Sunday, March 29, 2020

Picturing Passion: Artists Interpret the Penitente Brotherhood at the New Mexico Museum of Fine Art

After the photographs I've posted there is my essay in two parts. The first part is of the Penitente Brotherhood of Light, the second section is of my thoughts on the exhibition, which I truly wish you will all be able to see sometime soon.
Stay Well Please.
November 27, 2019 - August 16, 2020
Picturing Passion: Artists Interpret the Penitente Brotherhood at the New Mexico Museum of Art

"El Santo" Detail

"El Santo" 1919 Marsden Hartley (MNMF)

"No. 8" ca. 1920-1930's Willard Clark (MNMF)

Photo of 'Veronica's', Ranchos de Taos, NM

"Penitente" 1956 Louis Ribak (MNMF)

Good Friday Pilgrimage Walk, Ranchos de Taos

"Muerte/Death Cart" ca 1931-35 Patrocinio Barela (MNMF)

Overview of NM Fine Arts Museum with detail of Barela carving (MNMF)

A Taos Mural by George Chacon

"The Sacristan of Trampas" 1918 Paul Burlin (MNMF)

"Sacristan of Trampas" Detail

Panel depicting the Santo altar screen seen in the background of the Burlin painting

"Penitente in Morado(a)" 1890 Joseph Henry Sharp (MNMF)

"Penitentes" 1934 Joseph Henry Sharp (MNMF)

"Penitente Ceremony" 1922 Gustave Baumann (MNMF)
This depiction is reminiscent of the Morada in Abiquiu

The Three Crosses, New Mexico

"Burial Procession, Penitente Ceremony Near Taos" ca 1925 Bert Geer Phillips (MNMF)

View of Pilgrims during the Holy Walk on Good Friday at the Talpa, NM Reservoir

Talpa Reservoir from another point of view

"The Morada" 1956 Doel Reed (MNMF)

"Penitente Morada" 1940 Cady Wells (MNMF)
The Morada depicted in these two artworks is possibly the one located in Arroyo Hondo
north of Taos, NM

A depiction of a Morada or Capilla Rock Art carving created by a Hispanic Shepherd 

"Penitence Cross" 1934 Cady Wells (MNMF)

"Grey Cross with Blue" 1929 Georgia O"Keeffe, Photograph of Cross on hill in Pilar, NM

"Santo" 1948 Cady Wells (MNMF)

Shadow of Archangel San Rafael

"Ranchos Passion, Good Friday" 1966 Howard Cook (MNMF)

19th Century Mexican etching of Christ carrying the Cross

"Dona Sebastiana Death Cart" ca. 1970-1980 George Lopez (MNMF)

George Lopez with his Santo Carvings

Lopez death Cart in foreground with Horacio Valdez Death Cart in Background ca 1975 (MNMF)

"A Penitente Cross" (undated) B.J.O. Nordfelt (MNMF)

Three Crosses stand against a New Mexico monsoon storm

"Penitentes, The Crucifixion" (undated) B.J.O. Nordfelt (MNMF)

"Penitentes" ca. 1930 Willard Nash (MNMF)

 "New Mexico Cemetery" (untitled/undated) Dorothy Kent (MNMF)

Pueblo Cemetery

"New Mexico, Penitente" 1929 Russell Cheney (MNMF)

Detail of Cheney painting

View of San Francisco de Asis Church in Ranchos de Taos, NM as seen from the porch of Andy's La Fiesta Cantina the way Cheney would have seen it.

Back Bird's Eye View of San Francisco de Asis Church from Martinez Hall 

Hidden View of San Francisco de Asis Church with Taos Blue Doors

One of the most photographed Churches in the world San Francisco de Asis in Ranchos de Taos.

"Penitentes Whipping" 1921 Randall Davey (MNMF)

"Penitentes" 1921 Randall Davey (MNMF)

Cemetery near Santa Cruz

"Penitente Fires" 1939 Gene Kloss (MNMF)

Facsimile of pages from a Penitente Chapter Book of Prayers

Vintage Postcard of Morada near Santuario de Chimayo 

"Holy Week in New Mexico, Penitente Procession" 1919 William Penhallow Henderson (MNMF)

"Dona Sebastiana" 2006 Gustavo Victor Goler
"Our Lady of Talpa"1982 Horacio Valdez
"Cristo" 1981 Horacio Valdez (in background)

"Santa Rita" 1980 Horacio Valdez (MNMF)

A Santa Fe Mural depicting the carriage of the Virgin.
This is typical of the celebration of various Patron Saint Day celebrations throughout the world.

