own the painting for very long, that we too have become a part of the journey of this historic treasure. Recently the family allowed me to visit the retablo and see where they have displayed it, in a nicho at their family home surrounded by the work of contemporary santeros of northern New Mexico. They have a stunning collection, the San Miguel Retablo holds a place of honor in a loving home.
Two Graces Plaza Gallery wall display of Santos
Two Graces Plaza Gallery, Ranchos de Taos, established 2003
Robert Cafazzo & Holly Sievers, proprietors
October 20, 2017