Sunday, July 19, 2020

Divine Light

Verticality, San José de Gracia, Trampas, NM

Elegy, San José de Gracia, Trampas, NM
To live in northern New Mexico is to be cloaked in the presence of the Catholic Church. Brought by the Conquistadors to New Mexico the Church became the center of the rural life in communities strewn across the desert and mountains of El Norte.  Nothing is more emblematic of this profound Catholic influence than the churches and moradas that dot our stark landscape. A person could spend a lifetime exploring and photographing the ones within 100 miles of my home in Taos. To capture the most iconic of them, the ones painted by Georgia O’Keefe and photographed by Ansel Adams and Paul Strand, is a fraught task. Getting a unique shot of buildings that have been photographed millions of times is a noble challenge. The soft shouldered adobe structures for which New Mexico is known are so compelling that you have to try. Some like San Francisco de Asis Francis Church in Ranchos de Taos or Santuario de Chimayo are among the most photographed in the North America. Less well known and just as worthy are San José de Gracia in Las Trampas and La Morada de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe that abuts Taos Pueblo. 

Eaves, Santuario de Chimayo, Chimayo, NM

Rock of Ages, Santuario de Chimayo, Chimayo, NM
The first Europeans to visit Taos were the soldiers of Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition who were searching for the mythic Seven Cities of Gold. It was in September of 1540 that a small detachment of Coronado’s army reached Taos. As was common practice the forward party was accompanied by a Catholic chaplain. Converting the faithless was an integral part of the plan. In 1598 Don Juan de Oñate, the Spanish governor of what would become New Spain, asked representatives of the Indian pueblos to pledge allegiance to the crown in return for military protection and the spiritual guidance of the Catholic missionaries. It was a pattern repeated through the Americas. Documents were drawn to affect this pledge and they were signed by each Chief. Father Alonzo Martinez asked the chiefs if they wanted to be saved. With reservations the Chiefs signed the agreement. Fray Martinez directed a Franciscan missionary to travel with each band as it returned to its pueblo and to begin converting the tribe to Catholicism. Fray Francisco de Zamora was deployed to Taos and the first mission church, San Geronimo on Taos Pueblo, was consecrated around 1617.

Oñate was a brutal overseer who subjugated the indigenous population with the complicity of the Catholic Church. In one episode he had the right foot of 24 Acoma braves amputated when his nephew was killed. Deep resentments festered over the Church’s harsh attempts to quash native religious beliefs. Stemming from the 1598 pact the Indians were indentured to Spanish landholders in a practice called Encomienda wherein the Patron was responsible for their protection and spiritual nourishment and in return he would own all of the work performed and crops produced on the land. In other words, slavery. The Catholic Church in fact owned slaves. In 1680 the Pueblos commanded by Popé, a member of San Juan now Okay Owingeh Pueblo, revolted. In Taos where Popé had been hiding 70 settlers including the priests were massacred. The Spanish were driven out of New Mexico until 1692 when Don Diego de Vargas completed the Re-Conquista and Taos Pueblo surrendered.

Buttress, San Francisco de Asis Ranchos de Taos, NM

Steeple and Crosses, San Francisco de Asis, Ranchos de Taos, NM

The most prominent churches on the High Road from Santa Fe to Taos and those near the town were built around 1800. Famed San Francisco de Asis in Ranchos de Taos was constructed between 1772 and 1816 when New Mexico was part of the Vice Royalty of New Spain. Hence the term Viceroy. Saint Francis, as it’s called, is the best known of the Spanish mission churches in the state. San José de Gracia in Las Trampas was built between 1760 and 1776 by twelve families that had grown to 63 by the time of the church’s consecration. Owing to its remote location San José is considered the most original of the mission churches. San José along and San Francis were declared National Historic Landmarks in 1970.

Cruz Negro, La Morada de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe,Taos, NM

Cruz Blanca, La Morada de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Taos, NM
In 1798 Taos Pueblo granted Los Hermanos Penitentes land for morada, or lay chapel, adjacent to the pueblo. It was completed in 1834. Led by Father Antonio José Martinez it was the center for the practice of severe religious devotionals brought from Spain. These demonstrations of faith and guilt included self-flagellation and all too real reenactments of the crucifixion. According to an agreement with the Catholic Church the Morada grounds have been open to public since 2013 when the property was sold to the Santa Fe Diocese by the Taos Historic Museums. But the conservative and insular penitente brothers have posted a sign asking that no photographs videos or other depictions of the chapel be made. Hermanos have been known to challenge visitors who ignore their request. I rehearse my response to the challenge every time I visit the glorious site. Do you stand your ground knowing you have the right to photograph or paint the morada or do you respect the Hermanos’ wishes?

It occurs to me that one way to photograph an iconic subject to capture its details so that image is not instantly identifiable as Saint Francis Church or Santuario de Chimayo. The details of these famous churches are rich, textured and organic as befits the hand applied earth, straw and water porridge that covers their sensuous lines. Their rounded shapes and inside corners are extraordinary foils for the play of light and shadow and for the volume they suggest.

This is a lightly edited version of my article Telling Stories:Divine Light in the July-August issue of Shadow and Light Magazine. Right click on the web address to order your online or print copy.


Blacks Crossing said...

First of all, my apologies for not commenting on your last two blogs, Steve. What the heck did the time go? Oh, yeah, moving. Anyway, the Shadow and Light magazine edited article is one of your best - both photographically and as a literary piece. Verticality, Rock of Ages, and the Buttress at San Francisco de Assis at Ranchos de Taos are absolutely stunning. Truly right up there with Adams, Strand, et. al. Great images and wonderful history of the churches and Catholicism in northern New Mexico. ¡Bravo! y Gracias, Amigo!

Steve Immel said...

I knew you were in mover's hell. Glad you like the details. Those suckers are old old. Thanks for the comparing the to the Masters worthy or not. I'm not a good judge of my own stuff. I think they're better than average at least. I'm glad you're settled in and enjoyed a nice hike to the Ski Basin.