Excursions: Chimayo

A few weeks ago, I took a trip to northern New Mexico to see Taos and some other places associated with the artists in the RMAC collection. During that adventure, I also took a drive to visit Chimayo.

Chimayo is a small village located in the mountains. Aside from its chili, its fame derives largely from its church, El Santuario de Chimayo. Initially constructed the 19th century, the site remains an important pilgrimage site, and is renowned for its miraculous soil.

The reason why I visited it, however, was art historical in nature. Last year, one of the objects we had on exhibit was the Portfolio of Spanish Colonial Design in New Mexico, a W.P.A. project overseen by E. Boyd. Compiled in the 1930s, Boyd and her team of artists sought to document New Mexico's vernacular Spanish Colonial art and design of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Boyd traveled to several churches to document santos, retablos, and other objects in watercolor, which were then translated into hand-colored woodblock prints (the story is more complicated than this, but you get the idea). Several of the images were taken from El Santuario de Chimayo, so I decided to go see it in order to gain a better understanding of the context for these works.

It was a fascinating experience, but I can't say that I felt transported back in time. Chimayo today is very different from the 1930s. I was able to get there easily by car, for example, and the roads were all paved, which my Prius greatly appreciated. There are also several artsy tourist shops set up around the area to accommodate visitors, which I highly doubt were there when E. Boyd was working. Still, it is a small, intimate community, with the surrounding mountains seeming to envelop the village in a stony embrace.

The church itself is quaint, with its little towers and wooden door. As I made my way down the aisle, I immediately recognized the images from the Portfolio on the church's altar and retablos, along with several other images that were new to me. Several of the saints I knew, thanks to the medieval art history classes I took in college, while others were unfamiliar to me. I wasn't allowed to take pictures inside the church, but here's an image I found online to give you a sense of what it looks like:

SantuaryLg.jpg (600×400)
Image courtesy of: http://www.elsantuariodechimayo.us/Santuario/Images/SantuaryLg.jpg.

Before the daily service commenced, the congregation present participated in a communal recitation of the Rosary. Listening to the meditative-like chanting, I felt lucky to see the works in their actual context, not just visually, but aurally and yes, spiritually. It's always a powerful experience to see artwork its actual cultural framework, particularly religious pieces. When you see altars or retables within the walls of a museum, you often forget its complex religious network. True, museums have made a greater effort in recent years to evoke a sense of the work's original context, and yes, these pieces can be called aesthetically beautiful in their own right, but in their original lives they were far more than aesthetic objects; they played an important part in visualizing the divine itself.

After I left, I spent a little more time wandering the village, visiting other churches and shrines. From there, I made my way back to Taos, stopping to enjoy a few panoramas along the way. All in all, it was a fulfilling day of art, environment, and dare I say it, good driving.