The Reality Behind a Myth

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North America » United States » New Mexico » Santa Fe
October 29th 2011
Published: December 7th 2012
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Basilica of St. Francis of AssisiBasilica of St. Francis of AssisiBasilica of St. Francis of Assisi

The seat of the Catholic Church in New Mexico, and the most popular photograph in Santa Fe
Santa Fe, as noted yesterday, has the image of a place from the past with all the luxury of the present.

Today, I dove into the reality behind it.

I started at the Institute of Native American Arts.

The building, like everything else in this town, looks like an adobe castle.

The institute was founded in 1962 to teach art to and by Native Americans.

The work ranges from deeply traditional crafts to the most cutting edge contemporary art.

The Institute has a museum with rotating temporary shows.

Institute of Native American Arts

Like most contemporary art museums, the quality of the work is high, but not always comprehensible.

Many shows at academic museums risk being the sort of highly conceptual work that only art theorists can really appreciate .

I like artworks that communicate their messages clearly; otherwise it all feels pointless.

This museum’s shows were decidedly mixed on that front.

One of the shows communicated its message quite well.

C. Maxx Stevens created an installation called Last Supper.

Seen from a distance, it looks like a long white table covered in sugary treats.

Approach closely to
Institute of Native American ArtsInstitute of Native American ArtsInstitute of Native American Arts

This adobe castle holds the most important Native American art school in the United States
realize that everything is actually coated with ground up glass.

The gallery walls contain blown up labels from common foods with the fat and sugar content highlighted.

The final sign compares the rates of diabetes in Native Americans to the population at large; it’s high enough to be an epidemic.

Excess dietary sugar is slowly killing people, including the artist.

The other show was a collection of highly political art called ‘Counting Coup’.

Like other shows I’ve seen by members of minority groups, the point of the work is showing that Native American issues and culture are thriving despite attempts by the larger American culture to marginalize or ignore them.

I have mixed feelings about this type of artwork, because much is so theoretical its messages get lost on a wider audience.

‘American History, the Native View’, a painfully satiric painting by Jim Denomie, communicates its message very well.

It’s a large scale copy of the type of cartoon map found in a souvenir shop, only all the cartoons reference shameful incidents regarding Native Americans.

The Statue of Liberty kicks a native out of New York; the
Basilica of St. Francis of AssisiBasilica of St. Francis of AssisiBasilica of St. Francis of Assisi

The glorious interior of the basilica
faces of Mount Rushmore stare coldly at a chief on horseback; miners dig gold from a sacred shrine; American Army soldiers chase and shoot Native American warriors; and much else.

Looking at this one caused physical agony.

The rest of the show pales by comparison.

Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

The Institute sits across the street from a building many consider to have the most beautiful interior in the city.

The Spanish founded the church of St. Francis of Assisi in 1714.

In 1869, church leaders replaced their aging building with a Romanesque cathedral, the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.

It’s the headquarters church of the Catholic diocese of New Mexico.

Unlike many buildings in the city, its architecture is authentic to when it was built.

It has a central cross shaped room with a gothic roof, flanked by two tall bell towers.

The entire exterior is sandstone blocks.

Inside, the central part contains one huge long room.

Long rows of columns with elaborately carved capitols hold up multiple arched roof segments.

The arches on the walls contain elaborate painted coats of arms and bible scenes.

La ConquistadoraLa ConquistadoraLa Conquistadora

The oldest religious icon in New Mexico, brought by Fransican friars in 1625
capitols are painted green and gold.

Elaborate stained glass of saints like the outer walls.

A big marble fountain used for baptisms sits near the back entrance, covered in flowers.

The room leads to the sanctuary.

The alter sits in front of an elaborately carved backdrop of saints.

The roof beams above contain paintings of angels blowing trumpets, signaling the coming of the gospel.

The left pillar contains a piece of folk art, Christ on the cross carved from a single log.

The right one holds a copy of the Spanish coat of arms.

A side room holds the most important piece of religious art in New Mexico.

In 1625, Franciscan friars first brought La Conquistadora, a statue of Mary dressed as a Spanish noble, to the area.

Religious statues like this were quite popular in Spain at the time.

Miraculously, during the pueblo revolt in 1680 a priest managed to smuggle it to safety in Mexico.