"Hermanos de la Luz, Brothers of Light" 1990 Douglas Johnson (MNMF)

"Penitente Procession" ca 1925 Ernest Blumenschein (MNMF)

San Francisco de Asis Church, Ranchos de Taos, NM

"Penitent Good Friday" (top) 1934 Gene Kloss
"Penitente Procession at Truchas" (undated) James Stovall Morris

Rosary left in the Nicho of a Capilla

"Morada" 1970 Eli Levin (MNMF)

Ranchos de Taos Morada (3 images above)

Talpa Morada (3 Images above)

Morada on Espinosa Road, Ranchos de Taos (3 Images above)

Morada de San Miguel, Espanola (2 images above)

Morada de Santa Cruz de la Canada (3 images above)

Morada in Taos, near Mabel's (4 images above)

Morada in Mora, NM (2 Images above)

Abiquiu Morada just on the rise past O'Keeffe's house (4 images above)

Part 1
During the Ranchos de Taos pilgrimage walk on Good Friday, April 6, 2012, I had my first heart attack. During the next 9 days, I had a few more, (at least 4). That day I primarily walked with Fr William Hart McNichols who realized that I was under extreme duress. Father Bill was my in the flesh Guardian Angel that day.  To say the pilgrimage walk is an important time of the year for me is an understatement. 

The following year Reuters News service photographer Brian Snyder asked if  it would be possible for him to photograph Holy Week in northern New Mexico. My understanding was that it wouldn’t be impossible but it would be challenging. His pictorial essay is here online: That year the news agency sent photographers across the world to document proceedings in every part of the globe. 

For an ‘outsider’ it’s best to look at the ceremony as you would attending one of the Native American ceremonies, let me rephrase that, look at it as a Puebloan Ceremony. Don’t ask questions, stay out of the way and follow along as the other pilgrims do. Participate as best you can, show that you are there with honorable intentions and help other pilgrims who may need assistance.

What Snyder & I learned was that the Brotherhood (the Penitente) were there to pray and that at each Morada we were invited in to pray with them. We were given the space to say a prayer, or asked if there was anything we needed as an intention of prayer. The days we spent during Holy Week wandering from one Morada and Capilla to the next from Taos to Chimayo was enlightening and left us awestruck of the generosity we were met with. We were never met with animosity nor suspicion, we joined in and cherished our time with each group. With hands on each others backs, holding hands or seated off to the side, we prayed. 

That week were witness to some things outsiders are never witness to and to many of the public ceremonies that all can view. There are ‘theatrical’ (for lack of a better word) moments to Holy Week as there is a theatricality to the las Posadas play at Christmas time but I will say there was no harsh brutality to any ceremony. There was much prayer and much love shared by everyone we met. 

I can not stress enough everyone we met was welcoming. This is unlike the rumors that fly around that they are a secretive type of cult, never wanting anyone to see what they are doing. Again, they are not, yet this is the biggest misconception.

The history of the Penitentes aka the Brotherhood of Light has been written about sparsely, at times exaggerated, at times true to facts witnessed by others from back in the days. I have no doubt of these documentations, you can see for yourself in the paintings that there were mock crucifixions, some flaying and some walking on knees through the scrub and cactus. As someone who has walked barefoot through cactus, it is not something anyone can do for any length of time. The thing I think of when I think of the Penitente is that they kept the ceremonies and the rights of the Catholic religion in a remote part of the world when Priests were not always available. They were also the men who provided burial services for their communities in an especially poor region where families would not be able to pay for such service.

The Morada is a small chapter house, they are not Capillas or small chapels but in a way they are, just not open to the public. Many Moradas are located in close proximity to a Church and most have cemeteries nearby. The Penitentes provided funeral services so this is just common sense that there would be a camposanto (cemetery) there. An indicator of an active morada is an almost, but not quite life sized statue of Christ bearing a Cross out in front (see photos). 

This year my intention has been to once again walk the Pilgrimage through Ranchos de Taos (approximately 3 miles). As of this posting the walk has been postponed until next year. I may choose to walk it on my own for the sake of my well being and to choose Hope. I will add that if you need a prayer said for someone to reach out to me ( and I will say a prayer along the way for you and your loved one. If you wish to join me I will begin at 10AM God willing. (probably get myself arrested trying, I hope not)

Part 2
“Picturing Passion: Artists Interpret the Penitente Brotherhood” at the New Mexico Museum of Art had been scheduled to be a companion exhibit to “The Birth, Life, and Resurrection of Christ: from Michelangelo to Tiepolo”. The museum is unfortunately closed due to the pandemic that has swept the world. Thankfully I had the opportunity to view these exhibits 3 times before the closure. The photographs here are a walk through of paintings and sculptures included in Picturing Passion, an exhibit which gave me pause to think about the work and its meaning and return to it. Included in the exhibition are a selection of hauntingly rich and beautiful photographs, they are not included here, the photos I’ve chosen to use are my own, my apologies for any confusion. 

Marsden Hartley’s painting “El Santo” covers not only the Hispanic culture but the all three cultures of New Mexico, the Black Puebloan pot of Santa Clara, or San Juan or San Ildefonso is prominent in foreground right. It in its own right has become an iconic painting of New Mexico itself. Please do not use pueblo pottery for a planter as depicted here, the bottoms tend to melt away. The accompanying label states that this is a yucca plant and thus a reference to the Penitente,. Instead I suggest that it is a spider plant/chlorophytum comosum.

