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José Rafael Aragón

By William H. Wroth

José Rafael Aragón (ca.1783-90 - 1862) was one of the most prolific and popular santeros in nineteenth-century New Mexico. Santeros are makers of images of saints, known in New Mexico as santos. The Spanish term santero has several meanings, the primary one being a person who takes care of an altar or sanctuary. The use of the term santero meaning a maker of images only became current in New Mexico after about 1925, perhaps in part through the influence of Anglo-American collectors and writers. In colonial and nineteenth-century Mexican and New Mexican documents the term is not used for an artist; the most common terms are imaginero, maestro de arte (or de pintar - of painting or de tallar - of carving), escultor (sculptor), and pintor (painter).

The art of the santero flourished in New Mexico from ca. 1750 to ca. 1900. During this period santeros developed a distinctive style of folk art in both painting and sculpture which in many ways ignored academic conventions of the period and harked back to the spiritualized art of the European Middle Ages. In New Mexico the santeros were often itinerant crafts persons, making images for churches, Penitente meeting houses (moradas), and families throughout a region near their home. They not only made new pieces but retouched, restored, and sometimes completely repainted older pieces. The art of the santero was a communal art based upon traditional norms inherited from the long European Catholic tradition. The artists made images of the most important holy persons and saints revered in Spain and the New World.

In the seventeenth century the mission churches of New Mexico were furnished with sculpture, paintings and altar screens imported from Mexico. Early inventories show many imported works, as well as numerous engravings on paper, all of which served as inspiration for later santeros such as José Rafael Aragón. However, even at this early date there is evidence that some local artists, at first probably Indians working under the direction of a friar, made pieces for the churches. Some missions without imported altar screens had decorations and even images painted directly on the walls of the sanctuary by local artists, while others had individual paintings on canvas or hide. The earliest surviving paintings from New Mexico are a series of works on deer, elk and buffalo hides made in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

By the mid-eighteenth century New Mexico was no longer so well supplied by the Franciscan establishments in Mexico, and the Hispano population had begun to increase with the founding of many outlying communities in areas formerly vulnerable to nomadic Indian raids. These factors combined to create a demand for more locally-made religious art. Soon after this time the first folk santeros began to work. The extensive work of the Laguna Santero (working dates ca. 1795 - ca. 1808) began the move away from academic art and provided a great inspiration for santeros of the nineteenth century, including José Rafael Aragón.

José Rafael Aragón (known by his middle and last name, Rafael Aragón) was born in Santa Fe some time between 1783 and 1790. His parents were Juan Andrés Aragón and Juana Gertrudis Domínguez Mascarenes, who had been living in Santa Fe since at least 1782 when their first daughter was baptized. It is most likely that the santero José Aragón was Rafael’s older brother. José Aragón’s work is closely related in style and appears to have been an influence on that of Rafael. In 1815 Rafael Aragón married his first wife María Josefa Lucero with whom he had had a relationship since 1808, and they lived in the barrio San Francisco, in Santa Fe. Living in the center of Santa Fe, he was associated with the cultural and political leaders of Santa Fe society. He and his wife belonged to the confraternities of the Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady of the Rosary whose membership also included the alcaldes of Santa Fe, Diego Montoya and Pedro Pino. The godparents of his son baptized in 1818 were the prominent civic leader Juan Bautista Alarid and his wife Guadalupe Baca. Aragón could read and write and was a property owner. His name appears in the 1834 “List of citizens who may serve as jurors on trials of the press,” which required the ability to read and write and the ownership of property worth 4000 pesos and an annual income of at least 400 pesos from a legitimate trade or profession. Also, by 1834 or earlier, he had been elected to the town council in Santa Fe, serving as secretario del cabildo. Both of Aragón's wives were of español status, as were his children, so it is likely that he was also.

In Santa Fe, Rafael Aragón was also closely associated through his marriage and profession, with families of other artisans including woodworkers and sculptors, some of whom were his close neighbors from whom he probably received basic training in woodworking. In the 1823 census he listed his occupation as escultor (sculptor), and many three-dimensional images, called in Mexico and New Mexico santos de bulto or simply bultos, can be attributed to him. In New Mexico bultos were usually carved from cottonwood, occasionally from pine and aspen. Cottonwood and especially its root was the preferred wood because of its dense grain. The carved figure was coated with gesso, then painted usually with water-based paints derived from plant and mineral sources. After a bulto was painted, it was often coated with a protective varnish of pine resin.