Church officials brought it back thirteen years later, and it’s been in Santa Fe ever since.

The plaza in front of the
Saint Kateri TekakwithaSaint Kateri TekakwithaSaint Kateri Tekakwitha

The first Native American to be cannonsized
church holds a life size statue of a Native American, holding eagle feathers and a rosary.

Kateri Tekakwitha was the first Native American to become a Catholic nun.

Current pueblo devout believe that praying to her can bring miracles.

Local Catholics have petitioned the Vatican to canonize her, but it hasn’t happened yet.

She finally became a saint roughly a year after I visited.

Palace of the Governors

Much of Santa Fe’s reputation comes from its history as one of the oldest European settlements in the United States.

It was founded by the Spanish Governor of New Mexico Pedro de Peralta in 1610, only three years after the English established their first permanent colony at Jamestown.

He built a capitol building for his new settlement now called the Palace of the Governors.

It’s still owned by the state of New Mexico, making it the oldest government building in the United States.

The current building perfectly illustrates the relationship of real, historic, and romantic Santa Fe.

It’s a long one story structure facing the central plaza.

The architecture is pure pueblo revival, all wood beams and simulated
Palace of the GovernorsPalace of the GovernorsPalace of the Governors

Outside of the oldest government building in the United States with the famous Indian Market.

The look, I need to point out, is mostly illusionary.

Since the days of the Spanish, subsequent governments remodeled the building many times, and it was only changed to its current look in 1913.

Supposedly, it appears very much like it did under Spanish rule, but nobody knows for sure because records from back then have no descriptions of the building.

A long overhang covers the entire front facing the plaza.

Underneath, Native American craftsmen sell their wares.

Participants are selected by a panel of curators, and spots in the market are highly coveted, so the crafts are top notch.

One of Santa Fe’s open secrets is that the art offered here is nearly equal to that sold in nearby galleries, and a fraction of the cost.

The artist gets the entirety of the proceeds too.

Inside, the Palace now holds the official history museum of the State of New Mexico.

The Spanish province of New Mexico was founded byDon Juan de Onate after conquering the area’s pueblos in 1598.

The Spanish called their new province ‘New’ Mexico to distinguish it from the existing ‘Old’ Mexico to the south.

For the
Santa Fe PlazaSanta Fe PlazaSanta Fe Plaza

The plaza at the heart of Santa Fe, then and now
next seventy five years, life here resembled another new Spanish territory, California .

Spanish settlers trickled in to raise cattle, trade, or save souls.

Sparse military troops kept order.

The natives were basically enslaved.

All that changed in 1680 with the Pueblo Revolt.

Pueblo Indians successfully drove the Spanish back to Mexico, and turned Santa Fe into a trading center.

Unlike the Pueblo Cultural Center, this museum describes the revolt from mostly the Spanish perspective.

They viewed it as an insurrection by subject peoples.

From that point of view, reconquering the lost territory was probably inevitable, which the Spanish accomplished fourteen years later.

Taking Santa Fe was easy; those holding the city quickly retreated to the mountains where natural defenses were better.

During their subsequent occupation of New Mexico, Spanish officials mostly ignored the United States, and prohibited trade.

After Mexico won its independence in 1821, that changed.

The new government invited American merchants and settlers to Santa Fe, believing ties with the US would make the area more prosperous.

Traders quickly established the Santa Fe Trail to Independence Missouri , and people
Plaza MonumentPlaza MonumentPlaza Monument

The controversial monument to the US Army. The chipped inscription is on the left.
flooded in.

The large number of new arrivals became an issue for the Mexican government.

New Mexico was a pretty remote province, closer to most of the United States than the rest of Mexico.

Government officials ultimately concluded a large number of foreigners would dilute their influence.

Governor Manuel Armijo closed the Santa Fe Trail in 1841.

As he should have anticipated, this immediately caused tension with the existing settlers, which escalated to open hostility.

When the United States annexed Texas in 1845, provoking the Mexican-American War, Americans in Santa Fe saw an opportunity.

They called on the US Army to send protection.

Stephen Watts Kearny quietly paid a bribe to Armijo to leave Santa Fe, and occupied the city without firing a shot.

