New Mexico santos are a strange part of the American folk art culture. They don't seem to belong. Compared to the decorative quality of the Pennsylvania Dutch and the New England Colonial art, the primitive santos clash like meatballs and whipped cream.
Santos is the Spanish word for saints, but in New Mexico the word applies more specifically to the religious paintings and statues produced between 1750 and 1850 by the early Spanish American santeros (makers of saints).
The crudely carved statues (bultos) and simple line paintings (retablos) reflect a technique and style similar to medieval Christian art. The same exaggeration of eyes, head and hands of the Romanesque period is evident.
Individual santeros developed distinct characteristics in style, the process was the same. The preparation of a santos for painting by covering the wood with gesso and then painting with tempera paints made from native minerals. The last seal coat was made of a resin varnish.
A Century of Retablos: The Dennis & Janis Lyon Collection of New Mexican Santos, 1780-1880
In the beginning, the santeros made use of the available art from Mexico as a guide, but as the years past they developed the simple art form of today.
The market for the work of the santeros is extensive. Each town requires it's own "set" of santos. Retablos are needed for the church walls and also for the reredos (alter screens). In addition... each family will acquire a least one santos for their home shrine, usually a niche or shelf.
The art of private devotion: Retablo painting of Mexico
The santos themselves are products of a Christian culture, an art form unrelated to the religious Indian life that is part of New Mexico history as well.
The past will always be a part of the santos, they are a part of the history of New Mexico. Yet, they are no longer a simple message or statement of faith.
Galleries and shops throughout New Mexico sell santos and retablos to the art lover, the historian and collectors. History and art have combined to produce one of America's most unique folk art.