Take a look at the detail at right background in the “Sacristan (Sexton of the Church) of Talpa” where you’ll see the image of a Santo. The accompanying information identifies the image as a bulto which it is not. Instead it is part of a side altar screen of which there are many in the San Jose de Gracia, Talpa Church. The saint depiction painted on board is of San Juan de Nepomuceno which is below the image of La Santisima Trinidad/The Holy Trinity. From the photo I’ve included here the pink curtains seem to have faded quite a bit. Not many have the opportunity to visit the interior of this magnificent Church which is the oldest in northern New Mexico (dated to 1760) and includes much of the best Santero art work to be seen here. The Mass schedule here is the 1st and 3rd Sunday of the month at Noon.

The Sharp painting of a man secured to an adobe wall shows the sacrifice to which we give thanks. It’s a small powerful painting which drew my attention each time I visited. A depiction of the pure devotion that these Brothers give of themselves to the world. It is doubtful that Sharp was only attempting to show a spectacle to gasp at as has been suggested. Sharp’s studio in Taos is located next to the Luna Chapel (Capilla) on Kit Carson Road, he thought of these men as friends and depicted them in their labors, this painting is a labor of love and sacrifice.

Bert Geer Phillips “Burial Procession” was another of the paintings that struck me as something I’ve seen before. Once back in Taos I went to the spot where he painted this scene and photographed it to document his presence almost 100 years ago. The procession still takes place to this day during the Pilgrimage Good Friday walk through Ranchos de Taos and Talpa.

The “Santo” charcoal/watercolor drawing by Cady Wells has a touch of sepia ink to it enhancing the shadows of the bulto carving he depicts here. The eyes of the saint stare directly at the viewer hauntingly, knowingly. Wells depiction could have only been done by someone who has lived with such an object for a period of time. He studied it and looked at it as it gazes at the viewer to this day.

Dorothy Kent was the sister of Rockwell Kent her painting “New Mexico Cemetery” is more than likely a camposanto located next to a Morada, thus it has been included in the exhibition. She may very well be the first woman to depict a scene having to do with the Penitente yet the painting is not given a date. From her timeline it appears that she was in New Mexico through the mid 1920’s, which would precede the time frame of the well loved Barabra Latham painting of women cleaning a cemetery in Taos titled “Decoration Day” ca 1940. The Kent on display is stunning and extremely reminiscent of the camposanto at Santa Cruz (see my photo).

Russel Cheney came to New Mexico to recover from tuberculosis more than likely he’d heard of the healing springs around Santa Fe and Taos. Like so many artists Cheney depicted the San francisco de Asis Church in Ranchos de Taos only he did so in a couple of different ways. Here he shows the massive adobe structure from the front rather than the back which was later to become the favored viewpoint for artists and photographers, and he painted form a birds eye view while seated on the porch of Andy’s la Fiesta Cantina located at the back South East corner of the Ranchos Plaza. From his viewpoint he could add a still life arrangement of objects, a Vase with pink flowers, a hand axe and a Bulto of San Francisco de Asis  which dominates the foreground of the painting. In the accompanying title card the curator points to the axe as a symbol of the ‘Death Carts used on Good Friday’ it has not been my observation at any point through the years here that a death cart is a part of any ceremony during Good Friday or Holy Week. Instead I would point out that the axe is more likely to depict a simple carpenters tool, one of which would have been used by the Santero carver of the Bulto (saint carving). At best the symbolism may be that of one of the Instruments of the Passion which includes in some depictions a claw hammer, but alas no axe.

The Henderson painting included in the exhibit is one that has been on display at the Museum on a regular basis. The title card refers to the well dressed man depicted carrying the crucifix, now refer back to the top of the page and notice the Sacristan man, the paintings are one year apart. The question should arise, are they of the same man(?)

On my second visit I ran into the NMMA Head of Curatorial Affairs Merry Scully who I then rather unceremoniously dragged into the exhibition to speak with her. My thoughts upon first viewing was that some of the title cards were wrong and that the press release and subsequent press about the exhibit were rather inflammatory. We walked through the exhibit and spoke, I thank her for her generosity of time and of her own reflections.

Upon the third visit I was anxious to bring my wife to see the Museum, before hand we met with Nathaniel Owings of the Owings Gallery. He shared with us his insight on the exhibit. I am grateful to Nat for taking the time to speak with us about art and his observations.

To me sanctuary means families, community, and resiliency. Those are fundamental keys to create a safe and secure environment. It's not just a place but it is the collaboration of many individuals to create something positive.” Jose Gonzalez, Sin Fronteras president

Museums, Chapels and Churches are places to feel safe from the rest of the world. After the terrorist action in Paris, my wife and I were in Houston, TX. The next morning we went to the Rothko Chapel. The safety that I felt inside was EXACTLY what I needed at that moment. Art is my Sanctuary.

“Art is the highest form of hope.” Gerhard Richter

Please Note
 The designation (MNMF) next to the artwork credit denotes the
New Mexico Museum of Art aka Museum of New Mexico Foundation

All photographs are images I've taken of the artworks, the landscapes, Churches, Moradas and such.

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