Most of the bultos in New Mexican churches in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were provincial Baroque pieces imported from Mexico. The bultos made in the first half of the nineteenth century by Rafael Aragón and sculptors associated with him such as his brother José Aragón and José Manuel Benavides (known as the Santo Niño Santero) moved away in style from the earlier academic Baroque work. They all made bultos in a simplified naturalistic style with restrained Baroque expressiveness. The figures tended to be symmetrically frontal in stance, costumes were often carved and painted in simple geometric patterns, and the faces, although derived from naturalism, were universalized by their mask-like quality. The work of Rafael Aragón and the other sculptors was probably inspired by the stone-carved 1761 Castrense altar screen in Santa Fe which, in style, had started to move away from the Baroque.

In addition to carved relief figures such as those on the Castrense altarscreen, bultos served several purposes for the parishioners. Some figures were used in processions and re-enactments during annual ceremonies such as Holy Week. Other images such as the patron saint of a community were placed upon the altar of the church and were carried in procession through the streets on the saint’s day festival. Still others, usually smaller pieces, were devotional images belonging to individuals and placed on family altars.

In 1832 Rafael Aragon’s first wife, María Josefa Lucero, died, and in 1834 he moved from Santa Fe to the village of Pueblo Quemado (now Córdova) near Chimayó where he married a young widow, María Josefa Córdova. He lived in Pueblo Quemado for the rest of his life, raising a second family and making his living as both a santero and a farmer. After his move Aragón became the leading santero of the region. Nearly every church north of Santa Fe had an altarscreen painted by him. Among them were major works at Santa Cruz de la Cañada, Chimayó, Pojoaque, Córdova, El Valle, Picurís Pueblo, Vadito, Talpa, and Llano Quemado. In addition to painting altarscreens and carving bultos, he also painted numerous smaller retablos for individuals and family altars.

In Mexico and New Mexico the term retablo means an individual panel painting. The term is used in colonial documents such as estate inventories which often list, among personal possessions, pinturas de retablo or santos de retablo.In New Mexico the panels for retablos were cut from ponderosa pine logs and painstakingly hand-shaped with adzes and chisels. The surface of the panel was then covered with a finely ground gesso mixed with wheat paste for binder. The gesso served to fill in imperfections and provided a smooth surface for painting. In the eighteenth century oil paints imported in small quantities from Mexico were used to paint retablos. By the early nineteenth century, Rafael Aragón and other santeros began using water-based paints which they prepared themselves from plant and mineral sources, to paint both retablos and bultos.

Aragón’s paintings on both retablos and altarscreens developed from small carefully painted pieces in the 1820s to bolder imagery in the 1830s in which his style became progressively looser and more self-assured. He was one of the few santeros, along with his brother José Aragón, to sign his pieces. Each period of his work is documented by signed and/or dated pieces. The sculptural work assigned to him is documented by archival evidence as well as by the presence of painted faces and decorations in his style on the surface of some bultos. Perhaps the most telling of several archival references to his sculptural work is that of Father Juan de Jesús Trujillo at Santa Cruz de la Cañada in 1867 who noted the “sculpted images of Our Lady of Carmel… those made in my time by the sculptor Rafael Aragón, which were paid for by the church funds and the digging of his grave.” It is likely that Aragón had a small workshop with apprentices and other artists working with him, including his brother and José Manuel Benavides, whose work in both painting and sculpture is similar in style and technique to that of Aragón.

Rafael Aragón died in 1862 and was buried at the church of Santa Cruz de la Cañada, leaving his wife and two unmarried children: José Miguel and Isabel. A number of retablos in his style appear to have been painted by an apprentice. They are more child-like renderings and they date by tree-ring dating and other physical evidence from the 1850s and 1860s. The most likely apprentice was his son José Miguel Aragón who was born in 1842. He married María Juana Trujillo in October 1865. Miguel Aragón was still remembered as a santero by the people of Córdova in the 1930s. It appears by the early 1870s Miguel Aragón was no longer making santos. Rafael Aragón and the artists associated with him represent the height of the art of the santero in nineteenth-century New Mexico. After the American occupation of 1846 the making of santos gradually declined as commercially made statues and prints were readily available to replace locally made images.

Sources Used:

Boyd, E. Popular Arts of Spanish New Mexico. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1974.

Briggs, Charles L. The Wood Carvers of Córdova, New Mexico. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980.

Esquibel, José Antonio and Charles M. Carrillo. A Tapestry of Kinship. Albuquerque: LPD Press, 2004.

Wroth, William. The Chapel of Our Lady of Talpa. Colorado Springs: The Taylor Museum of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 1979.

Wroth, William. Christian Images in Hispanic New Mexico. Colorado Springs: Taylor Museum of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 1982.

Wroth, William. “José Rafael Aragón,” Encyclopedia of American Folk Art. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.