MASTER SANTERO FÉLIX LÓPEZ calls the artworks at San Antonio de Padua Church, in Córdova, where his great-grandparents are buried, “a door to the sacred.” St. Anthony’s, as it’s casually known in the mountain village off NM 76, is also home to the masterpieces of López’s artistic forebears. The 1832 chapel, mainly used these days for feast days and Holy Week Masses, hosts an assemblage of retablos, bultos, and altar screens crafted by José Rafael Aragón (1795–1862), one of early New Mexico’s most renowned santeros.
In late 2021, López found himself, along with the men he calls “the dream team” of fellow santeros, Victor Goler and Jerry Sandoval, surrounded by loaves of sourdough bread in the wintry chill of the sanctuary. As part of a massive art conservation effort funded by the preservation nonprofit Nuevo Mexico Profundo, the men used the cleansing enzyme found in sourdough yeast to sponge centuries of grime from the massive altar screens, painted by Aragón nearly 200 years ago.
Months of work resulted in the renewal of three reredos, or altar screens, and more than 20 bultos. Their efforts represent the culmination of years of experience spent cleaning and repairing the precious masterworks of several northern New Mexico churches.
Other tools included distilled water, mild detergent, cotton swabs, and adhesive-filled syringes for repairing cracked or headless bultos. “It was really more of a conservation and not so much a restoration,” says Goler, distinguishing the practice that includes cleaning, light repairs, and stabilization from that of repainting or otherwise making bolder changes to the artworks.
Goler, who began carving santos at age 13, says the conservation effort included undoing some of the well-intentioned restorations done by past santeros. Nearly a century ago, pioneering Córdova woodcarver José Dolores López repainted the face of the church’s main santo. “He painted Anthony’s face in this weird peach-brownish color, and the eyebrows were really dark,” remembers the church’s mayordomo, Angelo Sandoval. With a light touch, Goler was able to restore the original nuances to the Portuguese saint’s face, unveiling a much more realistic depth of expression.
A painted background of roses and the once-hidden letters “INRI” were also revealed during the meticulous cleaning of the wooden altar screens, which include painted images of St. Gertrude the Great, Our Lady of Sorrows, the Franciscan Shield, St. Peter the Apostle, St. Michael the Archangel, and St. Claire of Assisi. “People are amazed to see the screens the way they are now,” Angelo Sandoval marvels.
“It was really about creating a proper recipe that worked for the community,” Goler adds. That plan included the mandatory participation of Angelo’s uncle, Córdova santero Jerry Sandoval, who grew up in the church and has been seeking to restore its treasures for at least two decades. “These santeros made beautiful works with very little,” Jerry Sandoval says. “But even more than the artwork, these santos represent the strength of faith.”
His nephew stresses the continuing centrality of San Antonio and its artworks to the 500-person enclave of Córdova and its nearby morada. “This is the church where my family is rooted, where our community is rooted, where our faith lies,” says Angelo. “I don’t know if I would be Catholic without this church.”
Read more: The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, in Santa Fe, shares santero masterpieces.
A FEW MORE
Continue your exploration by visiting these historic churches.
In Truchas, just up from Córdova on the High Road to Taos, Félix López and his two children worked to preserve a massive altar screen and retablos at the 1805 Nuestra Señora del Sagrado Rosario mission church. Truchas resident Ben Smiley, who assisted in fundraising for the preservation, says the renewed artworks have helped bring new Penitente brothers to join the church’s morada. The screen was originally painted by Pedro Antonio Fresquís (1749–1831), New Mexico’s first native-born santero.
San José de Gracia, a National Historic Landmark in Las Trampas built between 1760 and 1776, is following a community-led re-mudding of its exterior with an interior conservation effort helmed by Victor Goler. The five altarpieces by santero José de Gracia Gonzales were added to the church around 1860.
Georgia O’Keeffe called the famous San Francisco de Asís, in Ranchos de Taos, “one of the most beautiful buildings left in the United States by the early Spaniards.” Its original sanctuary woodwork is intact, but a thorough 1967 restoration provided a new roof, vigas, and corbels made to copy the original designs, as well as new doors modeled after the historic entrance. Parishioners gather regularly to replaster the adobe exterior.