Mexico formally ceded New Mexico to the United States (along with Texas and California) by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1849.

Once New Mexico passed to the United States, American businessmen quickly took over.

Ranchers made most of the money in the territory at the time, with the rest from trading and mining.

A small group of ranchers and merchants, called
Santa Fe CemetarySanta Fe CemetarySanta Fe Cemetary

The location of Santa Fe's first cemetary, owned by the Roman Catholic church
“The Circle”, quickly dominated the territorial government.

They ran it as a virtual fiefdom, much as the Gang of Four had done in California.

They handed virtual monopolies over commerce in different areas to friends and acquaintances.

To enforce their edicts, they retained informal posses of gunfighters in addition to regular sheriffs.

The situation lasted until the Santa Fe Railroad arrived in 1879.

Unlike the Southern Pacific, this railroad was financed by men outside the territory.

It could challenge The Circle and ultimately broke their control.

The railroad also brought tourists.

It began an advertising campaign across the United States, depicting New Mexico as a land of unusual landscapes, exotic cultures, and accessible adventure.

Those ads fed into a romanticism for the west that gripped much of the country at the time.

They worked beautifully, creating an image of the state that still endures.

Like most history museums, this one has lots of artifacts: old maps, clothing, trade goods, and so forth.

I’ve seen much of it before by this point in the trip.

The museum has one unique artifact, though:
Santa Fe architectureSanta Fe architectureSanta Fe architecture

More pueblo revival architecture in Santa Fe
the building itself.

Remember that the Palace of the Governors is the oldest government building in the United States.

The state has done much archeological research on it over the years, and the sites are preserved under Plexiglas.

One site shows a surviving piece of the original Spanish floor, precisely laid stone tiles.

After the Pueblo Revolt, the victors remade the building to look more like a traditional pueblo by dividing rooms and digging kivas in the floors.

One area shows one of these kivas, later filled in by the Spanish.

Another shows a cross section of a wall, layers of American wallpaper over Mexican adobe and ancient wood.

A modern building across the courtyard shows temporary exhibits.

Architecturally, its rather underwhelming compared with the historic site next door.

The main show was on a bible, the St. John’s Bible.

In the middle ages, bibles were handmade masterpieces of craft that expressed religious devotion.

After Gutenberg, they became much more utilitarian.

A group of monks in Minnesota financed an illustrated bible meant to be the equal of those middle ages masterworks.

Much of the work
Loretto ChapelLoretto ChapelLoretto Chapel

Santa Fe's most famous tourist magnet
was done by New Mexico artists, and the show has the results.

The paintings all contain biblical themes mostly based on Renaissance art.

They are beautiful.

Anyone who likes them enough to drop several hundred dollars can buy a copy of the finished bible in the bookshop.

I booked a walking tour of Santa Fe this afternoon to learn more about city history.

I’m not sure this was a good idea in the long run.

I ended up on a tour aimed more at casual visitors than history fans, which hit most of the highlights I could have read about in my guidebook.

The tour did have some interesting moments, though.

Plaza Monument

We walked through the plaza, with a quick history of the city that I already knew from the Palace of the Governors.

We then saw an obelisk in the center, which has a good story behind it.

This monument was erected in 1868 to honor army soldiers who fought Indian raiders.

In a state with as large a Native American population as New Mexico, not everyone welcomes its presence.

Loretto ChapelLoretto ChapelLoretto Chapel

Elaborate interior of the Loretto Chapel
at the inscription, something has clearly been chipped off.

It reads “To the heroes who have fallen in various battles with the Indians in the Territory of New Mexico.”

Until the middle 1960s, the missing piece read “savage”.

Santa Fe had a large number of people at the time, many with hippie leanings, who found the entire inscription intolerable.

They petitioned the state to replace it, and the authorities turned them down.

One night in 1968, someone snuck up with a chisel and changed it themselves.

For some reason, they were never identified afterward 😊

(Incidentally, the Taking Coup show has an installation with many pictures of the monument; the artist invited members of the public to fill in the blank with their own words).

We got another good story at the Basilica.

Before the current cathedral was built, this was the location of Santa Fe’s oldest church and oldest cemetery.

Only devoted Catholics could be buried here.

That became a problem for one of the city’s early women.

She owned one of the first hotels, and was the wealthiest woman in town at
Miracle StaircaseMiracle StaircaseMiracle Staircase

The famous "Miracle Staircase" at the Loretto Chapel. It holds itself up without being attached to the wall
the time.

The problem for church authorities is that she also owned and ran a number of saloons and brothels!

In the end, she and the bishops found a way to reconcile.

She became one of the diocese’s largest supporters and donated fantastic sums of money.

After her death, they forgave her sins, allowing a church burial in their cemetery.

Loretto Chapel

Since this was a tour for general visitors, it ended at Santa Fe’s most famous tourist trap, the Loretto Chapel.

Every city visitor has heard of this place, and many feel compelled to visit.

The chapel was built for a religious school run by the Sisters of Loretto nuns in 1878.

It has a narrow and pretty central room with some impressive religious art.

The nuns deconsecrated and sold the chapel in 1971.

Thankfully, the new owners kept the architecture of the chapel itself intact.

People visit due to the ‘miracle staircase’, a spiral staircase leading to the quire loft.

The story goes that the nuns had left out space for the staircase in the chapel plans, and despaired of building one.

A carpenter
Inn at LorettoInn at LorettoInn at Loretto

Only in Santa Fe would a modern hotel try to look like a four hundred year old pueblo
supposedly showed up unannounced after nine days of prayer by the sisters, built the staircase, and then left without taking payment.

Originally, it held itself up with no nails or visible supports.

These days the stairs are over a century old and have discrete iron beams in hidden spots.

Georgia O'Keefe Museum

After the tour, I headed to another of Santa Fe’s art museums, the Georgia O’Keefe Museum.

O’Keefe is likely the most recognizable artist to ever work in New Mexico.

She became famous as part of the group of modern painters championed by photographer and gallery owner Joseph Stiglitz in the 1920s.

She and Stiglitz later married .

In 1949, after Stiglitz’s death, she moved permanently to New Mexico.

Surprisingly, very little of the permanent collection is on display.

Nearly all paintings on show are the biomorphic based abstraction she did later in her career.

The pictures include huge flower paintings, landscapes, and still lifes.

All of them feature shallow detail, limited colors, and bold lines; sitting on the border of representation and abstraction.

Many people like this work, but I’m not a big
La FondaLa FondaLa Fonda

The glorious Spanish Revival lobby of La Fonda

A large part of the museum was given over to a temporary show on Robert Henri.

One of the most influential painters and art teachers of the early 1900s, he started out as a post-impressionist.

Later on, he helped found the Ashcan School, painters of gritty realistic urban scenes.

The show here focused on paintings Henri made in Ireland.

He visited the country several times and painted hundreds of portraits.

The write up states that these works marked the transition between his early and late styles.

I couldn’t really see it looking at them, but I don’t look at paintings like this very often either.

For dinner, I headed to La Fonda, one of Santa Fe’s oldest and most atmospheric hotels.

The outside is all pueblo revival, naturally.

The public rooms inside are all Spanish Revival, with wooden ceilings held up by carved wooden beams and antique furniture.

The hotel features a restaurant, La Plazuela, located under a glass dome among real palm trees.

It’s the best in the city for traditional southwestern cooking rather than the trendy version found elsewhere.

I had a traditional
La PlazuelaLa PlazuelaLa Plazuela

Famous restaurant under glass at La Fonda
Mexican beef dinner with unusual tasty sauce.

The deserts, unfortunately, are pure American.

Night of the Living Cover Bands

I finished the night with a party.

Tonight is the Saturday before Halloween, making it the traditional party night for the holiday.

At the Atomic Café yesterday, I found a flyer for something called “Night of the Living Cover Bands”.

When I looked up the address, it was a brewery on the outskirts of Santa Fe.

I figured it could be entertaining, with good beer if nothing else.

The concert was just what the name promises, rock groups dressing up as and covering more famous ones.

The skill on display varied immensely, but those who did it well were really fun.

The crowd, mostly in costume, ran out and danced during their sets.

Best of all were the final act, which covered Queen.

They got people moving and singing.

At the end of their set, they invited all the other musicians on stage for “We Will Rock You” and “We are The Champions”, the same songs Queen used to end their own shows.

Cool nightcap.


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